Thursday, May 25, 2023

A tour of Houdini's Cleveland

Two weeks ago I gave a lecture on "Houdini in Cleveland" at the Magic Collectors Expo 2023. After the conference I spent a day visiting many of the locations I featured in my talk. While it's all still fresh in my head, here's my fact-finding tour of Houdini's Cleveland.

Houdini's first appearance in Cleveland was the week of March 12, 1900. This was during his first Keith's vaudeville tour before he traveled to Europe. He appeared at the Empire Theater which stood at 750 Huron Road. Today Cleveland's beautiful art deco AT&T Building stands at that address.

During his 1900 engagement Houdini escaped from manacles at the Central Police Station on Champlain Street. This was one of his nude tests. That station was razed in 1925 to make way for Terminal Tower which still stands today in downtown Cleveland.

Houdini returned to Cleveland in 1905 and 1908 playing B.F. Keith's Theater at 619-625 Prospect Avenue. In 1908 he was more than a little chagrined to find he was not the headliner. Instead Julius Steger & Co. in the skit "The Fifth Commandment" was the featured performer. "Is this week the first step toward oblivion?" Houdini wrote in his diary.

The Prospect Avenue Keith's closed in 1923 and today a modern office building stands on the site. Or at least that's what I thought. When I visited, I could see that the "modern" building was a facade fronting what appears to be the original building that still shows the profile of a theater. The building beside it, which in Houdini's time was the Colonial Hotel, is still there and very recognizable.

Houdini cancelled his 1911 appearance in Cleveland when he broke a blood vessel in his kidney in Detroit (an injury that never properly healed and gave him pain the rest of his life). But he was back in 1915, this time playing the magnificent Hippodrome Theater at 720 Euclid Avenue. This was the second largest stage in the world at this time. Houdini would play the Hippodrome three times in 1915, 1916, and 1922. Among his escapes at this theater was a challenge from the Cleveland & Sandusky Brewing Co. to escape from a cask of their famous Gold Bond Beer.

The Hippodrome stood until 1981 when it was razed to make way for a parking garage. Today the new City Club Apartments are rising on the site of the theater.

A survivor in downtown Cleveland is the beautiful May Company building. The May Co. challenged Houdini to escape from a packing case made by their shipping department three times in 1905, 1908 and 1915. Houdini beat them every time. In 1925 they left it to their competitor the Baily Co. to challenge Houdini with their own packing case. He beat that one too!

In 1915 Houdini performed one of his more untypical outdoor stunts in Cleveland. He was strapped into a straitjacket atop a railway boxcar and escaped while spectators watched from the Cleveland viaduct bridge above. For more details on this unusual escape, check out THIS POST.

Houdini performed two suspended straitjacket escapes in Cleveland. The first was from the John Harkness Brown Building at 1019 Euclid Avenue on December 20, 1916. Happily, the building still stands today as the Euclid Grand apartments.

Houdini's second suspended straitjacket escape was from the Cleveland Press building on February 3, 1922. The building stood on the NW corner of East 9th and Rockwell. A terrific photo of the escape ran in the paper the following day.

Today the Press building is long gone, and even the Dunkin Donuts that now stands on this corner was out of donuts when I visited. So a double let down at this location! But at least we know Houdini hung here.

In 1924 Houdini barnstormed the country with his spiritualism lecture. Cleveland was one of his tour stops. Houdini appeared at Engineers Hall on February 27, 1924. Engineers Hall was located inside the Engineers Building on St. Clair Ave. It was demolished in 1989 and today is the Marriott Key Tower. By the way, I didn't know the location of Engineers Hall when I gave my talk. Fellow expo attendee Jim Kopco found it for me. Thank you, Jim!

Tickets for Houdini's lecture were sold at the Korner & Wood bookstore located at 1512 Euclid Avenue. This was a popular store that stood until 1963. Both Houdini and Blackstone are remembered to have been customers. Today the store and building are long gone.

If there was ever a time to be a Houdini fan in Cleveland it was 1925. Houdini performed in the city twice that year. But don't take it from me. Let's hear from someone who was there!

Houdini performed at the Palace for two weeks beginning March 9, 1925. The first week he featured his escape act. The second week he devoted to spiritualist exposes. The Palace is inside the magnificent B.F. Keith Building at 1615 Euclid Avenue. The good news is the Palace survives along with several other beautiful theaters in Cleveland's Playhouse Square.

While the theater was closed during my visit, I was still able to find my way into the lobby. It's a beautiful space and I could imagine Houdini as the prince of this palace.

During Houdini's 1925 run he exposed the well-known trumpet medium George Renner. Houdini attended Renner's seance at 2650 Superior Ave. in disguise and secretly smeared his trumpet with lampblack. When the lights came on, Renner's hands and face were cover in the soot, proving that the trumpet manifestations were the work of the medium and not the spirits. Renner was arrested and charged with fraud. Houdini had ten minutes to make it to the Palace for his performance. Newspapers reported he did his act with his hands still covered in the lampblack.

While Houdini's exposures drew headlines and large crowds to the theatre, it made him at least one enemy. Check out the below from the March 10, 1925 Cleveland Plain Dealer:

While in Cleveland Houdini stayed at the Hotel Statler at 1127 Euclid Avenue. The Statler is still there (it's now apartments), and from the outside appears just as it did in Houdini's time. A bonus is that the building stands beside the former John Harkness Brown building where Houdini did his 1916 suspended straitjacket escape. It's a great block for Houdini location seekers!

Houdini returned to Cleveland in November 1925 with his "3 Shows in One." This time he performed at the Hanna Theater located at 2067 East 14th Street, just a block over from the Palace. The Hanna still stands today. I couldn't get inside, but I did find the old stage door and could feel Houdini's spirit on that spot.

During his final Cleveland appearance, Houdini performed for handicapped children at the Sunbeam School. Below is a terrific photo of Houdini performing for the kids. An account of this show in the November 6, 1925 Cleveland Plain Dealer details Houdini's performance of the die box. The original school building was razed for the new Sunbeam School located at 11800 Mt. Overlook Ave.

Houdini was booked to return to the Hanna for the week of November 9, 1926. This was to be his next stop after his two week engagement in Detroit. He didn't make it. As we know, Houdini died in Detroit on Halloween of that year.

There's one last Houdini Cleveland connection. In 2017 the city played host to the Official Houdini Séance inside a bank vault. Houdini was a no show, but his memory proved to be alive and well in Cleveland -- a five star Houdini city!

Want more? You can see an exclusive photo of Houdini in Cleveland from the collection of Dr. Bruce Averbook and download the research I did for my lecture as a Scholar member of my Patreon below.

Very special thanks to Aimee LePelley of the Center for Local & Global History for helping me find Houdini in Cleveland.


  1. Thanks for this wild post!!! It was an onslaught of HH in Cleveland information! You would have thought the May Company would finally defeat HH on the third packing case escape attempt. Nuts!

    1. Thanks! What a great Houdini city. I had some fun with the repeated failures of the May Co. in my talk.

    2. You're welcome! Where did you get that Houdini suspended straitjacket t shirt?

    3. Houdini friend in the UK. I also have a pink one. It's actually a Houdini-themed road safety shirt.

  2. During his 27 Feb 1927 visit, he also gave a noon speech to the Advertisers Club on fake spiritualism.

    1. So that was before his lecture that evening? Didn't know this. Thanks.

  3. And on 11 Mar 1925, he did a signing for "A Magician Among the Spirits" at Burrows Brothers book store.

    1. Oh! I didn't have this. Thanks Bill. I've love that clipping if you'd care to send it.

    2. Looks like it was located at 633-635 Euclid Ave., very near the Hippodrome. Another Euclid location! They should rename that street Houdini Ave.

    3. I've never been to Cleveland (but one day plan to as I REALLY need to visit the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame), but loved this article! Fun to see the man through the scope of a specific city or sub-topic. Much agreed that Euclid should be Honorary Harry Houdini Ave.

  4. And before someone tells me, on March 13, 1925 Houdini addressed the Ministers of Greater Cleveland at Keith’s Theater and attended The Magician Club dinner with Servais LeRoy that evening. These were in my talk.

  5. And his 1925 visit was also the occasion in which, Houdini, Louis Seltzer (a reporter for the Cleveland Press), and prosecutor Edward Stanton attended (in disguise) a seance held by spiritualist George Renner. Renner said that spirits would blow a trumpet after the lights were out, Houdini put lampblack on the trumpet, and during the darkness turned a flashlight onto Renner, who was vigorously rubbing the lampblack off his hands and face. Renner was charged with taking money by false pretense, and pleaded not guilty. Houdini testified in Renner's trial, and Renner was found guilty. He was sentenced to a $25 fine, probation, and a suspended sentence of 60 days in the workhouse.

    1. Yep, the Renner exposé is all in the above post. :)