Thursday, May 7, 2009

Houdini in Los Angeles

If you get to page 85 of the newish biography of Harry Houdini (The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero )(which is not hard to do; it's very readable) you find this reference to the Los Angeles Times. An article warned "that both California and the entire West Coast were being flooded with dangerous counterfeit coins manufactured using the hot-die process."

Oooh. The thesis of this new Houdini bio is that the famed magician worked hand in hand with the Secret Service and other organizations to spy and bust criminal rings, but I don't care much about the hot-die process or counterfeiters.

I was curious about the first mention of Houdini in the Times, though. I found the advertisement on the left in the June 25, 1899 paper. On the same date, in the "This Week's Attractions" section of "At the Theaters," we have:

"Houdini, styled the "King of handcuffs" and "mystery of mystery," is exploited as the star feature of the Orpheum's bill for tomorrow evening, and the remainder of the week. Houdini has created a furore by his performances on the stage and off it, as well. His trick of removing handcuffs from his wrists had puzzled the police from Gotham to the Coast, and we are promised that his illusions are of the most novel and unique character. He is assisted by his wife, and the pair are said to give a most edifying performance."

Edifying? Would that bring you to the Orpheum? Clearly, that word has changed its meaning over 110 years! Reviews in subsequent days point out that Houdini would free himself from four pairs of handcuffs locked into place by members of the LAPD--and he'd leave the handcuffs locked, but empty. All this was done in a cabinet, though later he changed the act so the audience could actually see him escaping. And the papers referred to him as a "youth" even though he was 25 and performed with his wife.

One of these buildings is the Orpheum on Main between First and Second, where Houdini performed. It had been the Orpheum since December 31, 1894, but was built as Child's Operahouse ten years earlier. People immediately began calling it the Grand Operahouse, which must have annoyed Mr. Child considerably. The place was the second major theater in LA, and the second-largest theater on the West Coast. Reputedly, up to 1200 people could be seated there.

In 1903 it became the Grand Theater when a new Orpheum (the second of four) was built on Spring Street. According to Cinema Treasures, the old Childs/Orpheum/Grand at 110 or 125 S. Main became a movie house in 1910, and by 1920 it was one of the cheap theaters showing second-run movies. In the Depression it housed Mexican vaudeville and Spanish language films, but it was torn down in 1936.

This picture is from the Los Angeles Library's Herald Examiner Collection, and was taken in 1935. The library says the Orpheum is here, but doesn't identify which storefront--I'm pretty sure it's the one with a vertical sign over the pediment, topped by a 10 cents symbol.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is the 10c gable in the center. The theatre probably occupied the whole building and rented street frontage to shops.

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