Monday, July 8, 2024

Summer break

I'm going to give myself a short summer break to recharge my batteries, chamber some posts, and work on other projects. I won't let any breaking news slip past, and I will still be active on my Patreon. Otherwise, see you in a few weeks!

Catch up on the WILD year so far:
January (23 posts)
February (20 posts)
March (20 posts)
April (20 posts)
May (21 posts)
June (19 posts)
July (6 posts)

Photo from Houdini His Legend and His Magic by Doug Henning and Charles Reynolds.

Saturday, July 6, 2024

Deconstructing Houdini '53: Look at those!

Continuing my scene-by-scene dissection of the 1953 biopic HOUDINI starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Last time, Houdini acquired a new assistant on the eve of his return to America. But will he find success in his homeland?

Chapter 16: Look at those!

Houdini returns to the United States. We know that via a stock establishing shot of the Statue of Liberty. This also tells us he has returned to New York City. The following scene is short, but there is a lot to love, and it contains a shot that has obsessed me for years.

As triumphant music swells, we get a close-up of an invitation being opened in a newspaper office (the year strategically obscured on the postmark). Inside is an invitation to a reception at Houdini's home at 273 W 113th Street. Yes, the address reads 273 instead of 278. Why the change? It's possible the filmmakers were sensitive to the privacy of Rose Bonnano and her sister, who were the occupants of 278 at this time. In fact, producer George Pal had visited Rose in preparation for the film. Or maybe it was just nervous Paramount lawyers. But I'm glad they kept it close.

Notice the date of September 3rd. The real Houdini returned to America in late July 1905 and took a three-week rest. If he had arranged a press reception as this scene depicts, it would have indeed been in early September. However, the recipient crumbles up the invite and throws it into the trash as the music takes a downturn. We've gone from triumphant return to ambivalence in one efficient shot. 

We then dissolve to find a forlorn Houdini standing on the stoop of his home. Once again the filmmakers are going for accuracy, although the facade is more Georgian than a classic New York brownstone. But that's what they had (and still have) on the Paramount backlot.

Here's a recent photo of Houdini's actual house, still standing strong on 113th Street in Harlem. 

Inside, we see a banquet laid out for reporters who have not arrived. It's always a treat to see a re-creation of 278 in a Houdini movie, and this remains one of the best. A few things to notice here. There's a mummy case in the room. Also, the dress Janet Leigh is wearing is one of the very few pieces of wardrobe from the film that survives.

"I don't understand it," says Harry, "It's 3:30, and they were invited for 2:00. Why haven't the reporters arrived?" His mother answers, "Maybe they don't know who you are, Harry." Houdini responds, "Everybody knows who I am, Mama. Look at those!" He then points to a collection of posters and memorabilia that fills half the room.

Look at those, indeed!

When I first saw Houdini '53 on television, this shot went by in an eye blink, but I could see there were treasures to behold. With my first Beta tape recording of the movie, I could pause, but the picture was never clear on those early machines. The commercial VHS release and a better machine helped, but one could still only see so much in the low resolution of videotape. But with the advent of LaserDisc, DVD, and now Blu-ray, one can finally look deeply into this glorious shot. So let's break it down:

  1. Re-creation of Houdini's famed 1898 "King of Cards" poster with Tony Curtis' image central.
  2. Schultz Dime Museum poster, not based on any real Houdini poster. This is the second of three appearances it makes in the movie.
  3. Re-creation of The Houdinis 1894 Metamorphosis cutting with Tony and Janet images central.
  4. Photographic poster of Houdini escaping from the Russian safe. This seems to be an echo of Houdini's famed Victory in Cologne poster.
  5. Actual photograph of Houdini's 1914 packing case escape off the New York Battery.
  6. Actual photograph of Houdini's 1910 jump into Domain Municipal Baths in Sydney, Australia.
  7. Actual photograph of Houdini's 1917 suspended straitjacket escape in Times Square.
  8. Re-creation of Houdini lobby display case.
  9. Re-creation of Houdini handcuff and antique lock lobby display cases.

A parlor full of mementos of Houdini's career is consistent with the real 278, although what Houdini displayed were mostly his trophies and awards. A trophy or loving cup would have been a nice addition here.

Mama's response to all this is, "But that was in Europe, Harry. Americans are from Missouri; you have to show them."

I never understood this reference as a kid, but I eventually learned that Missouri is called the "Show Me State." This does fit the timeline. Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver reportedly coined the phrase during a speech in 1899 when he declared, "I come from a state that raises corn and cotton, cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I'm from Missouri, and you have got to show me."

Overall, the idea that Houdini was not immediately embraced back in his home country is correct. He had been absent from American stages for five years, and during that time, rival Handcuff Kings had flooded the market. He attempted a publicity stunt in which he defeated a rival in an underwater handcuff escape contest, but the coverage was skeptical and snarky. He then opened at the Colonial Theater, a famously tough venue in New York City, and made good. At the end of the year, he took out a half-page ad in The New York Clipper, proclaiming: "I TOLD YOU SO!" (You might say he "showed them.")

Back to the movie. Houdini steps up to Otto and says, "If the press won't come to me, I shall go to the press. Get my straitjacket." Notice that Otto is threading a film projector here. In a preceding shot, he was sitting across the room. Has something been cut? Regardless, I classify this projector shot as a nod to Houdini's real-life use of early film as a promotional tool.

But what exactly does Houdini have in mind? We'll raise the shade on that next time.

Thursday, July 4, 2024

The Houdini Inheritance by Emma Carroll

Today sees the release of The Houdini Inheritance by Emma Carroll. Aimed at young readers, the book has a nice premise and a nice cover. This is one I'll be adding to my shelf of Houdini fiction.
The English seaside, 1920s

A world famous escape artist . . .
A suitcase full of secrets . . .
And a death-defying stunt . . .

When Harry Houdini comes to visit the seaside town of Sidford-on-Sea, Glory and her friend Dennis are first in-line to see him. He is there to perform a daring trick: he will jump off the town pier in chains, pitching himself into the water below. But when Glory outsmarts the infamous Houdini, she is suddenly sucked into his world, and finds herself tasked with looking after his precious trunk - the one that contains all his secrets.

With Houdini in danger, Glory and Dennis are thrown deep into an adventure that takes them all the way to Coney Island in America, and the dark underbelly of its amusement parks . . .

Purchase The Houdini Inheritance at and Author Emma Carroll is on a UK book tour. Below is a list of stops. You can also follow her on Instagram.

How do you feel about Houdini fiction? Is it harmless fun that honors Houdini? Or does it further muddy the facts of Houdini's life? I've thrown this question out as a POLL on my Patreon.

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

William V. Rauscher (1932-2024)

David Haversat reports that William V. Rauscher has died. Below is the email David sent out moments ago.

William V. Rauscher (1932-2024)  

The Reverend Canon William V. Rauscher was a magician, a psychic researcher, a biographer, and an Episcopal priest who served as rector of Christ Church in Woodbury, New Jersey, for 36 years. For four years Bill served as president of Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship (SFF), an organization focused on the implications of psychic phenomena for religion. At its peak SFF had 6000 members.

Bill was a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, Order of Merlin Excelsior. He was also a collector of magic and owned and performed the Flight of Time, the last illusion invented by Harry Houdini. He wrote 17 biographies of magicians. Bill maintained friendships with psychics, debunkers, fraudulent mediums, and the sixth man who walked on the moon, Edgar Mitchell, of whom he wrote a biography. He had psychic experiences himself but also exposed fraud in Spiritualism. He played a key role in publication of The Psychic Mafia, a most amazing exposé in the history of Spiritualism.

Rauscher received five writing awards from The Linking Ring, the magazine of the International Brotherhood of Magicians (I.B.M.) and had been a member of the organization for 75 years. He was elected to the Society of American Magicians (S.A.M.) Hall of Fame. In 1996 the New England Magic Collectors Association honored him for his many contributions to the art of magic. In 1991 he received the Milbourne Christopher Foundation award for his contributions to magic, noting his performing and writing, and in 2007 he was honored with the Christopher Literary Award. In 2023 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Magic Castle’s Academy of Magical Arts in Hollywood. That same year he was honored with the prestigious John Neville Maskelyne Prize for noteworthy contributions to the art or literature of magic from London’s Magic Circle.

Today we remember our friend Bill, an amazing person who touched the lives of so many.

Rauscher the Magician performing Houdini's Flight of Time.

Houdini buffs will know Bill Rauscher as the author of The Houdini Code Mystery, Hardeen: Monarch of Manacles, and co-author of Arthur Ford: The Man Who Talked With The Dead. Bill knew Arthur Ford well. He also lectured on the Houdini Code and controversy.

I'm honored to have known Bill. He was always generous with his time and information. He was one of the rare Houdini truth seekers. He will be missed.

UPDATE: You can now read his full obituary in The Philadelphia Inquirer.


Tuesday, July 2, 2024

LINK: The Torrence Collection

Mega collector Jon Torrence is sharing rarities from his amazing Houdini collection on his website, The Torrence Collection. Somehow, I wasn't aware of Jon or his collection, but I sure am now! Some real gems here. Click the headline or the image below to dive in.

A program pictured on page 6 has me especially intrigued. This appears to reveal a 1901 engagement in Mainz, Germany, and an encounter with a rival that is entirely new to me. Or it could be hokum on Houdini's part. Either way, it's a prime example of the Germany problem.

Jon also has a YouTube channel and Facebook showcasing his collections. Thank you, Jon!

Monday, July 1, 2024

Guest Blog: Houdini's mysterious safe

Today, I'm happy to share a guest blog from our friend Johan Ahlberg in Sweden about Houdini and his safes. Take it away, Johan!

HOUDINI'S mysterious SAFE

By Johan Ahlberg 

Harry Houdini had a great mechanical interest in complicated locks and safes. On his tour in Germany, he saw several safes and strongboxes that not only had complicated locks but also secret mechanisms to even find the keyhole. Some safes had combination locks, where secret levers needed to be operated in a secret manner to open the lock.

Houdini claimed he was challenged by a judge to open a big safe, which was kept in the judge's chamber with a combination lock, when he sued the German police for slander in Cologne, Germany.

The French magician Robert-Houdin made a desk with secret compartments. For extra security, there was a complicated lock in which you had to put your finger in a hole and touch a secret lever to open the lock. If you did it in the wrong way, a razor-sharp knife with a strong spring was activated, and the finger was cut off immediately. It was so the thief could easily be identified.

On December 4th, 1908, at the Euston Palace in England, Houdini was challenged to escape from a monster safe.

The safe was brought on stage. Houdini was searched and locked inside. He escaped in just 14 minutes, leaving the safe still secure and locked.

The terror of being locked up inside an airtight safe must have thrilled the audience. Houdini had planned the escape in detail, and it was probably one of Houdini's easiest escapes. But anything could have gone wrong; it took Houdini's nerves of steel to pull it off. If Houdini had fainted inside the safe or the lock mechanism had interlocked, it could have ended in disaster, like it did for Genesta when he tried to copy Houdini's milk can escape.

James Randi escaped in a TV show from a safe that was shown to be empty and locked. Suddenly, the combination dial started to spin. The door flew open, and out jumped Randi. The safe was so incredibly small that it seemed to be impossible for a human being to be inside. David Copperfield was handcuffed and locked in a safe with a combination lock. A chain was wrapped around the safe and padlocked. The clock started ticking, the combination dial started to rotate, and suddenly, a blast, the building was blown up, and everything was buried. David emerged on a table outside unharmed, smiling mysteriously. The effect was stunning, but Houdini was the first escape artist to escape from a borrowed safe under test conditions.

Houdini told a story in which he visited his lawyer in New York he was left alone with the lawyer's safe. He managed to manipulate the combination lock and his lawyer was dumfounded. Houdini claimed he had a micro meter in a watch that could register the small movements of the tumblers. To manipulate a combination lock can take hours or days to open even for a expert locksmith.

There was a rumor about a safe or a vault in Houdini's house. I once asked Marie Blood, Houdini's niece and the last link to Houdini's home, if she ever saw or heard anything about a vault? She said no! She never went down in the cellar. After Houdinis death there was another story about a safe that Bess couldn’t open. A locksmith, Charles Courtney, was called in an after working for hours on the combination lock it wouldn’t open. When Courtney asked Bess how Houdini opened the safe she said he just waved his hand over the lock and it opened like magic. Courtney bought a strong magnet and the lock opened or so he claimed.

The problem with that story is that a magnet can’t operate a lever through the safe's thick steel plates. In the safe, there were several love letters from women written to Houdini and the silver Mirror handcuffs. However, it’s a fantastic story.

Houdini's safe that Courtney claimed he opened with a magnet. The safe has the text “HOUDINI” on top. The Mirror handcuffs were stored inside.

An article in the Swedish newspaper KvP in 1974 described how Houdini had left a locked safe with his attorney in New York that contained his secrets. The safe was to be opened on Houdini's 100th birthday. With the press present, the safe was opened, but it was empty! 

I bet Houdini was laughing in his heaven.

Thank you, Johan.

If you'd like to share your own Guest Blog here on WILD ABOUT HARRY, feel free to get in touch and let's talk about what you have in mind. I know there's a lot of untapped Houdini wisdom out there!