My explorations began the day of the Awards, Sept. 16, with a visit to the site of the former Winchell Smith Dam and Grist Mill in Farmington, Connecticut. This is where Houdini filmed the rapids action for The Man from Beyond. I also got to slip on the steel straitjacket from the Tony Curtis Houdini movie. I covered both these with photos in my award roundup post. The day after the awards is when my tour began in earnest.
Sunday, Sept. 17
I left New London early and drove down the 95, a beautiful drive on a sunny Sunday. As I passed through Stamford, Connecticut, I resisted the urge to turn off and seek out the location of the short-lived Weiss farm. I hadn't anticipated passing through Stamford, so I wasn't ready with the address and research. And I had a lady to meet! So I reluctantly let that location pass as I headed toward New York with the perfect soundtrack playing.
I soon arrived at my first New York destination: Gates of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne. This is where Bess Houdini is buried. I've never seen Bessie's grave, so I was excited to finally make this pilgrimage. However, the cemetery is huge, and Bess isn't easy to find. In fact, I was getting worried about ever finding her! So I began to walk and call out, "Show yourself to me, Bessie," and I'll be darned if I didn't walk right to her.
This was a very different experience than visiting Houdini's grave. It was much more emotional. It's sad to see her here alone, but her headstone is beautiful. I realized I should have brought flowers (something I've never felt the need to bring to Houdini's grave) so I left and returned with a lovely bouquet acquired from a florist just outside the cemetery gates. I ensured it had no yellow flowers as Bess was superstitious about the color yellow. I sang Rosabel (badly) and spent a fair amount of time talking to her. Again, this is something I never do at Houdini's grave. It was a cathartic experience that really took me by surprise. Thank you, Bessie. We love you.
I was now ready for my next stop. So I returned to my rental car and dialed a familiar address into the GPS: 278 West 113th Street. Yes, I was headed "home"!
Little did I know that this Sunday was the 54th Annual African American Day Parade in Harlem, so the streets around 113th were closed and packed! I was nervous enough about driving into NYC and trying to find parking. Now trying to do so in a parade...holy smokes. But maybe Bess was watching over me as I quickly found a parking garage just a few blocks away.
I'm always thrilled to visit 278! As far as Houdini locations go, this is easily #1. As I approached the house, I took a photo. The fact that there were no cars parked on the street was a rare opportunity to get a clean pic. It wasn't until later that I looked at the pic and noticed a strange oval of light directly over the house. Not something you often see in digital photos. I think this is pretty weird!
Homeowners Niro and Vincent were out for the afternoon, but Vincent's friendly father, John, visiting from Kansas City, let me inside and invited me to make myself at home. I cleaned up and was able to relax like it was my very own house. I was also able to enjoy the paraders on 113th Street. I imagined it was a parade for the new Ambassador of Magic!
When Niro and Vincent returned, they caught me up on all the latest renovations and discoveries. We had a wonderful dinner, and it was so much fun to enjoy the house as the Houdinis enjoyed it, filled with family and warmth. Vincent also made a terrific cocktail that I think he should name the "278." I had two!
But it gets even better. Niro and Vincent had invited me to spend the night. (Well, I invited myself and they said yes.) Vincent's parents were in the guest bedroom, so I took a fold-down couch in Houdini's top-floor workroom. Ironically, this is the room I always envisioned myself sleeping in. I even set my Christopher Award on the fireplace mantel to forever imbue it with Houdini 278 energy.
As night fell, it began to rain and continued to pour all night long. In my pajamas, I could look down on a rain-swept 113th Street from Houdini's office window and hear the rain tapping on the skylights. The atmosphere was indescribably perfect, and the entire experience was a dream come true. I'm the luckiest Houdini nut in the world.
Unfortunately, I had no dreams about Houdini or ghostly visitations in the night. However, early in the morning, I heard what sounded like a parrot somewhere on the top floor. Could this have been the spirit of the mischievous Laura who, by all accounts, was the true boss of the house?
Monday, Sept. 18
After a lovely morning coffee with Vincent and his father, I said my goodbyes and set out in light rain toward my next state: Pennsylvania. Eventually, the skies cleared and it was a beautiful drive into the Poconos. Around noon, I rolled into Scranton. I was there to see another famed Houdini location: the Houdini Museum!
I was so happy to see Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz! For the next several hours we never stopped talking, gossiping, laughing, and having a generally wonderful time. Their museum is incredible! It's packed with memorabilia both old and new. Some reproduction material is there to help tell Houdini's story to visitors, especially children. But the longer you stay and the deeper you look, the more treasure you find. Dorothy then guides you through each with a twinkle in her eye. She also shared some rarities not available to the general public. It was one of the most extraordinary and unique Houdini museum experiences I've ever had.
But there was more to my day in Scranton. After a terrific dinner at a Chinese buffet, Dorothy, Dick, and I traveled downtown to see what used to be Poli's Theatre where Houdini appeared the week of February 22, 1915. The theater has undergone extensive renovation and is today called The Ritz. But it's a surviving Houdini theater, and we love those!
Dorothy also insisted we go see Scranton's famed Lackawanna Building. I'm so glad she did. The building is remarkable inside and out and said to be very haunted. Now a hotel, it was once Scranton's train station. Houdini and his equipment passed through the massive lobby, so this was a bonus Houdini location!
It was hard to say goodbye to Dorothy and Dick, but it was time to move on. Dorothy invited me to sleep in the museum, and I wish I would have! But I had already booked a motel in nearby Wilkes-Barre where another Houdini location was waiting.
Tuesday, Sept. 19
I woke up in Wilkes-Barre and set out early to find a location that was even more obscure than the Farmington rapids. With some luck, I had nailed down the exact spot where the Welsh Bros. Circus set up their tents for two days of performances in July 1898. The streets have changed and the exact site is now occupied by a construction company (who don't care for nosey visitors). These buildings appear to be new as Google Maps still shows the lots empty as recently as November 2020.
However, the railroad tracks directly adjacent to the property are unchanged and afford a great view of the site. I noticed that the tracks branch off here, which makes sense as the circus train would have parked along the side track during these two days. It's a fantastic early Houdini location and the first Welsh Bros. location I've ever visited. (I'll have some other details about Houdini's time in Wilkes-Barre in the diary book.) I also picked up a few railroad spikes off the ground. So this location comes with free souvenirs!
This Welsh Bros. location was good enough that I could have called this the grand finale of the tour. But I had one last stop and one last state to go.
Around eleven, I rolled into picturesque Wayne, New Jersey, and the home of our friend Roger Dreyer. Here is where Roger houses his amazing Houdini Revealed Museum. Roger was super generous and welcoming as always. He had bagels waiting for me and some awesome gifts, including a new retail 278 item that I will be posting about later. I gave him a Welsh Bros. railroad spike. Then we got down to "work!"
I had seen the museum when it was located in Fantasma Magic in New York City, but Roger's setup here is far larger and jaw-dropping. Roger has an excellent sense of how to frame and display his treasures. He even let me try on Houdini's top hat and a pair of authentic jump cuffs.
Roger then let me go through his Houdini files. I only wish I had more time. I had to leave some files unseen if I was going to make it to Newark and my flight home. But what I saw was incredible, and this was a perfect way to end my Ambassador's Tour.
Thank you to Niro & Vincent, Dorothy & Dick, and Roger Dreyer. You are the true Ambassadors of Magic!
Miss Porter's School Administration (formerly Winchell Smith Dam and Grist Mill)
44 Mill Lane
Gate of Heaven Cemetery
10 W Stevens Ave
Hawthorne, NY 10532
Bess plot: Section 48, 184-10
278 W 113th Street
New York, NY
Private. Tours by appointment only.
Houdini Museum and Magic Show
1433 N Main Ave.
Scranton, PA 18508
The Ritz (formally Poli's Theater)
222 Wyoming Ave.
Scranton, PA 18503
700 Lackawanna Ave.
Scranton, PA 18503
Welsh Bros. location
E. Ross Street & S. Pennsylvania Street
Wilkes Barre, PA
Roger Dreyer's Houdini Revealed Museum