Legends and Lore Persist in Houdini Miniseries

By Tom Interval

Adrien Brody as Houdini, jumping into a very cold river in a scene that did not happened in real life. (Photo: A+E Networks)

Adrien Brody as Houdini, jumping into a very cold river in a scene that did not happened in real life. (Photo: A+E Networks)

It’s the dead of winter. Thousands of gawking spectators flood a bridge spanning the frozen river below. The crowd braves the bone-splitting cold for only one reason: to see a man die.

Of course, they might not admit that, but death is what draws them there. Or at least the possibility of it. But escaping the Reaper under these conditions is nothing new for Harry Houdini, arguably the most renowned magician, escapologist, and showman the world will ever know.

With the crowd’s train-wreck gaze upon him, Houdini is handcuffed and locked into a wooden crate, which is slowly lowered toward a hole in the otherwise ice-covered water. The supporting chain snaps and the mob gasps as the crate plunges into the water and sinks to the bottom of the river.

Within seconds, Houdini deftly sheds the cuffs and escapes the crate but can’t find the opening in the ice when he tries to return to the surface. Running out of air, he frantically searches as the audience above waits. To stay alive, he takes breaths from pockets of air between the ice and the surface of the water.

Concerned, Houdini’s assistants use grappling hooks to fish the crate out of the water, only to discover the magician is not inside. Bess, Houdini’s wife, faints. The audience, assuming the worst, waits no more. Houdini’s assistant stays long after everyone leaves, waiting loyally by the hole for his boss to return.

Later, at the Houdinis’ hotel room, Bess cries as she looks out the window, hoping for good news to arrive. Enter Houdini. Bess runs to the door and smothers him with hugs and kisses. He’s alive! He tells her he found his way out of the water after following the ethereal sound of his mother’s voice, which led him to the opening in the ice. A few seconds later, the phone rings. The caller tells Houdini his mother died. (Twilight Zone music please, maestro.)

And that’s how the story goes, according to Houdini, the 1953 movie starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Unfortunately, there’s one minor problem with the tale: It isn’t true, as is the case with many legends and lore about Houdini.

Kristen Connolly and Adrien Brody in Houdini (Photo: Colin Hutton/A+E Networks)

Kristen Connolly and Adrien Brody in Houdini (Photo: Colin Hutton/A+E Networks)

But knowing a story isn’t true doesn’t stop Hollywood from repeating or embellishing it. And why should it? After all, we’re talking about fiction, right? When creating a biopic, “you don’t necessarily get every single little fact right because that’s not the point of making one of these movies,” says actress Kristen Connolly in a recent Biography.com interview. “Sometimes with storytelling, the truth is in the bigger picture and not in every single little detail.” Kristen, known for her work in House of Cards and The Cabin in the Woods, plays Bess Houdini alongside Adrien Brody in History’s Houdini two-part miniseries, which premiers tonight at 9 p.m. ET/PT and continues tomorrow at the same time.

Kristen makes a great argument, but there are exceptions. Case in point: The Houdini biopic premiering tonight will air on the History channel. The operative word here is “History.” Sure, writers and directors have artistic license, but having a show air on a channel called History pretty much implies that at least the smaller details will be historically accurate. That’s definitely not the case with the miniseries, which makes several errors the creators either missed or don’t care about:

  • The spelling of Houdini’s real Americanized first name is Ehrich, not Erich.
  • The book that inspired young Ehrich to change his name to Houdini is Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, not R. Houdin, Magician.
  • Houdini’s mother died in 1913, not 1914.
  • Houdini didn’t drink alcohol, let alone get drunk on the bathroom floor and threaten suicide.
  • Bess didn’t smoke marijuana.
  • Houdini and his chief assistant, Jim Collins, both devised the Water Torture Cell, not just Collins.
  • When Houdini traveled with the Welsh Brothers Circus as a young man, he briefly performed as “Projea, the Wild Man of Mexico,” not “The Wild Man from Borneo.”
  • It’s highly unlikely Houdini would say “He was nobody” when referring to his late father, Mayer Samuel Weiss (Jeremy Wheeler).
  • Some of the magic props used in the series were too modern for the time period.
  • Houdini almost certainly did not dislocate his shoulder to escape from straitjackets even though he, himself, claimed to do so.
  • Houdini was 5’6″, not 5’8 1/2, as it appeared on his passport in the miniseries.
  • There is no evidence to support the claim that Houdini was a spy.
  • Houdini might have had one affair in real life (that’s still questionable), but he was definitely not the playboy the miniseries makes him out to be.
  • Houdini loved his mother, but he didn’t have an Oedipus complex, which is supposedly an unconscious desire for a parent of the opposite sex and hatred for a parent of the same sex.
  • The Grim Game (one of the movies Houdini made), came out in 1919, not 1922. And the related newspaper article with a photo showing the Hollywood sign behind Houdini was an error because the sign wasn’t built until 1923 (and it originally read, “Hollywoodland”).
  • The book Houdini wrote about mediums is titled A Magician Among the Spirits (PDF), not Fake Mediums and Their Methods. Apparently the creators of the miniseries got that title from a book Houdini actually did write: Miracle Mongers and Their Methods.
  • The fateful punch to Houdini’s abdomen occurred in Montreal, Canada, at McGill University, not in Detroit. And the man who punched him was a McGill student named J. Gordon Whitehead, not retributively by a man who said afterward, “That’s for calling Lady Doyle a fake.”

And the list goes on.

Some of the more significant scenes in the series are either inaccurate or invented, which is to be expected in a fictional portrayal. This is where artistic license comes in.

Left: from the 1953 Houdini biopic starring Tony Curtis (Photo: Paramount Pictures); Right: from the 2014 Houdini miniseries starring Adrien Brody (Photo: A+E Networks)

Left: from the 1953 Houdini biopic starring Tony Curtis (Photo: Paramount Pictures); Right: from the 2014 Houdini miniseries starring Adrien Brody (Photo: A+E Networks)

Like the 1953 Curtis film, History’s biopic recycles the hole-in-the-ice story, which, by the way, Houdini himself made up, even changing the location of the event when retelling the tale to reporters. The version in the miniseries is basically the same as the one in the Curtis film except Brody’s Houdini isn’t locked in a packing crate and lowered into the water; instead, he’s simply cuffed and chained before jumping off the bridge. In both the Curtis and Brody films, Houdini prepares for the stunt by taking baths in ice water.

Left: Torin Thatcher and Tony Curtis in the 1953 Houdini movie (Photo: Paramount Pictures); Right: Evan Jones and Adrien Brody in the 2014 Houdini miniseries (Photo: A+E Networks)

Left: Torin Thatcher and Tony Curtis in the 1953 Houdini movie (Photo: Paramount Pictures); Right: Evan Jones and Adrien Brody in the 2014 Houdini miniseries (Photo: A+E Networks)

Another, less significant, scene in the miniseries that borrows from the 1953 film takes place in Harry and Bess’s bedroom on their wedding night. In the Curtis film, Houdini wakes Bess in the middle of the night and asks her to climb into a large wooden box, where she reclines with her head and feet protruding from the ends. Her bewilderment turns to hysteria as he begins to cut her in half with a four-foot handsaw. After the sawing and screaming stop, she asks him if they’ll be doing something like that every night. “Was it so awful?” he asks, to which she replies, “No, but I expected something different on my wedding night.”

Left: Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh in the 1953 Houdini movie (Photo: Paramount Pictures); Right: Adrien Brody and Kristen Connolly in the 2014 Houdini miniseries (Photo: A+E Networks)

Left: Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh in the 1953 Houdini movie (Photo: Paramount Pictures); Right: Adrien Brody and Kristen Connolly in the 2014 Houdini miniseries (Photo: A+E Networks)

The scene blends perfectly with the Curtis film because the entire movie is filled with humorous moments like that. However, in History’s version of the scene, there doesn’t seem to be any purpose for it. It’s similar to the 1953 picture, only without the humor; and the wooden box they use is not the sawing-in-half trick but Metamorphosis, a trademark illusion Houdini performed early in his career, first with his brother Dash (Tom Benedict Knight), then Bess.

Left: Tony Curtis, Houdini (1953) (Photo: Paramount Pictures); Right: Paul Michael Glaser, The Great Houdini (1976) (Photo: ABC Circle Films)

Left: Tony Curtis, Houdini (1953) (Photo: Paramount Pictures); Right: Paul Michael Glaser, The Great Houdini (1976) (Photo: ABC Circle Films)

Not surprisingly, History’s Houdini is not the first biopic to copy ideas from previous films. The Great Houdini, a 1976 television movie starring Paul Michael Glaser and Sally Struthers, lifts a scene from the 1953 film in which Houdini picks a lock with his toes to escape from a jail cell. Both movies have our hero slip his leg through the bars of the cell to open the lock on an adjacent wall, but the ’53 version artfully incorporates its trademark humor into the scene while the ’76 pic plays it straight. Brody’s Houdini also escapes from jail cells but doesn’t pick the locks with his toes.

These are just a few examples of how Hollywood distorts Houdini history in the name of entertainment. All of those aside, I actually enjoyed both parts of the miniseries overall, even with its imperfections and cliché moments. I do wish its creators were more original. I mean, how many more times do we have to see the iced-river story in a Houdini biopic? There are plenty of daring escapes and close calls that actually did take place in Houdini’s career, and those could enthrall audiences just as effectively. Even so, I’d be lying if I said the series didn’t entertain me.

Part 1

Part 1, to air tonight, spans Houdini’s life from childhood to about the time he was performing his milk-can escape—around 1908 in real life. I’m not crazy about the jumps back and forth in time, with some of the most important moments in the life of young Ehrich Weiss (Houdini’s Americanized real name) glossed over or completely ignored. For example, besides Dash, where is the rest of Ehrich’s family? He had four brothers, one half brother, and a sister; although, the half brother died in 1885, so  him not being in the show might make sense.

Adrien Brody and Kristen Connolly, Houdini (2014) (Photo: A+E Networks)

Adrien Brody and Kristen Connolly, Houdini (2014) (Photo: A+E Networks)

Equally annoying were symbolic references to Houdini’s supposed Oedipus complex and the excessive number of shots showing his abdomen being punched, both from the outside and the inside, complete with muscle fibers, body fluids, and all. I get the reasoning behind this imagery, and it might have been more effective had they done it maybe three or four times throughout the series, but each time Houdini challenged a person to punch his washboard abdomen, or when someone said something emotionally hurtful to him: WHAM! PUNCH! (Slimy sounds) PUNCH! FORESHADOW! (The repeated punches foreshadow the supposedly fateful blows Houdini receives a little more than a week before he dies; the punches will forever be linked to his death, regardless of their medical relevance.)

To clarify, not all the CGI internal shots were bothersome. In fact, some of them were fantastic. For example, when challenged to escape from a pair of handcuffs, we see the internal workings of the locking mechanism as Houdini picks it (see the official Houdini sneak peek). Later in the same episode, we see a similar shot of the inside of a safe. In a shot during Part 2 of the series, we’re inside a cannon barrel as the propelled ball shoots toward us just before Houdini tries to escape from the ropes that bind him to the front of the cannon.

Adrien Brody as Houdini, about to perform the Bullet Catch (Photo: A+E Networks)

Adrien Brody as Houdini, about to perform the Bullet Catch (Photo: A+E Networks)

Overall, Part 1 is packed with engaging magic and thrilling escape scenes. During the episode, Houdini escapes from two jail cells; presents his famous Water Torture Cell in which he must escape from a water-filled tank while hanging upside-down; catches a bullet between his teeth in a private performance for German Emperor Wilhelm II; gives a parlor performance for Tsar Nicholas II and his family; and escapes from a water-filled milk can.

My favorite scenes include the performances given for Wilhelm and Nicholas, on whom Houdini also spies at the request of US and British intelligence agencies. “One of the strangest illusions I was ever asked to pull off,” says Houdini, “was something called espionage.” And it is an illusion because there’s no evidence to show Houdini was ever a spy. But there was one stand-out spy scene involving an escape from a safe. At the risk of spoiling it, I’ll say no more.

Louis Mertens as Ehrich Weiss (Photo: A+E Networks)

Louis Mertens as Ehrich Weiss (Photo: A+E Networks)

Also during Part 1, we see young Ehrich (Louis Mertens) as an apprentice to Maxwell the Magnificent (more artistic license from the creators); Houdini meets Jim Collins (Evan Jones), his chief assistant and engineer; he presents his mother—who’s dressed in a gown said to have been made for Queen Victoria—at a grand reception in Budapest for all their relatives; and sleeps with a woman (apparently Elizabeth Thompson, a British painter) after fighting with Bess (Hollywood seems to love affair stories). This episode also touched upon Houdini’s Australian flight (he was the first person to make a controlled powered flight in Australia) and revealed several magic and escape secrets throughout. The episode ends with a cliffhanger relating to his jump into the frozen river.

Part 2

Adrien Brody ad Houdini (Photo: Egon Endreyi/A+E Networks)

Adrien Brody ad Houdini (Photo: Egon Endreyi/A+E Networks)

The opening scene in Part 2 of Houdini quickly resolves the cliffhanger from Part 1. This episode, noticeably shorter than the first, spends most of the time on Houdini’s crusade against fraudulent spiritualists of the day, but not before a few notable scenes featuring an upside-down straitjacket escape, Jenny the vanishing elephant at the New York Hippodrome, and the onstage performance of walking through a brick wall. During the latter trick, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (David Calder) and his wife Lady Doyle (Linda Marlowe) are in the audience. After Houdini’s show, the Doyles go backstage to introduce themselves to Harry and Bess, and they all become quick friends, despite the fact Sir Arthur believes Houdini has supernatural abilities.

Adrien Brody as Houdini riding Jenny the elephant (Photo: A+E Networks)

Adrien Brody as Houdini riding Jenny the elephant (Photo: A+E Networks)

After another fight with Bess, Houdini sleeps with yet another woman, this one who saw him perform the upside-down straitjacket escape earlier. Harry and Bess kiss and make up, but not too long after that, Houdini gets a wire telling him his mother, Cecilia Weiss (Eszter Ónodi), died (this was inaccurately represented as taking place in 1914; as written above, his mother died in 1913).

As most Houdini biopics do, this one implies that the death of Cecilia drives him to expose false spirit mediums. However, Houdini had an ongoing interest in spiritualism throughout his life, which is even illustrated in this episode with a flashback of Harry and Bess in their Vaudeville days performing a spiritualist-themed act in which Bess supposedly channels the spirit of a woman who had been murdered.

Nonetheless, it’s true that the death of his mother plays at least a small role in his crusade against spiritualism. He tries to contact her spirit many times during seances, each time becoming more and more discouraged. During this phase of his life, he exposes the methods of several mediums, sometimes attending seances in disguise, then whisking away his costume as he says, “I am The Great Houdini!” One of his biggest disappoints occurred after Lady Doyle’s failed attempt to contact his late mother through the process of automatic writing.

Megan Dodds as Margery the Medium (Photo: A+E Networks)

Megan Dodds as Margery the Medium (Photo: A+E Networks)

Perhaps fueled by these disappointments, or by the fact that fraudulent mediums preyed upon vulnerable people who lost loved ones in World War I, Houdini targeted Mina Crandon, a.k.a., Margery (Megan Dodds), a Boston medium whom he exposed during a seance. After the seance, Margery, wearing nothing but a fur coat, propositioned Houdini while in his hotel room, hoping to convince him not to write his expose for Scientific American. Surprisingly (at least in the context of this show), he declined.

Adrien Brody and Kristen Connolly (Photo: A+E Networks)

Adrien Brody and Kristen Connolly (Photo: A+E Networks)

The final scenes of Part 2 include the events leading up to Houdini’s death—everything from breaking his ankle in Detroit to the supposed ill-fated punch leading to peritonitis and thus his untimely death. During a scene in the hospital just before his death, something happens I can only call creepy, for lack of a better term. I won’t describe it here, but it relates to Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait, the book upon which the miniseries is supposedly based (and written by the father of Nicholas Meyer, the writer of the History series). I write “supposedly” because there are elements in the series that mirror those in another biography, The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero.

Recommendation

As I wrote earlier, I enjoyed watching both parts of Houdini, despite some of its shortcomings. It might not be your favorite television series of all time, but it’s worth watching at least once, and if you’re a Houdini enthusiast like me, then you’ll definitely want to buy the DVD for your collection (no, Lionsgate/A+E did not ask or pay me to say that).

As for the acting, Adrien Brody and Kristen Connolly do a great job in bringing Harry and Bess to life in their own ways. The rest of the cast also is impressive, and the photography and set design are well done.

My only complaint, besides the inaccuracies listed earlier, is that the contemporary dialogue and industrial-rock music seem to be out of place for the period in which the film takes place. It’s somewhat distracting at times, especially when some characters use terms and phrases not coined until well after Houdini dies. Examples include “Enquiring minds want to know” (1980s), “escape artist” (1940-1945), “pissed” (1940s, in the context of being angry), and shtick (1955-1960). And it wasn’t just the terms themselves but the actual manner in which most of the actors spoke.

One of the strongest points about the Houdini miniseries is that it breaks new ground in terms of covering topics about Houdini’s career that are previously unexplored in any biopic. That alone should inspire Houdiniphiles to watch with sincere interest. And if you don’t consider yourself a Houdini or magic fan, I still recommend watching it because there are plenty of suspenseful escape scenes and interesting story lines. But please—please—keep in mind that it’s not a documentary. If you want to know actual facts abut Houdini, I highly recommend reading Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, by Kenneth Silverman.

HOUDINI

Production:

Lionsgate/A+E Studios Co-Production

Cast:

Harry Houdini: Adrien Brody
Bess Houdini: Kristen Connolly
Jim Collins: Evan Jones

Music: John Debney
Editing: Sabrina Plisco, ACE and David Beatty
Production Design: Patrizia Von Brandenstein
Director of Photography: Karl Walter Lindenlaub, ASC, buk
Co-Producer: David Minkowski
Producer: Ildiko Kemeny
Executive Producer: Andras Hamori
Executive Producer: Gerald W. Abrams
Writer: Nicholas Meyer
Director: Uli Edel
Executives in Charge of Production: Dirk Hoogstra and Julian P. Hobbs

Based on the book Houdini: A Mind in Chains: a Psychoanalytic Portrait, by Bernard C. Meyer, M.D.

 

 

 

Posted in Authors, Bernard C. Meyer, Bess, Cannon, Cecilia, Death, Escapes, Literature, Mayer, Milk Can, Movies, Parents, Portrayals, Siblings, Straitjacket, Television, Theodore (Hardeen), Water Torture Cell | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Houdini Miniseries Coverage

By Tom Interval

John Cox, Kristen Connolly, and Tom Interval at the Magic Castle, September 2013 (Photo: Danny Binstock)

John Cox, Kristen Connolly, and Tom Interval at the Magic Castle, September 2013 (Photo: Danny Binstock)

If you read this blog from time to time, you might recall that last year Houdini expert John Cox (Wild About Harry) and I were fortunate enough to have dinner at the Magic Castle with actress Kristen Connolly, who plays Bess Houdini on History’s Houdini miniseries, which premiers this Monday—Labor Day—at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

Kristen was nice enough to say some great things about John and me in some of her recent interviews. John wrote a nice piece about that on his blog, but I wanted to include the excerpts here as well.

‘Houdini’ Star Kristen Connolly on Mrs. Houdini, ‘House of Cards,’ and Wikipedia Errors
https://tv.yahoo.com/blogs/tv-news/kristen-connolly-houdini-213941724.html

Did you jump into research on Bess Houdini when you signed on to the movie?

I did. I’m really, really lucky, because what I started doing was just ordering these biographies, and they’re like 600 pages long each. I was sort of slogging through slowly. But I have a dear friend, Michael Mitnick, who is a writer and a huge Houdini fan. He knows an incredible amount about the Houdinis. I’ve learned that there are a lot of people who are sort of obsessed with the Houdinis and know a lot about them.

Michael put me in touch with a man named Tom Interval, who is a magician based in California, and he is a Houdini expert. He put together this packet of information: all the most important things that you could find, extracted from all of these different sources. I can’t even tell you how helpful it was. It was like 30 or 40 pages of material about Bess as a person: how she grew up, anecdotes that people told about her, her relationship with Harry, all kinds of things that were just unbelievably useful to me. I certainly could not have done all of that work in the time that I had without him.


‘Houdini’s’ Kristen Connolly captures the magic of Bess Houdini
http://www.zap2it.com/blogs/houdinis_kristen_connolly_capturing_magic_bess_houdini-2014-08

What kind of preparation did you do for this role?

I was really lucky in that a good friend of mine, a writer, Michael Mitnick knows quite a lot about Houdini and he was able to put me in touch with his magic teacher, Tom Interval, who is a magician based in California. I went out to Los Angeles and I was set up with Tom and John Cox who runs the “Wild About Harry” blog dedicated to Houdini, that’s just this awesome, wealth of information.

Tom put together this amazing packet of all Bess related information. He not only gave me this amazing resource, but saved me countless hours of pouring over all these books for information on Bess’ life. It’s a little bit harder to find stuff on her. There’s just so much written about Houdini and there’s a lot written about Bess, but you kind of have to sift through to find it. I referred to that document constantly while shooting.


History’s ‘Houdini’ Captures the Power of Illusions—and Love (INTERVIEW)
http://www.biography.com/news/houdini-history-channel-inteview

“I learned how to do something cool with cards,” she says. “[San Diego magician] Tom Interval gave me all the information on that. He taught me one cool way to shuffle cards that looks fancy on film. I don’t even know if it made it into the movie… Adrien really carried the bulk of the magic.”


HOUDINI: Kristen Connolly on Playing Bess Houdini
http://www.givememyremote.com/remote/2014/08/29/houdini-kristen-connolly-on-playing-bess-houdini/

How familiar were you with Houdini before you took this role? I think a lot of people might have a general idea of who he is, but did you know a lot about his life, his biggest magical acts, or how he died?

KC: Not really, no. I knew a little bit: I knew the name, and I knew he was an escape magician. Luckily, I have friend, he’s a writer, Michael Mitnick, who is actually a Houdini expert, and I had no idea about this. But as soon as I got the part — and he’s really close with my brother, Will — and [both] my brother and my fiancé said, “You have to talk to Michael Mitnick, he’s a Houdini expert.” He put me in [contact] with some wonderful information, and then put me in touch with some wonderful people in Los Angeles — John Cox and Tom Interval.

John has a blog called “Wild About Harry,” and it’s awesome. It’s in-depth, and has endless information about the Houdinis, especially on Bess. And Tom put together this amazing report for me with all the information about her. It’s harder to find information on Bess; you have to dig through things. So he saved me endless hours of reading every biography out there by putting it all in one place. I was really lucky to have people helping me on getting a handle of who she was. And she’s such a fascinating person, so it was really exciting to do that research.


Kristen Connolly on ‘Houdini’ and ‘House of Cards’
http://www.craveonline.com/tv/interviews/751547-kristen-connolly-houdini-house-cards?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=kristen-connolly-houdini-house-cards

Was the actual performance of playing Bess later in life the same as when you were doing grad school theater?

Yeah, it’s the same approach. You do the same homework. You try and find a character and find what makes people do what they do and what they care about and what’s important to them. That process is all the same, just on a much different scale certainly. Yeah, it was a really thrilling job to have and actually a friend of mine from graduate school who was in a class with my mother is sort of a Houdini expert. He’s a writer named Michael Mitnick and he knows tons about Houdini and actually put me in touch with some guys in Los Angeles who are also Houdini experts. So I got some insights thanks to grad school so it kind of came full circle.


Kristen Connolly tries a bit of magic in the new History mini-series ‘Houdini’
http://www.examiner.com/article/kristen-connolly-tries-a-bit-of-magic-the-new-history-mini-series-houdini

What did you know about Harry Houdini before getting involved in this project?

I didn’t know much beyond the fact that he did escapes. If you had said Houdini to me, the first word that would have come to mind is magician and that’s about it. My research started from ground zero, but I was really, really lucky. I had a friend from graduate school named Michael Mitnick, who’s a playwright, who happened to be sort of an Houdini expert. He was been able to sort of point me in the direction of certain books and of some really wonderful people in Los Angeles who are also Houdini experts. One of them, John Cox, has a blog called “Wild About Harry.” Anyone who’s interested in Harry Houdini should check it out.

What did you learn about Bess? Did she really smoke marijuana?

She did smoke pot. She drank a lot. There’s much less written about Bess than there is about Harry. But if you are so inclined, you can really dig and find it. I learned an enormous amount from [John]. He was able to tell me what was really substantiated, what was a bit controversial, what some people said but it’s probably not true.

 

 

Posted in Bess, Experts, John Cox, Magic Castle, Portrayals, Television, Wild About Harry | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Houdini Auction: Potter & Potter, Aug. 23, 2014

By Tom Interval

Potter & Potter Houdini Auction CatalogIn case you don’t already know, Potter & Potter is having a Houdini auction on Sat., Aug. 23, 10 a.m., in its Chicago gallery. If you live in Chicago, you can preview some of the items in the days preceding the auction from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. CST. Featured items include lithographs, broadsides, challenges, photographs, ephemera, Houdini scrapbooks, personal artifacts, handcuffs, magic props, locks, escape devices, and associated memorabilia, such as documents relating to Hardeen (Houdini’s brother) and other magicians and celebrities. To view the auction catalog online (PDF), click on the picture or on the following link:

http://www.potterauctions.com/pdf/Catalog_026_Houdiniana_WEB.pdf

Posted in Art, Auctions, Collecting, Collections, Ephemera, Handcuffs, Letters, Playbills, Posters, Posters, Potter & Potter, Scrapbooks | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Houdini’ Miniseries Photos

By Tom Interval

Here are some promotional photos from the upcoming “Houdini” two-part miniseries, set to air Sept. 1 and 2, 9 p.m. ET/PT on History.

All photos copyright 2014 A+E Networks.

http://www.history.com/shows/houdini

Adrien Brody

Adrien Brody (Copyright 2014 A+E Networks)

Adrien Brody

Adrien Brody (Copyright 2014 A+E Networks)

Adrien Brody

Adrien Brody (Copyright 2014 A+E Networks)

Adrien Brody

Adrien Brody (Copyright 2014 A+E Networks)

Kristen Connolly, Adrien Brody, Evan Jones

Kristen Connolly, Adrien Brody, Evan Jones (Copyright 2014 A+E Networks)

Kristen Connolly

Kristen Connolly (Copyright 2014 A+E Networks)

Adrien Brody

Adrien Brody (Copyright 2014 A+E Networks)

Adrien Brody

Adrien Brody (Copyright 2014 A+E Networks)

Adrien Brody

Adrien Brody (Copyright 2014 A+E Networks)

Posted in Portrayals, Television | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A+E Announces Premier of ‘Houdini’ Miniseries Sept. 1, 9 p.m.

By Tom Interval

Adrien Brody in the two-part miniseries, "Houdini," set to air Sept. 1 and 2, 9 p.m. ET/PT, on History.

Adrien Brody in the two-part miniseries, “Houdini,” set to air Sept. 1 and 2, 9 p.m. ET/PT, on History. (Photo copyright 2014 TV Equals)

Today A+E Networks officially announced the premiere of the two-part miniseries “Houdini,” staring Academy Award winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist) as Harry Houdini and Kristen Connolly (House of Cards) as Bess Houdini, set to air Sept. 1 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on History. Part 2 airs the following night at the same time.

You may recall that last September Connolly consulted me and Houdini expert John Cox about Bess’s character. The series was originally set to air earlier this year until the network postponed it.

You can read A&E’s press release below or on their site.

History Premiers Houdini, Two-Night Miniseries Sept. 1 at 9 p.m.

New York, NY – July 21, 2014 – HOUDINI, a new two-night scripted miniseries airing on September 1 and 2 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HISTORY®, is the story of a man who can defy death, but who really was the man behind the escapes? The event miniseries follows the epic tales of Harry Houdini as he emerges as America’s first bonafide world-renowned superstar.

From humble beginnings at circus sideshows to sold-out concert halls, Eastern European immigrant Ehrich Weiss rose to become a household name across the globe – Houdini. Academy Award® winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist) stars as The Great Harry Houdini as he finds fame, engages in espionage, battles spiritualists, and encounters the greatest names of the era, from U.S. presidents to Arthur Conan Doyle and Rasputin. A thrilling ride throughout Harry’s psyche, HOUDINI delves deep behind the curtain into his life through his stunts, his visions, and his mastery of illusion.

Joining Brody is Kristen Connolly (House of Cards, The Cabin the Woods) as Bess Houdini, the love of Harry’s life and right hand when it came to some of his most amazing feats, and Evan Jones (A Million Ways to Die in the West, The Book of Eli, Gangster Squad) as Jim Collins, Harry’s assistant and confidant.

HOUDINI is a Lionsgate/A+E Studios Co-Production. Gerald W. Abrams (Nuremberg, Family of Spies) and Andras Hamori (Sunshine) serve as executive producers of HOUDINI. Academy Award nominated Nicholas Meyer (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution) is writer and Academy Award nominated director Uli Edel (The Baader Meinhof Complex, Hotel Adlon) helms HOUDINI. Academy Award winning veteran Patrizia von Brandenstein (Amadeus) is production designer and Karl Walter Lindenlaub, whose work ranges from American blockbusters (Independence Day) to award-winning art house movies (Black Book) is cinematographer. Dirk Hoogstra and Julian P. Hobbs are Executives in Charge of Production for HISTORY.

About HISTORY®

HISTORY, now reaching more than 98 million homes, is the leading destination for award-winning original series and specials that connect viewers with history in an informative, immersive and entertaining manner across all platforms. The network’s all-original programming slate, including scripted event programming, features a roster of hit series including American Pickers®, American Restoration™, Ax Men™, Counting Cars™, Pawn Stars®, Swamp People® and The Legend of Shelby the Swamp Man as well as HISTORY®’s first scripted series Vikings, and epic miniseries and special programming such as The Bible and the Emmy® Award-winning Hatfields & McCoys, Men Who Built America, Gettysburg, Vietnam in HD, America The Story of Us® and 102 Minutes That Changed America. The HISTORY® website is the leading online resource for all things history, and in 2011, the United States Library of Congress selected HISTORY®’s Civil War 150 site for inclusion in the historic collection of Internet materials related to the American Civil War sesquicentennial. http://www.history.com. For more press information and photography, please visit us at http://press.aenetworks.com

About A+E Studios
A+E Studios is the in-house production arm of the award-winning global media company A+E Networks, LLC. A+E Studios commissions, creates and co-produces content across all networks and platforms under the A+E Networks portfolio, including A&E® Network, Lifetime®, HISTORY®, LMN®, FYI™, H2™ and A&E IndieFilms®.

About Lionsgate

Lionsgate is a leading global entertainment company with a strong and diversified presence in motion picture production and distribution, television programming and syndication, home entertainment, family entertainment, digital distribution, new channel platforms and international distribution and sales. Lionsgate currently has over 30 television shows on more than 20 networks spanning its primetime production, distribution and syndication businesses, including such critically-acclaimed hits as the multiple Emmy Award-winning Mad Men and Nurse Jackie, the comedy Anger Management, the network series Nashville, the syndication success The Wendy Williams Show and the critically-acclaimed hit series Orange is the New Black.

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By the Woman of a Thousand Faces

By Tom Interval

Rose Mackenberg, Houdini’s oft-disguised undercover spiritualist agent (a multi-petaled Rose, to be sure) wrote this article in 1929. This is the first of several in a series (the only one I have, unfortunately). In it, Mackenberg writes mostly about Arthur Ford‘s fraudulent claim that he received a secret code from the late Houdini during a January 1929 seance in Bess Houdini’s home. The quality of this scan is not the best. I pieced it together, and not everything is perfectly aligned. However, it’s definitely readable. I’ve also clipped, and slightly edited, a couple of great images from that article (see below).

1929, International Feature Service Inc., Great Britain

Click to enlarge. (1929, International Feature Service Inc., Great Britain)

Mrs. Houdini looking into the eyes of a bronze bust of Houdini

Mrs. Houdini looking into the eyes of a bronze bust of Houdini

An illustrated portrait of the master himself

An illustrated portrait of the master himself

Joseph Dunninger, one of history's greatest mentalists

Joseph Dunninger, one of history’s greatest mentalists

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Did this man live at 278 W. 113th St. before Houdini?

By Tom Interval

David Lubin (1849–1919), merchant, inventor, agriculturalist

David Lubin (1849–1919), merchant, inventor, agriculturalist (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

We know a few things about Harry Houdini’s New York City home at 278 W. 113th St. and even got a glimpse inside last year when the New York Daily News interviewed Fred Thomas, the current owner. For more than two decades, Houdini and his family lived in the 12-room brownstone until the iconic escapologist’s death in 1926. But who owned the home, and possibly lived in it, before Houdini purchased it in 1904?

According to real-estate websites, such as Zillow and Trulia, the 6,008-square-foot home was built in 1890 (five years earlier than what William Kalush and Larry Sloman wrote in their biography, The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero).

The City of New York’s Automated City Register Information System (ACRIS) records for the Houdini property (Block 1828, Lot 59) go back only to 1979, when Marie Hinson (née Rahner), Bess Houdini’s sister, was the owner. Since online city records go back to 1966, it’s unclear why the records for 278 end at 1979. Here’s a screen capture of that search (click to enlarge):

Screen capture, ACRIS property search, Block 1828, Lot 59

My assumption is that serious Houdini researchers and biography authors, such as Kenneth Silverman and Kalush and Sloman, already checked the physical records dated before 1979.* However, neither of their bios—Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss or The Secret Life, respectively—includes any information about homeownership before 1904.

Article mentioning David Lubin, a possible resident of 278 W. 113th St. before Houdini

Article mentioning David Lubin, a possible owner and resident of 278 W. 113th St. before Houdini, The Sydney Mail, April 8, 1903 (Source image: Google News archive)

After a bit of digging in the Google News archive, I found an article in the April 8, 1903, issue of The Sydney Mail, which mentions inventor and agriculturalist “David Lubin, of 278 West 113th Street, New York . . .” (see the accompanying image with the relevant line highlighted in yellow; click to enlarge).

Born in Poland, Lubin, an inventor of many agricultural contraptions, also lived in London; Attleboro, Massachusetts; Sacramento; and Rome, among other places. Assuming the Mail article is accurate (admittedly, when it comes to newspaper reporting, it’s not always wise to assume), it’s possible Lubin either lived in 278 or at least owned it. If so, Houdini might have directly interacted with Lubin during the property sale in 1904 and possibly enjoyed discussions or correspondence with him since both men had inventive minds (besides creating several original escape acts and paraphernalia, Houdini patented a diver’s suit in 1921).

If someone out there has evidence linking Houdini and Lubin, or any information regarding the ownership of 278 W. 113th St. prior to 1904, please contact me with relevant information and documents, and I’ll update this blog. Thanks!

*If you’re a Houdini buff living in New York and are interested in digging up old property records, the Manhattan City Register Office is located at 66 John St., 13th Floor, New York City, and is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Their phone number is 877-254-7234. And if you’d like to share any records you find, please contact me.

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