Thursday, April 18, 2024

Inside Houdini's Los Angeles Orpheum

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of touring the Palace Theater with the Los Angeles Historic Theater Foundation. Houdini appeared here in 1915 and 1923 when it was the Orpheum. It was here that he had his famous verbal fisticuffs with heavyweight champion Jess Willard. So this is a very historic Houdini theater! Today it is used primarily as a rental for movies and television, so getting a chance to not only see inside but also explore every part of the theater was an amazing opportunity. I could feel the spirit of Houdini in this amazing space.

The Orpheum was built in 1911 and remains very much the theater Houdini would have known. It's surprisingly shallow. But it was built for vaudeville before amplification, so the acoustics are such that someone on stage can be heard throughout the auditorium. This was the third Orpheum in Los Angeles (Houdini played the others in 1899 and 1907). It served the city until a new Orpheum was built down the street in 1926.

Los Angeles Evening Express, April 6, 1923.

One big change, which I learned about during the excellent presentation by LAHTF's David Saffer, is that the box seats that existed on both sides of the auditorium were removed when the theatre switched to all movies in 1929. They were replaced with two gigantic paintings by Los Angeles artist Anthony Heinsbergen. Jess Willard would have been sitting in one of those box seats.

While the boxes are gone, you can still see the outline of the doorway that led to the seats. This is where Willard would have slunk out as the audience of 2000 hissed him from the theater. Don't hit your head, Jess!

But it's where Houdini went after the performance that had me most excited. The star dressing room still survives! It's located just off stage right and up a flight of stairs. The other dressing rooms are located below the stage. This is a configuration I've not seen before, but I can appreciate the luxury of having a dressing room just steps from the stage and away from the other players, props, and animals. 

The dressing room had a "Do Not Enter" sign on the door as work was being done inside. Fortunately, there was an open vent through which I could see inside. What appears to be the original sink survives. It also has a second connecting room. This is the largest star dressing room that I've yet seen in a theatre from Houdini's time.

An "A" above the door? Is this from Houdini's day? I'd like to think so.

It's interesting to think that Houdini could have watched the other acts from just outside his dressing room. He had a great view. Thanks to fellow Houdini nut and artist Jenny Lerew for snapping this photo of me in Houdini's perch. You can check out Jenny's own photos on her Instagram @blackwingjen.

There was a lot more to see and learn. In fact, we spent three hours exploring the theater from top to bottom. I even wandered into a few places I later learned were off-limits. If you'd like to see more, I've uploaded a collection of 40+ photos to my Patreon below.

Thanks to the Los Angeles Historic Theater Foundation for this amazing day. The LAHFT regularly tours historic theaters and also offers talks via Zoom. Check out their website for more information and consider becoming a member.

Lastly, here's an unknown challenge from Houdini's 1915 Orpheum/Palace appearance.

The Los Angeles Times, Dec. 2, 1915.



  1. Great backstage photos! Have not seen those before.


  2. The comic at the end is really cool!

    1. It is cool, and also potentially informative. Notice how there is a ramp over the orchestra pit and the man is walking across it onto the stage. Today you have to go through a side passage to get on stage, and maybe this was always the case. No side stairs. So maybe this is how audience members would come up on stage during Houdini's act. A neat detail.

    2. I’d say! You’re right! There is an orchestra pit! I’m taking notes hehe.

  3. Reminds me of how Jolson would insist on having a "runway" - so that he could be closer to the audience as he sang.

    1. Oh! I bet that's exactly what he was talking about then. A "runway" over the orchestra pit. Nice.

  4. So wait did some fan legit actually ask Houdini came up to see if he could escape his wife’s jacket? If so, that’s hilarious!

  5. I can't disagree with Willard's letter to the L.A. Examiner. When HH invited him down to the stage, he should have gone on with his act when Willard initally refused. He knew the audience would be on his side and went for the jugular. Fame has a price and a celebrity is expected to let go of privacy and quiet time out in public.