Showing posts with label Beck. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Beck. Show all posts

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Houdini's Life Changing Event In St. Paul That You Haven't Heard

7th St. St. Paul-The Palm Garden is down this street.

According to the history books, in March of 1899, Harry Houdini was playing at a beer hall in St. Paul Minnesota called The Palm Garden*. We know that at some point prior to March 14th, Martin Beck arrived at the beer hall with a group of other theatre owners. Beck witnessed Houdini's act of escaping handcuffs, but thought they must be faked. So Beck challenged Houdini to escape from some handcuffs that he would bring. The following night Beck brings with him three pairs of handcuffs and Houdini escapes from all three. That's the story we are all familiar with. It's the same story in Kenneth Silverman's bio on Houdini, and basically similar story to the Kalush Bio. In the William Kalush biography, The Secret Life of Houdini, he adds a story that took place before the Beck meeting which really had nothing to do with performing.

On March 14th, Houdini gets a telegram from Martin Beck in Chicago. The telegram says, "You can open Omaha, March 26th, at $60, will see act, probably make proposition for all next season." Houdini records in his journal "This wire changed my whole life's journey."

That's what we know to be the historical record of the day Houdini's life changed forever. However, there is something else, and I do not know if it happened before Beck's arrival or after. It could have even been the thing that lured Beck to the Palm Garden, that is IF it happened before. If it happened after the Beck encounter, then Houdini was making the most of this encounter by pulling out all the stops.

The St. Paul Globe Newspaper, March 7th, 1899 edition. This records an event that happened one week before Houdini got the telegram from Martin Beck. So somewhere in between is when likely when they met. Here is the story....

Houdini was performing at the Palm Garden, and part of his act was the challenge handcuff routine, where anyone can bring cuffs and he will escape from them. A member of the audience suggests he let the police try. So between acts, Houdini and the Manager of the Palm Garden head to the Central Police Station in St. Paul and ask Chief Schweitzer if they would challenge Houdini with a pair of their police cuffs. The Chief comes out with an unusual pair. According to the newspaper the Chief is quoted as saying "I'll fix him, I've got a pair that would defy Mephistopheles himself." They put the cuffs on Houdini and then add a more up to date pair of cuffs on him as well. Then Houdini is taken to another room to attempt his escape in private.

Two minutes later, Houdini came back into the room with the cuffs not only removed, but locked together. The locking together is a subtle way of showing that he didn't simply 'slip' the cuffs of his wrists, but rather had to open them in order to put lock them together. The feat made the newspaper.

To add to this, I checked the complete newspaper for a day or so before and after and the Palm Garden never ran any ads for Houdini's appearance. So this blurb on March 7th is the only recorded historical record of his St. Paul visit. As I mentioned before, if it happened before the Beck meeting, it could have been what drew Beck to the Palm Garden. If it happened after, then it was Houdini doing what he did best, getting publicity. And it's the last article that would be written on him before he went off under Martin Beck's direction.

*The Palm Garden was a type of indoor beer garden that became very popular in the 1890s. I don't know how many there were, but it appears that many major cities had one. Some of them offered entertainment, usually orchestras or smaller bands. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Man Who Changed Houdini's Life

Martin Beck was his name. He was a theatre impresario who ran the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit back in Houdini's time. Harry was playing some pretty awful places and needed a break. Beck saw Houdini do his act at a beer garden in St. Paul Minnesota. Beck thought the magic was crap but felt like there might be something to Houdini's ability to get out of handcuffs. Beck insisted Houdini go after that angle and drop the magic. After that point, Beck began to book Houdini and it changed his life and career forever.

Martin Beck recognized that the escape act had something that the magic act lacked. It had a sense of drama, danger, and grit. It was also unique whereas many performers were doing magic acts and doing the same tricks. Here was a guy who offered something that apparently no one else could do. History would show that others came before Houdini and of course many many more came after him. But Martin Beck recognized something special and took a risk with it. Houdini never let him down and put the escape act on the map.

Beck also built the very popular Palace Theatre in NYC. The Palace Theatre still exists today and still shows live performances. Houdini played the Palace Theatre many times.

Apparently Beck lost control of the theatre before it actually opened but he still did the booking for the theatre, for a while at least. Among the entertainers who appeared at the Palace there was;
Bob Hope, Houdini, The Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Sophie Tucker, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and many more.

Palace Theatre NYC Today
Martin Beck eventually built another theater in NYC which was called, The Martin Beck Theatre. At the time it was the only NYC theatre that was owned outright. In 2003, the theatre was renamed The Al Hirschfeld Theatre after the famous artist. Interestingly enough, Hirschfeld was also a friend of Houdini's.