Monday, December 12, 2011

The Life of Harry Houdini: Part 3

By 1915 Harry Houdini was virtually on top of the entertainment world. He was an international celebrity, a top vaudeville performer and had amazed millions with his illusions either directly or indirectly. But in the coming years his fame would continue to grow ever larger. 1915 was the first year Houdini performed his famous “Buried Alive” stunt that would become one of his most famous routines. The first variation almost killed him. He was put six feet under (literally, six feet) and became panicked as he attempted to dig himself out. As his hand broke the surface he became unconscious and had to be rescued by his assistants.

His second variation of “Buried Alive” didn’t appear until 1926 and was intended to debunk a performer named Rahman Bey who claimed to use supernatural powers to stay sealed in a casket for an hour. Houdini was placed in a casket that was then submerged in the pool of New York’s Hotel Shelton. He remained there for an hour and a half. Later that same year he performed the stunt again in Massachusetts. Houdini had a third variation planned but it is unknown whether he every performed the stunt, as he died the year before it was planned to be unveiled.
“Buried Alive” was not Houdini’s first or last attempt at debunking those who claimed the use of supernatural powers in their illusions or performances. He debunked many purported mediums such as Mina Crandon and George Valentine by going to séances undercover and brining reporters along. He wrote a book about his debunking quests, titled “A Magician Among the Spirits”. Interestingly, a man by the name of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed that Houdini himself used supernatural powers to achieve his illusions and released a book in 1931 claiming exactly that.

Houdini created a number of short films in the early 1900’s and would show them at his performances. Many of these films are now lost and the nature of some of them is unknown. Regardless, in 1909 Houdini made a film for French audiences titled “Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris” (Marvellous Exploits of the Famous Houdini in Paris). It was mostly comprised of footage of his most famous escapes, with a narrative thrown in almost as an afterthought. This and his various other short films, as well as his massive fame, got him the starring part in “The Master Mystery”. This part secured him a contract with Paramount Pictures, for whom he starred in “The Grim Game” and “Terror Island”.

After these two films, Houdini started his own production company and named it Houdini Picture Corporation. HPC produced two films in which Houdini starred, titled “The Man from Beyond” and “Haldane of the Secret Service”. His films had little success and Houdini left the film business in 1923. He still managed to get himself a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame though.
Houdini continued to do his stage spectaculars, with the longest run of his career coming from “Cheer Up”, which has been described as a patriotic extravaganza. Many of his most famous routines were featured in the show and he also made an Elephant vanish and performed his underwater box escape as a special stage version. This was the height of Houdini’s fame, evidenced by the 1920 edition of Funk & Wagnall's dictionary including “houdinize” as a verb that meant to wriggle oneself free from something.

Houdini died on Halloween 1926. He died at age 52, the number of cards in a standard playing deck. He was half way through his life and aged 26 in 1900, almost as if the new century cut the deck of his life exactly in the center. Despite Houdini’s aggravation with those who claimed spiritual powers, his wife Bess conducted séances on Halloween every year after his death till 1937. They were attended by famous magicians and old friends of Houdini. Although Bess eventually stopped the séances, they continue around the world to this day.

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