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

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Young Houdini Photo and Family Photo

I am constantly amazed at just how many new photos of Houdini show up. You'd think by now we would have seen them all. Not even close. I guess they'll keep turning up for years to come, at least I sure hope so. Now I finally get to add to the mix. The photos below are being used with permission. They come from Ms. Sharon K, who is from the Steiner side of the family.

First we have this amazing photo of a very young Houdini with his brother Theo/Dash. It may be the youngest magic related photo of Houdini and Dash. Certainly there are family photos of them together that show them at younger ages. But this photo is definitely MAGIC. I would assume it's the sack used in the Substitution Trunk/Metamorphosis.

Next is another absolutely amazing photo. This time the photo is of the Steiner Family. In this photo, on the far left is Hannah Steiner (mother), Rose Steiner (sister) and Cecilia Steiner, Houdini's mother. This has got to be the earliest photo of Cecilia I have ever seen.
Fellow Houdini fans, enjoy!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Houdini in Chicago

Houdini (right) in Chicago
Chicago, like Boston and NYC is another city very important in the life of Harry Houdini. His first appearance in Chicago was during the 1893 Columbian Exposition also known as the World's Fair. According to Pat Culliton Houdini was there, along with Jacob Hyman and Dash. Several of the Houdini biographies suggest that the 'Brothers Houdini' presented the Metamorphosis on the mile long midway.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Holocaust Conjurer

The 20th Century was a time of great extremes. In the early part of the century we saw the introduction of radio and movies. Advances in the automobile and the airplane changed the way we traveled. By the end of the 20th Century we had ventured into space and even landed men on the moon and returned them safely to earth.

However, the century was not without it’s darker moments. The globe suffered through two world wars as well as numerous other conflicts. Diseases would continue to wipe out millions of people despite our best efforts. And probably the worst, man against man event was the Holocaust during World War II. This was what the Nazis called “The Final Solution” to solve the Jewish problem. They would wipe out the Jewish race from the face of the earth. What could be more wicked and evil than that? What kind of people can consider this kind of thing let alone actually do it? And yet, today in the 21st Century, there are still wicked people in the world with this mindset.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Beauty and Lafayette

This is a story about a man and his dog. But not just any man and not just any dog. The man was Sigmund Neuberger who was born in Munich Germany on Feb 25, 1871. In 1890 he immigrated to the United States at the age of nineteen.

He began in show business presenting a variety show along with a partner by the name of Mike Whelan. They went out west, following the gold rush that a lot of the nation was going after. I'm not sure how long they lasted but eventually Whelan got tired of the bad conditions in the camps and he ended the partnership. Neuberger went off on his own with his act called "The Crackshot with the Bow" which was basically a sharp shooting exhibition with a bow and arrows. He presented his act in Vaudeville houses in the U.S. and by 1892 was working the theatres in England.

In 1898 his life would would change dramatically upon seeing a brand new act, the Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo. Foo created quite a stir in the magic world and many copy cat acts followed. Foo may have been somewhat to blame however as he offered a challenge to anyone who could duplicate his famous appearing giant bowl of water feat. A number of performers took the challenge and Foo and his management had to explain it was a publicity stunt. The damage was done however and the 'Chinese style magic acts' began to grow.

By 1899 Neuberger added a few of the chinese magic feats to his act, and also began to add quick change costume routines as well as other original magic. The Great Lafayette was born!  On a tour through Tennessee, Lafayette ran into none other than Harry Houdini. They were both not quite famous and yet it would happen to them  very soon. They were playing the Grand Opera House on Cherry St. in Nashville. During their time in Nashville, Harry gave his friend Lafayette the gift of a dog. Not just any dog, this would become Lafayette's best friend and traveling companion. He named the dog Beauty and even created a fake pedigree for the dog. Where Houdini got the dog is anyone's guess.

On the front door of his home in London Lafayette  hung a plaque that read 'The more I see of man, the more I love my dog'. Beauty had her own room and bathroom in the house. She ate five course meals. And an image of Beauty appeared on Lafayette's checks. She also was a member of the cast of his show.

Lafayette it appears was the first to present the Mid-Air Bird Catching routine. Several magic history books credit Lafayette as the creator, but the actual creator of the Birds in the Net was Cyril Yettmah. It should be pointed out that Yettmah worked for Lafayette so this could be where the confusion comes from.  Lafayette did create many of his own effects and illusions however. Probably his most famous magic illusion was called 'The Lion's Bride'. Apparently, he was the first magician to add a lion to his act, and would be followed by many other magicians after him, including modern day performers like Doug Henning and Siegfried and Roy. Not unlike Roy Horn who was severely injured by a tiger during his act, Lafayette was attacked on more than one occasion by his lion. None of his injuries were ever as bad as Roy's.

The Lion's Bride, as well as most of Lafayette's routines was wrapped within a story or playlet. The Lion's Bride storyline changed over the years but the basic effect remained. A live lion in a cage roared and moved back and forth in it's cage. A woman was placed inside the cage with the ferocious beast. The lion would get up on it's hind legs as if to pounce on the woman and then suddenly, it would be revealed that it was Lafayette in a lion's costume! Frankly, that is an amazing routine. Today you see the production of a lion or tiger but this idea of having a live lion suddenly change into Lafayette wearing a lions costume is just brilliant.

In one of the many routines that Beauty would appear in, Lafayette donned an artists smock and beret, and began to paint on a small canvas. He would break the paper from the frame and his dog Beauty would burst forth!

Another spectacle of the Lafayette show, which was called "A Carnival of Conjuring", were his impressions of band leaders. This was part of his 'Travesty Band' sequence. He would conduct the orchestra and change costumes instantly to reflect whatever bandleader he was portraying.

It's been reported that during his career he was the highest paid entertainer in Vaudeville. It's clear that Lafayette knew he had a fabulous show and he held out for the right money. He was involved in all aspects of the show including costume design, set design and creation of illusions. Looking over one of his programs it's a show unlike any other performer before or since.

Life seemed to be going pretty well for Lafayette until May of 1911. On May 5, his most beloved friend in the entire world, Beauty, passed away. Lafayette had just opened a two week run at the Empire Theatre in Edinburgh Scotland. He was completely devastated. He made arrangements for Beauty to be buried in the Piershill Cemetery in Edinburgh. At first the cemetery officials would not allow the buried of the dog until Lafayette agreed that upon his death he too would be buried there.

The old showbiz saying is 'The Show Must Go On' and though in a state of deep depression Lafayette continued his run at the Empire Theatre. During his performance on May 9th, 1911, Lafayette was taking his bows after concluding The Lion's Bride routine. An oriental scenic lamp burst into flames on the set. The fire curtain was dropped but did not fall completely to the stage. Lafayette was very guarded with his secrets and he had the exits locked off so as the fire began to get out of control, backstage was a nightmare. Within 18 minutes of the fire starting the stage was ablaze with fire and smoke. The iron safety curtain broke free and fell to the stage. Thankfully everyone in the audience escaped safely and without injury. But on stage they were not so lucky. Ten people lost their lives due to the fire that night.
Among the dead was the body of Lafayette who was discovered near the Lion's Bride Cage. He was identified by the costume and sword he wore during one of his routines. The body was sent to be cremated.

However, Lafayette had one more piece of magic after his death. Several days after the fire another body was discovered. This one had the jeweled rings on it's fingers that Lafayette always wore. Lafayette's burnt body was found again, this time under the stage. Apparently when the Iron Fire Curtain collapsed it covered over the area where Lafayette had died.  The body that had been cremated previously was actually that of his body double, a man named Richards who was also the trumpeter in Lafayette's orchestra and was only 25 years old.

On May 14th, 1911 Lafayette's body was cremated and the urn containing the ashes of the dead illusionist was buried between the paws of his lifelong companion Beauty. They were now together for eternity.

The vaudeville and theatrical communities were devastated by the news. Houdini sent a floral display in the shape of Beauty to the funeral. He was unable to attend but made arrangements to have the funeral filmed. I discovered a site that apparently has film footage of the Lafayette Funeral. Whether or not the footage is that of Houdini's I cannot say. You can't view it at this location, but I'm assuming if you are in the UK you can make arrangements to view it.

Near the end of the book "The Life & Times of The Great Lafayette" by Arthur Setterington, he mentions a visit to the gravesite by Bess and Houdini. While there Houdini said about his friend Lafayette , "He fooled them in life and he fooled them in death, I envy him". 

The Empire Theatre was rebuilt three months after the tragic fire in 1911. It continued to operate as a theatre until 1963 when it was turned into a Bingo Hall.

In the 1990s the Empire went through another transformation, this one pretty major. The entire outer facade of the building was redone and the theatre changed it's name. Today it's called The Edinburgh Festival Theatre. (see photo below)

Doing the research for this particular blog I was amazed at the number of sites that covered the tragic fire. Clearly the folks in Edinburgh have not forgotten that frightful day in 1911 even after all these years. I discovered some interesting things in the course of the research. One of them is a song called "The Tragic Tale of the Great Lafayette and his Body Double" which can be heard by visiting the link.

The most amazing thing I discovered though is the upcoming celebration taking place in Edinburgh.
On May 9th, 2011, we mark the 100th Anniversary of The Great Lafayette's Death. Just so you know, there will be a real celebration! It's called 'The Great Lafayette Festival' and will take place of May 7th-9th in Edinburgh, Scotland. Among the activities in a special show put on by Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee celebrating the life and magic of Lafayette. There will also be a tour of the back stage area at the Empire Theatre(Festival Theatre now) and you can stand in the place where The Great Lafayette's life tragically ended. To find out more visit their official website at

Also, check out my other article with MORE information on Lafayette
The Old Empire Theatre is now The Edinburgh Festival Theatre

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Forgotten Houdini Protege

Leonard Hicks on the far left. Hardeen in the upper right
We all know that Hardeen succeeded Houdini in the show and received all his props when he died. But did you know that years before there was another person set up to take over for Houdini? It turns out there was a protege that Houdini not only hand picked but also trained and to whom he supplied the equipment*.

Bijou Theatre Richmond VA
His name was William Leonard Hicks and he was born in Owenton, KY on November 6th, 1887. His father, Thomas Hicks was in the hotel business and moved often when job opportunities came his way.

When the boy was 12 years old, he and his family were living in Richmond Virginia.  In April of 1900, Houdini performed for a week at the Bijou Theatre on East Broad Street in Richmond VA. Young Mr. Hicks was present during his week long engagement.  Houdini opened on April 23rd to a packed house. His act consisted of his Challenge Handcuff routine and the Metamorphosis.

During the first part of his act, police officers brought regulation handcuffs to secure Houdini. He stepped behind his 'Ghost House', which was small curtained cabinet that he would kneel in to work some of his escapes in private. Houdini arose from the cabinet free of the cuffs.

A second demonstration of handcuff release took place but this time Houdini presented the escape in full view of the audience. To complete his set, he and Bess presented his signature routine called The Metamorphosis, which was a lightning fast (three seconds) exchange between He and Bess. Houdini would be tied and secured into a cloth sack. The sack would go into a trunk and that was locked and roped. A curtain was pulled around the locked trunk and Bess would step into the curtained enclosure. She would count to three and Houdini would burst forth, free from the trunk! When the trunk was opened, the sack was removed and inside the sack was found Bess Houdini with her hands tied!

Whenever Houdini came to town, he didn't just do a show at the theatre, he often continued with daily exhibitions. His second day in town he went to City Hall to give another demonstration of handcuff release. This time however, to prove he kept no concealed keys, he had his mouth covered with plaster and the tied up with cloth. He was also stripped of his clothes. Captain Angle and Chief Howard of the Richmond Police Department placed shackles on Houdini's wrists and his ankles. Houdini stepped behind a chair that had a piece of carpet thrown over it to partially hide Houdini from view. The audience of some 40 people could see Houdini moving around but his method of escape was kept from prying eyes. Two minutes later Houdini the Handcuff King was free from his bonds.

One of his favorite impromptu bits of magic that he would perform both on stage and offstage was his famous East Indian Needle Trick. Following his naked cuff escape he presented the Needle trick for all of the invited guests and gathering crowd. A doctor who was present in the audience came up to examine Houdini's mouth before and after the effect. He left them completely bewildered and he received a nice write up in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

William Leonard Hicks
There is a good chance that William L. Hicks, who would later be referred to as Leonard Hicks in magic circles, read about Houdini's exploits in Richmond and we know he saw Houdini perform live while he was in town.

Houdini was such a big hit in Richmond, that the management of the Bijou Theatre, arranged to have Houdini return in May 1900. They had to buy out his contract at a NY theatre just to get Houdini back in Richmond! He played a week and headlined a festival in Richmond.

Remember, Leonard Hicks was only 12 at the time. But he was not the only person inspired by Houdini. A Mr. Lee Reinheimer and Mr. Moses May were two individuals also taken in by Houdini. So much so that by June of 1900 they declared that they could duplicate the feats of Houdini and for several months following did just that. They presented handcuff escapes as well as the Metamorphosis. It's probably lucky for them that Houdini didn't return to Richmond as he probably would have gone after them or had his crew attend a show and go after the copyists.

Six years from this time, Houdini is now in Chicago. He is performing in the Windy City and he and Bess are having trouble with the hotel in which they are staying, so they switch to different hotel. When Hicks saw Houdini he was living on a dairy farm with his family. But now in 1906, he and his father were both working in the hotel business. Hicks was the hotel clerk that checked in Mr. and Mrs. Houdini. To use modern day slang, Mr. Hicks gave Houdini the 'hook up', meaning he got him a VERY nice room. Houdini showed his appreciation by inviting Hicks to see his show at the Majestic Theatre.

The two must have developed a friendship which was partially based on Leonard's ability to figure out the act and even make suggestions about it. Houdini was impressed with the young man and by the end of his contract in Chicago Houdini made a suggestion of his own to Leonard Hicks. He told him that he should try out a career in show business. In fact, Houdini offered to train him. That very summer, Leonard Hicks was a temporary resident of 278 (Houdini's home in NYC) where Houdini was teaching the young man the finer points of his escape act.

He changed his performing name to 'Harry Leonard and/The Great Leonard'. According to the Kalush Biography, Hicks even printed up business cards which declared he was the only one authorized to perform Mr. Houdini's act. I wonder if Hicks told Houdini about Reinheimer and Mays in Richmond?
The act he presented was the Challenge Handcuff Escape Act along with the Metamorphosis. When Houdini went to Europe in 1908, Hicks also started presenting the escape from the Galvanized Iron Can Filled with Water better known as the Milk Can Escape. (Just for the record, this is an example of ANOTHER Milk Can known to exist)

For whatever reason, show business didn't keep it's hold on Leonard Hicks and he eventually returned to the hotel business. He would gradually work his way up from Desk Clerk to Assistant Hotel Manager in the 1920s of the Morrison Hotel in Chicago and then Hotel Manager. By 1930 he was the President of the Lorraine Hotel in Chicago and he was president of the American Hotel and Motel Association. He worked and managed a number of hotel properties in the Chicago area.

Later in life he moved to Florida and was the owner of the Casa Marina Hotel in Key West Florida. Below is a photograph signed by Mr. Hicks. As he became a success in the hotel business he used his real name William L. Hicks, but notice this photograph is signed Leonard Hicks. I wonder if the couple in the photograph might have seen him back in his escape days? Leonard Hicks is on the left in the white coat.

William Leonard Hicks died in Florida on April 2, 1966, the one time protege of the World's Greatest Escape Artist.
photo by Auburn University Libraries

*I don't know if Houdini GAVE the props to Hicks or if he sold them to him. But it is true Houdini trained Hicks at his home in NYC.

I have a feeling this is not the last word about Leonard Hicks. I'm going to continue hunting to see what other things I can dig up. If anyone has information on his career, please contact me at

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Kellar's Last Mystery

Something is terribly wrong in magicland. This concerns the first Dean of Magicians Harry Kellar. Today, March 10th, marks the 89th Anniversary of his passing. He was cremated and his remains are in Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles CA. All of that is accurate. What follows is the mystery.

As you may or may not know, I collect photos of the graves of magicians who have passed on. I think we should pay homage to those who have done so much for the profession and have now gone into eternity. I had posted the image below from the Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery on one of my blogs in the past. This is the headstone for Harry Kellar's grave. It can be found near the road under a small tree in Section L, directly to the right of the front of the mausoleum.

Monday, February 14, 2011


 "I knew, as everyone knows, that the easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place some one is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death."

"You can never arrive at the perfection of art until your handling of the illusion produces a thrill of genuine surprise in all who behold it"

"The end of all magic is to feed with mystery the human mind, which dearly loves mystery. So leave every mystery forever unexplained!"

"I do tricks nobody can explain."

"My professional life has been a constant record of disillusion, and many things that seem wonderful to most men are the every-day commonplaces of my business. "

"As long as the human mind delights in mysteries, so long it will love magic and be entertained by magicians."

First Encounter
When Houdini started out with his brother Dash, there were two prominent magicians in America, Herrmann the Great and Harry Kellar. In August 1896, after struggling in the tough world of show business and getting no where, Houdini wrote to both of the great magicians looking for work as assistants in their shows. No reply came from Herrmann who would pass away by December of 1896. Kellar did reply but he told Houdini he had no room in his show at that time.

Kellar's Retirement
1908 Atlantic City
In May of 1908, Harry Kellar left the stage to retire. Just a few weeks later he would spend sometime with the Houdini's in Atlantic City, even Cecelia Weiss was present during this visit. According to the Ken Silverman Bio this is basically where their friendship starts. For a while Kellar lived in NY with his wife Eva, and Houdini and Kellar saw each other from time to time. But only a year later Kellar purchased a home in Los Angeles and he and his wife moved to the west coast.  Kellar still made trips to the east and whenever he was in NY he would usually attend the magic club meetings and see Houdini. Kellar and Houdini stayed in touch writing letters throughout the rest of their lives.

I found a very interesting note in the Kellar's Wonders book by Mike Caveney and Bill Miesel. In 1916, Houdini and Kellar were at a meeting of the Society of American Magicians. It was at this meeting that the decision was made to start local chapters throughout the country, called 'assemblies'. Houdini and Kellar both stepped up and agreed to spread the word and it's no doubt through their efforts that today the S.A.M. has assemblies all over the U.S. and even other parts of the world.

Another interesting S.A.M. item took place when Houdini was President of the organization. He nominated Harry Kellar to be Dean of Magicians. He was unanimously voted in.

Kellar's Second Retirement
On Nov 11, 1917, Houdini coaxed Kellar into coming out of retirement for one evening. This was so that he could be part of an all star cast at the Hippodrome in NYC. The event was to raise money for the victims and family members of the S.S. Antilles, an American Transport ship that had been torpedoed by a German submarine.

On the evening of the 11th, Houdini acted as host and M.C. for the first half of the show. He even presented his Water Torture Cell. But the real thrill that night came from Harry Kellar who treated the audience to his amazing Floating Table routine and he followed this with his Spirit Cabinet. After his performance Houdini stepped on stage with roses for the Grand Master. Then he brought on a sedan chair and members of the show picked up Kellar sitting in the Sedan Chair and marched him across the stage as the entire audience got up and sang 'Auld Lang Syne'. It was a night to remember and Kellar was to taken with the gesture that it was difficult for him to express himself.

A few days later he wrote a heart felt letter to Houdini in which he said "you gave me the proudest and happiest evening in all my life and a farewell that can never be surpassed." Houdini followed this with a letter to Kellar in which he basically said it was an honor to be able to give back to such a beloved man and magician.

When Harry Kellar sold his show to Howard Thurston, only two things made it into the Thurston show, the Levitation and Kellar's Spirit Cabinet. The other items were sold off and Charles Carter purchased several of them.

One in particular was Kellar's automaton Psycho, which was a knock off of J.N. Maskelyne's automaton of the same name. Psycho had been with Kellar since he purchased it in England in 1878. Kellar referred to him as 'my little companion and friend'. He was also an important part of Harry Kellar's show. He sold it to Howard Thurston in May 1908 and now he was about to come face to face with his old friend.

While Carter was performing in Los Angeles, Kellar convinced Charles Carter to sell Pyscho back to him. Then in May 1919, Harry Houdini received a letter and package from Kellar. It was Psycho and Kellar was giving his old friend to Houdini as a gift.

This was not the only gift Houdini received from his friend Kellar. According to Edward Saint, Houdini had a jeweled Question Mark pin that he received as a gift from Kellar. This pin has been lost to time. Kellar also gave Houdini his Spirit Cabinet that was used in the final Farewell performance of Harry Kellar. I'm curious if the Spirit Cabinet survives today.

On the set of The Grim Game
Houdini had started the Film Development Corporation and Kellar became one of the investors. Unfortunately, this was not the high point of their relationship. The FDC struggled to make money and Kellar often spoke to Houdini about getting rid of his shares of stock. Kellar's concern it turns out wasn't about loosing money, but instead about being responsible to creditors for future money. Kellar encouraged Houdini to get out as well. He felt it would be a terrible shame for Houdini to loose all the money he had worked so hard for during his career on a bad business venture.  Houdini's concern was less over money and more over loosing his friendship with Kellar over this deal.

One plus to the movie business was that it put Houdini in California and the studio where he was making movies was only a few miles from Harry Kellar's house. Kellar had suffered a stroke and wasn't as mobile as he had been before. Houdini visited him often and made arrangement for flowers to be sent to his home every week. During at least one visit, Houdini was able to capture Kellar on film thus preserving his image for posterity. Imagine how thrilling it would have been to sit in a room while these two spoke of things mysterious and magical.

Kellar thought of Houdini as a son and it was obvious that Kellar was a father figure to Houdini. He was also probably the only living magician that Houdini looked up to. However, though their friendship was filled with mutual admiration they did not agree on everything. For example, Houdini let people know that all his effects were presented by purely natural means, his "My Mind is the Key That Sets Me Free" quote expresses this perfectly. But read what Kellar thought..."Make your work artistic by clothing each illusion with all the glamor and shadows of fairyland, and the suggestions of incantations and supernatural powers in order to prepare the observer's mind for a mystery though there be no mystery." Kellar filled his promotional materials with demons and other supernatural beings. Houdini on the other hand was totally against the suggestion of supernatural powers in his performance.

However it's safe to say that they agreed in most areas. Kellar believed that tricks performed by the masters who came before him would no longer fool even children and it was the modern magicians job to constantly update and improve the effects and the methods. Houdini took older tricks and made them new, like the Needle Trick or repackaged them to fit him, like the Sub Trunk, or created brand new effects, like the Water Torture Cell. They both debunked Spiritualist phenomenon in their shows. Interestingly, Kellar is probably best known for his rope tie. Houdini of course was a master of rope ties and rope escapes.

After Chung Ling Soo died on stage doing the Bullet Catch trick, Houdini made plans to add the dangerous Bullet Catching routine to his show. When this news reached Harry Kellar he sent a fast and firm reply to Houdini.  I believe his words were "Don't do the damned Bullet Catch, we cannot afford to loose Houdini!" or something to that affect. Houdini heeded the advice of his old friend and chose to not present the Bullet Catch, ever! Harry Kellar was probably the only person who could scold Houdini and get away with it. But the letter over the Bullet Catch was sent more out of concern and caring for his friend than as a rebuke.

Harry Kellar passed away on March 10, 1922. He had been suffering from a bad bout of pneumonia and had been coughing up blood. The build up of blood in his lungs killed him. He was 73 years old. Houdini was not able to attend the funeral, so he made arrangements for it to be filmed. He actually did the same thing when his friend The Great Lafayette died, he had that funeral filmed as well. But to my knowledge neither of these films have survived.

Before Kellar died Houdini got his permission to write his biography. Houdini would use his 100s of letters (Houdini claimed thousands) and also his many meetings with Kellar as the foundation for the book. He only got as far as 100 pages. This became one of the projects that Houdini never finished because in 1926, only four years after Kellar, Houdini died. In the book Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer he says the manuscript resides in the Mullholland Library, which today is part of the David Copperfield Magic Collection.

Houdini referred to Kellar as  'the greatest magician the world ever saw.'

In a letter to Houdini, Kellar referred to him as 'our greatest showman-Harry Houdini.'
I think that pretty well sums it up.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

When Heroes Fall

The history of magic is filled with incredible stories of success and failure, triumph and disaster, luck and misfortune. I love history, period, but especially magic history. This next story is tragic. Those who are knowledgeable in our arts past will no doubt know this story or at least be familiar with it. I had heard about it maybe 15 years ago for the first time. All I knew really was a mighty hero of magic experienced an earth shattering event that killed the magic that once burned bright within him.

It would be good to give you some back story to begin with. Our hero is none other than Jean Henri Servais LeRoy. He was born May 4th, 1865 in Spa Belgium. To give you an idea of the time frame, in America the Civil War had just ended and Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated only weeks before. This young man would grow up to Servais LeRoy and would be part of the troupe known as The Monarchs of Magic. This troupe of performers was LeRoy, his wife Mercedes Talma and a comic character known as Bosco who was played by a number of different performers over the years.

LeRoy had a very devilish appearance on stage. He came out wearing a top hat, a long coat and a cane. First he would cause the cane to vanish, followed by the hat, then his trousers would seem to vanish leaving him with what were called 'knee britches'. He transformed into this mephistophelean like character and at that point the show would begin!

Servais LeRoy is someone that anyone involved in illusion magic should closely study. His inventions and twists on existing effects were incredible. One of his inventions, 'The Asrah Levitation' would change the way illusion magic was done from that time up until today! Some of his other creations included; The Costume Trunk, The Palanquin, The Three Graces, The Red Hat, The Strange Disappearance and many more. Many of his illusions are still presented today though I'd venture to say that most modern illusionists are unaware of who created them.

LeRoy, Talma and Bosco were a hit wherever they went, and they went everywhere! They traveled the world and continued to invent and create and change the show as the years went by. Eventually, time and age caught up with LeRoy and he settled in the town of Keansburg NJ.

On October 19th, 1930, while returning from a trip to NYC, LeRoy was walking across the street and was hit by a car. He was rushed to the hospital with multiple injuries and remained there for nine days.
It's safe to say he was never the same after this. But though this was a terrible occurance, this is not the tragic event that I spoke of at the start. LeRoy eventually recovered and continued to invent and create and occasionally perform.

In 1940, Sam Margules was putting together the annual S.A.M. show and he wanted to really give this show a distinctive stamp. His idea was to let Servais LeRoy (now 75 years old) present his full evening show! Keep in mind, Servais LeRoy was a product of the Victorian Age and his style of dress and presentation were ideal for his time. But now it's 1940 and he has to perform for people accustomed to movies, radio a much faster pace of life.

The Heckscher Theatre Today
On June 6th, 1940 the show billed as "NEVER BEFORE SUCH A MAGIC SHOW" would take place at the Heckscher Theatre in NYC. Servais LeRoy would perform his full evening show for the first time in years. However, his trusted assistants who had been with him throughout his life would not be part of the show. Instead, LeRoy 'trained' a new set of assistants. Actually, he only had a single rehearsal with the new crew and he seemed unsure what to do many times during the rehearsal.

The evening of the show the curtain was almost an hour late to open because LeRoy knew full well he was in no condition to do the show. But somehow he summoned up the courage and walked out on stage. The seventy five year old veteran of thousands of shows suddenly found himself in unfamiliar territory. He struggled from the moment he went out on stage. Worse yet, the assistants who had barely one rehearsal, could not follow along with what LeRoy wanted or expected them to do. It was a train wreck and the only thing that stopped it was an intermission.

As you might imagine, a great deal of the audience got up and left during the very long intermission. I can't even begin to imagine the feelings they must have felt. Here was this icon of magic, one of the real greats who was unraveling before their eyes. Then again, some of them may have been unfamiliar with LeRoy and were just angry at seeing such a terrible magic show. Sadly, Servais LeRoy returned to do the second half of the show and it was worse than the first. Sam Margules, the producer of the show eventually stepped in and drew the curtain on LeRoy. The show was stopped before LeRoy was finished, but it truly was over before it began.

That singular night killed the magic that lived in Servais LeRoy's heart. He would never again perform or step onto a stage. A career filled with triumph and success ended in excruciating humiliation. He was now a broken and defeated man.

The first time I read the full account of the event, I had tears in my eyes and my heart ached for a performer who I never knew in person. I tried to imagine the heartache that he must have felt, but what I imagined probably paled in comparison to what LeRoy felt.

In the book "Servais LeRoy-Monarch of Mystery" by Mike Caveney and William Rauscher there is a much more detailed description of the evening. The book is out of print but shows up from time to time on eBay. Find a copy if you can it's worth it, though you too may find  yourself in tears over the sad ending of such a beloved performer.

Today LeRoy is mostly forgotten. Yet performers are still doing his tricks. The recent appearance of Ali Cook on "Penn and Tellers FOOL US" is a perfect example. The trick where the heads of a chicken and a duck are removed and then switched so that the duck has a chicken head and the chicken has a ducks head is right out of Servais LeRoy's act. Though it was David Copperfield who first brought it back to modern audiences in the 1980s (this link has the routine at 5:17). Anyone doing 'Things That Go Bump In The Night' is really presenting LeRoy's Three Graces Illusion. And any illusionist using the 'asrah furniture' owes a debt of thanks to Servais LeRoy.

That night at the Heckscher Theatre in NY is a heart wrenching story. There may only be a handful of people still alive who saw the show. Most would probably rather forget it, including Sam Margules who never even wrote about it but chose to forget it ever took place. It's sad but it's part of our magic history now.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Galvanized Iron Can

It's January 6th, 1908, Houdini is starting a run at the Columbia Theatre in St. Louis. He is doing his Handcuff Escape Act and the receipts are no longer what they once were. With so many imitators and rip-off artists out there, audiences had grown tired of seeing this kind of act. Even though Houdini was the one who made it famous, now he was facing a crossroad in his career. The manager of the theatre called Houdini into his office and basically gave him a thrashing about the low attendance. I believe he said something like "your act is not worth a plug nickel, or even a normal nickel" (not sure what a plug nickel is, lol). That is what Houdini was faced with in January 1908.

So what does he do? He brings out what he calls at the time "the best thing he has ever invented." That invention was 'The Galvanized Iron Can Filled with Water'. The newspaper ads promoting the escape referred to it as The Galvanized Iron Can Filled with Water and clearly Houdini referred to it as that. It wasn't until April 1908 that a newspaper referred to the can as 'looking like a giant Milk Can'.

The Milk Can
The debut of the Milk Can Escape took place at the Columbia Theatre in St. Louis, January 27th, 1908, (exactly 103 years ago today!) After theatre manager Tate told Houdini his act was worthless, Houdini came back with the Milk Can. The opening night of this performance all the area press was invited to witness Houdini's latest invention. However, not one single person from the press showed up. This was a pivotal moment in Houdini's career and no one was there to record it. We do know the "Failure Means a Drowning Death" concept was a huge hit for Houdini as he continued to use the Milk Can Escape as his closer until 1912. In 1912 he would present for the first time another new invention combining elements of his water escapes and upside down outdoor escapes, the Water Torture Cell. Though the Water Torture Cell was more spectacular, Houdini did continue to perform the Milk Can escape in a different capacity.

On occasion Houdini would use his Milk Can with a challenge. He would allow challengers to fill the can with something other than water. A dairy filled it with milk and he escaped. But it was in England in 1911 that Houdini had trouble. He allowed the Tetley Brewery to fill the can with beer.  He was overcome by the fumes from the alcohol and passed out and had to be unlocked and removed from the can. However in Columbus Ohio of the same year, he did the same stunt, can filled with beer and placed inside a wooden container (see The Double Fold Death Defying Mystery above) and escaped with no problem.

On April 18, 1916 Houdini was at Keith's Theatre in Washington D.C. The challenge came from the employees of Abner and Drurys Brewery. In the article they refer to the device as a large cask, but the description clearly the Milk Can. Houdini escaped in two minutes. The Washington Times article finishes with this line "In exactly two minutes he was out of the cabinet, wasting a lot of good beer that dripped from his body." So while the Water Torture Cell took over as the closer, the Milk Can moved into the spot of 'challenge' escape. Perhaps, he referred to the device as different things depending upon what was inside. Milk inside it was the Milk Can Escape, water inside it was the Galvanized Iron Can with Water, beer inside it was a large Iron Cask Escape.

The Inventor

I just found out through Pat Culliton's book HOUDINI-The KEY, Houdini didn't invent it, a guy named Montraville Wood did. This fact was also pointed out in the Kalush Biography as well. Wood pitched the idea to Houdini and they apparently discussed it for a while in letters. Mr. Wood eventually developed eight different ways to escape from the Milk Can.  I wonder what they were? Actually, they are listed in a patent Houdini applied for in Sept 1908. Interestingly, none of Houdini's Milk Cans featured the straps that are prominent in the poster. However, a method of using straps was one that was listed in the 1908 patent.

Who was Montraville Wood? He was an inventor, scientist, lecturer and magic enthusiast. He was an associate of Thomas Edison and was the district engineer for the Edison Company on the Pacific Coast. He was also the Aeriel Postmaster for Chicago. During his lectures he would demonstrate how gyroscopes could be used in airplanes and monorail cars. He begins with offering an audience member a chance to wrestle the gyroscope. If you recall your magic history, P.T. Selbit had a routine he called "The Mighty Cheese" which was essentially a hidden gyroscope that could not be pushed over, no matter how hard you tried. This demonstration was part of Wood's talk on the gryoscope. He also gave a demonstration of ultra-violet rays and explained the different ways it could be used, including the treatment of diseases.

Wood's association with Edison is interesting, in fact he very much resembles Thomas Edison. Among his nearly 100 inventions, was the two-button electric switch. This was the common household electric switch prior to the more modern lever switch that we are familiar with today. Among Wood's contributions to magic were a mechanical card rise, a Spirit Hand and Skull, Houdini's Iron Box Escape and the Milk Can Escape.

The Can(s)
How many Milk Can's there were is anyone's guess. I have discovered several different versions online. I'm only posting links to cans that I believe were used by Houdini. I know other manufacturers produced the Milk Can escape after Houdini and those I won't include.
Milk Churn: The Milk Churn was a Challenge that Houdini faced several times. It may have been the inspiration for the Milk Can.
Smaller Milk Can: I had seen this once in an eBay Auction. It appears to maybe be a prototype. By the way, on the link you'll need to scroll down a bit to find the image of the Milk Can among all the Titanic memorabilia.
Copperfield Milk Can: This Milk Can came from the Sidney Radner Auction. It has the identical shape to the can seen in pictures with Houdini but is missing the upper handles. I believe this was on display at the Houdini Exhibit in Appleton Wisconsin at one time.
The Lund Milk Can: This is the can that is on display at the American Museum of Magic. It's also the can that was on display during the MAGIC! Science and Wonder exhibit in Houston Texas and is currently on display at the Houdini Art and Magic Exhibit in NYC.
The Lund Milk Can+: This photo shows not only the Milk Can but also the traveling case. The brass buckets were for water.
The Bell Milk Can: This is shown on page 448 of HOUDINI-The Key by Patrick Culliton. This Milk Can is owned by collector Randall Bell and was originally found in the basement of Houdini's home on 278 West 113 th. St. This can is unusual because of the length of the shoulder/sloped part of the can. It's twice as long as every other can and may be the same can as the 'Smaller Milk Can' that I have listed though I'm not 100% sure. They both have a similar slop to the shoulders.
The Double-Fold Death Defying Mystery: Apparently escaping from a water filled can wasn't good enough for audiences. Actually, by Spring of 1913, Houdini knew he had to improve the Milk Can because it was already being copied by others. So he added a wooden crate that the Milk Can would go into. The can with Houdini inside would be sealed and then the lid of the crate would go on and be locked as well. Houdini featured this at Hammerstein's Victoria in NY for only two weeks. I get the impression that he this only on special occasions or with challenges.  Hardeen would later feature this effect in his show. Where is this crate today?
HOUDINI Milk Can: Of course all of these cans were Houdini's. But the photos with Houdini and the Milk Can show a slightly different can than those above. The difference can be seen in the position of the handles. The handles are on the angled/shoulder part just below the neck of the can and they are in the same position as a traditional real milk can. I'm not sure where this can is today.
I think there might be more Houdini Milk Cans out there. I remember hearing about a can being sold at auction maybe 10 or 15 years ago and I don't think that is one of the cans I have listed. It's anyone's guess how many of these there are total.

There is one other can that makes me wonder if it isn't a Houdini original and that is The Amazing Randi's Milk Can. This can was used on the Houdini Special in which Dean Gunnarson filled in for Randi. It's certainly the spitting image of the Lund and Copperfield Can, but it too is missing the handles on the shoulder. It could simply be a very good copy. This is not the same can that Randi supplied on the TV Show Happy Days however, again, the handles are the give-away. The majority of copied Milk Cans are easy to point out because of the shape or size being different than the Houdini can.

For some reason this seems to be the one Houdini effect that gets exposed online and in books and even in movies. But only one method is ever exposed and Houdini had eight different methods, which could mean that there are eight different cans, or MORE! Houdini even had plans of being put into the can and having the can turned over and placed into another can or box. This would certainly mean the exposed method would not work.

The Columbia Theatre St. Louis
The Columbia Theatre in St. Louis was located at 421 N. 6th Street. I previously was led to believe that the Columbia Theatre was at a different location. It appears the previous theatre wasn't built until 1926. The old Columbia where Houdini performed was built prior to 1899 and was torn down in 1925. Today there is an office building and mall on the location of one of Houdini's most historic events. It's called One City Centre. I spent hours trying to locate a photo of the old Columbia but so far nothing.
One City Center sits on the location of the Old Columbia Theatre St. Louis

Update: There may be yet another Milk Can out there because from 1906-1909, Leonard Hicks, with Houdini's training and permission presented Houdini's act in America, complete with Milk Can Escape. No idea where that can is today.

UPDATE 2: The Double-Fold Death Defying Mystery has been located. It was in a private collection all these many years. It is available to bid on in the upcoming Potter & Potter Houdini Auction on Aug 23rd, 1914.

UPDATE 3: There is ANOTHER authentic Houdini Milk Can out there. I've seen a photo of it, and trust me it's the real deal. And that is all I can say, as I am sworn to secrecy.

Please be sure to check out the New York Public Library for all the great preservation work they do.

Monday, January 17, 2011

GO TO HELLer Part 1

I love the Victorian Age of Magic. One of the kings from that time was a man named Robert Heller. The fast version of his life was that he was born in England, came to America to perform, was a terrible failure, eventually found some success and then stopped performing and retired to Washington D.C. and then he died. However, that cannot be correct. How could he have been a failure, retired and yet be one of the big names of the time?  With the help of my friend Joe, master magic history online searcher, the record will be set straight or at least it will make a bit more sense. So Ladies and Gentleman, prepare yourselves as  
I give you HELLer!

Canterbury, Kent England. photo by David Iliff
He was born William Henry Ridout Palmer in Faversham, Kent, England, on August 10, 1829. The date is according to the ship records when he first traveled to America. It is listed in books and online anywhere from 1824-1833, but the first ship record has it at 1829. As a young boy he showed interest and talent in music. His father was Henry Palmer was a Professor of Music in Canterbury.  He was also the leader of the orchestra at the Canterbury Catch Club, but he was NOT the organist at the famed Canterbury Cathedral as many magic periodicals have him listed.

From ages 11-14 he attended the Kings School Canterbury. Young William obviously inherited his father's musical gifts and began learning to play the piano at the age of six. At age 14 William won a scholarship to the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London. According to a life long friend and associate M.H. Levett, "Heller was a man of liberal education, of exceptionally refined manners; a linguist, speaking several languages, especially French; and a brilliant pianist ranking with some of the best of his time". Early indications were that he would follow the path of music for his life's work but that was until a mysterious visitor came to town.

Robert Houdin, the great French Conjurer visited England in 1848. William Henry Palmer was present in the audience at the St. James Theatre to see Robert Houdin, perhaps for several viewings. He was so taken with the concept of magical performances that his passion for music shifted to conjuring. Magic historian Henry Ridgely Evans says that Palmer purchased his props from a man named Cremer, who had a magic shop in London and also learned the disciplines of manipulation and sleight of hand from him. Three years later William decided it was time to adopt a new name, Robert Heller, and make his London debut as a conjurer. Where did the stage name originate? David Price's book The Pictorial History of Conjuring spells it out. Apparently, 'Robert' came from Robert-Houdin. The second half of the name was taken from a popular Austrian pianist of the time Stephan Heller. By combining the two names he was also subtly joining together his two passions Magic and Music.

For his debut he leased the Strand Theatre in London, had programs printed up that described his act in two languages, English and French, and he then proceeded to do almost every effect from Robert Houdin's show. He even had the nerve to claim that he invented all the magic from the show. Heller even adopted a version of the show name as his own. Robert Houdin's performance was called 'The Soirees Fantastique'. Robert Heller chose to call his show 'Soirees Mysterieuses of Robert Heller'.  Robert Houdin had a huge impact on all magicians from this time and many were doing his material, not just Heller. A look at the repertiore of John Henry Anderson, the Great Wizard of the North and you'll again see a duplication of Robert Houdin's show. By the way, Anderson also claimed to have invented it all. The historical record leans towards his performances as not being hugely successful but I tend to think otherwise. Though he might not have been as big as a success as Robert Houdin, he did tour the provinces of England and did well enough that he thought America might bring him even more stardom.

Heller set sail to America aboard the Arctic in 1852
In 1852 he left the port in Liverpool England and arrived in NY on September 6th aboard a ship called the Arctic. He did not travel alone, apparently he arrived with his younger brother who was listed on the ships manifest as 'Ernest Heller' but I believe his real name is actually Angelo C. Palmer. William Henry also listed his stage name on the ships manifest as Robert Heller. Both of their professions are listed as Professors of Music, I guess putting down 'magician' was not a good idea at the time.

At this point the various histories of Heller's life take a weird turn. Some say his act met with little success, others claim he was successful. The truth as far as I can see is that as soon as he got off the boat he headed to Albany NY for performances at Van Veckton Hall. His first performance in NYC was at a farewell concert for the famous violinist Camilla Urso on November 25, 1852 in which he only played piano.  But a couple weeks later he would be opening at his own venue.

At the time Heller was living in a suite on Grand Street west of Broadway. He had been busy preparing for his new show. Heller had been running ads for the show as early as Nov 23rd. He was announcing the opening of his "Heller's Saloon of Wonders". He rents space at Buckley's Minstrel Hall at 539 Broadway, NYC. Sometime later P.T. Barnum would set up shop in this very same building.

The show opened on December 20th 1852 and ran until the end of May 1853, he gave 200 performances during that time.  His show begins with an introduction in French. The rest of the show he speaks English with a heavy French accent. He wears a dark wig with darkened eyebrows and mustache. Heller is the first magician to bring a 'second sight' routine to America and audiences were overwhelmed by his performance. The second sight, or what he would refer to as 'Hellerism' would continue to be his magic closer for the rest of his career. He is assisted by 'Ernest Heller' in the Second Sight routine. However, even though an 'Ernest Heller' traveled with him to America onboard the Arctic, this partner, who is introduced as his brother is actually M.H. Levett, a native New Yorker.

After the sixth month run at Heller's Saloon of Wonders, they took the show on the road. It's at this point that Heller decides to drop the French accent and the wigs and make-up. He realizes it does nothing to add to the performance so he removes it and goes with his natural speaking voice and his own reddish blonde hair.

His next appearance is at the Walnut Theatre in Philadelphia on July 4th, 1853. The Walnut Theatre has the distinction of being the oldest theatre in America and it is still there and still active today. He plays there to packed houses for three weeks. Then he moves the show to a place known as the Old Chinese Museum, which was actually not a museum at all but a hall that was rented out for concerts and lectures. He performs here for twelve more weeks.

Next he joins up with a group called 'The Germania Musical Society' and performs with them in the roll of a concert pianist. He presents a series of concerts with them in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and then finally Washington D.C.. This is now 1854 and the histories of Robert Heller say he was not very successful during this time so he retired from magic. One article speculated that he lost his equipment in a fire and that was the cause of his retirement. But I contend that he was in fact successful or at the least, was doing well, but an event occurred to change everything.

As far as I can tell this is the first time the actual reason he left magic and moved to D.C. has been revealed. The discovery of a letter reveals the true reason. In a letter that Heller wrote to a Mrs. Blanchard of Portland Maine we discover a very interesting fact. Here is part of the letter, 

"Sometime since I invested the whole of my earnings with the Germanian Musical Society in a building speculation and being the last wreck of my gains in this Country..for further safety, I put..eleven hundred dollars in the hands of a man in whom I had every confidence..what then is my situation?..I learn ...that the villain has gone off to England or Europe somewhere, leaving make the best of cruelly I am beaten down...I am now thinking of returning to England for I have been so shamefully robbed on all sides by the Yankees that I am afraid of them...but still is hope, for two or three of those you have expressed good feelings toward me would help me...yourself and John Goddard...are among them."

The final performance of the Germania Musical Society was in Washington D.C.. I believe that Heller at this point had not so much as a dime to his name. As the letter states he put his money towards a building speculation and the remainder of what he had left he gave to a friend to hold who ran off with it. He was in Washington D.C. and only had his reputation as a concert pianist, so he took a job as a music teacher. Additionally, I'm sure the reason he changed his name back to William Henry Palmer was to avoid the creditors. This later piece was revealed in an interview with a former assistant, but he revealed no further clues. Everyone in the magic community assumed that he had no money because his magic career was a failure. Not true. He had no money because he was swindled.

End of Part 1