Houdini’s Last Interview

The week of October 18-23, 1926 Houdini was at the Princess Theatre, Montreal Canada.  It was on October 22, 1926 that Houdini got punched in the dressing room of the theatre.  According to Silverman, the dressing room was small, about eight feet by ten.  What follows is a Montreal Daily Star newspaper ad from my personal collection that is reported to be Houdini’s last interview in October 1926.  This interview by Viola Cameron would have taken place in the dressing room at the Princess Theatre during the week Houdini was there.

Houdini Last Newspaper Interview October 1926 Montreal Daily StarViola Cameron interviews him in his dressing room with folks coming and going:  “three secretaries” with reports on his investigations and “three assistants” awaiting  his orders.There was also mention of him, “helping in an unbelievable measure those who visit him hourly with woeful tales of fraud through the medium, the fortune teller and the magician. Houdini is their friend and their voluntary advisor”.

The opening quote by Houdini is also of interest: “no man is great while he is alive because the last day before his death he might do something that would discount all else of greatness in his career”.

Houdini died shortly after this interview on October 31, 1926.


Attending The Official Houdini Seance in San Francisco on Halloween

I attended The Official Houdini Seance in 2012 and now have the pleasure of attending the 2015 Official Houdini Seance in San Francisco.  I plan to do a full report of all the shows and activities going on October 31st.  See below for details.  Hope to see you there.


Get your tickets to all three before they disappear!

Sat, Oct 31, 2015 at 2pmThe Greatest Halloween Magic Show of All Time!, with Robert Strong, Paul Draper, Brian Brushwood, & Justin Willman ($10)
Get your tickets here.

Magic Show

Sat, Oct 31, 2015 at 5pmSkepticism & the Supernatural, with Michael Shermer & Jamy Ian Swiss ($15)
Get your tickets here.

MS and JIS

Sat, Oct 31, 2015 at 8pmThe Official Houdini Seance ($39 to $69)
Welcome – Robert Strong, MC/Moderator
Escape Artist – Brian Brushwood, Scam Scool Creator
Background – John Cox, Houdini Historian
Earnest Séance – Terrie Huberman
Psychology – Melina Uncapher, UCSF Neuroscientist
Doubt – Michael Shermer, Skeptics Society Founder
Magic – Justin Willman, Magician
More Doubt – Jamy Ian Swiss, Magician/Skeptic
Magical Séance – Paul Draper, Mentalist

Get your tickets here.


More info here.

Thank you to all the generous sponsors!
Wonderfest – The Bay Area Beacon of Science
Robert Strong – The Comedy Magician
Bay Area Science Festival
Bay Area Skeptics
100th anniversary of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE)
The Great Houdini Escape Room
California Academy of Sciences NightLife
Champions of Magic Live!
The Mac King Comedy Magic Show
Clean Comedians
Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
Rostami Magic – The World’s Most Creative Magic Apps
After Dark – Exploratorium


Houdini is struck in the stomach by Smiley.  What?

smiley yearbook

Samuel J. Smilovitz a.k.a “Smiley” was the art student who sketched Houdini during his lecture at McGill’s Union Hall on October 19, 1926. Houdini was so impressed with the sketch that he invited Smiley to come see him backstage at the Princess Theater and do another for him. Smiley invited a friend, Jacques Price, and together they visited Houdini on October 22. It was during this visit that a third student, J. Gordon Whitehead, who was unknown to both Smiley and Price, joined the gathering. The rest is Houdini history or is it.

According to Frank Koval in the Illustrated Houdini Research Diary, Houdini is struck in the stomach by Smiley on October 22nd.  What?

And according to Walter B. Gibson in The Master Magicians, all three students delivered punches, which would have included Smiley.  What?

During the week of October 17, 1926, Houdini appeared in Montreal, and one morning toward the end of his engagement, a group of college students [Smiley, Price, Whitehead] stopped at the theater to interview him.  Houdini talked about the physical fitness needed in his escapes acts, and demonstrated how he could brace the muscles of his abdomen to offset heavy blows.  One student, then another, delivered punches at Houdini’s invitation.

As a third hesitated, Houdini relaxed, thinking the youth had given up the idea.  Instead, the student made a belated swing.  Houdini received the punch off guard, and it nearly crumpled him, but he managed to brush it off as if had not hurt him.

That night, he complained of a pain in his side, which grew steadily worse.  When the show reached Detroit, he was running a fever, but still insisted upon giving his performance when he learned that the theater was sold out.  That was Houdini’s last show.  He collapsed at the finish and was rushed to hospital, suffering from an acute case of appendicitis.  Surgeons operated immediately, but peritonitis was so far advanced that they were unable to save the patient’s life.  He died on Halloween, 1926.

All of this said, the full story of the events leading to Houdini’s death was first told, to the best of my knowledge, in a well-written, detailed article by Stanley Handman which appeared in the Canadian Weekend Picture Magazine for 12th September, 1953.

But wait a minute!  Sam J. Smiley is the source of the article.  It is believed that Stanley Handman gave his column that week to Smiley.

As far as I know, Smiley’s 1953 article is the first time that Whitehead’s name was first publically mentioned as the one that struck Houdini in the stomach.  What?

And a letter from Ernst, Fox and Cane to Smilowitz says:

“we understand you and your friends were in Houdini’s room, and one of your friends struck the blows, and so forth, we understand it was purely accidental. Our sole interest is in collecting on a double indemnity accident insurance policy for Mrs. Houdini.  Would you help by telling us what happened?”

Notice the only name they have is Smilowitz because he had given Houdini the sketch and his address.  We know Jacques Price was Smiley’s friend, but what about Whitehead?

So who punched Houdini in the dressing room at the theatre?  Smiley, Price, Whitehead or some other young man?

Wallace Irvin Whitehead 1926_0051

According to Silverman’s book,

[Smiley] identified the young man as Whitehead, a first-year student at McGill, and some biographers of Houdini have identified him further as J. Gordon Whitehead, but the only freshman  with that surname, according to the school’s yearbook, was named Wallace (Wallie) Whitehead, a good-looking twenty-two-year-old with slicked-down hair, manager of the class hockey league.


Believed to be J. Gordon Whitehead at McGill

Since Silverman’s book, both Wallie and Gordon Whitehead have been found at McGill and they may have been brothers. What?

Whitehead, Smiley and Price were the only ones besides Houdini who knew what happened in the dressing room.

While anyone of the three students could have punched Houdini in the dressing room, the only real evidence that it was only J. Gordon Whitehead (30 years old) and not Wallace I Whitehead (22 years old), Smiley or Price is the affidavit from a J. Gordon Whitehead that has recently been made available.

According to the affidavit from J. Gordon Whitehead (3/16/1927),

I struck Houdini quite moderately and he smiled and laughingly said – “Why! Hit me.” I hesitated and he repeated – “Hit me”; I struck him a second blow slightly harder than the first, he gave not the slightest indication of any discomfort at either of the blows.  Both blows were struck on the left side of his body and above the navel.

The first affidavits from Samuel  Smilovitz (2/10/1927) and Jacques Price (2/14/1927) don’t mention Whitehead by name, they refer to him (“about 25 years of age“) as the Third McGill Student and first year student of McGill in Arts.  Interestingly, their second affidavits (SM 4/19/1927 JP 4/16/1927) do mention his name was Whitehead.  The affidavit (11/26/1926) from Houdini’s First Assistant, James Collins, mentions that Houdini was in the company with one Smilovitz and two other students (no names given) of McGill University, Montreal…On such occasion one of the said students struck Houdini with two blows in his stomach merely for the purpose of showing his resistance to blows.  Other affidavits from Sophie Rosenblatt (2/15/1927), Julia Karchere (5/7/1927), Julia Sauer (5/7/1927) mention that Houdini stated he had been violently struck a number of times by a student (no name given) of McGill University.

Based on the evidence, I think it is obvious, who punched Houdini?

Tonight, TCM welcomes Houdini and “The Grim Game” to Television!

“The Grim Game” makes its Television debut tonight on TCM:

TCM TGG on TV Oct 18

Originally, The Grim Game made its debut at the B.S. Moss Broadway Theatre on August 25th, 1919.  Below is the front and back of a program from the opening:


I hope everyone enjoys the restored 1919 thriller that will keep you guessing from start to finish.  The question is –who did it?  Watch as the screen unfolds the secret!


New Grim Game Glass Slides and DVD info

imageI recently did a post, 3 video Grim Game Clips with new piano music, that had a link to Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Videos for The Grim Game Webpage:

If you click on the same link above, you will find they have made some additions which include a couple of glass slides for the film.

Glass slides were used by many theaters to promote coming attractions during slide shows between coming screenings.

You can also vote for The Grim Game to be released on DVD.image

LINK: TCM airs a different score for its 2nd Showing of The Grim Game

There is still a score to settle.

On October 18th, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) airs a different score for its 2nd showing of Houdini’s “The Grim Game” than the one Rick Schmidlin first added to his restoration of Houdini’s finest movie.


Steve Sterner The Grim Game Main Theme – Music Copyright 2015 Steve Sterner All Rights Reserved

That is, the first showing will be the ensemble music as was shown in Hollywood and the second showing will be Steve Sterner playing original piano music written by him at the request of TCM. It will have 4 themes (which include a Main theme, Love theme, Villain theme and Servant theme), along with other minor themes with a lot of ad-libbing and changes of moods and keys to keep it moving.


Steve Sterner The Grim Game Servant Theme – Music Copyright 2015 Steve Sterner All Rights Reserved

Since I did the post titled “The Grim Game Has a Score to Settle” there has been a number of piano scores.

According to a post at Houdini.org who has been keeping score:

Critics and experts most common critique of the restoration as supervised by Rick Schmidlin was that the music was repetitive.

Since the restoration, the film has had several showings and for whatever reasons they decided to have their own live piano accompaniment instead of the score Rick Schmidlin provided. A few examples follows;
Sun. July 19, Composer/Pianist Reuel Meditz accompanied the film with his original score at the historic Paramount Theater, Austin, TX.
Sept. 16 Northbrook Public Library in Northbrook, IL, It was screened twice with live piano accompaniment by Dave Drazin.
Oct. 11, 2015 Performed with live piano accompaniment by Neil Brand at Barbican Cinema 1 in London.
Dec. 5 Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin at Castro Theater at The San Francisco Silent Film Festival.


Most telling is Turner Classic Movies having silent movie pianist Steve Sterner add a new score to the 2nd of the screenings on Oct. 18. They’re also using the music for trailers and clips of the film.


Click the link below to read the full article at Houdini.org which also includes quotes from reviews of the Hollywood score, how the composer and music was selected for the original restoration music, a list of other options for music and composers, and the consultant’s frustrations with the producer. Also, included is the lead sheet music for the four main new themes of Steve Sterner’s score.

All of this said, I am assuming we have not heard the last word on the score.

Either way, please enjoy the music and TCM airings of Houdini’s finest movie!

Images courtesy of Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz

3 Grim Game Video Clips with the new piano music

ggtcmTCM airings of The Grim Game on October 18th is rapidly approaching.

The first airing at 8:00 PM (ET) will be the Brane Zivkovic score and the second airing at 11:45 PM (ET) will be the new score by Steve Sterner.

Steve’s score is an original piano score that he recorded in August.

TCM has posted 3 videos of restored Grim Game clips with the new piano music:3 Videos with new Piano ScoreClick the link below to watch the videos.


A big thanks to Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz for sharing this news.


What happened to Christopher Pickup from The Grim Game

Pickup Thompson Kennedy HoudiniWell, I previously did posts on what happened to Robert Kennedy and Frank Thompson, after “The Grim Game” respectively.  So, it is probably only fair that I share some info on Christopher Pickup, who flew the drop plane.  The below information is from an Aviation Autograph Collector selling items on eBay:

PICKUP, Christopher Vern.  PILOT IN A 1919 HOUDINI MOVIE AND U. S. AIR MAIL SERVICE PILOT.  (1896- ). SGT, 4th Cavalry (1913-14); USAS flight instruction (1916); Langley Field VA (1917); 2nd LT and flight instructor (1918-19); Durant Aircraft Co.; pilot for Cecil B. DeMille films (1919-20); flew in the Harry Houdini movie The Grim Game, colliding with David E. Thompson while Robert E. Kennedy hung suspended on a rope below Pickup’s aircraft. The props of both planes were shattered in a collision and both pilots were able to land their damaged planes, Kennedy, miraculously, suffering only bruises and abrasions being dragged along the ground during the landing (1919); U. S. Air Mail Service pilot (1920-21); appointed 8-25-1920 and assigned at Cheyenne WY (1920-21); he was apparently separated for not returning from leave (1921); Mercury Aviation, Los Angeles; Mexican Aerial Transport Corp. (1921-22); his request for reinstatement in the U. S. Air Mail Service was declined at the suggestion of the USAMS chief pilot (1924); FBO at Hoover Field Washington DC (1925-26); flew air mail for Clifford Ball, CAM 11 and Thompson Aeronautical Corp. on CAM 27 (1928); Transport Pilot rating no. 735 (1928); USMCR; air mail pilot for Boeing Air Transport (1927-40); his plane caught fire on an emergency landing at Elm Creek NE while flying CAM 18, Chicago-San Francisco (1929); member of the “Caterpillar Club” after abandoning an aircraft over Pittsburgh PA (1930); United Air Lines captain (1940- ).

Kennedy Forrest Thompson Pickup Wilson WillatBonus:

COPY of the pilot’s original Post Office Department “AIR MAIL PILOTS APPLICATION”, Form 2707 dated 5/16/1928 for his Contract Air Mail pilot service with CLIFFORD BALL

Pickup Application Form Page 1Pickup Application Form Page 2