Showing posts with label New York. Show all posts
Showing posts with label New York. Show all posts

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Houdini Picture Corporation

For some reason I used to get the Houdini Film Development Corporation and the Houdini Picture  Corporation confused. I guess I sort of thought they were one in the same, they were not. They were different and had different locations. The Film Dev. Corp was run out of a warehouse in New Jersey.
The Houdini Picture Corporation had a slightly more prestigious address in NYC.

The Picture Corp was located in the Candler Building on West 42nd Street. This is one of those rare addresses that still remains today. If you've been to NYC you might have been in this building or at least seen it because the ground floor is taken up with a huge McDonalds.

The Candler Building is a high rise that was build back in 1914. It sits right in Times Square and as mentioned, houses one of the busiest McDonald's in the country.

I don't know what floor Houdini's company was located though it's a good guess that it was NOT on the ground floor. Houdini had big plans for his Picture Corporation, but those plans never came together. The Houdini Picture Corporation only put out two films, The Man From Beyond and Haldane of the Secret Service. He had plans to put out other films but it never happened.

The movie business turned out to be a lot harder than Houdini first expected. In addition, seeing Houdini's feats on the big screen, were not quite the same to his audiences as watching him do his incredible escapes live! Still, he did produce two movies and often used his magic/escapes to promote the movies.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Tony Pastor's Theatre - 30 Days of Houdini

Tony Pastor was a theatre owner who helped to usher in the age of Vaudeville in America. In fact, he is known as the Father of Vaudeville. His theatre, just down the street from Hubers Dime Museum was located on 14th Street. It was actually in the very building that once housed Tammany Hall. 

Houdini worked at Tony Pastors very briefly in January of 1895. They were excited about the opportunity as it was a step up from the Dime Museums. The Houdinis, Harry and Bess, worked at Tony Pastor's for a week. According to the Kenneth Silverman biography on Houdini, they received the following 'glowing' endorsement from Mr. Pastor, "The Houdinis act as performed here I found satisfactory and interesting." I guess they should be happy they didn't stink up the place, lol.

Below is a photo showing the Tammany Hall building. If you look closely you'll see a theatre sign for the Olympic Theatre. This is the spot that Tony Pastor would lease for his 14th Street Theatre. This image is actually from AFTER Pastors was in that spot, but I wanted you to see the whole building. I believe the first theatre in that spot was the Germania theatre, and then Pastors and then the Olympic. Also, take a look at the building on the left hand side. This is an important building in the history of magic as well. This was the old Academy of Music building, the third Opera House in NYC. Many an old time magician performed there prior to Vaudeville. 

Now below, you can see the same spot occupied by Tony Pastors Theatre. The Houdini's actually performed at Tony Pastors more than once. Also of note, Tony Pastors is shown in the Tony Curtis HOUDINI Movie. 

Sadly, the Father of Vaudeville fell prey to the circuits that would open, Keiths and others. It was very difficult for him to compete. I was not aware at first, but Tony Pastor sang in his theatre at every show for years. He died August 26th, 1908 and the theatre was closed at that point. 
The building was torn down in 1927. Today that space is the location of the Consolidated Edison Building.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Hammerstein's Victoria and Rooftop Garden

Hammerstein's Victoria and Roof Garden. The Republic Theatre is to the left.
Houdini performed at Hammerstein's many times. I decided recently to try and dig up information on this historic location. I discovered that Hammerstein's Victoria opened in 1899 as a legit theatre. However, it did not have a single broadway hit, so in 1904 it was turned into a variety theatre and became the leading Vaudeville house in NYC until the Palace Theatre was built.

Hammerstein's was unique in that it had an indoor theatre and a roof top theatre that allowed for summer performances. Back at the turn of the century there was no air conditioning and the theatres would often close during the summer months.  Others that tried to remain open would get brutally hot inside. Hammerstein's Roof Garden encompassed the roof of his theatre and the Republic Theatre next door. Incidentally, Oscar Hammerstein built the Republic Theatre as well but leased it out.

The theatre was at the corner of West 42nd St. and 7th Avenue. During Matinees at Hammersteins the ticket prices were .25 and .50 cents. In the evenings the prices ranged from .25 cents to $1.00. There were around 1000 seats, and I'm not sure what the roof garden held. A few of the acts that graced the stages at Hammersteins include; Eva Fay (daughter of Anna Eva Fay), Mae West, W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, Eva Tanguay, Evelyn Nesbitt, the Four Cohans, and of course Houdini.

Location of Heidelberg Building
Hammerstein's plays an important roll in the career of Houdini. In 1912, Houdini was the headliner on the bill. Also on that same bill from Jan 29-Feb 3rd was comedy/satirist Will Rogers. A few months later in July 1912 Houdini was back. To promote his appearance he presented an outdoor escape. Reports say he was tied to the tower of the Heidelberg Building in Times Square. The New York Times says that after the escape he tossed the rope down to the crowd. However, other reports say he was placed in a straight jacket and hung upside down over the edge of the Heidelberg Building. He was going to repeat one of these stunts from the fire escape of the Victoria, but the police intervened. The Heidelberg Building stood at 1459 Broadway and was renamed the Crossroads Building and eventually torn down in 1984. Today the Times Square Tower stands in the same location. (see photo left) One other thing of note in regards to this stunt on the Heidelberg Building, the New York Times reported there was a movie camera there. Ifs this footage exists today, we would know for sure exactly what he did, and we'd also have more valuable film footage of Houdini.

Also in July 1912 (he must have been driving the police crazy) Houdini was using his overboard packing case escape from the East River to excite people about his appearances at Hammersteins Victoria. He also did the feat in the theatre. A previous act had a large tank of water in the theatre and Houdini used it to recreate the underwater packing escape, it was just as big a hit indoors as it was outdoors.

In 1914 Houdini debuted is Walking Through a Brick Wall Illusion at Hammersteins. There is an interesting write-up in Variety Newspaper July 18, 1914 that says "some of the acts here have worn out the welcome mat. Houdini, however, proves an exception to the rule, and this P.T. Barnum of vaudeville is still a factor." They were were referring to his brand new Walking Through a Brick Wall Illusion and even go on to report an incident that took place between Houdini and Brick Layers Union.
Apparently the union brick layers had taken issue with Houdini because he was using a 'dry brick' system on his brick wall, meaning there was no mortar. The brick layers challenged Houdini to allow them to use mortar on the wall and then see if he could pass through, they did and he did.

There are precious few photos of Houdini and his Brick Wall. I find it hard to believe that he did not create a poster for this. To my knowledge no poster exists for this nor the Vanishing Elephant. But unlike the Vanishing Elephant which was presented as part of another show, this was Houdini's appearance at the Hippodrome and it also wasn't the only place he performed the Walking Through a Brick Wall Illusion. So maybe out there somewhere is a Walking Through a Brick Wall poster! One can only hope.

Houdini must have been one of the last big named acts to play Hammersteins Victoria because in 1915 the theatre was torn down. The competition from the new Palace Theatre down the street was too much for them.

It was not easy locating Hammersteins today. For one, it's right near Times Square and I was very confused trying to figure out which building was which. But then I discovered a clue. In the photo at the top of the page you'll see Hammersteins sitting on the corner. Then to the left of Hammersteins is a smaller theatre called The Republic. Well, I know Hammerstein's was torn down in 1915. The Republic was renamed The New Victory Theatre. The New Victory, which once was the Republic Theatre and had part of the Roof Garden Theatre on it's rooftop is still there. Of course, after all this searching I found that the address was WEST 42nd St. and that would have been a big help at the start.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Houdini Speaks from the Dead!?

January 8th, 1929, eighty two years ago today, Houdini speaks to Bess for the first time since his death in 1926. He speaks, or apparently speaks through medium Arthur Ford of the First Spiritualist Church of New York at Bess's home on Payson Avenue with several witnesses present. Eleven months before on February 8th, 1928, Ford provided the first word from Houdini to Bess, 'Forgive'.

Bess Houdini's NY home on Payson Avenue
Now at just after noon on January 8th,  the curtains were drawn in Bess's living room and Arthur Ford went into a trance. His spirit guide Fletcher begins to speak and says that 'Houdini is here'. Using the code that Bess and Harry used in their mind reading act, a series of words are given which spelled out "Rosabelle, Believe". This is the agreed upon message! Houdini has spoken from the dead and finished with "Tell the world Sweetheart that Harry Houdini Lives and will prove it a thousand times!" and that ended the seance.

The only problem was between Bess being ill and doped up on medications and Ford having learned the code and the words previously, it was all a big fraud. Bess believed it though but later with help from friends, learned that she had been deceived.

She did say something interesting just two days after the seance. She issued a challenge of her own to her detractors. She claimed that there were two more messages in the same code that were stored in a bank vault. One of those messages is for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the other for Remegius Weiss of Philadelphia. "I consider it a fit challenge to ask the magicians and psychics who doubt the genuineness of my message to bring either or both of these through!". Suffice to say, those didn't come through, nor did Houdini speak from the dead a thousand times, like he said he would at the seance.

This bank was the Manufacturers Bank on Fifth Avenue and in the safety deposit box that Bess had there, it contained the envelope with her agreed upon message with Harry, plus two other envelopes as mentioned above.  The envelopes were never taken from the bank and shown to reporters. Bess's attorney claimed these never existed. Did they?

Many people have come out to denounce Arthur Ford and the seance. Early on it was Joseph Dunninger who showed Bess just how Ford could have learned the code. Dash Hardeen, Houdini's brother, said it was all nonsense from the start. The last person to really get involved in the 'Code Debate' was William Rauscher, minister, magician and literary executor to Arthur Ford. He put out a book called "The Houdini Code" which pretty much shows that it was all faked. 

Now here are a couple interesting things to add to the January 8th history lesson. January 8, 1898 was the day that Houdini made his debut as a Spiritualist Performer in Galena Kansas. He began by presenting his version of the Spirit Cabinet. He followed this with relaying messages from the dead to the theatre audience. And to add another dimension of strangeness of the 8th, the Reverend Arthur Ford was born on January 8th, 1896. It's also Elvis's birthday, but I'm not sure that has anything to do with it, lol.

Pretty weird though.. If that isn't strange enough, why not listen to the OTHER SIDE of the debate. This is the side that says, 'the detractors and the debunkers were lying'.  I'm not saying believe it, but it makes for interesting reading.

Do Spirits Return? IF they could, would they really want to? As for Houdini, if he did come back, he only did once and forgot the 1000 other times he mentioned! (hmmm, not like Houdini to do that)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Vanishing Elephant Anniversary

Happy Anniversary!!! Ninety Three Years ago today, Houdini presented the largest illusion known to man, the Vanishing Elephant! He did this on stage at the New York Hippodrome. No Camera Tricks, No video editing, no post production special effects and no sleight of hand either. Houdini made the Elephant Vanish! Or well, as some would have you believe he HID the elephant in a grand manner.

The elephant that Houdini used was said to have been the daughter of the famous P.T. Barnum elephant JUMBO. Houdini capitalized on this at every opportunity. He called the elephant JENNY, and had her wear a big blue ribbon around her neck as she came out. Houdini let the audience know that JENNY weighed over 10,000 lbs and then to prove her gentleness he gave her a kiss every show before making her vanish. Along with the kiss was a block of sugar!

This was a spectacular achievement and one Houdini needed to thank Charles Morritt* for, as Mr. Morritt actually came up with the method that Houdini used.

After a month of performing the effect Billboard Magazine reported that Houdini would soon make six elephants vanish, though this never came about. As with most things in magic, copyists sprung up and Houdini tried his best to stop them with lawsuits.  Magician Jean Hugard said that he actually created the Vanishing Elephant five years before Houdini and could prove it with newspaper clippings. Harry Blackstone Sr. also claimed the Vanishing Elephant as HIS original creation, not Houdini's.  I don't think either of them was involved in the lawsuit that Houdini brought however.

Houdini could have taken the trick on the road but he turned down all offers outside of NYC. Maybe because he was borrowing the elephant and didn't have one to travel with. Also, the idea of vanishing an elephant may have been a bit stronger than the actual illusion itself.

Yesterday I was commenting on John Cox's site about another Houdini topic and I mentioned I wondered why Houdini never had a poster for the Vanishing Elephant. It's a good question. And John said, 'well maybe he did and we just haven't found one yet'.

That got me thinking, what IF Houdini had a poster for the Vanishing Elephant. It stands to reason he would, afterall, he promoted other things like the Buried Alive that he rarely ever did. Given that this was the biggest illusion in the world, at that time, it makes sense that Houdini would have had a poster created.

The Vanishing Elephant was only performed in NYC. It was performed in 1918 at the Hippodrome for four months as part of a larger program called "Cheer Up". Then later it was presented at the Times Square Theatre in 1922 to promote one of his movies. Because the illusion was only presented in NYC, any posters that existed would have only been seen in NYC. Although, it would be a great poster to put in one of his theatre displays when he was doing his Three In One Show, so again, it's hard to say.

Despite Houdini's attempts to prevent others from doing the illusion, other magicians did and continue to.  Carter the Great presented a Vanishing Elephant Illusion and promoted it with a very beautiful poster. Kassner from Germany also presented a Vanishing Elephant Illusion and had a couple very striking elephant posters to promote his  illusion.

Milbourne Christopher, Mark Wilson, Doug Henning, Lance Burton, Harry Blackstone Jr., Siegfried and Roy and others have all presented the Vanishing Elephant Illusion, using a lot of different methods. As a publicity gathering stunt the Vanishing Elephant is quite good. As an actual trick, well that depends upon the method, some of which leave a lot to be desired.

Many years after Houdini had passed on another performer took the idea of making the largest thing ever disappear and he promoted it with posters and even a TV Special. That would be David Copperfield's Vanish of the Statue of Liberty. He performed it only once, but used it in his promotion for years (and probably still does)!

My burning question, have you ever HEARD anything about a Houdini Vanishing Elephant Poster? If so, please comment below. As John Cox pointed out to me, other unknown Houdini posters have shown up, so who knows, perhaps someone is sitting on a super rare one of a kind Houdini-Vanishing Elephant poster!? Well, we can hope at least.

*To learn more about Charles Morrit, click HERE

Monday, December 13, 2010

More Houdini's Real Magic

To dispell the rumor that Houdini wasn't a very good magician, I'm showcasing some of Houdini's greatest effects and posting videos of them being performed. Most of the videos are modern day performers doing the effects however. But this also goes to show the solid entertainment value in the routines and how they stand the test of time.

Walking Through a Brick Wall. This is clearly not an escape. For the time it's also more than a magic trick. It seems to be an impossible feat of super human ability. The brick wall is built on the stage by brick layers. Members of the audience check out the brick wall themselves to be sure it's legit.  The audience members stand in the back and around the sides. Houdini stands against one side of the wall and a partition or cover is placed over him and over the exact same area on the opposite side of the wall.
A short time later, Houdini steps out from the partition and is on the other side! Billboard Magazine said that the audience was often so spellbound that sat silent for two whole minutes, they were so astonished they forgot to applaud! This was one Houdini effect that warranted it's own poster but never got one.

The Walking Through a Brick Wall was not without controversy. Houdini purchased the rights to it from Sidney Josolyne. But P.T. Selbit claimed the trick was his and was stolen by Josolyne and Houdini. In "Houdini-The Key" by Patrick Culliton this story is brought to light in a way I've never heard before. It's fantastic. Regardless of the controversy, it's now history and Houdini did Walk Through A Brick Wall!

The video above of Walking Through A Brick Wall is done by the Spensers who are fantastic. However, it is VERY different from Houdini's version.  Both Doug Henning and David Copperfield presented versions of this effect on their TV Specials. Copperfield walked through the ultimate brick wall, The Great Wall of China.

The Vanishing Elephant. An incredible illusion that not many people saw, even those in the audience. But what a reputation maker! Houdini appeared in the newspapers with this elephant saying he would make it vanish on the enormous stage of the Hippodrome Theatre. The elephant stepped inside a very large box. The magic words were spoken (probably) and the front door and back door were opened to show that the elephant was GONE! From what I understand it was a killer effect if you were in the middle of the audience! The people on the sides were unable to see inside the box.

Since then, a number of methods have been developed to make an elephant vanish, but Houdini was the first. The video is of Doug Henning making an elephant vanish on Broadway. I think the best version was done by Siegfried and Roy and their method was created by Guy Jarrett.

As you can see, these effects made popular by Houdini, still hold up today. Magicians know the publicity value of these effects, which again shows that Houdini too knew which was why he used them. Still think he was a bad magician? More to come...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

When He Was Still A Weiss Boy

The Weiss family spent a lot of time moving. First Appleton Wisconsin, then Milwaukee, then NY and various places around town. One of the places the Weiss family lived in NYC was at 227 E. 75th St. According the Kenneth Silverman it was their first home here. He should know, he used to live right across the street! Though it would appear that the Silverman place is gone and tennis courts are now there.

If I have this correct it's the second floor of the orange building. However, I'm not 100% sure these are the original buildings. The structures look very similar but the original buildings each had sets of 4 windows across and these buildings have three. It could be that the outside of the buildings have been painted and this is what is causing the visual discrepancy.

I can tell you for sure this is the SPOT though, so this is where the Houdini family first lived when they were together in NY.

Houdini & Leopold Connecticut Residents

Houdini's House 278 W 113th St NYC

In 1905 Houdini purchased his brownstone in Harlem. He claimed it was the biggest and greatest home ever purchased by a magician. But he also purchased another property, a 7 acre farm on Webbs Hill Road in Stamford Ct. He used this as a summer retreat and apparently did quite a bit of entertaining there with Bess. The Silverman biography says there were buildings/structures, a garden, fields, even livestock. Search as I have, I haven't been able to find the actual physical address and thus show a photo of the house if it's still there. I have a picture of the road but no picture of the actual farm.

Dr. Leopold Weiss's House

Interestingly his brother Leopold, who he had a falling out with also lived in Connecticut. His brother purchased an estate in Ridgefield called Sunset Hall Estate. I'm wondering if the friction between the brothers wasn't over jealousy!!! Look at that house! Oh, and for the wealthy among us, here is great news, The Estate may still be for sale. I found a listing for Coldwell Bankers as well as this article about the estate, though the article is from 2007.

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.