25 February 2017

[Guest post] Houdini in Vancouver: part 1

Updated February 25th to add:

The following is a guest post from an author who wishes to be known as The Magic Demon.


February 25th, 1923 (Sunday)  

Houdini to Perform in Vancouver
Researched by The Magic Demon exclusively for Canada's Magic.

Houdini was coming to Vancouver!

Hard to imagine the excitement such news would have generated on the narrow streets of Canada's "third city", Vancouver, British Columbia, back in February of 1923 or some 94 years ago today.

Houdini was then one of the world's most famous entertainers. He had never been to Vancouver before. In an era long long before the internet, before television, with radio in its infancy and silence being the only sound coming from film, vaudeville was still attracting the masses. It may well have been on its "last legs" although its audiences would never have suspected it with a major headliner like Houdini coming at long last to entertain them.

It was still news worthy of reporting.

The first published references extant about Houdini's first (and only) upcoming appearance in Vancouver appears in The Vancouver Sun on this date.

A two column wide by five inch paid advertisement by Vancouver's Orpheum Theatre on an inside page announces, "Attractions Coming. Wednesday Evening. February 28th. Four nights and three matinees. First Appearance Here of 'The Genius of Escape' Houdini (In Person) - Who Will Startle and Amaze."

Found in the Vancouver Public Library's microfiche of the February 25, 1923 edition of The Vancouver Sun.

I would posit that the "In Person" line was to distinguish his live appearance from any filmed appearances or that of any imitators.

A list of accompanying support acts (there are a half dozen or so appearing on the same vaudeville bill) includes a young comedian Jack Benny ("Wit, Music and Patter"). Prices noted: "Matinees: Thursday, Friday, 15 cents to 40 [?] cents. Saturday 15 cents to 55 cents. Nights 25 cents to $1.00."

A similar ad would run every day for the duration of Houdini's three day, four night Orpheum Theatre visit.

The Orpheum Theatre featuring Houdini's appearance in 1923 was an earlier incarnation of same; it is not the structure named the Orpheum Theatre still standing elsewhere today (which was constructed much later in 1927). Houdini's Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver is long gone. It was located where what is now the downtown's Pacific Centre Mall.

A two column wide by six inches photo of Houdini (entitled "Wizard of All Wizards Defies Strongest Shackles") dominates an inside page.

An eight inch deep column accompanying it is headlined "Houdini, Genius, Tops at Orpheum. Noted Master of Escape Will Make Appearance Here Next Wednesday."

It begins:
"Houdini, the marvellous, will make his first big vaudeville appearance in Vancouver next week. Houdini, known as the "Genius of Escape", will thrill and mystify Orpheum audiences beginning next Wednesday."

The article goes on to lavishly praise Houdini by reminding its readers of his numerous accomplishments in the entertainment field. One must wonder how much copy was generated by Houdini's own advance publicity machinery and how much was originated locally, designed to whip up newspaper and theatre ticket sales? 

Houdini was a master of obtaining free publicity for his shows. His antics sold newspapers and they in turn sold theatre tickets. What newspaper would therefore not love him? Especially as the theatre he was to appear in was a major advertiser. And so The Sun was either chosen - or had decided for itself - to become the primary vehicle for promoting and thereby documenting Houdini's once in a lifetime appearance.

This initial article reveals a couple significant facts once we get past the enthusiastic hyperbole.

First, it refers to Houdini's "return to vaudeville". Had Houdini returned happily or reluctantly to headlining such a show? We get no clues. We do know as he matured that he had attempted to master a new, less arduous performance methodology: the capturing of his incredible escape abilities via the brand new medium of silent film. It had not been the overwhelming success for which he had hoped.

Says The Sun:
"It was believed the motion pictures - which showed Houdini thrills, eclipsing anything ever portrayed via the innumerable possibilities of the camera - would reach the acme of his supernatural ability; but he himself says not."

So even Houdini acknowledged that silent film to that date for whatever reason had failed to capture the essence of his charismatic style. And if you've ever seen any of his films you'd know he was understating it. Houdini on film just didn't live up to his potential. His acting was somewhat wooden. He had too much competition on the silver screen to ever become its primary star. So what could Houdini do to make his return to the live vaudeville circuit a memorable triumph? Why, do what he always did best, of course. And that was to come up with a spanking new live performance of a "genuine novelty."

Says The Sun:
"[Houdini] says his latest sensation, liberating himself after being locked in a water torture cell, which he does in full view of the audience, is the most difficult feat he has ever accomplished in his varied and strenuous career."

Houdini comes through yet again! Who could resist seeing him escape something called a "water torture cell?"

Curious that they used the expression "supernatural" when referencing his abilities given his latter day fight against those claiming fraudulent "supernatural" abilities. I will assume in this instance that the writer was just using it as a contemporary superlative and wasn't implying any abilities to communicate with the dead!

Of historical interest, the article then goes on to describe the acts supporting Houdini's "return to vaudeville" which includes a reference to a young comedian named Jack Benny - who "will offer a few moments on his violin. He plays a little, gags a great deal and keeps the audience thoroughly amused."

Found in the Vancouver Public Library's microfiche of the February 25, 1923 edition of The Vancouver Sun.

TOMORROW: "Houdini Accepts A Unique Challenge."

Researched by The Magic Demon exclusively for Canada's Magic. With thanks to the Vancouver Public Library and The Vancouver Sun.


Thank you to
The Magic Demon for guest posting at Canada's Magic!

1 comment:

  1. Very excited to see Canada's Magic doing this series. Great research.

    Very interesting to see Houdini beginning the distance himself from his film career here. But by 1923, the writing was on the wall. In fact, he admitted he undertook this 1923 tour for the money. His movie business interests has taken a toll.

    Look forward to tomorrow's post!