“The Handcuff Challenge”
In 1899, The Grand Opera House at 110 S. Main Street in Los Angelos, California was the home of the Orpheum vaudeville circuit performers, booked by the entertainment agency of Martin Beck.
Beck had just discovered a new talent, Harry Houdini at The Palm Garden Beer Hall in St. Paul, Minnesota and signed Harry to a contract to see how he would do on the west coast circuit.
Harry was building an incredible reputation quite quickly with each city he visited gaining massive publicity as soon as he arrived into town and filling the seats at the box office by walking into the police headquarters of each city he appeared in, to display his masterful skill of escaping from borrowed police handcuffs, leg-irons and boot restraints.
After a very successful appearance in San Fransisco, Houdini’s next stop on the circuit would be at the Orpheum in Los Angelos.
The Grand Opera House at 110 S. Main Street would be the temporary home of the Orpheum circuit performers until the new Orpheum Theater would be built in 1903 in L.A. by Martin Beck’s entertainment company now handling the Houdini act.
Upon his arrival, Houdini immediately visited a police station and entertained everyone present to a few of his magic routines, one of them being his new East Indian Needle Trick. This seemingly impromptu magic routine would warm everyone up for “The Handcuff Challenge” they were about to witness which would always gain Houdini major publicity in the local newspapers.
Five borrowed pair of handcuffs, a pair of leg-irons and an Oregon boot would be used to hog tie Houdini and it would take less than six minutes for Houdini to free himself from the irons, boot and cuffs.
A man named Professor Benzon published an exposé of Houdini’s feats. Benzon’s article, were syndicated in newspapers on the west coast and claimed as follows:
“In reality, this trick is absurdly simple. Handcuffs not being an article in extensive demand, there are but a few kinds made. Houdini is supplied with these, and with the keys that unlock them. He keeps conveniently about him all keys known to the handcuff trade.”
Houdini’s manager Martin Beck encouraged Houdini to completely ignore Benzon but because it taunted at Houdini and infuriated him, Houdini would refute his challenger in a dramatic fashion, and in doing so would redevelop the handcuff act and bring the experience to a new and unmistakable level, giving it more believability, impact and convince anyone who would witness “The Handcuff Challenge”.
On July 13, Houdini returned to San Francisco and once again he visited the police headquarters to escape from borrowed shackles. But to prove the false claims that he used, held or hid any keys, Houdini stripped nude and allowed to be searched by a police surgeon and two assistants.
After this remarkable event, Houdini was inspired for publicity purposes to professionally have a series of semi-nude photographs taken of him in shackles, chains, cuff and irons.
These were the first of Houdini’s iconic nude portraits taken as a result to the false claims made by Benzon, that he held the keys with him to make his escapes, and they would be printed to post and be mostly used in newspapers and magazines articles in every city he would appear to eliminate anyones suspicions that the false claims had any relevancy.
Houdini’s reputation and the anticipation of his appearance continue to rise and so did his pay check. Beck started Houdini’s contract on $60.00 a week and in just a short time it rose to $250.00. Also, many more dates were added to his schedule.
Houdini was unlike any other magician or performer of his time and history was in the making.
Stay Tuned……….To be continued