Showing posts with label Russia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Russia. Show all posts

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Great KIO, Russia's Greatest Illusionists

Years ago when I visited the American Museum of Magic for the first time, Bob Lund told me about this fellow named KIO who was the most famous magician in Russia. I'm not sure why that stuck with me, but it always did. Ten years ago, when I had my own little museum inside The Underground Magic Theatre, one of KIO's posters was featured on the walls. I actually have two KIO posters, one of them is above which wonderfully captures their Cremation illusion. The other is in storage but I found an image of the same poster online which can be seen here. The truth be known, I don't really know much about KIO. But I'll share what I've been able to dig up.

There were three KIOs. The father was Emil KIO and the star illusionist of the Moscow Circus. He was born Emil Teodorovich Girshfeld-Renard April 11th, 1894 in Russia. He died December 19th, 1965 in Kiev Ukraine. Upon his death, his youngest son, Igor Kio took over the show.  The eldest son, Emil Jr. was also an illusionist, worked with the Union of Circus Artists of Russia. Emil Jr. is still alive but retired.

Igor Kio
Igor had quite the career after he took over for his father. He appeared in the U.S. at Madison Square Garden with the Moscow Circus back in 1967 and later toured the country. He performed on TV and had a number of his own Television specials in Russia. A rather unusual note to his career, was his marriage in 1962 to the daughter of Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev. Galina Brezhneva was 32 and Igor Kio was 18.  The marriage made Igor famous but the marriage only lasted 9 days. To make matters worse, Galina had been married to a circus acrobat at the time she met Igor and quickly divorced him to be with KIO. When word reached Leonid Brezhnev of his daughter's new marriage he sent to KGB after them. Apparently, the though the two were separated initially, they continued an on again off again affair for 3 years.

Like his father before him, Igor Kio was a circus illusionist which meant besides being part of the circus his shows were performed mostly surrounded. It has been said he performed "more shows per year than there were days." I saw estimates between 500 and 600 shows a year. He performed mainly with the circus, but also in theatres, sporting arenas and on television.  Igor KIO passed away August 30th, 2006 in Moscow. He has one of the coolest graves of any magician I've seen. Maybe only Houdini's grave is better. He is buried, along with his father and mother in Novodevichy Cemetery Moscow Federal City, Russia.

One of the featured illusions in the KIO show, presented by father and sons, was a spectacular Cremation illusion. An assistant would stand on a raised platform. A circular paper tube would cover her whole body and then it would be set on fire. The assistant would later appear elsewhere in the audience. Another popular illusion was the Lion's Bride, where an assistant, in this case, Igor's mother, would climb inside a large cage, which then was covered by a cloth, and a moment later, the cloth whisked away to reveal she had changed into a lion. There is a video of the father, Emil, performing the Lion's Bride, also some sort of Flyto Illusion, and several other effects, here.

Below is a video of of several of the KIO illusions, presented by both father and sons. There is also some footage of what I assume is the KIO warehouse where the illusions are stored.

Finally, I found this Russian documentary of KIO that is absolutely fascinating. I watched the entire thing and have no idea what was said (I don't speak Russian). But I did get to see a number of the illusions. There are interviews with Emil Jr and other family members and cast members. There is archival footage of Igor as well. The KIOs were clearly very famous and very loved by the public in their country and beyond.

The KIOS used many different posters to promote their performances. Back in April two KIO posters showed up in the Potter and Potter Auction. The description gives them as being for Igor Kio, but I'm certain they are his father's posters. There were a lot of KIO posters and it's hard to know whose was whose, except when they had an image of the particular person like the one on the below/right. There are some great posters for sure! I've been able to find at least 15 different posters online, and one which is similar to my poster at the top of the page except it is not framed in red.


Saturday, May 19, 2012

Rasputin & Houdini

Grigori Rasputin
 In the 20th Century, it would be difficult to find two more mysterious people than Rasputin and Houdini. At first glance, one might think they have little in common, but actually they have more than you might realize. For example: they were both born in the late 1800s, they both were accused of having supernatural powers, they both did seemingly super human feats, they both were known personally by the Russian Royal Family, and the events of their deaths are both mysterious and unusual.

Grigori Rasputin was born on Jan 22, 1869 in a small village in Siberia. Later in life he would become an Russian Orthodox Monk. He had a reputation as a mystic and a healer and picked up the nickname of The Mad Monk because of his unusual ways.

It seems Rasputin and Houdini arrived in Saint Petersburg at roughly the same time 1903. Houdini was in Russia to perform and was a hit in Moscow at the prestigious Yar Restaurant and also other theatres and establishments around Moscow. Houdini was so popular in Russia that the Czar Nicholas sent for him.

Apparently the Russian Royalty had a fascination with mystics and the occult and though Houdini claimed that his feats were all done by legitimate means, he was a wonder worker and it would be easy for superstitious people to attribute unworldly powers to Houdini.

Houdini in Russia
In an Associated Press story which appeared several months after Houdini's death, it was revealed that Houdini had been asked to be a spiritual adviser to Czar Nicholas, but he refused because he was Jewish and much of Russia, especially Moscow at the time, was very anti-Semitic. The article goes on to say that Houdini again received a request from the Czar after he had left Russia to be the spiritual adviser and Houdini again turned him down. Then a third request was made and again a third refusal from Houdini. This role of spiritual adviser later went to Grigori Rasputin.

In Houdini His Life and Art by James Randi and Burt Sugar, the same 'spiritual adviser incident' is mentioned except in this version of the story, Houdini says wine was served at an elaborate ceremony and Houdini being a teetotaler, declined to drink. This was an insult and he lost favor with the Romanovs. This version of the story is repeated in the Ruth Brandon book on Houdini.

Is it a true story or just Houdini fiction? It's hard to say. The research I've done on the Romanov's shows that they were indeed very superstitious and did hire people they thought were mystics and prophets, which more often than not were just crazy people. Tsarina Alexandra had heard of Rasputin's ability to heal. Her son Alexei was sick with hemophilia and doctors had been unable to bring any relief to the boy. Rasputin seemed to heal the boy or at least ease his pain and so his esteem within the Royal Family grew.

In time however, things turned sour for Rasputin. People within and outside the Royal Family felt he was abusing his role and leading the royals down a dangerous path. On top of that he had a reputation for alcohol and women which did not seem to add up for someone who claimed to be a holy man.

In June of 1914, Rasputin was attacked by a former prostitute. She stabbed Rasputin in the gut and as his entrails burst forth from his body she screamed "I have killed the anti-Christ".  Except, Rasputin didn't die. He was operated on and he lived.

Then in December of 1916, another attempt on Rasputin's life took place. First he was poisoned, but he didn't die. Then he was shot several times and didn't die. Then apparently he was beaten and then tied up inside of a carpet and thrown into  Neva River.  Somehow, he escaped from the confines but was unable to make it out of the icy river. An autopsy showed he had not drowned, so perhaps the multiple gun shot wounds along with the severe beating and the poison finally got him.

When I read of Rasputin's death, I couldn't help but think of Houdini. Many people think he died inside the Water Torture Cell, mainly due to the Tony Curtis movie on Houdini which ended that way. We know a punch to the stomach in Montreal had something to do with it. But some speculate that perhaps the punch had been a murder attempt by angry spiritualists. There is much debate about a punch being able to cause an appendix to burst. And if I'm correct, did not the authors of Houdini-The Making of America's First Superhero make the claim that Houdini might have been poisoned!? Regardless of the what, why or how, Houdini's death is as strange as that of Rasputin.

Houdini only made one tour of Russia in 1903. He never again returned. The Silverman book on Houdini says "Houdini left Russia with a feeling of relief and liberation, looking back on the country as "some sort of mild prison" from which he had "managed to escape". These must be Houdini's words as the same sentiment is in other biographies as well.

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.