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Harry Houdini begins a week-long run at Seattle's Orpheum Theatre on October 17, 1915.
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On October 17, 1915, magician and master escapologist Harry
Houdini (1874-1926) begins a week-long run at the Orpheum Theatre in Seattle.
As part of each act, he performs the East Indian Needle Trick, and does an
escape from his Chinese Water Torture Cell. While in Seattle, he also dangles
from the Seattle Times building in a straightjacket, freeing himself with
Plenty to See
By 1915, Harry Houdini (birth name Erik Weisz) was a bona
fide star and one of the highest paid performers on the vaudeville circuit.
Seattle's Orpheum Theatre booked him as their headliner act for the week of
October 17, and each night's performance drew large crowds. Matinee tickets
cost 10 and 25 cents depending on seat location, and evening shows
cost 10, 25, and 50 cents.
Other acts on the bill included Dainty Marie (Marie Meeker),
a singer and dancer who dressed in white tights and who performed living recreations
of Rodin's statues; Robert Dailey and company, who performed the farcical skit
"Our Bob"; Mabelle Lewis, a petite woman who impersonated young
children in songs, joined by Paul McCarty, a strapping, athletic man, in a skit
entitled "Dainty Different Doings"; The Bison City Four, who sang and
performed character comedy dressed as an Irish policeman, an Italian fruit
vendor, an American bartender, and a nondescript tramp; singer Elsie Fay; and
the Novelty Clintons, a popular acrobatic duo well-known for their jumping and
Travel films were also shown of Italy, Serbia, Brittany,
Turkey, Austria-Hungary, and Hindustan. Music was provided by the Orpheum
Orchestra, led by Charles "Tiny" Burnett (1888-1974). From all
accounts, each act was well-received by audiences, especially the Bison City
Four, who performed multiple encores. But the crowds came to see Houdini.
Needles and Pinned
Houdini's act began with seven minutes of motion pictures
showing the magician in Paris, leaping handcuffed into the Seine. After the
film showed him escaping his bonds, Houdini appeared on stage in a
straightjacket, from which he then extricated himself,
Next up was the East Indian Needle Trick. More than 50
needles were given to the magician, along with a thread of silk, which he then
appeared to swallow whole. Members of the audience were invited on stage to
examine his mouth, and after verifying that it was empty he would
"regurgitate" the needles, which were now threaded together.
He performed other magic tricks and sleights of hand, as well
as demonstrations of how he became known as the Handcuff King. Handcuffs were
placed on his wrists, and he was secured to the stage. Within a minute or so
he freed himself, to the amazement of all.
The highlight of Houdini's act was his famous Chinese Water
Torture Cell. A large, empty water tank with glass sides was brought on stage. Houdini described it in great detail. Audience members were allowed to
examine it, after which Houdini briefly left the stage to change into his
swimsuit while his assistants filled the tank to the brim with water.
Returning, Houdini lay down on stage and placed his feet in
stocks, which were also inspected by audience members as his feet were locked
into place. Hoisted upward, he was lowered head first into the tank, where the
stocks were secured to the top. He was now completely immersed in what appeared
to be an air-tight container. Velvet drapes were raised around it, and the
audience waited for him to escape.
One minute passed, then two. An assistant held an axe at the
ready, in case of emergency. The orchestra began playing "Asleep in the
Deep," and just as the audience began showing concern, Houdini emerged
from behind the curtains to thunderous applause. The act was performed this way
Always a Showman
During the week, Houdini publicized his act using methods
that had worked from city to city. Enlisting help from the local police, ads
were placed in the local newspapers issuing a challenge from King County
Sheriff Bob Hodge (1875-1923). The sheriff asked Houdini to allow three local jailers to
chain him to the stage using their own handcuffs and equipment, to see if he
could escape. The ad noted that Houdini had accepted this challenge, with the
only condition being that no straps or bindings would be drawn that could cause
danger of strangulation.
Another publicity stunt involved Houdini hanging upside down
from the side of a building while wrapped in a straightjacket. Crowds gathered
to watch the magician free himself. From city to city, Houdini often performed
this stunt from the office building of a local newspaper, to maximize press
coverage. In Seattle, he dangled from the side of the Seattle Times building, while thousands watched from below. An article and photo of this act appeared in
the paper the very next day.
Houdini also found some time to relax during his visit to
Seattle, but even then he was a master showman. Lumber magnate C. D. Stimson (1857-1928) invited Houdini to visit The Willows, Stimson's lodge on the Squak Slough
(now the Sammamish Slough) northeast of Seattle. While there, the magician
spent hours entertaining Stimson and his friends with all kinds of magic
tricks. At one point, Houdini asked the group to choose card from a deck. They
chose the ace of spades, placed it back in the deck, which they then handed back
to Houdini. He tossed the deck into the air, and all of the cards fell back to
earth, save one. The ace of spades stuck to one of the ceiling beams. For years after, Stimson left it right there.
"This Week's Attractions," The Argus, October 16, 1915, p. 7; "Stageland," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 17,
1915, p. 10; "Dramatic and Vaudeville News," The Seattle Times, October 17, 1915, p. 6; "Houdini Puzzles
All at Orpheum," The Seattle Times,
October 18, 1915, p. 9; "Houdini Proves a Wizard Indeed," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 18,
1915, p. 4; "Houdini Will Try His Most Difficult of Feats," The Seattle Times, October 18, 1915, p.
4; "Bob Hodges Challenges Houdini," Seattle Star, October 18, 1915, p. 5; "Hangs in Midair; Throws
Off Bonds," The Seattle Times,
October 19, 1915, p. 2; "Houdini is Truly Man of Mystery," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 21,
1915, p. 7; Delphine Haley, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt: An Uncommon Life (Seattle:
Sasquatch Press, 2002); "Houdini, His Life and Art" (http://www.thegreatharryhoudini.com/.
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Harry Houdini (1874-1926), ca. 1913
Courtesy Library of Congress
Orpheum Theatre ad, Drsyylr, October 17, 1915
Courtesy The Seattle Times
Orpheum Theatre (William Kingsley, 1911), 3rd Avenue and Madison Street, Seattle, 1910s
Harry Houdini being lowered into the Chinese Water Torture Cell, ca. 1913
Courtesy Library of Congress
Harry Houdini dangles from the side of the Seattle Times Building, Seattle, Ocotber 19, 1915
Courtesy The Seattle Times