Thursday, November 10, 2016

Joe Lee – Houdini’s Forgotten Advance Man

Joe Lee – Houdini’s Forgotten Advance Man

An article, I Knew Houdini, appeared in The American Weekly on June 20, 1945. It was written by Joe Lee who claimed to have been “the long and personal representative of Houdini.” Many magicians at the time wondered if Lee was a pseudonym for someone else, or just someone trying to cash in on Houdini’s legacy. In fact, Lee was Houdini’s advance man for a time and was largely responsible for keeping Harry’s name in the public’s eye and bringing audiences into the theaters.

Joe “Doc” Lee is a name Houdini enthusiasts rarely stumble upon. He isn’t mentioned in the master magician’s popular biographies, yet he did play an important role in Houdini’s success later in life. Lee, a highly effective ad man, utilized the media and promotional stunts to keep his clients in the public eye and bring people into the theaters.

Before working with Houdini, Joe was associated with Tom Mix and his European tour of 1924-25. Mix was one of the biggest silent movies stars in Hollywood during the 1920s, appearing in more than 300 westerns and making as much as $10,000 a week. Mix (Hezikah Mix) actually was as a cowboy and served as a soldier during the Spanish-American War. Lee cranked up his publicity machine and under his direction, Tom and his horse, Tony, toured around the world to wildly enthusiastic and packed houses.

Lee’s extraordinary knack for getting publicity did not go unnoticed. L. Lawrence Weber, a theatrical impresario, offered Lee the position of advance man for Houdini in the Summer of 1925. The job of an advance man in the entertainment industry is to visit locations before the arrival of a performer to make the appropriate arrangements and create a buzz for their upcoming performances.

At this point in his career Houdini had begun to wage war with the spiritualists and Weber (and Lee) thought it was a good idea to exploit the spiritualists in the cities the tour would be visiting. Lee accepted Weber’s offer and it was reported that his contracted salary was “nearly a record.” Joe signed on for 40 weeks with the Houdini show and went straight to work.

Like Houdini, Lee was a showman. He believed that any successful promotional campaign keep in mind three criteria: the public wants to be thrilled, it wants to laugh, and women love to cry. If the promotion contained all three components it would be a hit.

The headline “Houdini’s Show Starts Touring Road Monday” appeared in Billboard, September 5, 1925. The story read, “Houdini and his company left New York for Pittsburgh this week, where his road show is to open Monday, September 7. The show, which is being presented by L. Lawrence Weber, carries a 60-foot car of scenery and apparatus. Houdini will be assisted by 20 people. The show is to play at a $2 top and will be divided into three parts, consisting of old-time magic, escapes and spiritualistic exposes. Joe Lee is traveling ahead of the show as general representative for Houdini. William Howe officiates as agent and A.L. Smith is back with the company.”

Variety (Sept. 30, 1925) reported that Houdini took in $6,000 the first week and $5,500 the second. The entire season was successful and lucrative for Houdini. Joe Lee played a major role in Houdini’s success during the ‘25 season. He visited local papers, befriended any newspapermen he could find, and gave them all the Houdini news they could ever want. The newspapers gladly committed several columns of publicity in their paper’s pages to Houdini and his exploits.

Lee continued to build up Houdini in a big way in 1926 and play a major role in his making the public aware of Harry’s fights against the spiritualists. He traveled to Washington D.C. ahead of Houdini and set the groundwork for the Congressional hearing on House Resolution 8989, which would ban the practice of “fortune telling” in the District of Columbia.

Chicago newspapers were particularly fond of Lee’s “planted” newspaper tie-ins with Houdini’s exposure of the city’s mediums. These compelling stories and exposés attracted readers to their papers and increased their circulation. In turn, Houdini garnered more newspaper real estate than he could imagine. Because of Lee’s publicity machine, Houdini’s Windy City engagements were often extended and audiences had to be turned away because of capacity crowds.

Despite all his success promoting Houdini, Joe Lee rejected an offer to continue with the Houdini show in the Fall of 1926. Variety wrote that “Houdini received more publicity under Lee’s guidance than he had previously got in his entire career.” Unfortunately, Lee never had the chance to work for Houdini again. The great magician and escape artist died on October 31, a few weeks after starting his 1926 season.

In 1929 Lee became the savior of many of R-K-O’s poorly performing theaters in Brooklyn, New York. Using his considerable skills as a promoter, Joe revived these theaters back to life and made them turn a profit. His ability to turn around such movie-house earned him the nickname, “Doc.” By the end of the 1930s, Joe was working as the advertising and publicity director for the Fabian Theatre chain in Brooklyn.

A decade later word got out that Paramount Studios had registered Houdini’s name and was going to make a motion picture about his life. The Film Daily (April 4, 1941) reported, “And it was Joe (Lee) who during his years with the magician…put “sex” in Houdini…but how is Joe’s secret.” Lee had amassed hundreds of clippings and scrapbooks on Houdini and many thought he would be the best source for exciting stories on the master magician.

Joe continued to praise Houdini and promote his legacy long after his passing. On the 10-year anniversary of Houdini’s death in 1936, Beatrice Houdini and Dr. Edward Saint conducted a séance in Hollywood to get in touch with the spirit of Houdini. In New York City, on the same day, Hardeen attempted another séance in with the medium Lillian Starr Weed. Joe Lee, Rose Mackenberg, Elmer Ransom, and John Mulholland were also in attendance at the event. Both of the events were broadcast on the radio, but Houdini never made an appearance.

In the 1950s Paramount Pictures renewed their interest in producing a motion-picture on the legendary escape artist & magician’s life. Lee never had a chance to see the film about his old friend, Houdini. Joseph F. Lee died on April 2, 1951. Newspapers around the country in ran a blurb once again suggesting Paramount contact Joe’s widow, Florence, who “has his (Houdini’s) trunkful of data, which could not be gathered from any other source.” The studio never did contact Mrs. Lee, but the motion picture, Houdini, starring Tony Curtis, was released in 1953.

An interesting footnote to Joe Lee’s story is after his article, I Knew Houdini, appeared in The American Weekly, a Detroit-area writer and editor, questioned Lee’s credibility. That man was Robert Lund, a rabid collector an aficionado of magic. Many will recognize Lund as the man who went on to create the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan.

A few years later after Lee’s story was published Lund wrote about the author in the December, 1952 issue of The Sphinx. “A week or two later my path crossed that of Walter Gibson. Because certain technical touches in the AMERICAN WEEKLY story hinted that it had been written by Gibson, I charged him with writing it under the pseudonym of Lee. “Not so!” he exclaimed. Lee, Gibson explained, was the press agent who piloted Houdini’s last show.”

Much to Lund’s surprise, Joe Lee was living in retirement in his own home town of Detroit on 1280 Lemay Street. Bob thought Lee, who by that time was arthritic and had a heart ailment, was one of the few living people who could recount Houdini’s last weeks on earth before his untimely death. Filled with excitement, Bob arranged an interview with Lee and set a tentative date for the first week of April, 1951. Unfortunately, fate intervened, and Joe Lee died before Lund could talk to him.

Obviously, much credit is due to Joe Lee for promoting Houdini – in life and death. Lee’s publicity efforts added a great deal to the printed history of the escape king. Like the American Weekly story headline said, he did know Houdini, and both men were better for it.

Copyright 2016 Chuck Romano

Friday, October 7, 2016

HOUDINI - Car Salesman

I'm always amazed at how advertisers tie in magic with their products. They have been doing it for decades, and they are still doing it. Have a product that is amazing or fantastic? Use a magic theme to attract attention and have a good reason to use superlatives and hyperbole.

I recently purchased two attractive brochures that we used to advertise the 1976 Plymouth Volaré. The watercolor illustrations are attractive and well-done. I especially like the portrait illustration used on one of the covers.

The Plymouth Volaré won the Motor Trend Car of the Year award for 1976, and the cars could be seen on the road for about a decade. Then like magic, just about all of them disappeared.

Another legendary magician was used by an automaker to promote their latest creation. At the beginning of the mini-van craze, Doug Henning introduced the new Plymouth Voyager in television commercials in 1984 and 1985.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Houdini's Card Trick - EXPOSED

Here's a nice illustration from The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) - Sun, Dec 24, 1899. Study it carefully and you can become a King of Cards. It's easy once you know the secret! ;)

Friday, August 12, 2016

Houdini - Movie Marketing - Part 2

Newspapers and magazines were the primary means of getting the word out about Houdini's films. However, I did come across a couple of interesting promotional items.

The Feb. 22, 1919 issue of Motion Pictures News reproduced the "cut-out" shown below for The Master Mystery. Perhaps this was a large display used at theaters, or maybe a small, die-cut piece that was handed out.

Motion Picture News also mentioned a clever novelty manufactured to garner attention for The Master Mystery. It was a 4 or 5 inch sheet of paper only showing the question, "Can you solve this mystery?" printed on the top of the sheet and a footnote printed on the bottom instructing the processor to hold the sheet over heat for a short while. After a short while the heat caused a scene from the movie to appear on its surface. The viewer could see Houdini caught in the coils of the villains of the movie with the following words: "How does he escape? See Houdini in B.A. Rolfe's super-serial, The Master Mystery." Collectors can only dream if one of these rare pieces of Houdini ephemera still exists. I put together an example of what this might have looked like.

Of course all the show magazines of the day carried full-page ads promoting Houdini's latest films. Below are just a few of these well-designed and eye-catching advertisements.

Until next time...

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Houdini - Movie Marketing

Summer is the time for movie blockbusters. If you have been to a movie theater lately you can see some wonderfully imaginative displays and striking advertising to promote films.

I recently came across a few Houdini related posters, ads and even premiums, that were used to promote his films.

This is a 24-sheet (!) poster used to entice the public to see Houdini's movie serial, The Master Mystery (1918-1919). I can't even imagine how stunning this poster would look in color.

More to come...

Friday, February 26, 2016

Houdini and Bess – The Sing Sing Connection

Harry Houdini was a frequent visitor to Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. Located on the Hudson River, north of New York City, this maximum security prison was home to some of America’s most infamous criminals. Houdini never attempted to escape from the facility, but over the years his name became linked to convicts, visitors and wardens of the iconic prison. Even Beatrice Houdini had a strong connection, and possibly a secret love affair, with one of the prison’s most famous inmates.

Sing Sing Correctional Facility officially opened in October of 1828. The massive brick fortress was built by 100 inmates and sat on a 130-acre plot belonging to the small Westchester village of Sing Sing. The town’s name came from the Native American phrase “Sint Sinks,” which roughly translates to “stone upon stone.”

Elam Lynds (1784–1855) was the prison’s first warden and believed rehabilitation was achieved by hard work, community activity, and silent reflection. He demanded inmates not “exchange a word with each other under any pretense whatever; not to communicate in writing. They must not sing, whistle, dance, run, jump, or do anything that has a tendency in the least degree to disturb the harmony.” If inmates did not follow these strict guidelines they would endure whippings and other brutal punishments.

Convicts worked 10-hour shifts in the local quarries, while others crafted everything from boots to barrels. By the 20th century, restrictions at the prison loosened, but the facility was still considered a hellish residence. Inmates could exercise in the yard and Warden Thomas McCormack oversaw the first baseball game held at the prison in 1914.

Harry Houdini’s first visit to Sing Sing Prison came on August 10, 1916 when he gave a three hour performance for 1,500 inmates. He volunteered his services and declined compensation for the event. The prison crowd roared with approval as Houdini freed himself from the a principal guard’s manacles. Thirty minutes of the program was devoted to a film showing highlights of the self-liberator's outdoors escapes.

Houdini performed at the prison again on Christmas Eve, 1924.  He escaped from a hangman’s noose and from a packing case that convicts built & nailed him into. To conclude his performance, Harry produced personal spirit messages from departed prison inmates and from Ben Franklin’s spirit.

New York Governor Alfred E. Smith appointed Lewis Lawes as Sing Sing’s new warden in 1920. During his 41-year tenure at Sing Sing, Lawes made the old hellhole into a modern reformatory with a band, sports teams, educational programs, and more. Reform was clearly his first priority, and he viewed the death penalty as a useless deterrent. Lawes used sports to teach discipline and exposed inmates to the outside world through celebrity speakers like Houdini, and others such as Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth.

Warden Lawes encouraged the inmates to be productive. They built a new chapel, mess hall, laundry, bathhouse, and barbershop. He also had the men landscape the prison grounds. One such inmate was Charles Chapin (1858 – 1930), who became renowned for the rose garden he kept while in prison and became known as “The Rose Man.”

Nellie and Charles Chapin.

Houdini had been acquainted with Chapin, the volatile, hard-nosed editor of the New York World, before his incarceration. Those who knew Charles either loved him or hated him, and he was disliked by most of those in his employ.

In September of 1918, Chapin’s career came to an end when he shot and killed his wife while she was sleeping. Plagued by illness and debt, Chapin intended to commit suicide himself following the murder. Instead, he was arrested, convicted of the shooting, and sent to Sing Sing prison for 20 years to life.

Houdini wrote to Chapin after the publication of the book, Charles Chapin's Story Written in Sing Sing Prison (1920), and chatted with him after one of his prison shows. The two men hit it off and Harry promised to visit whenever he was in town. He kept his promise and frequently brought books to Charles and spent time with him.

Mrs. Houdini continued calling on Chapin after Houdini’s death. On one visit in February of 1927, Bess came to Sing Sing to arrange the transfer of Houdini’s collection of criminology he willed to Warden Lawes.

On this same trip Bess met a young beat reporter, James Thurber. By chance, the two crossed paths later that day on the train trip back to New York. The reporter expressed, like Houdini, he also had a love of books. Bess invited him to her home to pick out some of Harry’s books for himself. James made two trips to the Houdini home and acquired 75 of his books, including an inscribed book presented to Houdini from Harry Kellar and several other rare books on magic.

James Thurber-1927

Thurber (1894 – 1961) went on to become a highly regarded cartoonist, author, journalist, and playwright. He is best known for his cartoons and short stories in The New Yorker magazine. Many know him by his most famous short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1939.

Bess frequently visited Charles Chapin in prison. By all accounts, the two became quite close. Bess believed Chapin's crime was a “mercy killing.” Charles would send her roses from his garden and write her letters. However, Bess was not the only object of Charles’s literary affections. He wrote many women during his incarceration and some of these letters were even published as books.

The relationship between Mrs. Houdini & Charles was no secret. In the Fall of 1928 several newspapers ran the story that Bess Houdini was planning to marry Charles Chapin.

The front page headline "MRS. HOUDINI TO WED WIFE SLAYER NOW IN PRISON" jumped off the November 28, 1928 front page of the Albany New York Times-Union newspaper. The story read, “New York— Romance that has blossomed behind the bars of Sing Sing may result in the marriage soon after Christmas of Beatrice Houdini, widow of the magician, and Charles E. Chapin, the New York newspaper editor, serving time for the murder of his wife.

This strange union, anding (sic) a stranger courtship, will be blessed so soon as Chapin is granted a pardon which influential friends are trying to obtain.

Their pleas are based on claims that Chapin has been weakened by rheumatism and gastritis; that he is 70, has not long to live, and no good purpose would be served to keep him in prison. They have made sufficient; progress to cause Chapin to hope Santa Claus will bring the document that means freedom and happiness.

Until two months ago Chapin had no desire to leave prison. Then Mrs. Houdini accepted his proposal of marriage and he has since rallied to his cause those friends who have remained true since he ceased to be a power in New York journalism.

Chapin and the Houdinis were friends for 25 years. Whenever he was in New York, the magician, before his untimely death, visited Chapin every week at the prison. And these calls have been continued by the widow.

Mrs. Houdini has sent her prison lover a constant supply of delicacies. And in return he has sent her flowers grown by his own hand. He has made beauty spots, as an expert gardener of parts of the Sing Sing grounds.

Houdini was the son of a Brooklyn Rabbi. The widow is a Catholic. She lives with her mother, who as a devoted daughter of the Roman Church, does not altogether approve of the second marriage.”


Was this just another celebrity gossip story, or an attempt by Chapin to get out of prison? It is unlikely that Mrs. Houdini would start such a rumor, but there isn’t any evidence she denied it. The couple’s relationship was real and letters between the two reportedly exist. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that Bess was Chapin’s one and only true love.

The letters between Bess and Chapin would come into play in 1929 when the medium Arthur Ford (1896-1971) claimed to have broken the secret code Harry Houdini had with wife. On January 8, Ford conducted a séance with Bess and reportedly delivered a spirit message from her late husband. Ford expected to receive the $10,000 Bess offered to anyone who could produce a true message from the spirit of Houdini.

Bess confirmed that the decoded message was true before witnesses. Several employees of the New York Evening Graphic, including Rea Jaure, a Graphic reporter who attended the séance. Rea wrote the entire séance was a hoax and exposed Ford. The newspaper claimed Ford had prior knowledge of the code and actually received it from Bess.

Ford reportedly offered Jaure “hush money” during a meeting in her apartment and admitted he couldn’t receive the code from the spirit world. Little did he know the Graphic’s Edward Churchill and William Plummer were in another room in the apartment and heard the entire conversation. The Graphic story was published and Ford issued a public denial, saying he never went to Jaure's apartment. He claimed the story was a blackmail attempt for him to get Bess to produce some letters she received from Charles Chapin.

No doubt the Chapin letters would have provide sensational fodder for the Graphic. The newspaper believed Chapin explained the murder of his late wife, Nellie, to Bess in some of his letters.

Although Mrs. Houdini and Charles Chapin exchanged letters and were close friends, their intentions to marry are a revelation. Nonetheless, for reasons unknown, the couple never tied the knot.

Chapin died in Sing Sing prison of pneumonia in 1930 and about that time Bess met Edward Saint. Some believe Bess eventually married Saint, but documentation has never materialized corroborating that fact.
Perhaps the letters between Mrs. Houdini and Charles Chapin reside in a collection somewhere. The contents of those letters would certainly shed light on the couple’s real relationship.

After Houdini’s death, Bess found a cache of love letters written to her husband. One can only imagine how Houdini would have reacted if he outlived Bess and discovered romantic letters from his friend Chapin to his wife.

We may never know the truth about the Houdinis and how their lives were changed after they walked through the gates of Sing Sing. If only those walls could talk.

Copyright 2016 - Chuck Romano

Sunday, February 21, 2016


In the near future I will share some interesting information on Bess Houdini. Apparently Mrs. Houdini had an relationship with an infamous inmate and almost married him! Stay tuned...

Monday, January 11, 2016

Whose Box is it? Houdini's or Blackstone's?

I really like John Cox's site, Wild About Houdini. I never fail to find something that piques my interest. John really deserves a huge amount of credit for all he has done over the years. I would have posted these comments on his site, but needed some room to go into detail.

The most recent entry is about a Houdini treasure unearthed in Santa Monica - Houdini's Steel Overboard Box. No doubt this box came from Dunninger and found it's way to the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls. Dunninger obtained the box from the Houdini estate, but was it really Houdini's to begin with?

Dunninger ran an ad in The Linking Ring magazine (1930) selling the box among other magic treasures for $175.00. By 1931 he was trying to unload it for $150. Reportedly the box was worth $400 (see below).

The box still wasn't sold by 1938 and Joe was practically giving it away along with some other Houdini illusions like Harry's Trunk of all Nations and Lattice Cabinet. It looks like most, if not all, of these props ended up in Niagara Falls. "The first $1000.00 takes it all!"

So what role does Harry Blackstone play in this tale? It was reported in the Jinx (#68, Nov. 25, 1939, page 468) that Blackstone (HB) built the iron box and Houdini wanted it. HB refused to sell it, it "vanishes" from HB's warehouse, and finally ends up with Dunninger. Read the full story below as it appeared in the Jinx.

This same story is relayed by Harry Blackstone, Jr. on a Houdini documentary, but I always thought he was speaking about a WOODEN box. We may never know the truth, but I would bet the iron box John Cox found in Santa Monica originally belonged to...