Showing posts with label Popular Blogs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Popular Blogs. Show all posts

Saturday, December 29, 2012

David Bull, One of the True Masters of Magic

There is a magician who in my opinion is one of the great performers of the 20th and 21st century. But he is often overlooked and that is a shame. His name is David Bull, but you probably know him better by his stage name Le Grand David. He was the star of the Le Grand David Magic Show in Beverly Mass, along with Marco the Magi and a big cast of fantastic fellow performing artists.

The Le Grand David Show was the longest running resident magic show in the United States. They began back in 1977 and ran the show every year until June 2012. This fall was the first time in the history of the company that they did not return for a new season. The patriarch of the company, Cesareo Pelaez passed away in 2012 and it's clearly been hard on the members of the group. And frankly, they more than earned a break.

But it's David Bull I want to talk about. Here is a fellow who got into magic basically from a conversation he had with Cesareo. Now Cesareo would later become his mentor, but it's David who put in the hours and hours of practice and rehearsal to develop incredible magical skills. I think he's one of the best, if not THE best manipulator I've ever seen. His skill with Billiard Ball manipulation is breathtaking. But he's also just as adept at coin manipulation and dove productions and his Linking Ring skill is among the best there is. Then there is David's take on the Zombie Ball, I mean what can you say really, it's perfection.  He handles apparatus magic better than anyone out there and his skill as an illusionist is first rate. He does it all with a style that is rarely seen today.

I remember trying to put my finger on David's style a few years ago. I ran down the list of attributes and then it dawned on me, David exhibited from the stage pure confidence. Not arrogance, not a prideful or boastful attitude, just plain confidence and he was pleasant and friendly the entire time. There was also a playfulness about his on stage character at times and other times a seriousness to his performing. He commanded the stage when he was on it but could easily share the stage with fellow artists and performers and had no problem with letting their light shine as well.

As I mentioned, Cesareo Pelaez was David's magic mentor and he was also the creator of the show as well as director. I often wonder if Cesareo had someone in mind that he wanted David to be like when he was helping David along, or if he just showed David what tools he needed and let David himself shine. Ah, and there is the answer, Cesareo was letting David's personality shine on stage!

It appears that one chapter of the Le Grand David saga is over. I was fortunate to watch that first chapter unfold. A new chapter awaits. The pages are blank and I hope that David returns to the stage, along with his fellow artists and performers. Who knows what the future holds for them?  For over thirty years they did what countless others only dreamed of, they did miracles. I think whatever they decide to do, it will be enchanting!

Carnegie, David and Denise April 2012

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Upside Down x 2 or More- Reposted

Today, September 21, 2012 marks the 100th Anniversary of Houdini's most famous escape, The Water Torture Cell. The article below was originally posted to my blog on Jan 2, 2011 and I'm reposting it now for those that missed it. My take on this is that there were more than 2 Water Torture Cells.

I would encourage you also to go visit John Cox's fantabulous website because he has a fact filled article on the history of the Water Torture Cell right up till today,

I'm also researching a new lead for more information on this topic, so perhaps down the road I'll have some new information to share.

The USD or The Water Torture Cell or Houdini's Original Invention, whatever you call it, this is one of the most unique escape illusions in all of magic. It's also one of the most copied since the time of Houdini. Many performers have built their careers with this effect.

In the Patrick Culliton book 'Houdini-The Key' he mentions that there were two Water Torture Cells. This was something I had never known. But imagine my surprise when I heard recently that there were as many as four.  The person I heard this from said he sold the cell in the 1980s and so far the only thing I've turned up has been a fabricated mock-up and not an original cell. Being able to turn up proof of more than two Houdini cells has not worked out so well.

However, let's get back to the two cells that Pat mentioned. I think there is photographic proof of  two cells and if you look carefully in the following photos I'll point out why I think we are looking at two different Water Torture Cells.

This image is a classic. Houdini hanging in the  UP-SIDE-DOWN Water Torture Cell or USD, as he called it. Notice the stocks. Patrick Culliton points out in his book that the yale lock in the front of the stock was added for the photo. However, I don't think so. These are different foot stocks altogether. They are missing handles, they are missing the metal trim on the sides and they are even missing the four corner circles that were used to hook cables to raise the stocks and Houdini in the air.

Now look at the frame around the glass, specifically the rivets along the top. There are seven rivets and the two on the far right and far left are closer together. In every photo of the USD there are seven rivets along the top and bottom of the front framework. However, most of the the other photos of the USD the rivets are equally spaced along the top and bottom. But not here. Also, take note of the width of this USD. It appears wider than those in other photos. I think this is because originally Houdini had a cage placed in the USD and there needed to be a little extra room to move around. Take a good look at the next photo. You'll see the cage inside, I believe this is the same cell as in the first photo. But notice the difference in foot stocks in this photo as compared to the photo above. This cell is the same as the one in the above photo, the distance between the rivets helps to identify it as the same cell (look at the lower rivets as the upper ones are hardly visible in the photo)

Now check out this photo. I believe this photo was taken after the clean-up that John Gaughn did to the cell but prior to it's destruction in the fire of the Niagara Falls Museum. Notice the evenly spaced rivets along the top of the frame. Also notice that the glass in this photo is much narrower than the photos above. The glass is as wide as the cage in the upper photos. But in the cage photo the glass extends beyond the edges of the cage several inches. This cell to the right is the one that went into the Houdini museum in Niagara Falls and was later destroyed in the fire. The remnants of this USD were used to build the recreated cell that sits in David Copperfield's museum.

Next compare the foot stocks in the photo directly above and the color photo to the right. Specifically look at the space to the left and right of the handles on the stocks. You'll see in the upper photo the space is wider than the photo to the right. More proof the upper cell was a wider cell.

To me it's pretty strong photographic proof of two different cells, but trust me you've really got to stare at these things to see the differences. The two cell photos at the top are of Cell #1, the color cell photo is Cell#2.

Oh, if you are wondering what happened to the cages that went inside the Houdini USD, according to Sidney Radner (via John Cox's Site they were lost while in Henry Mueller's possession.

Patrick Culliton says that the second cell deteriorated in the backyard of Bess's sisters house. Though I honestly think the cell that deteriorated  was probably 'the first/wider/original'. Sid Radner received a later version of the cell. We know that Hardeen was considering rebuilding the second cell to train Sid but that cell would have to have been slightly larger to accomodate Hardeen. There is a famous photo of Hardeen and Sidney Radner standing next to the USD and they both dwarf this small cell.

But my mind does keep going back to the idea that there might have been more than two cells. I've certainly seen photos of at least three Houdini milk cans. So maybe there is a third Water Torture Cell out there somewhere. The next question is, what on earth does someone do with one of these things if it isn't being used or on display? I know Steve Baker's Water Torture Cell is gone. Who has it? No idea. It too was unique enough that if someone else performed with it it could be identified. Other people have performed the USD over the years with their own cells, are there just dozens of these things sitting in storage units all over the country???

Third Cell? Not this one, but I'll keep searching
The supposed third Water Torture Cell I was told about was sold to a museum in Nashville and later moved to Gatlinburg TN and still sits on display. However, the only USD I could turn up in Gatlinburg is this one at the Ripleys/Guinness Museum, and it's clearly not an original. (see side photo) Take a moment and read what is printed on the card that is stuck on the upper part of the cell. The last paragraph says "Although the exact history of this water torture cell is unknown, it was built in the early 1900s and is rumored to have been used by Houdini himself."

This WTC is even smaller in height than the others. The hardware on it is clearly modern. IF for some reason it was real, only the lower portion could be as the stocks are also very obviously made of modern plywood. I want to thank my friend Terry Evanswood for his help in searching this out and for taking the pictures.

Still, I'm holding out hope that a third one shows up someday as it would be almost like the holy grail of magic props.

If anyone knows the location of ANY Water Torture cell, original or otherwise, please let me know. If there is a third Houdini cell out there I'd love to find it. I'd also like to find what happened to Steve Baker's WTC. His cell was nearly 7ft tall when the stocks were put on. It was massive compared to Houdini's and I know it's been out of his possession since the early 1990s. And where is Doug Henning's WTC today? I know Brett Daniel's owned it for a time but I don't think he has it any more.

Any leads, please email me at

Now if you want to read MORE about Houdini's Water Torture Cell, please read this blog about the 'Two Torture Cells' which is different than what I covered.  visit 
I have a theory on this too that I may share eventually.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

New Twists on Houdini's Russian Tour

The historical record shows Houdini performed in Russia in 1903. In fact, he was appearing at the Yar Restaurant in Moscow, which was a very upscale establishment and some say the best restaurant in all of Europe and Russia at the time. His appearances here ran from May 4th-July 4th, 1903. For a panoramic view of the restored Yar Restaurant, click here.

Stage at Yar Restaurant
In addition to his Yar appearance, Houdini escaped from the Prison Transport Car during this visit, as well as numerous police restraints. None of this is new information.

But I came across something that was news, at least to me. It was a newspaper column called "The Inside Straight" by Michael MacDougall that appeared on April 18, 1954. Mr. MacDougall had a connection to magic, as he wrote several books on gambling and card technique. An earlier column, MacDougall describes some events in the lives of magicians that ended tragically. So I looked forward to the column he wrote on Houdini. He describes Houdini's visit to Russia in 1903 with detail that I'd never read before. First he says that Houdini was staying in the Grand Hotel while performing at the Imperial Theatre, both of these are in St. Petersburg. Houdini received a request to perform before the Czar and this performance could make or break his visit. If the Czar was not impressed, Houdini's contracts would quickly vanish.

This fear of loosing the contracts was also mentioned in a 1931 Omaha World Herald (2-7-31)  article about Ike Rose, who claims to have been the person who booked this tour for Houdini. Though his fear was more about Houdini getting stuck in one of the jails, more than having the Czar kick him out of the country for being no good. For the record, The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush says that Harry Day booked all of the Russian dates. Interesting contradiction here, though I suppose it's possible that Day worked for Ike Rose or vice versa.

So back to the appearance before the Czar. This story is one also confirmed by Orson Welles, who claimed that Houdini was one of his early magic teachers. It's the story of Houdini's incredible feat of causing a bell to ring in an old cathedral in Moscow. The 500 lbs clapper to the bell had mysteriously fallen from the bell twenty years before and killed 100 worshipers and injured even more. The Czar himself barely escaped with his life. The bell had never rung since that time due to a decree by the Czar that no repairs be done and that the bell was to never again make a sound.

On this day, Houdini had planned on causing the bell to ring via magic. He just needed the Czar to agree to the stunt. The mysterious bell ringing is described in good detail in the Kalush biography, but suffice to say, that Houdini did apparently cause the bell to ring 5 times at the stroke of 5 p.m.. The royal members were impressed. But there are some differences between the Kalush account and the MacDougall account. In the Kalush biography, Houdini presented this for Grand Duke Sergius at the Kleinmichel Palace in Moscow and Houdini was to shoot the bells of the Kremlin. Except, Kleinmichel Palace is actually in St. Petersburg and the Kremlin is very far away in Moscow. So there is no chance he shot the bells of the Kremlin. In the MacDougall version, Houdini is presenting the effect for Czar Nicholas and is indeed in Moscow. To further confound the issue, there were two Grand Dukes named Sergius. One was Grand Duke Sergius Alexandrovich of Moscow and the other was Grand Duke Sergius Mikhailovich of St. Petersburg.

Grand Duke Mikhailovich, Grand Duke Alexandrovich, Czar Nicholas II
The MacDougall version of the story also has an ending I had not heard before. Moments after the bell rang, the Czar expressed his astonishment to Houdini, but another member of the party accused Houdini of performing 'a trick'. A short time later another booming sound was heard, much louder than the ringing of the bell. All attention went to the bell tower, where they could hear and see unusual movement of the building and then, the bell broke loose and crashed to the ground. According to the story, Houdini took credit for that as well. The article goes on to say that the newspapers of the time covered the events of that evening. But I don't have access to Russian newspapers, so I don't know how much is accurate and how much is Houdini embellishment. If I had to guess though on the person Houdini presented this for, I'm going to go with Grand Duke Sergius Mikhailovich of St. Petersburg.

I found all of this quite interesting. But there was something else. Perhaps even more interesting than the whole Bell Ringing affair. Houdini did not begin his performance with the Bell Ringing, that was his conclusion. What he apparently opened with was the 'Infamous Bullet Catch' routine. What? The Bullet catch? Wasn't it the Dean of Magicians himself, Harry Kellar who once warned Houdini NOT to present the bullet catch because of how dangerous it was? Indeed.

Houdini had apparently presented the bullet catch, not once but numerous times during his career. John Cox at WildAboutHoudini has a great piece on the history of Houdini's Bullet Catch, though it does not mention the Russian incident.

According to the article, Houdini gave the Czar a repeater rifle and had him mark a bullet and load it into the weapon. The gun was handed to a marksman, who took aim at Houdini's head and pulled the trigger. Houdini swiftly reached out with his hand and apparently grasped the speeding bullet out of mid-air. The still hot bullet was checked and confirmed that it was the marked bullet.  But it didn't stop there, as the Czar wanted Houdini to repeat the effect. This time, the conditions were tougher and the Czar himself fired the rifle at Houdini. But just as before, Houdini caught the marked bullet!

Have you heard this story before? I'm unfamiliar with it and certainly do not recall hearing of the Bullet Catch being performed in Russia. The bullet catch comes from a single source, so it's hard to say where he got it. He may have heard it directly from Houdini while he was alive. Still, it does give yet another example of Houdini possibly presenting the dangerous effect. Houdini was all about danger, or pseudo danger, so it always seemed odd to me that he didn't do the bullet catch, and now, well it appears that apparently he did.

Check out this related blog article:  Rasputin and Houdini!

Thanks to John Cox at for the photo of the Houdini Russian flyer.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Searching for Miss Daisy

Adrienne Barbeau as Daisy White
The first time I heard the name Daisy White was while watching the Houdini movie staring Paul Michael Glaser. Adrienne Barbaeu played the part of Daisy White and in the movie she worked for Hardeen in his show and then later shacked up with Houdini while he was struggling over the death of his mother. This of course is the fictionalized movie version of things. As easy as it is to become enamored with Adrienne Barbeau's portrayal of Daisy, I didn't give Daisy much thought beyond that.

Then I came across this statement "Houdini only ever loved two women, his mother and Daisy White." That's quite an eye opening statement especially given the way the legend of Houdini has been portrayed. By the way, that statement came from Maurice Zolotow, who was a show business biographer. His statement was from a review he wrote in the NY Times for the book HOUDINI: The Untold Story. By Milbourne Christopher.  Needless to say, that was all it took to cement my curiosity and send me on the search for the actual story.

Daisy White
Truth be told there was a real Daisy White. Her name was Gertrude Nickerson* and my research so far shows she was from Middlesex Massachusetts. She apparently got involved in musical theatre or musical comedy, probably in Vaudeville. How she got into magic initially is a bit of a mystery. She apparently worked for Servais LeRoy at some point, most likely in the 1920s. Whaley's Who's Who says that she learned magic as an assistant to Frank DuCrot and then later became a demonstrator at Martinka's Magic Shop (actually Hornmann's at the time). It's unclear though her actual path into magic as several sources give different accounts.

There are a couple interesting stories about her work at Hornmann's Magic Shop. At this time the shop was located over on West 34st St in NYC. One day Max Malini walked into the shop. There were a number of other magicians around and Daisy was working behind the counter. Max walked up to Daisy and grabbed some of her red hair and with a pair of scissors cut off the handful of her hair. The clump of hair was then vanished and her hair was found to be perfectly restored!

Another story involved a young John Scarne coming into to the shop to meet Frank DuCrot of magic lessons. Daisy was there and introduced herself and kept Scarne company until Frank arrived. No one know Scarne at the time. Frank Ducrot and John Scarne went in the back room to start their lesson and John was a little unimpressed with the technique that Frank was teaching with cards. He asked if he could learn something other than cards and Ducrot, somewhat puzzled asked if he didn't like card tricks? Scarne said he already learned a lot from professional card mechanics and proceeded to show Frank Ducrot a number of mind numbing effects. Frank was so blown away he called Daisy to the back room and they both sat there for hours watching John Scarne do effect after effect. Ducrot told Scarne that he needed to meet Houdini, and he set up a meeting for them to meet. The night of the meeting, which was also at the shop, a number of magicians were there and they all went to the back room. Frank wouldn't let Daisy come in the back though, he made her stay at the front in case any customers showed up. Typical boys club attitude.

By all accounts Daisy White exuded sex appeal, though I'm sure they didn't call it that back then. She had a habit of wearing low necked dresses and was known to lean over the counters at the magic shop while doing demonstrations revealing her ample cleavage to the customers and no doubt selling all the inventory they had! The latest book on Houdini, Masters of Mystery by Christopher Sandford, has this description of Daisy, "...Houdini's voluptuous former assistant Daisy White, whose duties had sometimes called for her to parade up and down the stage in an overfull dress while the illusionist prepared his next trick in the background." So she apparently worked for Houdini as well.

Beyond her sexy figure, Daisy was a talented individual. She was an accomplished pianist and often played piano for shows put on by the SAM Parent Assembly. She was quite active in the Parent Assembly having helped put together ladies nights and worked on decorating the banquets. In the 1930s, she was involved in a court case in which a member of the Parent Assembly acted as her lawyer.

Back in the 1920s, Guy Jarrett the eccentric illusion designer, hired Frank DuCrot to present a collection of Jarrett's illusions at the Idle Hour Playhouse in NY. Daisy White was the assistant. It appears the show played a single date. But the unique illusions of Jarrett's were photographed with Daisy White in them. These photos later appeared in the pages of his incredible and controversial book on illusion magic simply titled, JARRETT.  He referred to Daisy as '118 lbs but with quite some gazangas'.

Houdini died unexpectedly in 1926.  After his death, his ever faithful wife discovered a safe in the basement containing love letters from women who had fallen for her husband over the years. Among these were some rather hot and heavy letters that came from Daisy White. Bess had a clever way of confronting the women. She invited them over her house for lunch and as they were leaving, she handed each one of them their letters back tied up nicely with a ribbon. It's unclear if Daisy was one of the invited ones. The confrontation with Daisy however seems to have been more personal. Daisy convinced Bess that nothing happened between her and Harry. This must have been the case because Daisy and Mrs. Houdini remained friends.

I had read in a number of biographies that Bess opened a tea room called 'Mrs. Houdini's Rendevous' in NYC for a period of time. The location of which was where Rockefeller Center is today. The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush, mentions a 'speakeasy' which was run by both Bess and Daisy White. From 1920-1933 serving alcohol was illegal in the U.S.. A 'speakeasy' was an illegal barroom. The Secret Life of Houdini goes one step further referring to the speakeasy as a brothel. This information apparently from Arthur LeRoy, but Patrick Culliton thinks and I agree, that this was a 'mischaracterization' referring to the speakeasy as a brothel. I don't honestly know if the tea room and the speakeasy were one in the same. The tea room apparently made no money because Bess wouldn't allow down on their luck performers to pay. But a speakeasy, well I can't imagine that going out of business during prohibition unless they were shut down by the authorities. No record exists of Bess or Daisy going to jail, as far as i could find, so that's not likely. It will remain an open question until I can dig further.

Next, Arthur Ford enters the picture. He was the Reverend of the First Spiritualist Church in NY. He befriended Daisy White. His charismatic charm won over Daisy and she became a spiritualist and even joined his church. On page 149 of The Houdini Code Mystery by William Rauscher there is a photo of an invitation card for a lecture being presented at Carnegie Hall by Daisy White which reads "You are cordially invited to attend a private demonstration given by courtesy of Miss Daisy White to expose the comparative virtues of Modern Magic, Mind Reading and Spiritualism". The date on the card was April 1929.

Arthur Ford apparently also won over Bess Houdini. Both The Secret Life of Houdini and The Houdini Code Mystery say that Bess & Ford were dating, though very discretely. They met after a lecture/debate on Spiritualism between Howard Thurston and Arthur Ford in which Ford easily won the debate. On February 8th of 1928, Ford gives Bess a message from Houdini's mother. Eleven months later, Ford, through his spirit contact Fletcher, produces a message from Houdini himself. Bess announced to the media it was the authentic and genuine message that she and her late husband had agreed upon.

Then all hell broke loose. The media began debunking the whole affair. Dunninger, the mentalist, got involved and pointed a finger at Daisy White saying she gave the information to Ford. One source said Daisy claimed she knew the code, as did a lot of magicians, but she did not know what the 'message was'. The United Press story that appeared in newspapers of the time said that Daisy knew Arthur Ford but "never discussed Houdini 'in that quarter or never had said she had got Houdini's code before his death." Ford also denied that Daisy had anything to do with it. However, The Secret Life of Houdini says "when some of Houdini's friends threatened to expose Daisy White's involvement, she threatened to go public with her sexual relationship with Houdini and she had 'one or more witnesses' ready to vouch for her story." Which was it really? Did she know the code? Did she give it to Ford? Did she have the affair with Houdini after-all?

To those questions, I don't have concrete answers. It's clear that history has revealed Houdini to be NOT the ultra-conservative straight laced individual that his biographers had painted him to be. Did he actually cheat on Bess or did he just have close relationships with other women? Hard to say. It's so easy to want to paint him into a modern day box and apply the loose standards of today to Houdini. Then again, there is the old saying 'boys will be boys'. We know he had some sort of relationship with other women, and pretty good chance with Daisy White as well. But beyond that we can only speculate.

Sometime in 1933 she was getting work as a numerologist. She had a business card that read 'Science of Sex and Numbers'. As I mentioned above, she gets involved in a court case over her mother's estate in Massachusetts. She eventually was awarded one half of the estate. Then after that Daisy vanishes from the magic literature.

I've been trying to track Daisy through and if I have the correct person, I think she died on August 6, 1993 in Athens TN, but I'm not 100% on that**. There are a number of Gertrude Nickersons and this one is the one who matches Daisy the closest, but I need further confirmation. (see note below)

That my friends is all I could find on the infamous Daisy White, so far at least. I'm going to ask a special request to my fellow magic historians. If anyone knows anything about Daisy White that I didn't cover, OR if you have photographs you'd be willing to share, please contact me at
I'm going to continue the research on Ms. White and eventually hope to be able to write a much longer piece on Daisy.

*This blog has been an exciting one and new information just came in regarding Daisy White's actual name. It's from a newspaper, so I still need to verify it, but you can read it in the comments below by Bill Mullins. Very thankful for the input by others!

** As I feared the information on Daisy's death is incorrect. Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls by William Gresham, published in 1959 says that Daisy had already passed on though they do not give a date. So she died prior to 1959. The hunt continues.

Special Thanks to Joseph Pecore, The Conjuring Arts Research Library, Ask Alexander, Patrick Culliton, John Cox and others who shared their knowledge of Daisy White. Also extra special Thank You to Patrick Culliton for allowing me to use his photo of the real Daisy standing (upper left).

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Tracking the Body of Houdini

Grace Hospital Detroit (Library of Congress photo)
With the recent controversy and chatter over the History Channels DECODED Episode regarding HOW Houdini Died, I thought I'd go in a slightly different direction and follow his body after his passing. We know Houdini died on October 31, 1926 in Detroit Michigan. What follows is a description of the events following his death right up until his burial. There are photos of the various places his body stopped along the way and the article concludes with the short 20 second recording of the Houdini Funeral.

DETROIT Oct 31, 1926
Wm. R. Hamilton Funeral Home
He died at 1:26 p.m. in Room 401 at Grace Hospital in Detroit. From there his body would have gone to the hospital morgue and then to Wm. R. Hamilton's Funeral Home on 3957 Cass St. The photo here shows the white house which was the original building for the funeral home and is where Houdini's body would have been. There is a larger brick building connected to it on the left but this was not completed until the 1930s. This is where Houdini was embalmed by John Fraser, one of the employees at the funeral home.

While this was happening the Houdini Show and all it's props and equipment were being crated and shipped back to NY. However, oddly, one piece did not make the trip. It was a bronze coffin with a glass lid which Houdini had intended to use for a buried alive stunt during the 1926-27 Tour. After the embalming at Wm.R. Hamilton's Funeral Home his body was put into this coffin and then into the crate for the coffin. Houdini's body now fully crated was taken by truck to the Michigan Central Station. An extra Pullman Car had to be added to the train for Houdini's casket and for his family to travel back home.

Newspaper accounts of the time report the body leaving Detroit on the 1st to arrive on the 2nd in the morning at Grand Central Station in NYC. In the photo (left), you can see the crate containing the casket with Houdini's body. One thing I never noticed before was the fellow standing on the far left hand side with his hat in his hand. That is Servais LeRoy, the illusionist and friend of Houdini. In fact, hundreds of people were at the station to see the casket arrive. Houdini had been the President of the Society of American Magicians as well as one of the most famous and beloved entertainers in the world, his death came as a shock to everyone.

Location of West End Funeral Home W 91st
Upon arrival at Grand Central Station, the casket was taken by Samuel Rothschild to his West End Funeral Chapel, 200 West 91st Street. The casket was to remain in state at the funeral parlor until November 4th. There had been talk of having the casket lie in state at the Hippodrome Theatre but this did not happen.
A letter Houdini had written several years before was discovered outlining the details of his funeral and they followed his instructions. Per Houdini's wishes the funeral would take place at the Elks Clubhouse Lodge No.1 in NYC. According to news reports, thousands of people came by to pay their respects at the funeral parlor.  By the way, the photo to the above/right shows the location of the West End Funeral Chapel, but today it is the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel.

On the morning of November 4th, 1926, the casket made it's second to last stop, this time the Elks Clubhouse on West 43rd near Broadway. It took three cars to move all the flowers from the funeral parlor to the Elks Clubhouse. Houdini would have been proud as the room was packed  for  his funeral. Close to two thousand people showed up for the service.

The service began at 10:30 a.m. and was officiated by Rabbi Bernard Drachman and Rabbi B.A. Tintner. Eulogies and remembrances were given by numerous fraternal groups, magicians and others in the theatrical community. The very first Broken Wand Ceremony was conducted by a member of the Society of American Magicians. This is where a magician breaks a wand to signify that the magic of the deceased individual has ended. It's a great ceremony, but I'm actually not sure how fitting it was for Houdini as his magic kinda continued on, even till today.

Kenneth Silverman's book HOUDINI!!! says that Bess held up well until the casket was sealed at which point she broke down in tears. Incidentally, the casket that Houdini's body traveled in from Detroit to NYC was actually a bronze casket liner. It was placed inside a larger casket and the entire thing hermetically sealed before it was carried out to the hearse. Houdini's male assistants acted as the pallbearers, with some very notable individuals being listed as honorary pallbearers; Martin Beck, his former manager and theatrical impresario, Bernard Gimbel, one of the originators of the Gimbels Dept. Store, William Morris, of the famed entertainment agency,  and Adolph Zucker, a film mogul who started Famous Players Film Company which eventually became Paramount Pictures. These were just a few of the high profile names listed as honorary pallbearers.

As the casket was carried to the hearse, the mourners could see for the first time that the streets were jammed with 2,000 spectators who had all come out to say their last goodbye to the master of mystery.

Houdini Funeral Procession
According to The Secret Life of Houdini, the funeral procession to Macapelah Cemetery contained twenty five vehicles.  How long it took to travel from the Elks Clubhouse to the cemetery, I do not know. Silverman's book HOUDINI!!! says that the funeral procession was scheduled to drive through the theatrical district before heading to the cemetery.

Finally at the cemetery, the two rabbis were present at the grave site as well as Houdini's family and widow Bess and one hundred+ mourners. Houdini made it clear in his final burial instructions that he was to be placed next to his mother. After the final words and prayers were given by the rabbis, the casket was lowered into the ground. According to the Silverman biography, Theo Weiss, Harry's brother tossed a flower onto the lowering casket and as if my magic a shower of flowers were tossed by the grieving graveside friends. This can be seen on the longer 1 minute plus footage of the Houdini Funeral, but I've only seen the shorter video (below).

Below is a short 20 second video of footage from the Houdini Funeral. It's obviously second or third generation because of the poor quality.
RIP Houdini

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Pendragon Legend

Once upon time...There were two wizards who captivated the world. Their magic spell astounded young and old alike. With magic that was ancient and new all at the same time they grew in fame and fortune. Then tragedy struck and it was all gone. They were the Pendragons.

Jonathan and Charlotte Pendragon ruled over Grand Illusion for thirty some odd years. Jonathan is even credited with reviving the term 'Grand Illusion'. When I was just learning my craft they were already established. They were the first couple of magic. There was no one out there like them. Everyone, and I mean everyone, from amateur to professionals wanted their magic.  Teenagers would fight and argue over how to do the Pendragon Sub Trunk as fast as they did. David Copperfield, asked and eventually got permission to use Jonathan's handling of the cloth during the sub trunk exchange.

I only met them once. It was at a convention in Washington D.C.. I had tried to hire them to do a lecture after the convention, but the price their manager was asking was far more than our little club could handle. But I did still meet them, and helped them unload their props. Unfortunately, it wasn't long before I was pushed aside by the crowd of fans and fellow magi and that was the end of my meeting with them.

I learned a lot about illusion magic from Jonathan. His writings that appeared in Genii Magazine were some of the most brilliant things I had ever read. Every time a Pendragon issue would come out, I would devour it, and read it over and over. Jonathan was an illusion magic genius. His thoughts and philosophies on magic were so profound to me. Sadly, his act was fodder for lesser performers who would steal his creations, techniques and even complete routines without any acknowledgement of their creator.

The Pendragons idea for an act began with three tired old illusions: The Sub-Trunk, The Sword Basket, and the Broom Suspension. The sub-trunk dates back to Houdini and the trunk trick itself dates back to Maskelyne, though not with substitution effect that Houdini added. The suspension was the creation of Robert-Houdin and the sword basket, I'm not sure of it's origins. But by the time that Jonathan and Charlotte got hold of them, they were worn out old tricks. The idea of building an act on those three things was crazy.

360 Levitation
So what did they do? They built an act on those three things! They added touches to each routine, changes and alterations to take them from standard tricks to something different. Because of the athletic abilities they both shared, they were able to add elements into the routines that no act before had ever considered let alone tried. The end result was a spectacular act and what really amounts to an education in stage magic on how to approach your art.

They had plenty of historical moments. Probably the one that is brought up the most is the In Search of Houdini Special. This was hosted by William Shatner and featured a lot of guest performers. The Pendragons were on to do a recreation of Houdini's Subtrunk, using the original trunk I think, or at least one like Houdini's (steamer trunk). They went through the routine as Harry and Bess would have in around 4 seconds. Then, they repeated the trick, this time with their own trunk and their modern presentation. With lightning speed, Charlotte seemed to turn into Jonathan! Then Jonathan opened the trunk and as Charlotte began to stand up, she stopped and inched back down. On LIVE TV she had a costume malfunction, and was unable to get out of the box. It was funny for all watching and probably a little embarrassing for the Pendragons. It was certainly not something that stopped them or slowed them down. They handled the situation gracefully and professionally. I'm not sure anyone would have known had it not been for William Shatner pointing it out.

Clearly Impossible by the Pendragons
Over the years, they introduced illusion after illusion with interesting twists or presentations. On TV in England they debuted a Jim Steinmeyer illusion called 'Permeability', which they called INTERLUDE. Everyone and their brother soon got one and copied their presentation. They performed a Cage Production Illusion with fire and soon everyone was doing it. They introduced on a Disney Magic TV Special a clever 360 Degree Levitation and later they came out with a Sawing in Half Illusion that had clear plexiglass boxes to contain Charlotte. They called it 'Clearly Impossible'. And that was getting ripped off. Clever illusionists and illusion creators are no strangers to theft. It's been happening for 100 years but it's still wrong.

All that is gone now. The Pendragons faced some personal issues, some of which were covered in the press and much of which was not. I've got no comment, it's their business and no one else's. They have gone their separate ways. The Pendragons are no more. Charlotte has created an act of her own, which I think is a mix of illusion magic and stage magic. I've not seen it so I don't know exactly what is in her act. But I wish the very best for her and hope she meets with huge success.

Jonathan is still doing magic, though not the physical kind anymore. His act is more cerebral and shows a different side of his character. But from what I hear, Jonathan is slowly getting pulled back into illusions. So perhaps, we'll yet see a new type of Pendragon Grand Illusion grace the stages of the world that we can be inspired by. And hopefully, the magic world will look at him and learn that even with the greatest obstacles in front of you, it's possible to overcome and come out better and brighter.

Finally, watch this video of the Pendragons at the height of their career. They were incredible!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mystery Houdini Handcuff

I came across this article dated May 7, 1908 in which the photo above appears. I can't exactly recall seeing this particular cuff before. I've scoured the Houdini books and searched through a number of handcuff related sites and I've come up empty.

The handcuffs were a special creation specifically designed to challenge Houdini. They were designed by Captain Edward Bean, the original creator of the Bean Giant Handcuffs. This is the name given in the article, but at least two of the Houdini biographies say the creator of the Bean Giants was Captain Charles Bean. I'm settling with Captain Edward Bean because has the name as Captain E. Bean and those guys know their stuff.

According to the newspaper account, "the new cuffs look like an oxen yoke, are a foot long and weight ten pounds, and were designed to succeed the 'giants' as the best made handcuff...There is a separate key for each side, with the locks particularly inaccessible to the persons reach who has them on."  The newspaper refers to them as 'Trick Handcuffs' in the title, but there is no indication that they were actually 'tricked or gaffed' rather they were made to 'trick' Houdini.

Unfortunately for history, this seems to be Houdini's final night of a run in Boston. I can't locate a newspaper account for the following day which describes the nights challenge. Though, we can assume that Houdini freed himself or that surely would have been written up in a lot of newspapers. The next newspaper which carries news on Houdini is three days later and he is in Pennsylvania at that time.

The Bean Giants Handcuffs were once thought to be the toughest handcuff out there. Captain Bean offered an award to anyone who could get out of the handcuffs. Houdini took on the challenge and won, to the amazement of Captain Bean.

Captain Edward Bean invented the Bean Giants (1887), Bean Patrolman Cuffs(1882), Bean Prison Cuffs (1882) and a variant of the Bean design known as the Bean-Cobb was invented by Lyman Cobb in 1899.

The photo to the left shows Houdini with a number of different handcuffs on. The pair closest to his body are Bean-Cobbs, a popular handcuff with Houdini. I can't quite make it out but I think there might be a pair of Bean Patrolman cuffs in that mix as well, or it could just be another pair of Bean-Cobbs.

The famous Houdini handcuff poster below has Houdini wearing all sorts of interesting cuffs. He has on one pair of Bean Giant cuffs and  a pair of the Bean-Cobbs. The Bean Giants are on the right hand column at the top, the Bean-Cobbs are in the center image in the same location as the photo, closest to his body.

If anyone has information on the Mystery Bean Cuff shown at the top of the page, please let me know either in the remarks below or by email

UPDATE: The cuffs were being discussed over at Bruce Thomson said "Is it just me, or do they seem to look like the cuffs in the poster for the Russian carette, which look like two huge cans of soup under the bow arms. Closest image I can find." They sure resemble the cuffs in that picture except that challenge was 1904, and these unusual Bean cuffs were introduced in 1908. 

Next Steve Santini offered this "Contain a "Scandinavian" padlock type mechanism comprised of rotating discs. In fact, they are actually scaled up padlocks with solid cast lock bodies and connector. Currently, they reside in David Copperfield's collection." And then he added "I think it highly unlikely Bean made these. They were more likely made by one of makers of the Scandinavian padlocks like Star or Climax or even perhaps Romer." 

I'm only going by what the newspaper article says "They were designed and made by Capt Edward Bean, formerly of the Chelsea Police force and a captain in the Civil War. He is 70 years old and has the distinction of inventing the original 'giant handcuffs' of which Houdini says 'The 'giant handcuffs are acknowledged the best made and hardest cuffs to get out of in the world.'"

That being said, it's still very possible that they were made by someone else as Steve suggests and the whole challenge orchestrated by Houdini. It would not be the first time he orchestrated a challenge! 
I greatly appreciate the help and knowledge offered by Steve Santini in locating and giving more information on this very strange looking handcuff.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Houdini Outdoes David Copperfield, What?!

David Copperfield about to make 13 audience members vanish!
David Copperfield is the best known illusionist in the world. He was recently crowned King of Magic, and it's hard to dispute that title. He has been doing an illusion in his show that I think is called '13'. I believe it was created by Alain Choquette and it begins by selecting 13 people at random from the audience. They are brought up on stage where they all sit on chairs that are on a raised platform. A small curtain goes around the raised platform and suddenly they are gone!

I've seen it. It's great, like most of the things David Copperfield does. However, I was totally taken back when I read an article from a newspaper dated Feb 3, 1918. The headline read:


At first I thought it was just an article using Houdini's name, but not about him. However, I read the article and what a surprise it was. It turns out that the American Society of Civil Engineers was in NY for a convention. While there, three hundred members of the Society went to see Houdini at the NY Hippodrome in the 'CHEER-UP!' Show. He was creating quite the sensation by making an elephant vanish on stage nightly.

The engineers had made arrangements for the dozen newly elected officers to go up and examine the box. Houdini then asked them while they were up there if they would step inside, along with the elephant. Lo and Behold, Houdini, that master of mystery, caused all 12 officers AND the elephant to disappear! Eighty years later, David Copperfield would be closing his show with the same effect....minus the elephant of course. David's illusion is cool, but Houdini did it first!

Now this blog was called Houdini Outdoes David Copperfield. But I thought it only fair to allow David to return the favor. You see, David now has one of the largest, if not the largest collection of rare historical magic props. Among his collection are Houdini's Subtrunk, WaterTorture Cell, Milk Can Escape and more. So Houdini would feel right at home at Copperfield's very unique Museum/Warehouse.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Houdini Straight Jacket History & More

(library of congress photo)
The escape from a straight jacket was original with Houdini. He claimed that he visited St. John Asylum in New Brunswick in 1896 and saw an inmate there struggling inside a straight jacket and this struggling gave him an idea for both an escape and the method. He also claimed to have asked a doctor for a jacket and worked on it for a week, no doubt practicing and improving his time. The Ken Silverman HOUDINI biography speculates that Houdini may have presented the straight jacket escape in New Brunswick theatres at that time.

In August 2011, John Cox wrote a great article on his blog WildAboutHarry, about an apparent dispute over that story being accurate. Harold Wright, a historian in New Brunswick claimed the story was a myth made up by Houdini. Interestingly, in the May 1918 issue of Ladies Home Journal, Houdini says that the asylum was actually in Europe. So perhaps, the story was indeed fictional. True or not, escaping from a straight jacket was a great idea and one Houdini profited from both financially and through publicity.

The first official straight jacket escape however took place in San Francisco not in front of a theatre audience but instead at a police station. He repeated the escape a few days later at a hospital. Both times he was placed in a private room to work his escape hidden from prying eyes.

When he added it to the stage show Houdini would be strapped in the straightjacket and then placed inside a curtained cabinet. My guess is he used the Metamorphosis cabinet to do the escape. Hidden from view, Houdini did his escape. I don't see any records that say Houdini's escape was boring or suspect. I would imagine like most things that Houdini did, the audience totally bought it. But his brother Dash was not so lucky. In 1904 at the Swansea Empire Theatre in Wales, Dash's attempt with the escape was met with skepticism. The audience challenged him to do it in the open, thinking that he had a hidden helper in the curtained cabinet who simply released him. Presenting it in the open would prevent any outside help. Dash repeated the escape and stunned the crowd. Somewhere there must be a letter or telegram from Dash alerting Houdini of the sensational discovery. One thing is for sure, Houdini too began doing the escape out in the open and left the curtained cabinet behind!

Another straight jacket perk that came out of England was the idea of hanging upside down while escaping. Except, the idea was not Harry's or Dash's, it was actually the idea of a young fellow by the name of Randolph Douglas, who chose the stage name Randini. Houdini and Randolph became friends and during a visit to Randolph's home in Sheffield, Houdini watched the young man demonstrate the hanging upside down escape from a framework in the attic of the house. Houdini's addition to the idea was doing it outdoors from a building, which you must admit was a pretty decent contribution. UPDATE: Turns out the previous paragraph might not be accurate. There was another performer who very well might have been doing the Upside Down Straight Jacket Escape prior to Houdini and Randolph Douglas. His name was Mysterio and was also known as The Great Alvin. You can read more about him here.

Over the years, Houdini accepted challenges from all sorts of straight jackets, and full body canvas devices. Some of the jackets were all leather, some were a combination of leather and canvas. One thing they all had in common, Houdini got out of each and every one of them. Then in 1918, he exposed his method (kindof) in the Ladies Home Journal. He claimed that he dislocated his shoulder in order to do the escape. But the truth was less dramatic. Dislocating a shoulder is not necessary, but it sure sounds exciting!

Houdini kept doing the straight jacket escape pretty much until the end of his career as far as I can tell. It's certainly an easy thing to travel with and the publicity he gained from hanging upside down from a building was priceless.

After Houdini died, other magicians began to add the straight jacket escape to their acts. Some even copied his upside down publicity idea. One of the first twists to the upside down part was setting the rope on fire. It was Alan Alan in the 1950s who added this unique change to the hanging straightjacket escape, though Alan gives the credit to fellow magician Keith Clark for the idea. Alan Alan may have been the first to present the escape hanging upside down from a helicopter. James Randi, later presented the upside down straight jacket escape from a helicopter in Venezuela and also hung upside down over Niagara Falls in a straight jacket!

In 1967 in Oakland California, a magician who was using the stage name 'The Great Gerhardt' hung upside down outside of the Tribune Tower Building. Forty four years earlier, Harry Houdini hung outside the same building to present the straight jacket escape. It took Houdini several minutes to get out. This young fellow, whose real name was Steve Baker, got out in under ten seconds before a crowd of 20,000 people. Like Houdini, the publicity gained was enormous. So influential was this one event, that Steve dropped the 'Gerhardt' name which he used because he was a comedy magician, and instead went with 'Mr. Escape'. The name 'Mr. Escape' actually came from the Steranko Issue of Genii. Steve talked to Jim Steranko and got his permission to use the name.

David Copperfield presented a hanging straight jacket escape on one of his specials also from a burning rope. His twist was to be suspended with three flaming ropes which would burn through one by one and to hang over flaming spikes! Lance Burton presented the hanging straight jacket escape a number of times on TV and in front of an audience during the dedication of the HOUDINI Postage Stamp and also escaped from a straight jacket while inside a very small water torture cell like device. Dean Gunnerson hung upside down by his feet with no ankle restraints over Hoover Dam and escaped from a straight jacket, yet another dangerous twist.

Then there are the comedy magicians who use the routine for laughs rather than as a genuine escape. The comedy for them is the driving force. I have seen comedy routines that are funny, even hysterically funny. But most use tired old lines and gags and seem more like a filler routine than anything. Once the person is inside, they are out in no time. Most of the comedy routines just miss, for me at least.

There are the lightning fast escapers. Again, not a fan of folks who get out lighting fast. Steve Baker got out in under 10 seconds and it kicked off his career as an escape artist. But honestly, though we are friends, I'm not on board with the speed aspect. I watched a video of Norman Bigelow getting out of a straight jacket recently. His approach was slow and steady and it genuinely appeared difficult. THAT is the way to do it. IF you can get out super fast, my first thought is, you weren't in it very well. And you can bet that lay people are probably thinking the same thing.

Maybe the best modern day hanging straight jacket escape was presented by Penn & Teller. Theirs has comedy in it, but they also have a great deal of suspense.

Teller is hung in the jacket while Penn holds onto the rope reading 'Casey at the Bat'. Teller has to free himself before Penn finishes reading otherwise Penn will let go of the rope. Penn reads faster and faster as the routine progresses. It is funny, but it also has incredible tension. Penn and Teller have made the trick their own.

Watching their performance doesn't make you think about Houdini, it makes you think about this poor lil guy getting out of the jacket before his crazy buddy drops him onto a bunch of spikes! It's a great routine.

Have you ever personally been inside a straight jacket? I'd guess that at least a few readers of this blog probably have, not because you're crazy but because you are probably magicians. The first straight jacket I wore was not a real straight jacket at all, but instead a large jacket with long sleeves that had the sleeve ends tied off with rope rope and then used the rest of the rope to wrap numerous times around the jacket. It simulated a straight jacket quite well. I was an adventurous and creative youth.

When I finally did encounter an actual straight jacket, it was a Posey brand canvas jacket, the real thing. It was also too small for me. A friend put me in it and I could hardly breath, that is how tight it was. If you know anything about straight jacket escapes, you'll know I've already broken a couple cardinal rules of getting out easily, too small of a jacket and putting it on super tight. For the first minute I just relished the thought of actually being in a straight jacket, it was really cool. Then I decided to attempt the escape. I can't say that I got out in 6 seconds like many so-called record breakers claim. It took me a couple minutes to free myself from a jacket that was way too small and way too tight. I was thrilled to have gotten out and frankly a bit relieved.

Years later I opted for a Steel Straight jacket. Mine is a reproduction of the one used in the Tony Curtis Houdini movie. In 2008, I presented the escape twice at the National Theatre in Washington D.C.. I was curious about the often quoted notion 'that modern audiences wouldn't sit through a long drawn out escape'. I decided to test the waters during the first performance. I struggled and struggled and struggled to get out of the steel jacket, sweat poured down my face, my shirt was ripped, I 'sold' that routine with every ounce of energy I had. Shocker, the audience sat for the entire thing and it really hit them hard. The second show, I did a more traditional presentation, getting out along with the recorded music background. Guess which one got the stronger reaction? The LONNNNG one! Oh, in case you're wondering, that is an air tight plastic box my head is locked in. I had to get out of that first, and then the jacket.

Today, the straight jacket escape has been way overdone. It's like the Zig-Zag Lady in the 1980s. Many magicians use jackets that are way too large. If you look like you are swimming in the jacket you've lost an important element in the appearance of being secure. Do a Google search for 'straight jacket escape' and look at the number of images of people you've never heard of doing the escape. IF that many people can do it, is it really hard?

I've written about the Straight jacket on one of my older blogs quite a bit. I have a love hate relationship with it. In Houdini's day, it was a fantastic escape. After Houdini died, most of us have just been doing a cheap imitation of his escape. The majority of people using a straight jacket escape in their act don't have a clue how to deliver a striking escape with it. Watch Houdini, if he was presenting it onstage he was rolling on the floor, gyrating around, he knew how to sell it! On the flip side, watch Tony Curtis's escape from a straight jacket while portraying Houdini. His escape goes in the opposite direction, very little movement, complete concentration, his is also quite engaging. David Copperfield used this very same technique when he was strapped in a straight jacket during his Escape From Alcatraz Special. Some people do know how to deliver a good escape, but they are in the minority.

Sadly, many presentations today are more about the crotch strap jokes and then getting out as fast as possible. Even hanging upside down doesn't seem to be as big a deal anymore. The thing that scares me about the abundance of people trying the hanging straight jacket is that it is legitimately dangerous* and people can and do get hurt.

A while ago I was thinking about the Pendragons, and how against all odds, when everyone was doing the Sub-trunk, Sword Basket and Broom Suspension, they took those three illusions and built a career on them by adding something unique to each routine. They were able to presentations that were so compelling that people associate those effects with them.  I wondered, what was missing with the regulation straight jacket escape? What had not been done? It appeared that everything had been done: on the stage, in the air, upside down, underwater, over spikes, you name it, and it's been done. Or at least I thought.

A few months ago I had an idea for a new approach. A new angle that hadn't been tried. I spoke to Steve Baker about it. He thought it was brilliant. I shared it with Norman Bigelow, who said it was 'new, fresh and different'. There are a few obstacles yet to overcome so I can't divulge what it is. But trust me, I'm working hard on it, time will tell if it pans out.

In the meantime, my hats off to my fellow performers who are using the jacket the way it was meant to be used, to bring thrills to an audience. The most recent one was Wayne Houchin, who presented the straight jacket while hanging upside down. He has done the escape before, and has a safety crew there to assist him, he is smart and careful.

I'm not sure Houdini would be proud of us though, because he didn't really like anyone doing his stuff. But he might be amazed to know one of his creations is still be used over 80 years after he left this earth.

Just because a lot of people have presented a hanging upside down straight jacket escape, doesn't mean YOU should. If you do, DO NOT go into it lightly. I know of a fellow in Memphis TN who fell while hanging upside down in a straight jacket. The doctors told him the only thing that saved him was the jacket still being on, but otherwise he should have died. He was lucky.

Alan Alan, the escape artist from England, has fallen while hanging upside down and been injured. He once came up with a crazy idea of setting the jacket itself on fire. He got hurt with that too!

I know of a fellow who tried to do the straight jacket escape in the heat of the summer with a jacket that was too small. He did not get out. He struggled so much he actually caused a rip in the thick canvas. He also could have seriously injured himself.

The straight jacket escape, hanging or not hanging can be dangerous. To think otherwise is foolish. Take every precaution while learning. Always have safety people standing by. To put yourself in serious danger is just plain stupid. You'd be better off learning from a professional who knows the ins and outs of the escape.

The worst thing about escapes is 'magicians' think they are easy. I can't tell you the number of stories I've heard about magicians who went into some escape trick thinking it would be sensational and easy and they were hurt or even killed. Hmmm, maybe that's why so many people use the straight jacket as a comedy routine, it's safer and you live longer! Maybe they are on to something after all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Hugo and the Real George Melies

The real George Melies
This week a wonderful new movie comes out called "HUGO" based on the book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznik. I first learned of the book from a fellow performer who raved about it. I decided to pick it up and read it and I too found the book to be fantastic. There were many elements about the book that fascinated me. For one, I was struck with how well the author had weaved a true story together with a fictional story. If you've not read the book, nor watched the movie, let me tell you about the true part of the book.

One of the main characters is a man named George Melies. He was quite real. He was born on December 8th, 1861 in Paris France. His father was a shoe maker and together with his two brothers he was trained in that business. He learned the craft of shoemaking while in London. It was also in London that young George Melies visited Maskelyne and Cooke's famous magic theatre. His desire to stay in the shoe business changed and magic became his new obsession.

He studied with the Parisian magic dealer Voison and eventually even started building his own apparatus and automaton. Then in 1888, the opportunity of a life time came. A little theatre went up for sale and George Melies left the shoe business for good to become a professional magician. Years before, Robert-Houdin made magic a popular form of sophisticated theatrical entertainment in Paris and this was followed by other great French magicians, like DeKolta and Felician Trewey.  The theatre that Melies bought was none other than the famous Robert-Houdin Theatre! He began to present magic shows in this historic location.

In 1895, Melies witnessed a demonstration of a new invention by the Lumiere Brothers called the Cinematographe. This was an early movie projector and Melies saw moving pictures for the first time. Though it must be pointed out that the very earliest movies were very short and were merely quick shots of a train pulling into a station, or people walking on a street. The early movies had no plot, no story, not what we think of today as movies. Melies saw the potential of this new invention and tried to purchase it from the Lumiere Brothers but they turned him down. Luckily for Melies, other people in Europe and abroad were working on similar inventions and after seeing another version of a projector in London, Melies created his own.

By 1896, he was making movies and not the boring kind. His movies were interesting. In fact, his early movies were recreations of his magic routines. 'The Vanishing Lady' was one such movie. This was based on DeKolta's famous illusion by the same name but Melies discovered that he could use the camera and the film to create the illusion rather than special props. This would become Melies great contribution. He created and discovered many special visual techniques and uses of animation that we would call today 'Special Effects'. Today he is known and revered in the Motion Picture community as The Father of Special Effects.

His most famous movie was called Le voyage dans la Lune or A Trip to the Moon which he made in 1902. This movie figures prominently in the HUGO movie by the way. A Trip to the Moon still exists today. Based on two stories by author Jules Verne, A Trip to the Moon was the first science fiction movie ever. Before the people who made Star Wars and Star Trek were ever born, Melies put out A Trip to the Moon. It was hugely successful. Unfortunately, it made money for just about everyone other than Melies. The movie was copied and shown without Melies permission. In America, Thomas Edison's film company was showing the film all across the country and making money off of it.

Melies made over 500 films in his lifetime. But despite his innovations and contributions to the industry, his film company went out of business in 1913. In the later years of his life, Melies worked at a booth in a train station selling toy trinkets and was bitter about his involvement in movies. It wasn't until the 1930's that people in the film community started to recognize Melies for his achievements and he was awarded the Legion of Honor award by none other than Louis Lumiere, one of the original Lumiere Brothers who first sparked Melies interest in movies.

George Melies was indeed a real person and many of the things mentioned above are in the movie. The fictional part of the movie of course is Hugo Cabret. Interestingly though, Hugo's one dream in life was to become a magician, but this point is not really mentioned in the movie. The biggest part of the movie is the mechanical man, the hand writing automaton. These actually did exist and are quite fascinating to see and if you'd like to see an authentic one, click here

George Melies died in Paris in 1938, and is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery along with other such notables as Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, and Marcel Marceau.

UPDATE: I just heard that HUGO the movie received 11 Oscar Nominations! I'll be pulling for HUGO this year!!!!Nominations include: Best Picture, Best Director, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing, Music (Best Original Score), Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay).  Just sorry none of the actors received nominations.

NEW UPDATE: I hadn't made this connection before, but here is another interesting bit of fact that connects to the movie. In the movie, Hugo's father dies in a museum fire along with the automaton. Well, in real life, Robert-Houdin's Hand Writing and Drawing Automaton was in Barnum's American Museum in NYC. That museum burnt to the ground and along with it, the Hand-Writing Automaton that was created by Robert-Houdin. This may have likely been another source of inspiration for the author.