At the start of the 20th century, Harry Houdini was the world’s most popular entertainer, and one of its most famous celebrities. In 1910, he came to Melbourne.
Houdini was born Ehrich Weisz, in Budapest, Hungary, in 1874.
His father was a Rabbi, and the family was large; Weisz had 6 siblings. They were also poor, and Weisz’s father was eager to move to America, hoping to improve the family’s fortunes. He was able to secure a position as the head of a Jewish synagogue in Wisconsin, and the family moved to the US when Weisz was 4.
But things did not go as planned.
In 1882, Weisz’s father lost his job and the family fell into poverty. They were forced to move several times, finally winding up in New York in 1887, where they settled in a rooming house on the Upper east Side.
To help make ends meet, Weisz dropped out of school and worked odd jobs. One of these gig was as a street performer, as an assistant in a trapeze act. Weisz enjoyed the experience so much that he began to explore ideas for his own act.
In 1890, he read the autobiography of Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, a famed French magician who had modernised the craft of stage magic. Entranced with the book, Weisz set himself to become a magician.
In honour of his hero, he adopted the stage name ‘Houdini’.
Houdini studied magic under Joseph Rinn, an amateur at the local youth club.
While enthusiastic, Houdini was at best only a competent magician; he was slow, and a little clumsy, and struggled to master the basic tricks of the trade. Nevertheless, he began performing at fares, at circus’, and on the boardwalk at Coney Island, where he appeared with his brother Dash.
While at Coney Island he also met Bess Rainer, a dancer and stage performer. The pair started dating, and were married in 1894, Rainer subsequently replacing Dash as Houdini’s assistant on stage.
While only a mediocre magician, Houdini was also athletic and strong, traits he realised he could utilise in a different type of act; escapology.
He started simply, by escaping on stage from a pair of police issue handcuffs. Later, his repertoire would expand and his arms and legs would be shackled, or his whole torso wrapped in chains, or he would be locked on stage in a safe.
These new tricks proved enormously popular, and Houdini took his act on the road; touring across America in 1899 and Europe in 1900 and 1902.
As his fame increased, he added newer, and more dangerous stunts, often in a less controlled environment, away from the stage.
Touring relentlessly, from about 1905 he began escaping from the vault of a bank in the city he was performing in. Even more dangerously, he allowed himself to be shackled and thrown into the town river, or to be suspended above the main street by his ankles, secured in a straitjacket. Each time he managed to free himself, usually within a few minutes.
Rumours began to circulate; that Houdini had mystic powers, the ability to dematerialise, that he had second sight and communicated with the spirit world. In reality, he used skeleton keys and lock picks, hidden on his person. Sometimes he simply used his natural strength and agility to wriggle free.
All of his exploits were exhaustively covered by the press, who hyped every new trick and tour.
At the height of his fame, in 1910, Houdini brought his act to Australia.
Harry Rickards was a former actor who had made a fortune in the Melbourne theatre business.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Melbourne was a city enamoured with live entertainment. Many grand theatres adorned the inner city streets, showcasing a wide variety of acts; everything from opera and plays, to dance, comedy, vaudeville, circus acts and magic. Competition for the newest and most exciting acts was fierce.
Rickards owned one of the city’s most notable theatres; the ‘New Opera House’ on Bourke Street (sadly long gone, the ‘Tivoli Arcade’ stands on the spot today).
In 1910, Rickards was able to secure Houdini for a series of dates at his establishment.
Houdini’s first appearance at the New Opera House was on February 7, 1910.
The program was in two halves. The first consisted of appearances by some of the theatre’s stock players, regulars who were kept on staff and who appeared each week. For Houdini’s first night there was a comedian, a singer, and a family dance troupe.
After an interval, Houdini took the stage. His entrance was dramatic.
He was introduced by a series of short films, showing previous escape tricks from earlier tours. Films, although they had been shown in Australia for more than a decade already, were still a novelty, and undoubtedly exciting for the audience.
The house was full; 1 400 patrons waiting for the master magician to appear.
After the films concluded, Houdini took the stage; a short, striking man, wearing evening dress.
Members of the audience were invited on stage, to bind Houdini’s hands with rope, behind his back. He then disappeared behind a curtain, emerging moments later with his hands freed, to wild applause.
His next trick, known as ‘Metamorphosis’, went one better.
Audience members again bound Houdini’s hands behind his back. He was then placed inside a large sack, which was tied shut, the sack then placed in a trunk, which was nailed shut. Properly secured, the trunk was wheeled by Houdini’s wife Bess into a large cabinet, which was then closed, with them both inside.
Only a few seconds later, the cabinet was reopened, and Houdini was now outside of the trunk. The trunk was still secured as before, and when it, and the sack inside, were opened… Houdini’s wife was inside! As the final showstopper, she was even wearing Houdini’s coat.
The audience was in hysterics.
Houdini ran through a few more tricks, finishing with an escape from a straitjacket.
He concluded the performance with a dramatic announcement: within the coming days, as soon as he had obtained the proper permissions, he would be shackled and would jump from the Queens Bridge, into the Yarra River. He would either escape… or drown.
This was eventually scheduled for Thursday, February 17, at 1.30pm.
Thursday was a hot day, the temperature hovering around 38 degrees.
From about lunchtime, a large crowd began gathering on the bridge, and on either bank of the Yarra. Some spectators even hired boats, and rowed out into the waterway. It was mixed audience; working men in overalls, alongside linen suits, straw boaters and ladies in veils.
By 1.30, about 20 000 spectators were waiting.
Houdini arrived shortly after, by motorcar. He was dressed in a neck to knee, blue bathing suit, and waved happily to the crowd, appearing calm and relaxed.
Houdini was handcuffed, and then additional chains were wrapped around his upper body. Members of the crowd tested the bonds and pronounced them secure. The chains were then weighted, to ensure he would sink to the bottom of the river.
Houdini then took a deep breath, and jumped.
The Yarra is a dark brown colour, so once Houdini broke the water, he disappeared from view. The crowd waited anxiously.
Some of the police attending the event launched into the river in a small punt, in case rescue was required.
But after about 4 minutes, accounts vary, Houdini broke the surface of the river, smiling in triumph, with his chains in his hand.
On the river bank, he saluted the excited crowd briefly, before he was whisked back to the New Opera House, to prepare for that evening’s show. Later, he would tell reporters that the escape was just a trick, and that he had never been in any real danger.
But his performance made Houdini the toast of Melbourne. And he wasn’t quite finished.
In addition to his other interests, Houdini was also an enthusiastic aviator.
In 1910, this was a brand new field; the first manned flight, performed by the Wright Brothers in North Carolina, had taken place only seven years before.
No one had yet flown a plane, in Australia.
The previous year, Houdini had purchased a French built Voison bi-plane, which he had learned to fly in Europe. It was a light construction, made out of timber and linen, which he brought on tour to Australia.
A month after his jump into the Yarra, Houdini took his plane to Digger’s Rest, a small town about 30km north of Melbourne, to try it out.
Unsuccessful flight attempts were made on March 17.
But the following day, Houdini was able to get his simple plane aloft; recording a flight time of 2 minutes and thirty seconds, with a maximum height estimated at about 100 metres.
Houdini stayed in Digger’s Rest for a few days, and flew successfully several more times, once for as long as 7 minutes. At the time, the press reported it was the first successful manned flight ever achieved in Australia, and further plaudits were heaped on the visiting magician.
Decades later, historians would unearth a claim disputing Houdini’s hold to this record.
Fred Jones, a South Australian farmer, claimed in 1943 he had witnessed his neighbour, Fred Custance, fly an imported American monoplane the day before Houdini, on March 17. As Fred Jones is the only witness to this event, the claim remains disputed.
The remainder of Houdini’s shows in Melbourne were sold out, and the tour overall was a wild success.
Houdini kept his bi-plane with him on the remainder of his Australian tour, and flew it again in Sydney and Brisbane.
At the end of the tour, he sold it, and, reportedly, never flew again.