Monday, August 28, 2017

Deconstructing Houdini's Grave

I really enjoy John Cox's Houdini site - WILD ABOUT HARRY. I heartily recommend it anyone interested in Houdini. Every time I visit the site I have the urge to look back at some old Houdini story or delve a little deeper into some new item John has dug up.

Recently there was an entry on Houdini's grave site in Machpelah Cemetery. I found a story in the November, 1927 issue of The Sphinx magazine that goes into some detail of the materials used to construct the Houdini monument and exedra.

The story describes how the original Houdini bust was cut from Carrara, Statuary Marble. The famous Michelangelo statue of David is carved out of white statuary marble. This type of marble is 98% calcium carbonate and often has little veining, making it ideal for sculptures and statues.

The Sphinx reporter wrote that Houdini's bust was carved by A. Merli. My research has uncovered the sculptor's full name was Amadeo Merli (shown below). Merli, along with Alex Nicolai, conducted business from a studio at 23 Macdougal Alley in New York. One of the studio's better known commissions was carving the six figures for the pediment of the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue.

The SAM emblem was a Mosaic imported from Venice, Italy, by C. Francini. Unfortunately, I couldn't find out more information on this element of the exedra.

The large monument itself is made of Barre Granite. Barre is a fine granite, composed of quartz, fedspar, and mica. This work was done by The Adler Monument and Granite Works, Inc. at 148 East 57th St. The records I found showed the firm operated until 1986.

It is well-known that Oscar S. Teale, Architect, and a Past President of the Society of American Magicians, designed the original exedra, as well as the added features after Houdini's death. Teale is shown below at the grave site.

I have never been to Machpelah Cemetery, but maybe someday I will have the experience of visiting the final resting place of the great Houdini.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Houdini and Jennie the Elephant (and Lucy, and Fanny)

In the Spring of 1922, Houdini was at the Times Square Theatre promoting his film, The Man From Beyond.

The Evening Telegram - New York newspaper from April 8, 1922 reported, "After the film Houdini appeared in person on the stage and went through his many mystifications. He makes a lady disappear. He gets out of a straight-jacket that is seemingly impregnable. He swallows four packages of needles and then he swallows the thread and presently produces that same thread from his smiling mouth with all the needles duly threaded.
“No wonder he has nerves of steel” commented the girl in the front row.
Finally, he makes an elephant disappear. Of his two elephants, only Lucy came on for her act. Fanny was captivated by the bright lights of Broadway and refused to enter the Times Square Theatre. Meanwhile, Lucy suffered from an attack of temperament and liberal rations of gum drops were necessary before she could be induced to do her act."

Lucy? Fanny? I never heard of these two pachyderms, only Jennie. Anybody else know if this was just a reporter's embellishment or a fact? 

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Houdini and Chaplin Seance

Charlie Chaplin and Houdini were two of the 20th century’s most iconic figures. The well-known photograph of Houdini and Charlie Chaplin shown above is believed to be taken in 1915 during a visit to the studio by Houdini. Unbeknown to me this wasn’t the only time the two men met. In fact, Chaplin is said to have attended a seance conducted by the great Houdini in the Hollywood hills.

E.J. Fleming reports in the book, Paul Bern: The Life and Famous Death of the MGM Director and Husband of Harlow, that in July, 1921, Houdini was in Los Angeles working on The Soul of Bronze. Houdini enthusiasts will recognize this title as the Georges Le Faure short story Houdini acquired with plans to distribute through the Houdini Picture Corp. Little is known about the film.

Houdini met the silent film star John Gilbert (1899-1936) in 1921 while working and living in Hollywood. Ironically, Gilbert would go on to play a Houdini-like magician/escape artist in The Phantom of Paris (1931). Houdini was living in Laurel Canyon and Gilbert lived as a guest in a mansion nearby on North Kings Road in Beverly Hills. The mansion was actually the home of Carey Wilson and Paul Bern. 

Wilson (1889 –1962) was a Hollywood screenwriter and producer of such films as Ben-Hur (1925) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). He also was one of the thirty-six Hollywood pioneers who founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927. Paul Bern ( 1889 –1932) was a director, screenwriter and producer for MGM.  He famously wed Jean Harlow in 1932, and two months later, he was found dead, the victim of an apparent suicide.

The trio of Bern, Carey and Gilbert were notorious around town for womanizing and hard-drinking. Nevertheless, they were also very inquisitive and educated. One of Paul Bern’s interests was spiritualism and the afterlife. Charlie Chaplin lived down the road from the Kings Road mansion and would often visit. 

Houdini, Gilbert, Chaplin and Bern

Reportedly, Houdini was invited by John Gilbert to come to the home and entertain some guests, including Chaplin, with a pseudo seance in 1921. During the course of the evening a table lifted off the floor, shook and crashed into the wall pinning a terrified Gilbert. Of course, Houdini explained it was all just a trick and explained how it was done.

Perhaps Chaplin and Houdini crossed paths on other occasions. We may never know, but the story of these two men sitting across from one another at a seance table is noteworthy. If only there was a picture of Chaplin and Houdini on that occasion!

By Love Reclaimed: Jean Harlow Returns to Clear Her Husband’s Name - Adrian Finkelstein; Valerie Franich

Hollywood Remembered: An Oral History of Its Golden Age -  Paul Zollo

Paul Bern: The Life and Famous Death of the MGM Director and Husband of Harlow - E.J. Fleming