Wild About Harry: Making “The Great Houdinis”

Harry Blackstone Jr. helps prepare Paul Michael Glaser for the Milk Can escape (Photo by Patrick Culliton, Genii)

Harry Blackstone Jr. helps prepare Paul Michael Glaser for the Milk Can escape (Photo by Patrick Culliton, Genii)

To kick off our late harvest of blog entries, it seems fitting that our first fall entry begin with our new guest blogger, John Cox, who has graciously allowed us to share his findings and love of everything Houdini – because John is just Wild About Harry! As October 31st is fast approaching and the anniversary of Houdini’s death, we thought John’s findings on the escape artist would be a proper tribute to his legendary life.

John Cox is clearly Wild About Houdini.  He is an American screenwriter, author and a recognized authority on Houdini. A great fan of the escape artist, John has made it his personal mission to continuously unearth and share interesting facts about Houdini, including (amongst plenty others) where the 1976 ABC TV movie, “The Great Houdini” was filmed.

“The first three days of filming were done at the Wilshire Ebell Theater, a historic 1,270 seat theater dating back to 1927. Long a popular filming location, the Ebell would double for the Alhambra, the Hippodrome and Hammerstein’s Victoria, as well as unnamed theaters in San Francisco, Paris and Detroit.

The first day of shooting involved all the complex stage escape apparatuses. The first scene shot was The Milk Can Escape. Then the Water Torture Cell action was shot, with star Paul Michael Glaser failing to escape as a horrified Sally Struthers (Bess) looks on. Abb Dickson provided the cell, which would be touted in some media as “the original cell,” which of course is not correct. (…)

After a few days off, the production moved for a single day to Queen of Angels Hospital near downtown Los Angeles. Here one of the movie’s best dramatic scenes was shot — when Bess comes to see Harry after his nervous breakdown and pulls him from his funk by suggesting they make spiritualist exposes “part of the act.” This was also the first day of shooting for the legendary Vivian Vance, playing Minnie the nursemaid. Vance, of course, is best known for her role as Ethel on I Love Lucy. (…)

The fifth and sixth days of shooting found The Great Houdinis crew at the Home of Peace Memorial Park & Mausoleum, Los Angeles’ oldest Jewish Cemetery. The first scene shot had Bess and Harry copying information from headstones for a spiritualist act, and then making love among the graves. (…) On May 6, production moved into the historic 20th Century Fox Studios in Century City. Here the bulk of the filming would take place over the course of the next two weeks. The production would utilize Stage 5, Stage 20 and Stage 4, as well as shooting on the studio’s two remaining exterior sets (Fox sold their large backlot in 1961). (…)

After two days rest, The Great Houdinis production was again on location, this time at the Malibu Pier off Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. Originally built in 1905, the pier was expended in 1938 and was made a historic landmark in 1985. The script has this down as being the Peekskill Bridge in New York in 1895, even though in the film a cop calls Houdini “that New York jerk.” Here, Houdini’s failed underwater handcuff escape action was shot. A double was used for Glaser’s dive – the only time a double is mentioned on the schedule. Another desirable prop used on this day is the banner that is hung between the two fishing houses at the end of the pier. Nice to see the production designer used authentic Houdini letting from his early European tour posters. (…)

The final day of principle photography for The Great Houdinis was planned for the Belmont Amusement Park in San Diego, which was to double for Coney Island. Here a scene in which Harry proposes to Bess aboard a roller coaster would be filmed.”

To read the full article, as well as some great photos of the locations, click here. Our thanks to John Cox for sharing his findings with our followers!

Posted in Magic trivia, Wild About Harry and tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , . RSS 2.0 feed.