02 March 2017

[Guest post] Houdini in Vancouver: part 6

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


March 2nd, 1923 (Friday)

Houdini Continues Triumphantly in Vancouver, B. C.
Researched by The Magic Demon exclusively for Canada's Magic.

Houdini continues to thrill citizens of Canada's west coast "third city" twice daily at the local Orpheum Theatre. Two shows are scheduled today; the final two tomorrow (Saturday).

Reviews have been universally complimentary for this, his first (and only), appearance in the city.

Today's front page Houdini story in The Sun, however, deals with the publicity stunt he performed outside the newspaper's office around 137 West Pender Street at high noon the previous day. The paper had been building it up with great flair and deceptive hyperbole in previous issues.

I'd like to be able to tell you exactly what is on page one of The Sun. I really would.

Unfortunately, to paraphrase Apollo 13 - Houdini, we have a problem.

No front page exists today!

Despite every attempt to locate the front page in both the Vancouver Public Library (VPL) microfilm collection and the official  Vancouver city archives, no extant copy has been found. Perhaps it will turn up elsewhere another day.

However, we can certainly piece together what must have been a triumphant page one headline story about Houdini's upside down straitjacket escape from surviving photographic evidence and from the story as it is continued on an inside page of the paper.

Both the Vancouver Archives and VPL have public domain photographs of the stunt, at least one of which might have appeared on the missing page one. I've also attempted to photograph the same location in 2017. My photo re-creation of the scene as well as original 1923 photos will accompany this post.

As for the feature story, an inside page headline screams, "Houdini Free in 3 Minutes (Continued From Page 1") - so I think we can conclusively rest easy that all went well!

Bess Houdini is referenced for the first (and only) time, "a comely, shy little woman," making her way through "the dense crowd" with traffic "inspector Hood" to talk with Houdini before he began his "perilous attempt."

A theatrical embellishment or was it genuine concern for Harry? He was after all approaching age 49 in just three weeks. Or did she secretly pass to him some hidden device? He'd done this kind of stunt thousands of times but it is impossible to know for sure at this point. "There was. . . anxiety mirrored in Mrs. Houdini's eyes" reports the anonymous scribe, who felt such alarm genuine and who felt that her concern really "amounted to something" quite apart from the free show about to commence.

Harry Houdini preparing to hang upside down from The Sun newspaper building.
W.J. Moore's photo, Vancouver Public Library 70208A.

But events quickly moved forward as Detective Ricci (as announced yesterday) with Traffic Inspector Hood (who appears to have replaced Detective Sinclair, reported yesterday) quickly confined Houdini into the awaiting straitjacket.

The Sun records:
"Strong men lifted him from the truck. In another few seconds he was swinging from his ankles above the heads of the multitude... inch by inch, foot by foot he was hoisted aloft."

Harry Houdini hanging upside down from The Sun newspaper building.
W.J. Moore's photo, Vancouver Public Library 70208.

"Houdini furiously struggled to escape..."
Harry Houdini hanging upside down from The Sun newspaper building.
W.J. Moore's photo, City of Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: Port N100.

Edited to add this close-up of the above photo Tweeted by the Vancouver Archives:

"Three minutes and twenty nine seconds later he tossed the jacket to the ground"

Houdini was free!
"A cheer arose and swelled into roar" from the crowd.

And what a crowd it was that had assembled.
"Perhaps no greater outdoor crowd ever assembled in Vancouver than the one in front of the Sun office yesterday" boasts the breathless reporter, taking time to praise the Vancouver police force's foresight in arranging details of diverting "motors and other vehicles, which left no room for discussions or even a chance for accident."

I'd love to know what those other (non-motor) vehicles were.  But I'd be afraid to ask police who left "no room for discussions!"

And how did Houdini feel about it?

"It was the greatest outdoor crowd I have ever seen. . . I have never seen a more orderly crowd. . . it was a pleasure to work for them and a double pleasure to have such an enterprising newspaper as The Sun to vouch for my efforts..." Could the paper have asked for a better endorsement for their week long publicity efforts on his behalf? He then went on to thank the local Vancouver police for their help. (Especially "decent and gentlemanly officers as Inspector Hood and Detective Ricci. . .") Harry knew exactly what to say at these occasions having done so many in the past.

The rest of the article describes with some quiet awe all the still photographic and silent film coverage of the event. ("Nothing like it has ever been seen before in Vancouver.")

Cameras from every major news reel service were in evidence. To accommodate the most important of them, The Sun had erected a platform above their illuminated sign. You can see it if you look closely at the photograph of the event. On the ground, thousands of amateur photographers snapped away as Houdini "wiggled and twisted himself out of the straitjacket:"

And so did The Sun feel that Houdini had honoured their "unique challenge?"
"The Sun's challenge. . . melted as the immense crowd faded, not unlike a February snowstorm before a gentle chinook wind."

Uh, I'll assume that as affirmative.

Taking advantage of the new medium, Houdini arranged that footage of his Vancouver straitjacket escape would be projected during that very evening's Orpheum performance (and possibly at all remaining performances). Clearly his fascination for the relatively new medium continued unabated, as the reporter noted

"Houdini himself was an interested spectator. . . he came down from the stage. . . while they were being [projected] on the screen. The film was evidently pleasing to the magician, for at its conclusion, he faced the audience with a smile of satisfaction, exclaiming 'Isn't that a wonderful crowd?'"

I'm sure most of Vancouver felt the same way about him.

A paid Orpheum Theatre advertisement similar to the first also appears in this issue.

What the site of the Houdini escape looks like in 2017. Photo by The Magic Demon.
The actual Vancouver Sun building at this location (137 West Pender Street) was demolished many years ago.

TOMORROW: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Says "Houdini Is Wrong"!

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


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

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