By Tom Interval
If television existed in the 1920s, and it aired the game show To Tell the Truth, producers could have invited many more than two contestants pretending to be Houdini:
Will the real Harry Houdini please stand up?
(All the contestants stand up.)
Wait. There’s only one real Houdini. Why are all of you standing? Please sit down, Whodini. You, too, Howdini. And who are you fellas? Hoedini? Oudini? Boudini? Houdeen? Hourdene? And ladies? Miss Lincoln Houdini? Miss Udina? Please, have a seat. All of you.
Ich bin der Harry Haudyni!
I’m sorry, I don’t speak German. What was that, sir?
I am the Harry Haudyni!
Haudyni? H-A-U-D-Y-N-I? That’s not how you say or spell Houdini! Listen, sir, I appreciate the German, because Houdini and his family spoke that language, too, but you’re not the real Harry Houdini, either. You’re just another imitator.
That very well may be, but my upside-down straitjacket escape is just as spectacular as Houdini’s!
Aside from this fictional dialogue, Harry Haudyni was a real person: one of scores of people imitating Houdini during and after the real Houdini’s life. While Houdini despised some of his imitators, he tolerated the rest and sometimes quipped about how many there were: “I’ll wager that if you throw a stone in the air it will fall down and hit some one who has a handcuff key in his pocket and a ‘Handcuff King’ idea in his head,” he wrote in his “Notes from Houdini” column, published in The New York Dramatic Mirror on June 17, 1905.
I don’t know if Haudyni considered himself a handcuff king, but as upside-down straitjacket escapes go, his version was pretty good. How do I know? There’s a 35mm film of him performing the stunt.
Movietone News captured the action at a fair (possibly Wurstmarkt) in Bad Dürkheim, Germany, on September 8, 1929. My fiancée discovered the clip while watching miscellaneous old films on YouTube. Copyrights to the full nine-minute video, which also features scenes of a marching band, a procession of fairgoers, and a swarming midway, belong to the University of South Carolina. The folks at the university’s Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC) granted me permission to post the following clip of Haudyni.
After watching the film, I dug a bit deeper but soon discovered there is very little information out there about Haudyni. His real name is a mystery, at least to me, and I came up short trying to find biographical data on him. Even so, there were a few small gemstones.
The September 1942 issue of Genii, p. 17, features a photo of a man identified as Harry Haudyni, with a caption that reads, “Ausbrecherkönig • Entfesselungskünstler | Schönes Modell,” which translates to English as “Breakaway King • Escape Artist | Nice Model.” Above the photo, owned at the time by magician and carny Edward Saint, is the headline, “Hitler Disgruntled Magician?” Below it, the unidentified author jokes about Haudyni’s resemblance to Adolf Hitler:
Is it possible that Hitler’s hate for, and persecution of, members of Houdini’s creed is partly born of Adolph’s failure as an escape artist? Anyhow, the gent in the picture tried to cash in on Houdini’s fame when the latter was playing Germany, back about 1909 or thereabouts. We have been told that Hitler was vitally interested in magic at that time.
Study the features well. Is it Schickelgruber? [sic] And won’t it be swell when the day comes when he cannot escape? Let’s speed the time and buy more War Stamps and Bonds!
One thing about this Genii blurb that stands out, besides the anti-Hitler humor, is that the author claims Haudyni performed as early as “1909 or thereabouts.” The Movietone clip was filmed 20 years later. So, assuming Haudyni was in his 20s or 30s in 1909, he would have been in his 40s or 50s in 1929. Was he really that agile through middle age? I have to wonder because the Haudyni in the Genii photo looks different from the Haudyni in the Movietone film. Is the latter just an aged Haudyni? His hair looks lighter and thinner (possibly gray), and his mustache-free face looks structurally different from the guy pictured in Genii. What do you think?
Fourteen years after the Genii article was published, Haudyni’s name appeared again, this time in a column in Hugard’s Magic Monthly, October 1956, p. 488. The author, Milbourne Christopher, writes the following:
Just today I bought the October issue of a new magazine “True Strange.” In it was an article “The Great Houdini’s Last Escape.” The author is Dr. W. D. Chesney. It is profusely illustrated.A card carrying three photographs, and the name Harry Haudyni is indentified [sic] as “A very young Houdini!—in the good old days— freeing himself of simple basic tricks with chains and ropes.” How Houdini would have roared had he seen this. Haudyni, who is shown with a moustache, was one of his German imitators. Ed Dart once gave me one of Haudyni’s cards and commented how much he resembled Hitler in appearance.
I don’t have the October 1956 issue of True Strange, so if anyone reading this has the article, I’d love to see it or the republished version in Adventure for Men, June 1971. I’d also like to dig up more info about Haudyni and see a copy of the business card Christopher mentioned in Hugard’s. And for the record, Christopher also published a photo of Haudyni—the same one featured in this blog—in his 1976 book Houdini: A Pictorial Life, p. 56. However, there was no additional information about that particular imitator. In any case, I hope you enjoyed this footage. To watch the MIRC video in its entirety, go to https://mirc.sc.edu/islandora/object/usc:29253.