Houdini at the Bijou Theatre
The world's most famous magician, Harry Houdini, performed in Richmond back in 1900. At that time, he was still an emerging artist on the vaudeville circuit, a step above his dime museum days but still a year or so away from becoming an international sensation.
Farrar: Commentator Brooks Smith has been rediscovering Richmond’s performing arts history, and, Brooks, from time to time this year you have recalled the visits to Richmond of some very famous performers. And today we are going to talk about one that was on the vaudeville circuit back in the early 1900’s. He came to Richmond and later became the world’s most famous magician, Harry Houdini, whose name even today is synonymous with magic and sleight-of-hand and escape acts on stage. When was he is Richmond?
Smith: He came in April and then again in May 1900, performed week-long stints at the Bijou Theatre up on East Broad St. And I honestly believe this was just lore until I found the old newspaper articles describing his visit. Back then the Bijou was considered Richmond’s most popular place for amusement, with comfortable seats and electric fans, which apparently meant something to the gathered throngs. We know a little about his act during those two week stints. He performed two very famous tricks, one that really catapulted him to early fame as a circus magician. It was called “Metamorphoses” and it involved his wife, too, who was his counterpart on stage. She would cuff and chain him, tie him up in a sack, throw him in a box, lock and strap the box and put it behind the curtain. Then she’d clap three times and go behind the curtain to see what his condition was. And, within in a moment of her going behind the curtain he would emerge and everybody in the audience, of course, would be stunned by this switch. And then he’d roll back the curtain and his wife would be nowhere to be found. He’d open the box, open the bag and there she was inside. The other thing he did which was pretty neat, it came with a warning in magic books of the day, was Houdini’s needle trick. What he would do is swallow 50 needles and 10 yards of string, and then within moments of swallowing them, he would pull them out with the needles threaded to the string. The magic books came with a warning which said “be careful not to swallow the needles.”
Farrar: Well, his acts became so complex and well-known all over the world that fictional characters and even some modern-day movies have borrowed some of his techniques.
Smith: That’s right. I didn’t realize he was pretty good friends, though they had a rocky relationship, his friend was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. And Doyle had this famous line that said something to the effect of “when you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be truth. I think he must have been talking about Harry, because whatever Harry did, if it wasn’t impossible, it was darn near improbable. He escaped from jails, from under water, suspended from ropes over the ends of skyscrapers, in straightjackets and milkcans, mailbags. The story goes that many subsequent performers borrowed from these Houdini tricks, people like Evel Knievel, the villains in James Bond movies, comic super-heroes. Richmond even had a protégé. His name was The Great Leonard, who apparently saw Houdini when he was here in 1900, borrowed his act. Even today we have famous local magicians like Jonathan Austin who carry forward the tradition. So, like you said, he went on to even more death-defying stunts. We have a little audio clip from one in 1914 that was called “The Water Torture Cell Trick.”
Farrar: Let’s hear that.
Tape: Ladies and Gentlemen. Introducing my original invention, the water torture cell. Although there is nothing supernatural about this I am willing to forfeit the sum of $1,000 to anyone who can prove that it is possible to obtain air inside of the torture cell when I’m locked up in it in the regulation manner after it has been filled with water. Should anything go wrong when I’m locked up, one of my assistants watches through the curtain ready to rush in, demolishing the glass, allowing the water to flow out in order to save my life. I, Houdini, October the 20th, 1914…..
Farrar: The voice of Harry Houdini, circa 1914, just a few years after he appeared on stage in Richmond. Thanks to Brooks Smith, commenting on Richmond’s performing arts history.