Happy 133rd Birthday, Harry Houdini!

Master illusionist Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz 133 years ago today in Budapest. Here are 10 HH Did-You-Knows:

  • Houdini’s father, Rabbi Mayer Sámuel Weisz, was a rabbi who moved the family to the United States when Houdini was four years old. Erik Weisz was born in Budapest to a Jewish family. They lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, where Rabbi Weisz led the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation. In 1887, Rabbi Weisz parted ways with Zion and he and young Erich moved to NYC (the rest of the family would follow after they were settled).
  • Houdini began his career as magician in 1891, working with a strongman in appearances in tent shows, slideshows and museums (which then tended to exhibit show business acts and cultural oddities—think Barnum’s museums of that era). In his early years on stage, Houdini focused on card tricks, and it was slow going for him.
  • After reading French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin‘s autobiography in 1890, Wiesz was inspired to change his name to Harry Houdini (it’s said he was under the mistaken impression that an I at the end of a word meant “like”).
  • In the early years, Houdini teamed with his brother Theodore (who went by “Dash”), but when he met and married Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner, herself a performer, he changed partners.
  • In 1899, Houdini met vaudeville impressario Martin Beck in in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Beck suggested Houdini focus on being an escape artist. Beck booked Houdini on the Orpheum circuit and his career took off.
  • In 1906, Houdini launched his own publication, the Conjurers’ Monthly Magazine. It was in large part an organ for Houdini’s airing of his personal opinions and grievances and was exceedingly short-lived (he even turned on his former idol, Robert-Houdin, eventually even writing a book attacking his predecessor). His critiques weren’t widely accepted.
  • Houdini’s escape skills became so refined and his renown came so great that Houdini encouraged members of the public to devise new escapes for him to undertake. In 1913, he created the Chinese Water Torture Cell, which saw him lowered upside-down in a locked glass-and-steel cabinet filled with water.
  • Houdini (1953), a biopic very loosely based on Houdini’s life, depicted him dying when the Torture Cell trick went awry but that didn’t happen (and also, Houdini didn’t remotely resemble Tony Curtis—we’re just sayin’). In fact, Houdini would perform the trick successfully until his death from peritonitis brought on by a ruptured appendix in 1926. It’s thought by some that the appendix rupture happened because a university student, who claimed Houdini had bragged of being able to withstand blows to his abdomen with no ill effects, had caught Houdini off-guard with several punches to the gut while he was reclining on a couch. Whether these punches, which eyewitnesses said caused noticeable Houdini discomfort, led to the appendix rupture is unclear.
  • Houdini appeared in a number of motion pictures. The earliest ones were self-produced to documented his feats of escape as an accompaniment to his live act, but he went on to star in a handful of commercial pictures.

Happy birthday, Harry Houdini, wherever you may be!

Harry Houdini

Happy 121st Birthday, Buster Keaton!

The wonderful Buster Keaton was born Joseph Frank Keaton 121 years ago today in a figurative trunk that just happened to be situated in Piqua, Kansas. Keaton ranks right up there with the Marx Brothers in our esteem, and as has surely been established by now, that’s saying something. Here are 10 BK Did-You-Knows:

  • Keaton was born into a theatrical family, as his father owned a traveling show with Harry Houdini called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company that featured performances and sales of patent medicine.
  • Buster followed five other generations of Keaton men named Joseph (though the middle names varied).
  • The story goes that when Keaton was a toddler, Houdini witnessed him take a spill down a flight of stairs and emerged unharmed. “That was a real buster,” the legend has Houdini saying of the fall, and thus was a lifelong nickname born (unless the story is apocryphal, which is certainly possible).
  • By age three, Buster was a performer in an act called The Three Keatons that saw his mother playing saxophone and Buster and his father engaging in knockabout horseplay for humorous effect (mostly, the elder Keaton tossed his young son about in acrobatic fashion, which was surely laid a solid groundwork for some of the stunts Buster would later perform on screen). The act frequently came under scrutiny because of laws that prohibited the use of child actors in vaudeville performances and also because of concern on the part of the authorities for Buster’s safety, but the younger Keaton was adept at avoiding injuries, telling The Detroit News in 1914, “The secret is in landing limp and breaking the fall with a foot or a hand. It’s a knack. I started so young that landing right is second nature with me.”
  • As a child, Keaton lost most of his right index finger to a run-in with a clothes wringer.
  • Because of his father’s alcoholism, Keaton and his mother moved to New York City around 1916, where Buster first broke into films.
  • Keaton served with the 40th Infantry Division during World War I. While on active duty, he suffered an ear infection that left his hearing permanently impaired.
  • Keaton’s film career was launched after meeting Roscoe Arbuckle at the Talmadge Studio on East 48th Street in NYC. They would go on to make 14 shorts together and remained fast friends, even after Arbuckle was accused of causing the death of actress Virginia Rappe (he was eventually exonerated).
  • Keaton was an avid fan of the game of baseball, playing it at every opportunity.
  • Keaton’s move to MGM in the early talkies era was financially rewarding, but proved to be a detriment to his work, as the studio’s overly hands-on approach didn’t fit Keaton’s seats-of-the-pants style of filmmaking. The loss of control over his films drove Keaton to drink, and by 1932, MGM had fired him (the studio would hire him back some years later for a fraction of his original salary). His third wife, Eleanor, eventually helped him get his drinking under control and he began working as a gag man for other film comics. He continued to work, both behind and in front of the camera, until his death in 1966, but he never again equaled his greatest, pre-MGM successes.

Happy birthday, Buster Keaton, wherever you may be!

Buster Keaton

Nothing up my sleeve

Harry Houdini, who died October 22, 1926, would have been 136 today.

It’s remarkable to consider that a magician who died nearly 84 years ago is still remembered today, but that says something about Houdini’s popularity and influence and the amazing feats that fueled them.

Groucho Marx used to tell a story about seeing Houdini perform on Broadway back in the 1920s, when the Marx Brothers were themselves wreaking comedic havoc on the Great White Way.

Houdini, about to perform one of his patented escape tricks, asked for a volunteer from the audience to come up on stage to confirm that Houdini had no hidden picks or other tools to aid him in the escape.

Groucho, unrecognizable without his greasepaint mustache, took the bait and made his way up to join the magician onstage.

“Look in my mouth,” Houdini instructed Groucho, “and tell me what you see.”

Groucho took his time peering into the magician’s maw before proclaiming, “Pyorrhea!”

It’s perhaps not as widely known of Houdini that, in addition to his stage career, he had a nice run as a silent movie action star. Kino has a three-disk, 450-minute collection of his pictures, Houdini: The Movie Star, out on DVD, the trailer for which can be seen below.