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Harry Houdini And The Great Copyright Escapade..

Harry Houdini And The Great Copyright Escapade..

(The following is a guest blog post by Marilyn Creswell, Librarian-in-Residence at the U.S. Copyright Office.)

Magicians do not always reveal their tricks, even when they register their copyright claims. The legendary Hungarian immigrant Harry Houdini registered three of his famous illusions as “playlets,” or short plays, with the U.S. Copyright Office between 1911 and 1914. The playlets were registered as dramatic compositions, which have been eligible for copyright protection since 1856. Houdini’s deposited playlet scripts are now held within the Reader’s Collection, Library of Congress Copyright Office Drama Deposits.

Houdini demonstrates his water torture cell trick

Houdini and the Water Torture Cell. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Houdini’s first American copyright registration is for the playlet “Challenged: or, Houdini upside down” that features his famous Water Torture Cell trick, also known as “The Upside Down.” The trick, shown here, is an escape from a water-filled cabinet while Houdini’s ankles are in stocks and the lid is locked. The registration describes the work as a “magical dramatic playlet” in sixteen typewritten pages. The first act depicts a group of men talking about Houdini’s amazing abilities, integrity, and willingness to take on challenges. By the second act, Houdini (played by himself) accepts their challenge and, according to the script, “*HOUDINI MAKES HIS ESCAPE*” and the crowd gives “Three cheers for Houdini, Hurrah, Hurrah, Hurrah.” He kept doing the trick through his 1926 tour when the foot stock broke and he fractured his ankle.

In 1914, Houdini registered his “Walking through a Brick Wall” trick as a playlet in two scenes. The plot of this playlet involved a father who constructed a brick wall to keep the son of his “mortal enemy” from being able to look into his garden. The father states, “The day you can walk through the brick wall that separates our houses, I’ll give you my daughter.” The next day, the father wakes up to see the young man made it through the wall. To his new fiancée, he explains, “Alice, whether I did or not [walk through the brick wall], everything is fair in love and war.”

This playlet includes a note after the curtain, which explains the illusion. It reads:

Poster for Literary Digest Houdini Master Mystifier

A poster advertising Houdini’s Buried Alive illusion, calling him the “Master Mystifier.”

From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

“To attain the above practical effect of walking through the brick wall, the wall proper is laid across the center of a trap door, on opening of which gives an opening in stage on both sides of wall through which the person playing the part gets from one side of wall to the other the dirt and grass mounds acting as screens for the trap.”

Soon others began selling cheap blueprints of the apparatus Houdini used to perform the trick. Even though the copyrightable words and script of Houdini’s playlet were not necessarily infringed, the act lost its appeal once its illusion’s methodology was well-understood. Houdini only performed the trick a few times, and then sanctioned his younger brother, Hardeen’s, use of the trick.

Houdini registered his last playlet, “Buried Alive,” in 1914. The premise of this play involves two tourists who try to one-up a local priest by performing a surprising “miracle.” The stage directions describe the tourist in a straitjacket, who is put into an empty box and lowered into the ground with dirt shoveled atop him. After a few chants and incantations, the tourist is revealed “relieved of his bonds, and appearing just as he was before.” The locals treat him as supernatural, but he insists he is a mere man. Houdini died on October 31, 1926, and was buried in the same custom-ordered bronze casket he used for Buried Alive.

Houdini bequeathed many of his magic tools to his younger brother, Hardeen, with instructions to burn and destroy them after Hardeen’s death. Some tools survive, some of his tricks have been figured out, and some people may have learned from Harry himself, yet other mysteries died with him. While his playlets are now in the public domain, Houdini’s magic mechanisms may remain a mystery forever.

Harry Houdini, legendary magician, dies at 52 (in 1926)

Harry Houdini, legendary magician, dies at 52 (in 1926)

(Originally published by the Daily News on November 1, 1926.)

DETROIT, MICH., Oct. 31. – Harry Houdini is dead.

The final curtain in the life of the magician who for years had mystified audiences throughout the world with his legerdemain was rung down in Grace hospital here at 1:26 p.m. today. Peritonitis following an operation for appendicitis caused his death. He was 52 years old.

A week ago, despite the advice of his physicians, Houdini insisted on going through with a performance at the Garrick theatre. At the end of his act he fell unconscious in the arms of an attendant.

The following day an operation was performed. He seemed to revive. Then last Friday an emergency operation was performed in an effort to save his life after a relapse.

At his bedside when he died were Mrs. Houdini, formerly Beatrice Rahner of New York, his manager, H. Elliott Stuckel, and James Collin of London, who for eighteen years had been his assistant.

After Houdini’s death Stuckel issued a statement attributing the magician’s fatal illness to unexpected blows in the stomach received from a student at Magill university, Montreal, ten days ago.

They body will be returned to New York for burial, Mrs. Houdini said.

Pies His “Open Sesame.”

An uncontrollable fondness for apple pies – and Harry Houdini became a magician.

The wife of the Rev. Dr. Mayer S. Weiss was one of the best pastry cooks in Appleton, Wis. Her son, Eric recognized the fact. On baking days Mrs. Weiss would lock her delicacies in a cupboard to forestall the boy.

To get at the pies Eric was forced to pick the cupboard lock. This he did, and his career had begun.

Eric Weiss, who later became known throughout the world as Harry Houdini, the handcuff king, was born in Appleton fifty-two years ago. When he was 5 he was taken to a circus. The magician attracted him. By an accident he saw through one of the tricks, and from then on there was no magical Santa Claus for Harry.

A Trouper at 8.

At the age of 8 young Houdini joined a circus. One of his tricks was to bend backward and pick up a needle in his eyelid.

One night, in Coffeyville, Kas., a sheriff volunteered to tie Houdini and suddenly snapped a pair of handcuffs on the youth’s wrists. They were the first, handcuffs Houdini had ever seen, but he was free in 11 minutes.

From then on it was as a handcuff expert that Houdini was known. He invented one unbelievable feat after another. See pics at:

Max Landis Takes on Sony’s ‘Houdini’ Project..

Max Landis Takes on Sony’s ‘Houdini’ Project..

Mike Fleming Jr., for DEADLINE, reports on the latest Houdini Project. It’s been many years since Hollywood produced a good movie on the life of magic’s singular most popular performer..

“  EXCLUSIVE: The life story of illusionist Harry Houdini has long fascinated Hollywood, but nobody has been able to do anything about it. Sony Pictures has Max Landis working his magic on a new draft of Houdini, the film being produced by Jimmy Miller…”

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