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

Direct(orial) mail

Stamps depicting Frank Capra, John Huston, John Ford, and Billy WilderIt’s the first day of issue for a set of four postal stamps honoring a quartet of great (native or naturalized) American motion picture directors, and we can’t argue with the selection of a single one of them. Here’s what the USPS has to say about the occasion:

These Great Film Directors (Forever®) stamps honor four great filmmakers who captured the many varieties of the American experience. Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, and Billy Wilder created some of the most iconic scenes in American cinema. They gave audiences an unforgettable (and in some cases, deeply personal) vision of life.

These four filmmakers received multiple Academy Award nominations, 15 Oscars, and numerous other honors during their lifetimes. But their greatest accomplishment lies in the vitality and artistry of the stories they told through film. The stamp art combines a portrait of each man with a scene from one of his most iconic works.

The background art for the stamp honoring Frank Capra shows a scene from It Happened One Night, a comedy in which a runaway heiress (played by Claudette Colbert) and a reporter (Clark Gable) compare their hitchhiking skills.

For the John Ford stamp, the background recalls a scene from The Searchers, an influential Western starring John Wayne and making Ford’s characteristic use of the American landscape.

The Maltese Falcon inspired the background art for the John Huston stamp. In this classic mystery, gumshoe Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) goes up against various unscrupulous characters (among them Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet).

And for Billy Wilder, the background artwork was inspired by Some Like It Hot, a farce about two male musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who seek refuge from gangsters by posing as members of an all-girl band featuring luscious singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe).

Art Director Derry Noyes designed these stamps using art by award-winning illustrator Gary Kelley, who created the images using pastels on paper.

You can purchase these stamps, along with First Day of Issue color postmarked envelopes and other related items, here.

TCM Remembers 2010

Every passing year brings the sad loss of prominent and often beloved figures in movie history.

2010 was no different, of course, and, among those lost, there were talented men and women whose careers began in the Cladrite era: Gloria Stuart, Tony Curtis, Patricia Neal, “Baby” Marie Osborne, Lena Horne, Doris Eaton and others.

As they do every year, the good folks at Turner Classic Movies have put together a video tribute to those departed movie professionals who touched our lives during their time with us. It’s nicely done, and well worth a look.

image-Kathryn Grayson

Match me, Sidney

Tony Curtis has died at age 85, and while most, we suspect, who look back at his career over the next couple of days will focus on Some Like It Hot, an undeniably worthy effort, for us, the high point of Curtis’s career was Sweet Smell of Success.

Sweet Smell of Success remains one of our favorite pictures for its razor-sharp dialogue and period location shots of New York City. We especially love the glimpses inside the 21 Club and Toots Shor’s. If Curtis had achieved nothing more in his career than portraying Sweet Smell‘s Sidney Falco opposite Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker, he’d have done okay, in our book.

Rest in peace, Mr. Curtis.