Monday, April 15, 2024

Houdini soars at new Diggers Rest Pavilion

A new Community Pavilion opened in Diggers Rest, Australia, last week. Inside, you can find this mural showing Houdni's Voisin biplane. Interestingly, this doesn't commemorate Houdini's famed 1910 flight but Ian Satur's model of the plane that flew during the 2010 centenary celebrations. Either way, it's good to see Houdini is still a star in Diggers Rest.


The Ian Satur model survives today and is still looking for a permanent home.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Visiting the SAM Hall of Fame in Whittier

Last week I visited the SAM Hall of Fame at the Whittier Historical Society & Museum. It's a terrific exhibit with some fantastic Houdini rarities on view. I've shared 50+ photos and some thoughts on my Patreon (part of the "Adventures in Houdiniland" Collection). Click below to go.


The Whittier Historical Society and Museum is open Tuesday through Friday. Parking and admission are free (donations are appreciated). The SAM Hall of Fame exhibit runs through December 2024.

Related:

Friday, April 12, 2024

Own a replica Steel Straitjacket from Houdini '53


One of the standout escapes in the 1953 Houdini biopic is when Houdini frees himself from a "steel straitjacket." The steel straitjacket is a one-of-a-kind piece of magic apparatus provided by Joseph Dunninger. While I've never found any account of the real Houdini doing such an escape, it has become iconic in its own right.

Now, our friend Richard Sherry of Sherry and Krall Magic has manufactured a beautiful reproduction of the Steel Straitjacket. He has produced a limited run of only TEN jackets that can be purchased gaffed or ungaffed. And, as Tony/Houdini says, I'm sure he used "only the very best steel."

If interested, you can find pricing and details on Richard's website or email him at richard@richardsherrysmagic.com

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Houdini, Ragtime, and the Valentine


This month, you'll have the opportunity to enjoy a multi-layered Houdini experience in Toledo, Ohio. On April 19 & 21, the Toledo Opera will present the musical Ragtime with Evan Fleming as Houdini. But what makes this extra special is that the venue will be the Valentine Theater, where Houdini himself performed in 1906 and 1907. 

Toledo Blade, March 11, 1907.

But it gets better! The Valentine has a stunning mural by Paul Geiger in its lobby featuring famous performers who have graced the Valentine stage. Houdini is beautifully represented, as you can see in the top image above. So that's a must-see as well.

You can get more information and buy tickets to Ragtime via the Toledo Opera website. For more information about the Valentine and details about its mural, check out their website valentinetheatre.com.

Coincidently, I recently shared on my Patreon a post about a packing case challenge at the Valentine with a photo of Houdini in front of the theater that I've never seen before. You can see that by clicking below.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Houdini's Russian pitchbook has a new home

Our friend David Haversat has revealed via his newsletter that he is now the proud owner of Houdini's ultra-rare Russian pitchbook. These were created for Houdini's tour of Russia in 1903 and pre-date his America's Sensational Preplexer! pitchbook by several months. That makes this the very first (biographical) Houdini pitchbook.

To my knowledge, there are only two Russian pitchbooks in existence. The other is in David Copperfield's International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts in Las Vegas.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Houdini's eclipse

It's eclipse day! Where will you be to see (or partially see) today's total solar eclipse? Of course, my mind goes to Houdini. Did he ever see a total solar eclipse?

As it turns out, Houdini was in the right place at the right time to experience the famous total solar eclipse of January 24, 1925. The eclipse passed through New York State and through New York City just above 96th Street. Houdini was playing the New York Hippodrome at this time. It was reported that streetlights turned on, seagulls landed in the Hudson thinking it was night, and three women fainted. It was the first total eclipse to pass over New York since 1478. (The next will be in 2079.)

The wonderful image below of the 1925 eclipse was captured by photographer Adolf Fassbender in Bronx Park. This comes from the website New York Historical Society, where you can read more about the photo and photographer.


Houdini would also have experienced the eclipse of June 8, 1918 as a partial eclipse from New York City. September 10, 1923 was another total solar eclipse that Houdini would have experienced partially. He was performing in Memphis on that day.

You can watch today's eclipse track live on NASA's YouTube Channel. Remember, don't look directly at the sun!

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Houdini Adaptations by Joe M. Notaro

Our good friend Joe Notaro is on a roll. Having released two groundbreaking Houdini books, The Zanetti Mystery and Houdini's Schooldays, Joe has now released Houdini Adaptations. This new work contains the rare adaptations of The Grim Game and Terror Island and much more. Below are details.
 
Arthur B. Reeve and Houdini worked on three silent film stories together, The Master Mystery (1918), The Grim Game (1919), and Terror Island (1920). The Master Mystery silent film was adapted into a book in 1919. While not adapted to a book, The Grim Game was adapted to a story paper format in 1920, just like Terror Island was in 1921. 
The Grim Game and Terror Island story adaptations are featured in Joe M. Notaro’s book for the first time and illustrated with original movie stills to help tell the story. For each of the 3 films that Reeve and Houdini worked on, Notaro also shares the cast, synopsis, words of Houdini, history, advertising campaign, and missing footage information.

A 1924 newspaper article, "Houdini Breaks into Playwrighting," describes a new, previously unknown stage play that reads like the plot summary from The Grim Game. The book also features tidbits about each of his known stage plays: Challenged or Houdini Upside Down (1911), Walking Through a Brick Wall (1914), and Buried Alive (1914).

As a bonus, Notaro shares the "Out of the Shadows" film treatment from his personal collection, which has never been published. Along with that, he summarizes and shares tidbits about each of Houdini’s other film treatments: The Marvelous Adventures of Houdini (1917), The Far North or The Man From Beyond (1921), Haldane of the Secret Service or Mysterious Mr. Yu (1921), Yar, the Primeval Man (1921), Il Mistero de Osiris or The Mystery of the Jewel (1921), The Great Tontine (1992), The Monster (1992), The Vulture (1992), Floating Through Space (1992), and Blood Brothers (unpublished).

Houdini Adaptations is released today, April 6, and is available for purchase at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Special offer! U.S. customers can order signed copies (available May 2024) directly from Joe via PayPal to Joe.M.Notaro@gmail.com. Price is $40 and includes a signed book with a Premium Color Interior and USPS book-rate shipping.

Friday, April 5, 2024

Tour Houdini's Los Angeles Orpheum, April 13

Here's one that has me very excited. On Saturday, April 13, the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation (LAHTF) will tour the Palace Theater in downtown Los Angeles. The Palace was originally called the Orpheum and is where Houdini performed in 1915 and 1923. It's also where he had his famous verbal joust with then-heavyweight champ Jess Willard. So this is a fantastic Houdini location!

LAHTF is thrilled to be returning to the Palace Theatre on Broadway for our signature ALL ABOUT tour. Join us for our first event of 2024 when we go behind-the-scenes from below stage to the projection booth above and everything in between.

I've twice missed out on LAHTF Palace events, so I'm thrilled to be jumping aboard this one. It will be my first time inside Houdini's L.A. Orpheum.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Meet Houdini at Madame Tussauds Budapest

I've always loved wax museums, so this has me very excited. Madame Tussauds in Budapest, Hungary, has a breathtaking Houdini wax figure on display. The best I've ever seen. There's also a Water Torture Cell that you can go inside for a photo-op. The image below comes from the excellent website WAXIPEDIA.


Madame Tussauds Budapest opened in May 2023. According to Merlin Entertainment, over half of their 51 figures have Hungarian connections. As part of the planning phase, a large-scale survey asked the public who they would like to see included. Houdini made the cut along with Bela Lugosi (as Dracula). The majority of the figures were made "secretly" in Madame Tussauds workshop in London.


Okay, Madame Tussauds Hollywood, you're on deck! Let's get one of these gorgeous Houdini figures in LA. This was modeled from The Grim Game, so it fits into Hollywood movie history. It would also nicely complement Houdini's Walk of Fame Star just outside the museum and the Magic Castle up the street.

Thanks to Timothy Randall of WAXIPEDIA.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Trunk from The Great Houdinis sells at auction

The original Metamorphosis prop trunk used in the 1976 television biopic The Great Houdinis sold at Heritage auctions on March 20 for $2,625.00 (including Buyer's Premium). Below is the trunk and auction description.


The Great Houdini (ABC Circle, 1976), Paul Michael Glaser "Harry Houdini" Escape Trunk. Vintage original trunk made of wood and covered in painted cardboard, featuring metal latches and accents. "The Great Houdini" is hand-painted on the front in black lettering. The back of the trunk includes a panel attached with metal hinges that can be detached, enabling the illusion of an escape trunk. It measures approx. 51" x 25" x 20". This trunk appears in the early part of the film during one of Houdini's (Paul Michael Glaser) performances. Displays production wear and age. Much of the cardboard has eroded and there is paint chipped throughout. Special shipping arrangements will apply. Comes with a COA from Heritage Auctions.

Here's the scene from the movie in which you can see the trunk. The idea of Bess getting stuck in the Metamorphosis trunk comes from a real-life incident (read: Boxed Bess).


Monday, April 1, 2024

Houdini Returns with Craig Diamond

Craig Diamond will present a special evening devoted to Houdini at the historic John Harris Mansion in Harrisburg, PA, on Thursday, April 11, 2024. I had the pleasure of meeting Craig as a fellow recipient at the Milbourne Christopher Awards last year. I'm sure he will do Houdini justice!

This captivating Houdini Experience takes you back in time for 90 spellbinding minutes. It features over 165 pictures from some of the world's leading private collections.

You'll see Harry Houdini like never before. New evidence has recently come to light, possibly linking his death to his battle to expose the shady world of psychic mediums.

Award-winning, Master Magician and Houdini historian Craig Diamond will guide you through this immersive program.

This event includes a guided tour of the historic John Harris Mansion!

Click here to buy tickets via Eventbrite.


Harrisburg is a good Houdini city. He performed in Harrisburg during his Welsh Bros. tours of 1895 and 1898, played the Harrisburg Orpheum in 1912, and brought his "3 Show in One" to Harrisburg's Majestic Theater in 1926. So this is a "Return" indeed!

If you can't make it to Harrisburg, Craig will be bringing Houdini Returns to Liverpool, PA, on April 12. You can get more details and buy tickets to that event HERE.

Related:

Sunday, March 31, 2024

LINK: Houdini and the Sea Monster

David Britland at Cardopolis has written an excellent account of Houdini's famous escape from a "sea monster" in Boston. It's very thorough and also provides fresh information about the turtle itself. I'm sorry I missed this back in 2021 when it first appeared, but I'm happy to have found it now. Click on the headline to have a read at Cardopolis.

Friday, March 29, 2024

The Houdini Compendium by Alex Rusconi

Released to commemorate Houdini's 150th birthday, The Houdini Compendium by Alex Rusconi is an Italian book collecting Houdini anecdotes and episodes. Below is a translation of the book's description.

One hundred and fifty years after his birth, Harry Houdini is still the most famous and controversial magician in history. His life, like a novel, is full of anecdotes and extraordinary episodes, just as his artistic career was extraordinary.

This book collects 52 (like the years Houdini lived) curiosities about this character, his exploits, his friends and his loves, dispelling some clichés and highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of this giant in the history of entertainment. Even if you know Houdini's life perfectly, in this book you will surely find at least one "gem" that you didn't know about! The challenge is launched...

Foreword by Andrew Basso.


You can purchase The Houdini Compendium at Amazon.it, Amazon.co.uk, or Amazon.com. An English translation is not currently planned.

Related:

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Holmes & Houdini issue 3

The dynamic duo of Holmes & Houdini wrap things up in issue 3 of Zenescope's series, written by Honor Vincent and illustrated by Oliver Borges.

As Nolen Savoy's apocalyptic plot nears fruition, Spencer Holmes and Erica Houdini must join forces, much like their famous ancestors did once before to save the world. But is it already too late?

You can purchase Holmes & Houdini #3 for the Kindle on Amazon.com. You can also buy directly from Zenescope, which offers printed copies with variant covers. Depicted here is cover B by Igor Vitorino and Ivan Nunes.

Based on the preview pages at the official website, this last issue features an appearance of the real Holmes and Houdini in 1913 (below).


Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Houdini's Last Handcuffs by Charlie & Cheryl Young

Today sees the release of Houdini's Last Handcuffs written by our friends Charlie & Cheryl Young. It's a delightful work of historical fiction featuring many familiar faces from the world of magic in the 1950s, including the spirit of Houdini!

Houdini’s Last Handcuffs weaves a mesmerizing blend of historical fiction and fantasy in 1950s Manhattan. On the 30th anniversary of Houdini's death, three young friends, gifted a mystical Ouija Board by the enigmatic writer Walter Gibson, find themselves thrust into a world of wonder.

While the adults attempt to reach Houdini in a Séance at his former residence, the children unknowingly call upon the great magician, not through the Ouija board or séance but via an enigmatic pair of handcuffs from their father's magic collection.

Houdini, in dire need of their aid, reveals a hidden notebook filled with scientific formulas coveted by both benevolent and malevolent secret circles. This notebook is a puzzle, locked behind Houdini's cryptic code.

The unexpected unfolds, setting off a thrilling chase, where the pursuit of Houdini's notebook holds the key to secrets, mystique, and adventure. Houdini’s Last Handcuffs is a riveting journey into a world where magic meets science, tantalizing readers with every twist and turn.


You can purchase Houdini's Last Handcuffs from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. I received mine from Houdini himself!


Related:

Monday, March 25, 2024

Marking Houdini's 150th in Budapest

David Merlini of The House of Houdini led an esteemed delegation to the site of Houdini's birthplace in Budapest, Hungary, yesterday to mark the magician's 150th birthday. This corner of Csengery and Dob was formerly Rákosárok No. 1, where the Weisz family lived in 1874.


In attendance: Jayson Dumenigo @afstunts; David Merlini; Judit Gálvölgyi, daughter of Rodolfo, the famous Hungarian Magician; János Gálvölgyi, legendary Hungarian actor and comedian; Pérer Niedermüller, Mayor of 7th District; Bryce Branagan and Megan Miller, Action Factory Team.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Houdini is alive and well at 150


Today is Houdini's 150th birthday. I think it's safe to say he's never been more alive. It's a day to celebrate. Speaking of celebrations, here's a personal tidbit from Houdini's 106th birthday excerpted from The Valley News, May 20, 1980...


This is true. I had half the cafeteria singing. I think they were afraid I was trying to start a revolution. But no one is going to stop us from singing today!

Everybody...

🎼 HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU.... 🎼

Links to some of today's celebrants:
Today's Jewish Birthday: Harry Houdini (San Diego Jewish World)
HAPPY BIRTHDAY HOUDINI (Music Magic and More)

Friday, March 22, 2024

Celebrate Houdini's 150th with the SAM online

Celebrate Houdini's 150th birthday online with SAM Parent Assembly #1 and The Houdini Museum in Scranton this Sunday, March 24, 2024, at 2 PM ET. Below is more information and the Zoom meeting link.


When:
Sunday, March 24, 2 PM Eastern / 11 AM Pacific / 6 PM UK

Zoom Link:

Meeting ID: 859 8585 1304
 Passcode: 796571

Hope to see you there!

'The Magician's Ghost' reading in Edinburgh

A rehearsal reading of a work in progress, The Magician's Ghost, will be held at The Banshee Labyrinth in Edinburgh this Monday, March 25. You can get more information and buy tickets HERE.

A hundred years ago this year, renowned magician Harry Houdini hired a struggling scribbler called HP Lovecraft to ghostwrite a tale based on a strange experience he had in Egypt.

At the time Lovecraft was himself going through a strange and terrifying event he would avoid speaking of for the rest of his life: marriage to an independent writer and business woman. 

What followed would change their lives and forever mark the world. 

The Magician's Ghost tells the story of a friendship spanning the natural, the fictional and the supernatural in a new play by the 2019 Bruntwood Award longlisted and 2021 Through The Mill Award shortlisted writer, Oliver Giggins, specially performed to mark the 150th anniversary of Houdini's birth. 

Please be aware this event is a Rehearsed Reading/ Work in Progress performance.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Serenading Houdini with "Houdini"

Here's one I knew I couldn't escape for long. A young woman sang Dua Lipa's hit single "Houdini" at Houdini's grave and posted it to TikTok. The video has gone viral with 2.7 million views. Wild 94.1 reports:

Some celebrities and even brands shared their thoughts in the comments of the video. “Congrats, you won Best Cover Of Houdini At His Grave In 2024,” said MTV. “Do we know if he’s actually in there or did he escape that too,” said the PureWow brand. The Girls Next Door costar Holly Madison even chimed in saying, “Best thing I’ve ever seen.”

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

San Fransisco suspended straitjacket anniversary


Last year, I completely overlooked the centennial of Houdini's suspended straitjacket escape in San Francisco on March 19, 1923. So on this 101st anniversary, I'm sharing rare film of this escape on my Patreon. As far as I know, this footage has never appeared elsewhere.


The Hearst Building building still stands today on the corner of 3rd and Market Street. Yes, Houdini hung here!

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Houdini in Blackpool's new "Showtown" museum

The door from a jail cell that Houdini escaped from in 1905 is on display at the new Showtown museum in Blackpool, England. What a fantastic artifact! Blackpool native and magician Karl Bartoni shares photos from a special preview he attended last week.


Below is an account of Houdini's Blackpool jail escape on June 12, 1905.

Lancashire Evening Post, June 12, 1905.

The museum also has exhibits showcasing Murray the Escapologist, a long-time Blackpool resident; Karl Bartoni's straitjacket that he used during his Tower escapes; and a reproduction Houdini Milk Can with a cut-out in Houdini's famous 1908 poster that you can try on for size.


Showtown is located in the heart of the Golden Mile next door to Blackpool Tower. The museum showcases the best of the seaside, magic, circus, Illuminations, shows, and dance. For more details, visit the official website.

If you want to see all the photos Karl sent me, check out my Patreon below.


Thank you, Karl!

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Houdini spoke one year ago today

It was one year ago today that Mike CaveneyDr. Michael Khanchalian, and I heard the voice of Harry Houdini coming from wax cylinders that have not been played since 1970. What an incredible experience. I still can't believe I was a part of it. Click the image below to relive the adventure.


Below are some follow-up posts related to the Houdini wax cylinders.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Discovering Houdini's "O.D. stunt" at last!

Here's one I've been chasing for a long time. In Houdini's 1916 diary, he records an "O.D. stunt" (outdoor stunt) during his engagement in Toledo that year. Unfortunately, he provided no other details. I suspected it was a suspended straitjacket escape, but I've never been able to confirm it or nail down an exact date. But now, thanks to a recent upload of Toledo Blade newspapers, the "O.D. stunt" has been revealed!

Toledo Blade, December 8, 1916.

While this was indeed a suspended straitjacket escape (on December 7, 1916), it was an untypical one. Instead of doing the escape from a downtown building that housed a newspaper, Houdini did this from the "roof of the county jail." It isn't entirely clear where this would have been, but the Lucas County Jail in Toledo is a likely candidate.


Another interesting detail gleaned from another clipping is that the police provided a straitjacket, but Houdini "refused" it and used one of his own.

Finally, if the photo in the clipping looks familiar, it should! The NYPL has the full photo in its digital collection, and it has appeared elsewhere. Who knew we were looking at the elusive Toledo "O.D. stunt" this whole time?


Want more? I've shared all the clippings related to this stunt and Houdini's 1916 Toledo engagement with "Scholar" members of my Patreon below.


Related:

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

"That's an awful river."

I've shared on my Patreon a vivid account of Houdini's handcuffed leap into the Mississippi River on November 17, 1907. There are details here that I've not read before. Dive in by clicking below. 


I recently updated my Bridge jumps page to list all of Houdini's known jumps. Thanks to my patrons for supporting this work. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Houdini Museum launches new website

Our friends Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz have launched an all-new website for their famous Houdini Museum Tour & Magic Show in Scranton, PA. It's very well done and worth a visit. Just click below to go.


I had the pleasure of visiting the museum last year, and I loved it. It's a unique and special place run by a pair of magic legends. Not to be missed!

Related:

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Magic Castle announces a New Houdini Séance

The Magic Castle in Hollywood, home of the Academy of Magical Arts, will soon debut a New Houdini Séance Experience. Below is the news sent to members via the AMAs Flash Paper newsletter.

March 24 is Harry Houdini’s Birthday
& the Premiere of the New Houdini Séance Experience!

The Houdini séance at The Magic Castle® debuted 55 years ago in 1969, with people experiencing a re-enactment of the final séance of 10 held over a decade at the nearby Knickerbocker Hotel by Bess Houdini—to summon Harry from the other side—on Halloween 1936, which was attended by Bill Larsen, Sr.

The séance at the club has always been a big draw, evolving over the years—Milt Larsen’s Winchester House, adding and changing effects—into what was best described as a campy (albeit fun) experience. Currently, we are in the midst of an exciting overhaul of the séance, the second in recent years, which will make a soft debut on Harry Houdini’s birthday, March 24 (for evaluation and tweaks by involved parties), and likely open for general membership bookings in late spring/early summer, with specific date to be announced.

In 2019-2020, the séance and the room were renovated under the direction of Jim Steinmeyer, making it a more modern, theatrical and technically advanced experience. The new, more low-tech séance option being developed will be a much more haunting, “jump-in-the-dark,” organic experience. Both seances will be available for bookings.

The new transformation is being supervised by a collaborative team that includes Todd Robbins, Chris Hart, Mike Caveney and medium/magicians Rob Zabrecky and Stuart McCloud; executive produced by the Board of Trustees and Chuck Martinez.

Says Todd, “The Magic Castle® is the center of the world of magic and Houdini is so much a part of that world. On the 98th anniversary of his death, you can ask 100 people to name the first magician that comes to mind and 90% of them will still say Houdini. Even though no one’s alive who’s seen him perform, he still lives on in our collective conscious and that’s the greatest feat of his entire career, that he became this legend. It’s important that The Magic Castle® do something that grabs people, is emotional and serves as a fitting tribute to this remarkable man.”

“I like to say that you’re never so alive as when you are scared to death!” continues Todd. “This experience will be a little more fun in the dark and very bespoke to who the medium is … rather than the medium being guided by the presentation. When the inaugural séance was created in 1969, the only automated gimmick was the table rising and the rest of it was up to the presiding medium. The original medium, Ed Fowler (who also performed under the stage name of E. Raymond Carlyle), had a grandmother and a great aunt who were ‘real’ mediums at a spiritualist retreat in Michigan. They taught him the techniques they used to deceive the believers. Rob and Stuart have been integral to this renovation.”

The Houdini séance chamber is located in an area that was originally part of the master bedroom of the Chateau-esque mansion built in 1908 by Rollin B. Lane, which was also the room where he passed away. “Ghosts do walk and who knows who will come back,” teases Todd, who doesn’t want to give away too many surprises. “It depends upon the people in the room and the willingness to open themselves up.”

Plans are also being discussed to initiate a stage two-update that integrates off-menu food service (Houdini’s favorite foods?) into the overall event with a host who provides historical insights, with a flourish of magic, as each course is served, leading up to the main event with a medium.

Says Todd, “The original séance included a personal chef and a small antique stove where he flambéed an appetizer of shrimp in cognac, finished a main course of filet mignon; and prepared flaming cherries jubilee. Unfortunately, it was a fun part of the performance that Milt didn’t run by the fire department and it was ultimately shut down!”

Participants in the final séance in 1936 (Bill Larsen, Sr., far right).

I'm looking forward to seeing what the Castle has cooked up for this new seance!

Related:

Friday, March 8, 2024

Shadow of Houdini with Sher'ril & Samantha

Here's another event celebrating Houdini's 150th birthday this month. Sher'ril & Samantha, Escape Artists Extraordinaire, present Shadow of Houdini on Saturday, March 23, at Rock House Coffee Company & Event Center in Hohenwald, Tennessee.


For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Shadow of Houdini page at Eventbrite.

If you know of any other Houdini birthday events or celebrations, please let me know.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Magic & Mind Games LIVE: A Tribute to Houdini

This month sees a few special events celebrating Houdini's 150th birthday. One of these is Magic & Mind Games LIVE: A Tribute to Houdini, on Saturday, March 23, at Old Oak Inn Bed and Breakfast in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin.


For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Magic & Mind Games LIVE: A Tribute to Houdini page at Eventbrite.

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Deconstructing Houdini '53: Judgment in Germany

Continuing my scene-by-scene dissection of the 1953 biopic HOUDINI starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Last time we saw Houdini reach the heights of fame in Europe. But German law wants to bring him back down...

Chapter 14: Judgment in Germany

The next scene in Houdini (1953) is a highlight that furthers Houdini's legend and continues the story of his early European adventures. But did it really happen?

At the end of the last scene, Houdini received a summons to appear before a German tribunal accused of fraud. "I might have to go to jail," he warned Bess. Now we dissolve to the courthouse where a growling prosecutor (Stefan Schnabel) makes his case:

“When any magician transgresses the bounds of reason and humbugs the people into not only thinking but believing that he’s supernatural, then this man becomes a menace to society and must be restrained from further practice of such deception.”

Sounds serious! (And a little flattering.) It's hard not to see this as a witch trial. The prosecutor is dressed in robes from the last century. Houdini, on the other hand, is dressed in a modern gray suit. (The suit reminds me of the one he wore at his 1926 congressional hearing.) It makes for a nice contrast. Houdini represents modernity defending itself against old-world superstition.


Houdini stands and offers his defense, using words the real Houdini spoke many times from the stage.

"I have never claimed to be supernatural. All my escapes have been effected by purely physical means."

The judge (Lawrence Ryle) decides to put it to a test. If Houdini can open the courthouse safe in full view of the tribunal, he will have proven himself a man of skill and not the devil's pawn. Houdini volunteers to do one better. He will escape from the safe! As he hands his coat off to Bess, she reminds him of the last safe he got into. A nice callback.


After Houdini climbs inside the safe, we hear the poorly dubbed line, "Go ahead, what are you waiting for. Lock it up." The door is locked. Seconds tick by on the courtroom clock. All wait anxiously. All except Bess, who shows no concern at all. This is amusing, but it's actually inconsistent with her characterization. Janet Leigh's Bess is constantly worrying! By the way, notice she is wearing her royal crown brooch.


Soon, the tumblers on the safe door began to rotate. The door swings open, and Houdini emerges. "It's hot in there," he says. The courtroom bursts into applause, and the case is dismissed. Houdini even receives a grudging handshake from the sour prosecutor.


So, is any of this real? Yes, basically. Houdini did appear before a court in Germany in 1902 and demonstrated his escape abilities before a judge and jury. However, Houdini was the plaintiff, not the defendant.

It all started with an article in the Daily Rheinische Zeitung in which a German police officer, Werner Graf, who had challenged Houdini with a lock that he easily defeated, claimed the magician was a fraud who had used a saw to escape from his lock and had attempted to bribe him. Houdini demanded a retraction. Graf refused. So Houdini filed slander charges against Graf and editor Johann Merfeld. The case was heard in Cologne.

The first trial ran for three days, during which Houdini demonstrated how he easily opened Graf’s lock by rapping it against a metal plate fastened below his knee. He then showed the judge how he could slip out of any transport chain. Houdini won the case and created a poster that told the story of the trial with a dramatic image that clearly influenced Houdini's Art Directors, Al Nozaki and Hal Pereira, and/or Set Decorators Sam Comer and Ray Moyer.


But what about the safe?

Graf appealed the case twice. Houdini claimed that during the third trial, he was challenged to open the judges' safe, which, ironically, they had forgotten to lock. This is likely fiction. There is no record of Houdini doing anything at the third trial except being present. Houdini also often told the story of almost being defeated by an unlocked door, freely changing the details and location to suit the occasion. But the safe story is in the Kellock book on which this movie is based, so as far as screenwriter Philip Yordan was concerned, he was drawing from fact.

Okay, back to the movie.

As the "audience" leaves the courtroom, Mama says to Bess, "But Harry never saw that safe before, how did he ever do it? What is the trick?" Bess tells her the only trick was to get the judge to lock him inside the safe. "Safes were built to keep people from breaking in, not out."

Could this be considered an exposure? If so, it's the only exposure in the movie. But this "in, not out" idea comes from Kellock, so maybe it gets a pass for being Bess-approved. (In contracts Bess drew up for earlier biopic projects, there was always a stipulation that the film must not feature exposures.) It's also utter nonsense. Don't get inside a safe thinking you can easily get out!

But what about the mystery man with a stopwatch who has been watching the entire proceedings? The camera cuts to him several times. It appears someone else has taken an interest in the abilities of The Great Houdini...

Related:

Translate