The Final Houdini Séance! (Retrocast) (#23.1)
(To close out our Annual Halloween Spook-tacular! this year, here’s a very rare recording from Halloween 1936, by Edward Saint & Mrs, Harry Houdini, and narrated by George L. Boston. Originally podcast 27 October 2015.)
As a kid in the ’80’s, if you had any nerd proclivities, you go through a phase where you tinker with magic. My dad had a book with a section about many of the great magicians of the 19th and early 20th Century, and between pouring over that book, learning a trick from my dad’s friend Lance (who had performed at my school as a magician), and not having many friends in those days, I became very interested in magic. I was never any good at it, could never pull off a trick with any flair, and never attempted to become a magician, but biographies of magicians became my bread and butter.
As Halloween was approaching in 1987, I was – at 12 – feeling self-conscious about going out in a costume again, and since there was candy around the house, I dressed up as a wizard and helped my parents give out candy that night. Which resulted in their letting me handle the treaters while they got some much-needed time to themselves. But there was another, ulterior motive for wanting to stay home: USA was airing a program hosted by William Shatner called The Search For Houdini, and I was gonna watch them perform a séance in an attempt to contact Houdini, dammit!
Houdini’s connection to Halloween predated his death in 1926. As a Supernatural Investigator, he had encountered all manner of spirit mediums, and had proved fairly conclusively that there was no afterlife, no realm of the spirits, and not for a lack of trying. His attempts to contact his mother were legendary, and if anyone wanted to believe, it was Harry. But time and again he had established that every time someone claimed to contact the realm of ghosts, Houdini could recreate their effects through trickery.
His partner in this quest was his own wife “Bess” Houdini, and they had promised to make a show of trying to contact each other when one of them passed. Unfortunately, it was Harry who died as a result of J. Gordon Whitehead punching Houdini in the stomach, a blow that Houdini would regularly endure by clenching his muscles, something he’d picked up as a performer over the years. But Houdini did not have time to prepare for the blow, and aggravated his already enflamed appendix. He passed away at 1:23 PM on Halloween, 1926.
Bess attempted to contact Houdini every year, on Halloween, as per their agreement prior to his death. Bess and Houdini has worked out a code, and she knew that if a spirit could reproduce this code, Houdini was in fact communicating with her from the spirit realm. This became an annual tradition among magicians and other performers, who took the opportunity of Halloween and a legendary performer like Harry to stage an old fashioned séance for paying customers. While many had claimed to make contact, Bess was never convinced, as part of their arrangement was that Houdini would reach out to the one he loved most, and not some other medium from the middle of nowhere. Plus, no one ever managed to crack the code.
In 1936 – ten years to the date – Bess performed the séance one last time, with Dr. Edward Saint (her manager) leading the ceremony. Engraved invitations were sent out, and luminaries from the world of magic as well as other distinguished guests were invited to join them on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles. The event garnered a ton of press, and was THE thing on the lips of everyone in the entertainment industry. Regardless of the turnout, no matter what happened, this moment would be remembered forever.
And, in 1959, a recording of that evening was made available to the public. The Final Houdini Séance is, most likely, not the actual recording of the séance. All accounts of the evening report that it was cold a little windy that night, and that after the ceremony it rained on the guests who were outside, on the roof. Most likely, Bess and Edward “re-recorded” the event, word for word, which might explain some of the stilted ways certain parts of the ceremony. However, there is no proof either way, and the recording was certainly made no later than 1942, when Bess passed away. It is – unmistakably – her voice, near the end of the record.
The LP that was released is absolutely a Halloween record if I ever heard one, and the only weakness is the Narration by George Boston. Not only does he repeat much of what is already said in the ceremony itself, but he infers more than either Edward or Bess suggest in the recording, and like many people, only perpetuated the notion that Houdini’s ghost might still be out there. And perhaps that is ultimately harmless. Houdini’s work is, in many ways, a direct ancestor of the work James Randi has been doing for decades, and the annual tradition of trying to contact Houdini is another fun way to pass the night.
It sure was for me in 1987.
To flesh out this episode, I’ve also included a little-known radio program from 1936: Unsolved Mysteries. This program ran for many years, and was presented as a 15 minute broadcast. They actors would introduce a mystery, then reveal the answer at the end of the show. One episode purported to know how Houdini performed a trick, where he was escaping from a box underwater to a crowd that could not believe what they’d seen. However, Unsolved Mysteries admits that their answer is the only one that the could imagine working, and other magicians close to Houdini have since debunked the validity of their claim. Still, this is an interesting opportunity to hear an actor play Houdini, and makes for a good chance to segue into the second half of the show.
And now, I present to you, a special radio seance, just for this special holiday occasion. Make sure to listen, this Halloween!
The Final Houdini Séance!
01.) Incantation For Tape (1953) * Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky * An Anthology of Noise & Electronic Music, Second A-Chronology: 1936 – 2003
02.) The Final Houdini Seance * George L. Boston * 1959
03.) Ghosts: First Variation * Albert Ayler Trio * Spiritual Unity
04.) The Magician * Rhys Chatham * Outdoor Spell
05.) Challenge To Death * Unsolved Mysteries w/ Stanley Peyton (on WLW, the Mutual Network) (1936)
06.) That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate * Mission of Burma * Vs.
07.) Magic Power * Opal * Happy Nightmare Baby
08.) Blackmagic * TSOL * Change Today?
09.) Spook * Galaxie 500 * This Is Our Music
10.) Escape * Levator * Jackson Hwy. Barnes Drive
11.) The Escape Artist * My Dad Is Dead * Let’s Skip The Details
12.) Séance * Metanoia * Metanoia
13.) The Séance * Danny & The Nightmares * Danny & The Nightmares 7”
14.) Swingin’ At The Seance * Glen Miller & Orchestra * Halloween Stomp
15.) Y Brawd Houdini * Meic Stevens * Welsh Rare Beat
16.) Edison Machine Rehearsal Cylinder * Harry Houdini * 1914