Blogcast #10: When Harry Met Larry

By Tom Interval

In today’s blogcast, then tenth in a series,  I talk about Larry Lewis, a banquet waiter, runner, magician, and escape artist, who claimed to be Harry Houdini’s assistant for 33 years. I cast some doubt on that claim but acknowledge Larry was an incredibly unique individual Houdini might have liked had they actually met. As a centenarian or thereabout, Larry unofficially broke at least one record for his speed in the 100-yard dash. For that, he earned national publicity and even a guest spot on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. And now he’s really made the big time on this blogcast. (Yes, that was a joke.)

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When Harry Met Larry

By Tom Interval

Larry Lewis (Clipping: The San Francisco Examiner, Feb. 2, 1974)

Larry Lewis (Clipping: The San Francisco Examiner, Feb. 2, 1974)

Despite the title of this blog entry, I have to come clean: I have no idea if Harry met Larry. I’m talking about Harry Houdini, of course. But who the heck is Larry?

Larry E. Lewis, a banquet waiter, magician, escape artist, runner, and self-proclaimed centenarian who lived from possibly the late 1860s to 1974, repeatedly asserted he was Houdini’s assistant and stand-in, traveling around the world with him for 33 years until the famed escape artist complained of chest pain and died in his arms in 1927 at either the Empire Theatre or Temple Theater in Detroit.

Was Larry really Houdini’s assistant? I’ll get to that in a moment. First, I’d like to dispel the claims relating to Houdini’s death. While it’s true Houdini died in Detroit, the year wasn’t 1927 but 1926, and the location wasn’t the Empire Theatre or Temple Theater but Grace Hospital, Room 401, Corridor D, in the old John R. Wing. And his death, caused by peritonitis, certainly didn’t happen in Larry’s arms. The only people in the room besides maybe medical staff were Houdini’s wife Bessie and three out of four of his living siblings: Nat, Theo, and Gladys (Houdini and the fourth living sib, Leo, had a falling out after the latter married Nat’s ex-wife).

Ad for another Larry Lewis

An ad for another Larry Lewis (Clipping: The Sydney Morning Herald, Nov. 17, 1906)

As for Larry being Houdini’s assistant, it’s highly unlikely. Aside from there being some historical inaccuracies in Larry’s claim, I couldn’t find any record of him even meeting Houdini, let alone assisting him for more than three decades. There is, however, a record of another Larry Lewis meeting Houdini and even getting his autograph on March 11, 1909. However, that Larry Lewis was “London’s Quaint Comedian” and “Songster,” whose great-granddaughter, Alison Young, wrote about the autograph a couple years ago on her blog, Music Hall Alice.

According to Alison, songster Larry’s manager was Harry Day, who also managed Houdini’s European tours. So if magician Larry knew of songster Larry’s second-degree connection to Houdini, it’s conceivable the former fabricated stories based on that connection. That’s not to say our centenarian friend was a pathological liar. My guess is that he concocted his Houdini-related tales simply to embellish his own backstory. Claiming to know all of Houdini’s secrets, Larry said he escaped from a straitjacket years before Houdini did (not true) and broke out of jails and “insane asylums” in the U.S. and Europe. It’s worth noting that Houdini’s first public straitjacket escape occurred in San Francisco in 1899.

The date of Larry’s birth isn’t quite as debatable as his assertion that he assisted Houdini, but it’s arguable, nonetheless. He claimed he was born on June 25, 1867, on a small Native American settlement that would later become Phoenix, Arizona. At some point, Larry, the eldest of 13 children, moved to San Francisco and lived there for the rest of his life. The California Death Index (CDI) lists Larry’s birth date as June 21, 1867, and apparently the San Francisco Board of Supervisors agreed, at least with the year. On June 24, 1963, the day before Larry’s supposed 96th birthday, the board gave him a certificate attesting to that age.

But it gets a bit murkier. According to the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), Larry was born on June 25, 1871, which would make him four years younger than he repeatedly claimed. I tend to trust the SSDI because those data draw from the state or territory where the social security number was issued: Arizona. However, even that isn’t necessarily reliable because, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services, registration of vital records in that state began in July 1909, roughly 40 years after Larry’s supposed birth date. And the Social Security Administration didn’t even start issuing Social Security numbers until mid-November 1936, when Larry was already in his mid 60s. All of that said, it’s probable the only records of Larry’s birth are his parents’ notes and memories, so who knows how accurately or inaccurately the official records reflect the actual date.

Clipping from the Arizona Daily Star, Jan. 25, 1942

Clipping from The Arizona Daily Star, Jan. 25, 1942

The details of Larry’s life become clearer as he gets older. Regardless of whether or not he actually met or knew Houdini, he was obviously influenced by him. At some point, Larry developed an interest in magic and escapology, and there are a few records of him performing in public as “Happy Larry.” News clippings about him state he performed in the Ringling Brothers Circus, but accounts of exactly when vary. This is important when examining Larry’s claim that he was Houdini’s assistant.

According to Larry, he and Houdini met when they played Ringling together in the 1880s. There are three primary problems, among others, with that assertion: 1) Born in 1874, Houdini was between the ages of six and fifteen throughout the 1880s. 2) Houdini, whose real name was Ehrich Weiss, didn’t even adopt his stage name until around 1891 at the age of 17 and probably didn’t perform professionally until later that year when he and a work friend named Jacob Hyman entertained as the Brothers Houdini. 3) Houdini never performed in Ringling. The Welsh Brothers Circus? Yes, in 1895 and 1898. But not Ringling.

Clipping from The San Francisco Examiner, June 28, 1959

Clipping from The San Francisco Examiner, June 28, 1959

As for Larry himself performing in Ringing as an aerialist and magician, that part could be true, but it’s not clear exactly when he actually began that stint. The San Francisco Examiner of June 28, 1959, claims it was from 1893 (countering Larry’s earlier 1880s claim) until Houdini’s death, then back again at some unspecified date until 1941. The latter year is closer to the truth. In 1942, when Larry was in his early to mid 70s (if any of the birth-date estimates are to be believed), back-to-back articles in the Tucson Daily Citizen and The Arizona Daily Star mention him being in the circus at the time and announcing his performance at an upcoming ball in Tucson. One Daily Star article, dated January 25, claims that “‘Dare Devil’ Happy Larry, the only person in the world doing a 65-foot drop while getting out of a straight jacket in mid-air…” had been a feature with the circus for the past five years, which implies he started around 1937 when in his mid-60s.

When this article was published, Larry was supposedly in his 70s. If he really ended up doing the straitjacket stunt at the ball as written, he would have been one of the oldest escape artists in history (but apparently not the oldest; that distinction belongs to Ron Cunningham, aka The Great Omani). But that might not have been the case for very long. A blurb in The Billboard published about a week before the Daily Star article claimed Larry was in his final season at the circus. The sad truth is, none of these numbers add up, and I still have no idea when his circus stint began or ended, let alone if he was even in the circus. His accounts in newspapers differ depending on which one you read.

Other Daily Star announcements that week claimed Larry also would perform “many interesting disappearing acts” (Jan. 29) at the ball and that his “incidental repertoire will include card tricks and other sleight-of-hand routines practiced during his association with Houdini” (Jan. 30). But it seems his main interest was escapology. Before his straitjacket escape at the ball, he had planned to do a challenge escape from 50 feet of rope tied by Edward F. Echols, a rodeo champion and the sheriff of Pima County, Arizona, from 1937 to 1946.

Clipping from The Billboard, Jan. 17, 1942

Clipping from The Billboard, Jan. 17, 1942

Sheriff Echols wasn’t the only one tying knots around that time. According to the 1942 Billboard blurb cited earlier, Larry married Florence Hale in Las Vegas on December 31, 1941, when he was in his early to mid 70s depending on which of his birth years you believe. I found no other record of his marriage to Flo, but several newspaper stories written about Larry in future years said he was married twice: once when he was in his mid to late 70s to his supposed first (late) wife, Rhetta (or Retta), and again in his early to mid 80s in Reno in the early 1950s to Bessie Phillips, a woman of Russian descent who was about 30 years his junior. I’m sure the coincidence that Houdini’s wife also was called Bessie wasn’t lost on Larry. In any case, Bessie might have been Larry’s third wife.

Larry Lewis at his job as a banquet waiter (Clipping: The San Francisco Examiner, June 3, 1967)

Larry Lewis at his job as a banquet waiter (Clipping: The San Francisco Examiner, June 3, 1967)

Around 1945 or ’46, a year or so after his mother died, Larry, a healthy five-foot-seven, 148-pound dynamo, began working as a banquet waiter at St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco and continued to perform at veterans’ hospitals in his time off. The fact he was working in a job demanding such high energy at his age got him publicity as early as 1952. The San Francisco Examiner of June 4 that year announced his marriage to Bessie, referring to Larry as “the noted St. Francis waiter who is merely 85 yrs. old.” By the time he was in his 90s, he supposedly woke up each day at 4 a.m., jogged six miles at Golden Gate Park, went home to freshen up, and walked about four miles to his job at St. Francis. As he got older, he competed in track-and-field events: specifically, 100-yard dashes.

In a 1968 event, believing or claiming he was 101 years old when he was possibly 97, he ran 101 yards—one yard for each of his years—in 17.8 seconds. In June 1969, he beat his own time by 0.5 seconds, running 102 yards in 17.3 seconds at UC Berkeley’s Edwards Field. Apparently that time was an unrecorded record in his age group. “[H]is unofficial mark still stands as the one to beat,” writes Leonard T. Olson, author of Masters Track and Field: A History. “Although his name isn’t in the records book, he is an inspiration for everyone.” Larry, himself, said running that dash was “child’s play.” He was a bit slower the following month when he ran in San Diego at the U.S. National Masters Championships, running the dash in 19.4 seconds. The same day he reportedly presented a straitjacket escape, but I found no record of it.

Clipping from Shamokin News Dispatch, June 19, 1967

Clipping from Shamokin News Dispatch, June 19, 1967

Larry’s track-and-field accomplishments yielded him more publicity than any of his exploits as a performer. Between 1952 and his death, he was featured in several syndicated newspaper articles, and he even appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, according to his IMDb page. Other sources claim he also was on Truth or Consequences, I’ve Got a Secret, You Asked for It, The Steve Allen Show, and The Don Rickles Show. And more than one newspaper article reported that Paramount Pictures made a movie about him in the late 1950s titled The Long Life of Happy Larry. Despite my best efforts, I found absolutely no record of that film anywhere, online or in print, other than newspaper accounts.

Larry must have been devastated after Bessie died in January 1972 less than three months before her 76th birthday. “Since Bessie (Mrs. Lewis) died about six months ago, he has been working 3 shifts a day at the hotel—up to 17 hours, trying to get hold of himself after the great loss,” according to an article in the June–July 1972 issue of the Northern California Running Review. By October 1973, Larry had retired from St. Francis and worked as a “goodwill ambassador” for Western Girl staffing service (now known as Westaff). In December, he was admitted to Hahnemann Hospital in San Francisco, where he died of liver cancer on February 1, 1974, a few months before his 103rd or 107th birthday.

Larry, who looked like Jimmy Durante and sounded like baseball player Casey Stengel, according to one reporter, received national newspaper coverage after his death. Some headlines confidently proclaimed he was Houdini’s assistant while perpetuating the myth within the articles themselves: “Larry Lewis Dies At 106; Former Aide to Houdini.” But most identified him as a “running waiter” or “jogging waiter,” and some called him “Superman” and “A city institution.”

A memorial feature about Larry Lewis, The San Francisco Examiner, March 10, 1974

A memorial feature about Larry Lewis, The San Francisco Examiner, March 10, 1974

Over the years, there have been some online discussions among Houdini scholars about Larry. One such person is Patrick Culliton, who says Walter B. Gibson, creator of The Shadow and friend of Houdini, mistook Larry for one of Houdini’s real assistants: George Brooks, whose real name was Lewis Goldstein. Gibson told Patrick and at least a few other Houdini experts that Larry and Goldstein was the same person, and that claim spread over the years until Gibson’s error was caught. “I can’t find Larry Lewis anywhere in Houdini’s life or career,” wrote Patrick. “as opposed to Lewis Goldstein, who was with Houdini for 14 years.”

Three other men widely known to be Houdini’s assistants were Franz Kukol, Jim Collins, and James Vickery. But Larry Lewis? Not quite. Even so, I’d be remiss not to admit that both men had some things in common, including a love of magic, escapology, self-promotion, myth creation, and healthy living (both men exercised and never touched alcohol or cigarettes). Yes, it’s fair to say Larry is a peripheral character in Houdini’s grand story, but if the two had actually met, I think they would have hit it off immediately. On what would have been Larry’s 148th—or 152nd—birthday, I wish you good health, happiness, and the ability to live to whatever Larry’s real age was.

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Double-Sided Coin Trick Part 1

By Tom Interval

Do you like easy coin tricks? So do I! Today I made a quick video tutorial for my Patreon patrons. It teaches how to take one of those funky two-headed coins and “magically” make it a regular coin! But this is only the first part of a short, easy routine I plan to post in the days ahead. If you’re one of my patrons, then practice this part of the routine first and stay tuned. If you’re not a patron, you can still watch this public version of the video to see the secret move in action. If you want to learn it, please head on over to my Patreon page and sign up.

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Blogcast #9: Harry Haudyni, German Houdini Imitator

By Tom Interval

Three days ago I posted a blog about Harry Haudyni, the German imitator of Harry Houdini. Blogcast #9 elaborates on that a bit and provides a way for you to listen to the original blog instead of having to read it (video below). And on that note, I’ve been posting audio-only versions of the blogcasts on my SoundCloud page. Personally, I think the videos are cool to watch, but sometimes just the audio is easier to listen to. Either way, I hope you enjoy this blogcast about Harry Haudyni.

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Haudyni: A German Houdini Imitator

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:

HOST
Will the real Harry Houdini please stand up?

(All the contestants stand up.)

HOST
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.

GERMAN CONTESTANT
Ich bin der Harry Haudyni!

HOST
I’m sorry, I don’t speak German. What was that, sir?

GERMAN CONTESTANT
I am the Harry Haudyni!

HOST
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.

GERMAN CONTESTANT
That very well may be, but my upside-down straitjacket escape is just as spectacular as Houdini’s!

German Houdini imitator Harry Haudyni

German Houdini imitator Harry Haudyni

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.

 

 

 

 

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How to Control a Card the Easy Way

By Tom Interval

I haven’t frequented the local magic clubs for years, but one thing that stands out is how some magicians insisted on doing magic using difficult sleight of hand to achieve the desired effect on the audience. Judging from many videos I’ve seen on YouTube, nothing has really changed since then. But anyone who studies magic for any length of time quickly learns that sometimes the easiest secret methods yield the most entertaining and amazing results. Unfortunately, many magicians ignore this and choose to prioritize difficult methods over practicality and entertainment value.

Not surprisingly, this applies to many card tricks. In the interest of preserving secrets, I won’t get into too much detail about specific sleights, but there is one called the “pass” that allows a magician to “control” a card for whatever purpose he has in mind. The following video includes three relatively easy moves any intermediate magician can learn to accomplish the same thing a pass does without spending literally years to perfect a difficult move. While the full video is only for my Patreon patrons, you can still watch the performance.

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Blogcast #8: Harry Houdini’s Stamford Home

By Tom Interval

In 1904, Harry Houdini purchased a summer home on farmland in Stamford, Connecticut. For some unknown reason, he sold it a year later, and since then, only two other families have owned it. The original house burned down in the 1960s, but a replica was built on the original foundation, and two original wells still grace the property. To learn more, check out Blogcast #8: Harry Houdini’s Stamford Home below or directly on the Interval Magic YouTube channel (@intervalmagic).

Posted in Biographical, Blogcasts, Famous Magicians, Harry Houdini, Harry Houdini, Learning, magicians, Multimedia, patreon, Productions, Resources, Videos, Videos | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments