Archive for March, 2010

Stars of Vaudeville #141: DeWolf Hopper

Posted in Broadway, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Sport & Recreation, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2010 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of DeWolf Hopper (1858-1935), thespian most famous for his 10,000 vaudeville recitations of the poem Casey at the Bat,  which was written by Ernest Lawrence Thayer in 1888. Thus Hopper was the person most responsible for its popularization…that is until the later Walt Disney cartoon with the voice of Jerry Colonna).

Prior to this, he starred in over 30 Broadway shows, including comic roles in several Gilbert and Sullivan shows. The fifth of his six wives was Hedda Hopper, later to become a notorious Hollywood gossip columnist.

And guess what? You can actually hear a recording of DeWolf Hopper reciting Casey here. Play ball!

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To find out more about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

Stars of Vaudeville #140: Paul Whiteman

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Music, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on March 28, 2010 by travsd

PAUL WHITEMAN, “The King of Jazz”

There were so many people claiming to be Kings and Queens of Jazz in these years its surprising there weren’t some outright wars of succession. Though this portly gentleman used the title too, his last name was a much more accurate description of his style of music. To a purist, Whiteman’s vaudeville era music was only jazz if you think the soundtrack music to the Little Rascals is jazz. Sure, it’s a Big Band. Sure they’ve got a horn section. But it ain’t got a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Jazz-influenced pop music is what Whiteman and his various orchestras made, and for awhile he had the most popular band in the country. He also nurtured some of the greatest musicians and singers America produced in the teens and twenties, earning himself the affection nickname: “Pops.”

Born in Denver in 1890, Whiteman learned to play the violin as a child. His early professional experience did not hint at the direction his career was to take: positions with the Denver Symphony and San Francisco People’s Symphony; Navy bandmaster in World War I. In 1919 he formed his own orchestra specializing in a style he called “symphonic jazz” – that is, large scale orchestrated arrangements of jazz-like pop, but without the noisy and chaotic (and most would say thrilling) improvisation that had been the hallmark of Dixieland. His outfit was the perfect vessel to introduce George Gershwin’s experiments, such as “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” (George White’s Scandals, 1922) and “Rhapsody in Blue” (Aeolian Hall, 1924). Vaudeville provided steady work, and his bands were to play the Palace numerous times in the 20s. In 1925 they played the Hippodrome – one of the few acts to make sense in that cavernous venue. (The band returned in 1936 to supply the music for Billy Rose’s Jumbo).

His late twenties line-up included some legendary personnel. From 1927-29 the band included the great Bix Beiderbecke on cornet and the Dorsey Brothers (Tommy on trombone, Jimmy on clarinet and altso sax), soon to form their own organization.

Those years also the employment by Whiteman of the Rhythm Boys, a male singing trio consisting of Harry Barris, Al Rinker and Bing Crosby. They had been working the Fanchon and Marco circuit out of Los Angeles when Whiteman discovered them. The boys toured the country with the Whiteman orchestra, playing the Palace in 1928, and appearing in the 1930 film The King of Jazz. Then Whiteman sent the Rhythm Boys around the Keith Circuit with their own unit, along with a cardboard cut-out of Whiteman and a recording of him saying “Ladies and Gentleman, I take great pleasure in presenting to you the Rhythm Boys!” There was as much of “boys” as of “rhythm” to the singing group in these years (Bing was in his mid-twenties), and their constant fooling around on the job got them fired. This was of course one of those happy sackings, for Bing soon had his own CBS radio show, a lucrative recording career, and a movie contract with Paramount studios that led to countless classic pictures, an Oscar for best actor, and American immortality. Whiteman is now a footnote in Crosby’s career and not the other way around. Who knew?

There was still a lot of life left in Pops, too, including numerous radio programs, such as Kraft Music Hall and Paul Whiteman Presents; films, like Thanks a Million (1935), Strike Up the Band (1940), and Atlantic City (1944), and even television programs in the 1950s.

Pops died in 1967.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Vaudville #139: Frank Tinney

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Comedy, Vaudeville etc. with tags , on March 27, 2010 by travsd

Today is the birthday of vaudeville and Broadway comedian Frank Tinney (1878-1940). His shtick was to tell the corniest of jokes, implicating others (bandleaders, fellow performers, audience members) in the crime by dragging them onstage and making them the feeder. To make it more bizarre, he did this act in blackface (without accent) for most of his career. A drunkard and womanizer, his career ended in the 1920s after a scandal, else there might have been a cinematic record and he’d be better known today.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Vaudeville #138: Fred Karno

Posted in British Music Hall, Clown, Comedy, Silent Film, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on March 26, 2010 by travsd

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The Fred Karno Troup was the pre-eminent company of British Music Hall pantomimes. Karno’s most distinguished alumni included both the man who revolutionized the art of silent comedy (Charlie Chaplin) and the man who brought its techniques farthest into the sound era (Stan Laurel). Other notables from the company included Billie RitchieBilly ArmstrongBillie Reeves (everybody named Billy apparently), Alf Reeves (no relation), Jimmy Aubrey, Eric Campbell, Albert Austin, Fred Kitchen, and (very briefly) Vesta Tilley).

“The guv’nor”, as Karno was affectionately called by his colleagues, was one of the most powerful and influential figures in music hall history. He began with a humble trio of acrobats in 1888. Seven years later he presented his first panto sketch “Hilarity” which scored a big hit with audiences. By 1901, he had added three more sketches to the group’s repertoire. In the years 1904-1914, Karno’s violently comical knockabout really hit its stride with the public. Britain at that time was undergoing a modest social revolution, from an aristocracy to a more level and fluid social structure along the lines of what had been enjoyed in the United States. Karno’s rough housing scenarios usually had plots centered around trades people and working men, allowing such people in the audience to purge some of their pent up frustration at injustices in the workplace.

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One of his most successful sketches was called: “Mumming Birds”. It consisted of a vaudeville show within the vaudeville show, including members of the “audience” who would be played by Karno regulars out in the house itself. The centerpiece of the routine was a “drunk” who arrived late, causing a big commotion and calling a great deal of attention to himself. The part of the drunk was first played by Billie Ritchie (who later became a silent comedy star), and then later by Billie Reeves. The Chaplin connection was not a coincidence. Charlie followed his half-brother Sydney into the troupe in 1908, and rapidly became the company’s star, playing the lead role of the drunk. His understudy, a young man named Stanley Jefferson (better known to posterity as Stan Laurel) joined in 1910.

The troupe was so successful that Karno undertook an American tour in 1910. In an attempt to calibrate for American tastes, he replaced “Mumming Birds” with  “the Wow Wows”, a sketch especially conceived for Yanks, about secret societies (which were then very much in vogue among the Booboise), but the bit didn’t resonate.  They switched back to “Mumming Birds”, renamed “A Night in an English Music Hall” for the sake of American audiences. They started out with six weeks on the Percy Williams circuit, then did 20 weeks with Sullivan and Considine.

Karno’s salaries were pitifully small; actors stayed with him for the prestige. In their line, Karno’s comedians were known to be the best. Karno drilled his company for several hours a day for months on end, demanding that all of his actors have total command of their bodies, much as a ballet dancer or classical musician must be absolutely tops in his craft. Every actor had to be able to play every part in the show, so that any could substitute for any other in the event of an emergency. Apart from his natural talent and grace, Chaplin owed his superiority as a slapstick film clown (with Keaton his only serious rival) to his training with Karno. Chaplin also appropriated many Karno gags and situations for his films. The 1915 Essanay short A Night in the Show is essentially Chaplin’s drunken turn from “A Night in an English Music Hall.” Laurel, though not Chaplin’s equal, brought with him an indefatigable work ethic, and the technique that allowed him to always discover the funniest possible “take” for any given moment. From Karno both Chaplin and Laurel took the practice of injecting a touch of pathos into their comedy. These two most famous Karno alum went on to have nearly opposite experiences of show business success after they left the nest. The troupe itself did not long survive their departure.

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To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Vaudeville #137: El Brendel

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc. with tags on March 25, 2010 by travsd

El Brendel (1898-1964) mightn’t rate a mention in these annals at all but for the fact that he is the character responsible for the expression “Yumpin’ Yiminy” and that’s good enough for me. A Swedish dilect comedian, he was part of a team with his wife Flo Burt beginning in 1917. She sang, he told jokes and did crazy dancing. Brendel had bit parts in 50 films whenever anyone wanted a humorous Swede (and I guess that was pretty often) from 1926-56.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Vaudeville #136: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Posted in Comedy, Fatty Arbuckle, Hollywood (History), Silent Film, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2010 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (1887-1933).

Born in Smith Center, Kansas, Arbuckle moved with his family to Santa Ana, California the following year. His mother died when he was still a child, and his cruel and abusive father (who suspected Roscoe was not his child) deserted him soon thereafter. Arbuckle supported himself with a job at a hotel until a friend convinced him to enter an amateur singing contest. A talent scout noticed him and soon he was touring the west with Frank Bacon’s Stock Company. In 1904 he started working the Pantages circuit. The following year found him performing briefly with Leon Errol’s burlesque company out of Portland, Oregon.

He had been in films as early as 1909 (at the Selig Polyscope Company) but no one – including himself – had known what to do with him, so he went back to the theatre for a couple of years.

In 1913 he began working for Mack Sennett, and became a big star almost instantly. Sennett knew how to use him, casting him right away in such chestnuts as The Waiter’s Picnic and Help! Help! Hydrophobia! (both 1913). Arbuckle(now nicknamed against his wishes as “Fatty”)  specialized in lazy, seemingly retarded lummoxes and worthless sons, often attired in a small derby, crewneck jersey, too-short trousers and suspenders. It was Arbuckle who would take up the rube parts that might have been Fred Mace’s or Mack Sennett’s in earlier years. His big size was offset by pleasing features and a surprising physical grace. He was also easily the greatest of all the drag comedians to come out of Keystone, donning petticoats and skipping and gamboling like a six year old girl at the slightest provocation. Audiences found him hilarious, and they pretty much still do.

In 1917, the Schenck Brothers at Metro gave him his own company at Metro, the Comique Film Company, where his supporting players were Buster Keaton and Arbuckle’s nephew Al St. John. In 1920, Arbuckle left to make a series of features at Paramount, bequeathing Comique to Keaton.

The following year, in the wake of his completion of three features, Arbuckle let off a little steam, in the patented twenties Hollywood fashion – with a wild, sensational party. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards, one of the attendees Virginia Rappe, died.  Arbuckle was put on trial for the crime (if there was one), and, though acquitted, the country and the movie industry turned against him. He was blacklisted.

After trying unsuccessfully for many months to get movie work, Arbuckle took the only employment he could get: vaudeville. Alexander Pantages took a chance on him in 1924, booking him for his San Francisco Theatre. He also turned up at Loew’s State in New York in 1928. These dates were sporadic and Arbuckle didn’t go over well. Whether it was audience prejudice related to the scandal, or Arbuckle’s shaken confidence owing to same we will never know.

Gradually, Arbuckle worked his way back into the medium he knew something about.

By 1927 he was directing Marion Davies in the feature The Red Mill under the pseudonym William B. Goodrich. And by the early 30s, the blacklist was lifted. Arbuckle appeared in a series of popular sound shorts for Warner Brothers.

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And these were recently released on DVD! There’s only a half dozen of them, but they are quite funny. Most of them are roughly remakes and rehashes of the shorts he had done at Comique, now with the added benefit of getting to hear Roscoe talk. And you know what? He talks just like you think he would. His death by heart attack in 1933 was a true loss for comedy film. While I don’t think Arbuckle was any major auteur as a director, the things he could have gone on to do as a comedy star could have been quite great. But alas, it wasn’t to be. As with John BelushiJohn Candy and Chris Farley, Heaven appears to want to reclaim our big funny men before their time.

 

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Stars of Vaudeville #135: Houdini

Posted in Dime Museum and Side Show, Jews/ Show Biz, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2010 by travsd

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At the crossroads of Science and Mystery, the heart and the mind, the “old days” and the modern age – like vaudeville itself – we encounter the Great Houdini. Houdini represents a confluence of many of the most popular obsessions of his day: spiritualism, physical culture and the burgeoning field of law enforcement which was just then getting organized. Most of the time he was not a magician at all, but an escape artist. He had many geniuses: stage performer, author, film actor, book collector and muckraker. A workaholic, he never slept more than 5 hours a night. In addition, Houdini was one of the greatest publicists ever, up there with Barnum, Ziegfeld and Billy Rose. Will Rogers called him “the greatest showman of our time by far”. No other vaudevillian came close.

He was born Ehrich Weiss in Appleton, Wisconsin in 1874. He was one of seven children of a perpetually unemployed Hungarian Rabbi. It seems that Rabbi Weiss was too conservative for any American congregation – once hired/soon fired, and so the family was unspeakably poor. The search for a synagogue had them moving around a bit. The first hop was to Milwaukee, from which burg young Erich (already a daredevil) ran away at age 12. Hopping a freight train with the intention of moving to Galveston, he somehow wound up in Hannibal, Missouri, where he shined shoes and sold newspapers. In 1887, he and the family converged in New York City. On a lark he began practicing coin tricks and sleight of hand learned from his brother and a co-worker at the department store where he worked. A fitness freak, he began working out regularly at the Allerton Club. Here he would form the good habits he kept all the rest of his life, a regular regimen of daily exercise, and abstinence from smoking and drinking (some daredevil!).

At age 17, he read a book that changed his life – the memoirs of Eugene Robert-Houdin (1805-1871), who was considered at the time to be the father of modern magic. In short order he formed an act with co-worker Jacob Hyman named The Brothers Houdini. The name young Erich Weiss devised himself reveals his public relations genius, having symbolic resonance for both professional magicians and the public at large. First, the name “Harry Houdini” conjures up three of his illustrious predecessors: Robert-Houdin, of course; Harry Kellar, and a man named Pinetti (1750-ca.1800) from whom the tradition of adding an Italianate “I” to magician’s last names seems to have arrived.  The public doesn’t give a damn about any of that of course. The name works for them because it combines an earthy, American-sounding first name (adapted perhaps from “Ehrie”, his Hungarian nickname) with a “mysterious, Eastern” sounding last name appropriate for a magician. Freighted with all that subconscious meaning, it’s probably the best stage name of all time.

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But that doesn’t mean they got any bookings. Jacob quit out of boredom after four months, and was replaced by Houdini’s brother Theodore, known familiarly as “Dash”. The two managed to get bookings at parties and beergardens, pretty standard for beginning entertainers. They did all of the standard tricks, coin, card and handkerchief manipulation. Then they struck their first gold – early proof of Harry’s flair for showmanship. They did a stunt called “Metamorphosis”. In this illusion, Harry would tie Dash up, put him inside a bag, and then close him inside a trunk. A screen would be placed in front of the trunk. Then Harry would step behind the screen, and in a matter of seconds the screen would be removed revealing Dash standing next the trunk. He would then open first the trunk and then the bag inside, revealing Harry, tied up just as Dash had been. The Houdini brothers performed this trick together at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, where Harry first saw a Hindu swallow needles and immediately added it to his growing repertoire.

In 1894 they worked Miner’s Bowery Theatre, an incremental step up from the Bar Mitzvah Circuit. That year he met and married the love of his life, Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahne – “Bess” —  whom immediately replaced Dash in the act. Small and limber, Bess above all helped to turn Metamorphosis into a breathtaking spectacle, by getting the time of her change down to 3 seconds. The pair worked Dime Museums, medicine shows and burlesque at first, sometimes 10-15 shows a day. They spent 26 weeks with the Welsh Brothers Circus, where an old Japanese man taught Harry regurgitation. In 1897 they worked Doc Hill’s California Concert Co, where they got to know The Three Keatons. Harry did seances and performed “second sight”. Here he perfected many of his Davenportesque skills that would come in handy for his baffling escapes. , e.g., writing a message on a blackboard with his toes

1899 was the turning point. First Harry made the front page of the Chicago Journal for escaping from police restraints.  Then Martin Beck caught his act in St Paul and signed him on the spot. Beck helped him shape his act a little bit, advising him to drop the conventional magic and concentrate on escapes. He worked the Keith and Orpheum circuits through 1900 billed as “the Undisputed King of Handcuffs, and the Monarch of Leg Shackles”. To publicize his engagements, Houdini began visiting the local police precincts in each town, summoning the press, and arranging to break out of the jail. He began to develop a special bond with the nation’s law enforcement officials. Policemen began to devise new challenges for him, inventing new handcuffs, sticking him in state-of-the-art jails. Testimonials and affadavits become part of his press kit. He boasted that he could break out of anything, and that seemed to be nearly the truth.

He was so confident because he truly did his homework, leaving no stone unturned in his drive to understand any possible mechanism that might entrap him. On his first trip to England, the first thing he did upon arrival was to visit every locksmith he could, in order to familiarize himself with every conceivable type of British lock. Despite good notices from America, Houdini had trouble getting booked in London at first. After escaping from a jail at Scotland Yard, he finally got a gig at the Alhambra. Next he pressed on to Germany, where did so well, he sent a letter to Dash advising to come make hay while the sun shone. For years Dash performed as Hardeen, one of Houdini’s principle competitors – the audience never realizing that he was Houdini’s brother!

The challenges began to get harder. In San Francisco, he was placed naked into a straight-jacket, with his ankles locked in restraining belts, and ten pairs of handcuffs on his arms. He got out. In Blackburn, Lancashire in 1902, a sadist brought onstage a pair of irons that had been tampered with. Houdini balked, but the audience insisted that he still escape from them. It took him two hours, but he made it. In 1904, at the Hippodrome in front of 4,000 people, he was presented with a special set of cuffs devised by a locksmith over a 5 year period. Designed to be “escape proof”, they were fortified with six locks and nine tumblers. Escape time: 1 hour, ten minutes. It’s hard to say how long these escapes REALLY took, for Houdini had discovered the principle that the act went over better the more time he took, and the more sweat ran off his back.

Houdini’s act seemed to awaken that part of the human brain which had last been most imaginative during the Inquisition. In Holland he tried to escape while tied to a revolving windmill, but the arm of the windmill broke under his weight. In England, he was advertised to escape tied to a cannon with a time fuse or he would “be blown to Kingdom Come!” The authorities put a stop to that one.

Business began to get involved as a way of promoting their products., an ingenious stroke on both Houdini’s and their parts. Such deals had Houdini escaping from donated packing crates, hampers, barrels, bank safes, a glass box, boiler, a rolltop desk, a canvas mailpouch.

In 1905, he began to take the danger up a notch. This is the first year he tried the trick of being restrained, crated, and dumped into rivers and bays off the back of boats. In 1906, he got audacious with the authorities. In a Washington, D.C. jail, he escaped from the cell where Garfield’s assassin had been kept, and then playfully rearranged all of the criminals. In Boston, he escaped not only from his cell, but from the entire prison, then ran to a theatre, from the stage of which he telephoned the warden and waiting newsmen.

That year, too he wrote his first book The Right Way to Do Wrong wherein he divulged many of the lockpicking secrets of criminals. In Detroit, he found that the jail really was escape proof — all of the cell doors were locked on a single bolt controlled at one end of corridor. To save face, he jumped off Berle Island Bridge through a hole cut in the ice and wearing handcuffs.

In 1908, Houdini made a break with many of the factors that sustained him. First, by now, he had so many imitators in the handcuff escape line that the trick was utterly worthless to him as an attraction. Accordingly, he gave up handcuffs, and wrote his second book Handcuff Secrets, which spoiled the field for everyone else. Then he wrote another book that broke with the past. Having discovered years earlier that Robert-Houdin was not all he claimed to be as the originator of modern magic, and by now having become famous with name that was taken in homage of a fraud, the only option to him was to pre-emptively prove to the public that he was aware of the facts of the matter. He did so in his third book, entitled The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, a volume which many now feel is too savage in it repudiation of the French magician. Houdini by this time had become to consider himself a sort of scholar, like his father. Throughout his life he collected books and manuscripts related to the performing arts. By the time he died, he possessed the largest library in the world on witchcraft and magic, and the 4th largest dramatic collection.

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On top of all this literary activity, he also managed to introduce one of his most famous tricks, the so-called “water can”, a sort of oversized, air-tight milk can, in which he would submerge himself and then be shut in with the lid sealed. The act debuted in St. Louis. It typically took him three minutes to get out. Other stunts that year: In London, he dropped over the side of a tugboat weighted down with 22 lbs. of chains. He was back up in 42 seconds. In Berlin, 5 Chinese sailors challenged him to escape from a  “sanguaw”, an ancient Chinese torture device that hung him upside down with his neck, ankles, arms and body, covered with straps and chains. He was out in 16 minutes.

In 1909, he became obsessed with aeronautics, becoming the first person to fly an airplane in Australia (1910). He publicized his 1912 run at Hammerstein’s with a new stunt. He had himself roped and straightjacked, hung upside down from the top of the Heidleberg Building 421 Broadway, 300 feet above street. From here on in whenever he toured, he’d do a version of this stunt from one of the tallest building in whatever town he was performing in.

He debuted his most famous trick, the Chinese Water Torture Tank, at Circus Busch in Germany in 1912. He did it again in the us at Hammersteins later that year.

As he reached middle age, he began to work in a mellower stage presentation, one third of which was a film of his underwater box escape. In 1918 at the Hippodrome, he made an elephant disappear. Also that year, he began to do movies, generally playing a secret agent or similar character that allowed him to show off his daredevil skills in cliffhangers. In 1920 he launched his own company, the Houdini Picture Company, which produced such classics as The Man From Beyond (wherein he played an unfrozen 100 year old man from the past) and Haldene of the Secret Service. These pictures lost money and the company folded which only proves that Houdini was ahead of his time, for both premises sound very much in tune with the modern sensibility.

Always obsessed with death, this tendency in Houdini intensified when his mother passed away in 1913. He began going to seances that year in a genuine attempt to get in touch with her. At every one he attended however he recognized the phony techniques he had used himself years earlier as part of the medicine show. His search for his mother gradually became a crusade to debunk fraudulent mediums. After several years away from England during the war, he returned during the 1919-20 season to find a country as preoccupied with death as he had always been. The U.K. had gone nutty for spiritualism. In this environment, he made friends with Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who was also interested in the subject, although, it turns out, much more credulously. During his six months in England on this trip Houdini visited 100 mediums, and achieved little satisfaction in the way of spiritual reward. Soon thereafter Houdini was appointed to a committee by Scientific American magazine to judge spirit photos and physical manifestations. The committee brought him into contact with some of the most prominent practitioners of the day, all of whose tricks he was able to expose. In 1924, Houdini wrote a book 1924 called A Magician Among the Spirits exposing the technique of fraudulent spiritualists, and causing Doyle to definitively break with him. The medium bashing by now comprised a good part of his act. He went on 8 week lecture tour of colleges. He helped local police and prosecutes bust charlatans. His new stage show was in three parts: 1/3 magic, 1/3 escapes, and 1/3 medium exposure.

In 1926, he debuted the last new stunt of his life, the “Challenge of the Egyptian Mystic”. Tellingly, now that he was in his fifties, it was a trick that tested his ability to lie down and relax. He had himself locked in an airtight box and dropped to the bottom of a swimming pool, where he remained for an hour and a half, before ringing a little bell to be let back up. All that time he survived on the little bit of air inside the casket, by keeping still and regulating his breath, much like an Eastern mystic would do.

Houdini was a maniac. He made an entire career out of ignoring the most useful message the nervous system can send to the brain, which is “Ouch! This hurts! I’m getting out of here!”. For two and a half decades this little habit of his made him a rich and happy man. In October 1926 it finally caught up with him. A McGill University student decided to test Houdini’s off-pronounced boast that he could take any punch to the stomach. The unanticipated blow burst his appendix. He lived with the pain for three days before agreeing to go under the knife, by which time the poison had spread throughout his entire bloodstream. He performed his final “escape” on Halloween night.

A clip from one of my favorite movies as a kid, 1953’s Houdini starring Tony Curtis.

To learn more about the roots of variety entertainmentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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