Thursday, May 30, 2024

🎶 Dunninger, Hoo-dee-nee, and Doug! 🎶

This week marks the 50th anniversary of The Magic Show, which opened at the Cort Theater on May 28, 1974. The Broadway musical launched the career of Doug Henning and opened the door on the next Golden Age of Magic. Doug's style was modern and up-to-the-minute, but he always honored the past, especially Houdini. The play even uses Houdini's name in its opening number, Up To His Old Tricks by Stephen Schwartz (lyrics below). So, yeah, we love Doug!

Hey, can't you just feel the strange excitement
The quiet commotion that we share
There's something like tingling in the darkness
There's something electric in the air
'Cause there's one thing I know turns a man of sixty
Back into a child of six:
Watching Dunninger, Houdini
Or Doug—the magic man
Up to his old tricks

You go spend an evening at the movies
And smile at the shadows on the screen
You turn on a radio or record
And dance to a voice you've never seen
But thеy don't make you gasp like a silly schoolboy
Or giggle likе a bunch of hicks
Not like Dunninger, Houdini
Or Doug—the magic man
Up to his old tricks

Clap clap
Pop up the dusty flowers
Hooray, hoorah
Break out the bowl of goldfish and the scarves
Saw the beautiful lady in half again…

Wasn't that illusion fun?
Not if you know how it's done

It may not be the world's most esteemed profession
But if sure beats law or politics
So here's to Dunninger, Houdini
And Doug—our magic man
Up to his old tricks

For all things Doug, check out The Doug Hennig Project by our friend Neil McNally.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Inner Me rocks Houdini

This morning's big music news is that Eminem will release a new single called "Houdini" this Friday. You may recall that Dua Lipa released her own "Houdini" single last year. While many musicians have released songs inspired by Houdini, Austrian Metal band THE INNER ME has released an entire album! You can listen to Rosabelle Believe on YouTube.

Learn more about The Inner Me at the band's official website

Thanks to David Stawa.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

LINK: Happy National Vaudeville Day!

The great Trav S.D. is taking it upon himself to declare today, Tony Pastor's birthday, "National Vaudeville Day," and I'm on board! To really understand Houdini's career, one needs to understand the art and history of Vaudeville. So click over to Trav S.D.'s terrific blog Travelanche and explore his links related to Vaudeville.

Monday, May 27, 2024

The Water Torture Cell captured in 1913

Here's an interesting illustration from the Sporting Life, February 28, 1913, when Houdini was performing the Water Torture Cell at the Finsbury Park Empire in London.

 The artist is very likely drawing from what he saw firsthand. Check out the unusual configuration of the "band of steel" (as Houdini called them) on the cell. It appears that care is being taken to allow the audience to see Houdini's head when inside the cell; hence, the lower section is left open. First time I've seen this.

I also can't help but see a mustache on Houdini in this illustration, but I'm sure that's just a shadow. I've always thought it surprising that Houdini never even experimented with a mustache and remained clean-shaven his entire life. Mustaches were very fashionable at this time, as the historical footage below can attest.

Want more? You can see Houdini's original illustration and notes for the Water Torture cell from the collection of David Haversat as a member of my Patreon below.


Saturday, May 25, 2024

Houdini's grave is in trouble

There is an alarming situation unfolding at the Houdini gravesite. A crack in the exedra, which appeared a few years ago, is expanding. A large chunk has recently fallen off the back. The danger of cracks like this is water can get inside and freeze during winter, causing the cracks to enlarge. There is a very real danger that if left untreated, a large section of the exedra will break off. The photos below were taken by our friend Perry Reed a few weeks ago and should chill us all.

The good news is Dorothy Dietrich, owner of the Houdini Museum in Scranton, is now Chairman of the S.A.M. Houdini Gravesite Committee and is well aware of the situation. Dorothy, along with Dick Brookz, famously restored the Houdini bust and the headstones of Gladys and Leopold, so she has been a loving and proactive caretaker of Houdini's grave. Dorothy is working with the co-chairman Joe Devlin on a solution.

Cracks like these can be repaired, and the S.A.M. does have a Houdini Gravesite Fund they can draw from to help. But, as Dorothy points out, the repairs need to be done during the dry summer months—so that means now. Another winter will increase the danger of the exedra breaking, and fixing that might not be so easy.

You can help by making a contribution to the Houdini Gravesite Fund. Or you can contact Dorothy Dietrich directly at the Houdini Museum. Houdini always looked after the graves of fellow magicians, so it's time to do the same for him.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Deconstructing Houdini '53: Genie in a Bottle

Continuing my scene-by-scene dissection of the 1953 biopic HOUDINI starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Last time, Houdini defended himself in court. Now, he completes a strange pilgrimage.

Chapter 15: Genie in a Bottle

The next scene in Houdini '53 takes us to the home of the elusive Herr Von Schweger and begins the movie's turn to a somewhat darker tone. While one might think this scene is pure fiction, it is actually rooted in reality.

The scene opens with Harry knocking on a door marked Johann Von Schweger. We realize he has finally been given an audience with the reclusive conjurer. Eerie music plays on the soundtrack as Houdini enters what appears to be an empty house. The rooms are not filled with mementos of a Music Hall career as one might expect. Instead, we see items from the Far East and other mysterious lands and religions. There's even what appears to be a seance table. Von Schweger has clearly gone deeper into the realms of magic and mystery than a typical magician.

Houdini calls out "hello" several times. Finally, a voice sounds from behind him, saying, "You're too late. Von Schweger died two days ago." The voice belongs to the mystery man from the courthouse, Otto (Torin Thatcher).

As first noted in Chapter 13, I see Von Schweger as analogous to the real-life Wiljalba Frikell. This scene just enforces that idea. But this is a rare case where real life was even more dramatic than fiction.

In 1903, Houdini was finally invited to the home of the reclusive Frikell, only to find the magician had died two hours before he arrived. In fact, Frikell's body was still laid out in the parlor, surrounded by mementos of his career. A macabre scene. Maybe too much so for a 1953 film? Or maybe it would have been too awkward to continue with the scene that follows with a corpse in the room. Still, reworking Houdini's famous Frikell visit is another way this movie respectfully pulls from real Houdini history in building its fictional narrative.

Houdini at Villa Frikell, the real "Von Schweger" home.

Otto says he was asked to follow Houdini's career very closely. Finally, Von Schweger decided he "was worthy." We then get the following exchange:

Harry: Do you know what he wanted to tell me?
Otto: He had nothing to tell you. He wanted to ask you if you had learned the secret of how to dematerialize.
Harry: Me? But I heard he had already done it.
Otto: It happened before I became his assistant. I asked him. He would neither admit it nor deny it. But one thing I am sure of, he was never able to repeat it. I know because I helped him spend the rest of his life trying.

This idea of "dematerialization" is also rooted in Houdini history. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed it was how Houdini made his escapes. Doyle cited as evidence the testimony of a friend who had witnessed Houdini's Double Fold Milk Can and claimed to have felt the dematerialization happening. By the way, I have one minor quibble here. Houdini says he was "in Switzerland" when he received Von Schweger's cable. Houdini never played Switzerland. I would have suggested Vienna.

Otto then retrieves from a box a model of a man in a pagoda-like bottle, presumably a scale model of Von Schweger's dematerialization illusion. "He intended to give you this," he says as he hands it to Houdini.

The camera pushes into the bottle for a nice close-up with the eerie music resuming. Notice the figure in the bottle is wearing a suit similar to Houdini's. Also notice when the shot returns to Houdini, he is holding the bottom upside down, an idea already forming in his head...

The eerie music ends and the mood lightens. Otto, having retrieved his hat and suitcase, turns to Harry and says, "Now I am working for you."

Otto is an interesting character. He definitely echoes Franz Kukol, Houdini's real-life chief assistant, hired during his first European tour. While Otto's nationality is never established, he speaks with a German accent and has a military bearing, just like Franz. And like Otto, Franz returned to America with Houdini and remained his loyal assistant.

The real Otto, Franz Kukol.

However, Otto's role in Houdini '53 is larger in a dramatic sense. He is somewhat Mephistophelian in appearance and behavior. He becomes not just Houdini's assistant but his enabler, guiding him deeper into the more dangerous realms of magic, which we know Houdini can't resist. He is the opposite of the cautious Bess.

Houdini doesn't object to Otto's self-hiring. He seems to understand and accept this strange turn of events. He simply smiles and says, "Looks like Von Schweger left me with more than just a man in a bottle."

He did indeed. Von Schweger, via Otto, has handed Houdini his fate.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Just Wild About Harry: Houdini in Detroit, May 28

The Dearborn Heights City Libraries presents "Just Wild About Harry: Houdini in Detroit" on Tuesday, May 28, at the Caroline Kennedy Library from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. Details below.

Harry Houdini played Detroit 19 times between 1894 and 1926. Local audiences witnessed nearly all of his increasingly dangerous signature tricks first hand, and saw his star rise from the bottom of show bills to very top. Tour Houdini’s Detroit and discover the macabre link between the city and history’s most famous magician.” It is led by Jeremy Dimick, Director of Collections and Curatorial at Detroit Historical Society.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Did Houdini escape from Scrubs?

This photo sold over the weekend in Haversat & Ewing Galleries Auction #45 for $354. The auction description says it came from the Houdini family in the 1990s. On it, we see a notion in Houdini's hand reading: "Wormwood Scrubs Jail entrance London."

Still in operation today, Wormwood Scrubs is located in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. Houdini did perform at the Hammersmith Palace the week of October 31, 1910. So could this mean he did a jailbreak from Scrubs that week?

I have no record of a jailbreak at this time, and 1910 is a little late for such an escape. Houdini was well into bridge jumps as his preferred outdoor stunt. Scrubs is also not listed among the jails that David De-Val escaped from. De-Val is said to have escaped from all the surviving jails that Houdini escaped from in the UK.

It's still possible Houdini did a jailbreak from Scrubs that was not widely reported. Or maybe the old jailbreaker just found this an impressive-looking building, as it still is today!

Congrats on the winner of this intriguing rarity. And thank you to our friends at Haversat & Ewing for being regular advertisers. Click the image below to see the prices realized on their latest auction.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

See 'From Russia With Love' in a Houdini theater

Some of you may know that James Bond is another passion (and blog) of mine. But 007 and Houdini rarely intersect. Until now!

On June 15, the Bond classic From Russia With Love (1963) will screen in 35mm at the Palace Theater in downtown Los Angeles. Of course, the Palace was originally the Orphuem where Houdini himself appeared in 1915 and 1923. The screening will be followed by a Q&A about the historic theater.

So this is a Bond and Houdini doubleheader and a rare opportunity to go inside the Palace/Orpheum. You can get more details and buy tickets at the Los Angeles Conservatory website.

By the way, when I toured the theater last month, I spotted James Bond posters on the walls of a work area. So, yeah, this place is haunted by both escape artists.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Houdini gives Lila Lee a thrill

It's a shame none of the actors who worked with Houdini in his movies were ever properly interviewed (to my knowledge). Many of these actors lived long lives. A good case in point is Lila Lee, Houdini's co-star in Terror Island, who died in 1973. One wonders if biographers like Milbourne Christopher ever attempted to track her down. So much could have been learned.

Today the best we have is something like the below. Here Lila Lee remembers an incident on the Terror Island shoot as her "biggest thrill."

Morning World Herald, Nov. 19, 1922.

Terror Island's underwater action was filmed at the La Elliotta Springs Plunge in Riverside, California in November 1919. It seems incredible that Lila would actually be in the safe underwater. In the existing film, it's unclear if it's the actress, a stuntman, or even a dummy that Houdini pulls from the safe. So maybe this is just the work of a publicist. Again, if only we could have asked her!


Thursday, May 16, 2024

Houdini miniature figure by Marco Navas

Spanish artist Marco Navas, The Miniaturist, has created this handmade figure of Houdini in high-quality resin. It measures 7.5 centimeters (1/24 scale) and is a limited edition. It can be purchased at Marco Navas Studio.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The Linguini Incident Director's Cut screening in San Fransisco

A new Director's Cut of the 1991 film The Linguini Incident will screen at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco on May 23, 2024. There will be a Q&A with director Richard Shepard after the screening.

The Linguini Incident stars Rosanna Arquette as an aspiring magician and escape artist who collects Houdini artifacts and comes into possession of "Madame Houdini's" wedding ring. While waiting for her big break, she works as a waitress at a trendy Manhattan restaurant run by co-star David Bowie. 

The film is loaded with Houdini references and escapes. In some territories, it was titled Houdini & Company.

You can get more information and buy tickets at the Roxie website.