Harry Houdiniís first performance in Melbourne, February 1910.
According to historian Richard Waterhouse, in the early years Australian theatre fell into two broad spectrums, legitimate and popular. The legitimate theatre was generally characterised by the fact that it was patronised by the upper or upper middle classes. Popular theatre tended to be patronised by the working classes or lower orders. In Australia , more so than in countries like the United States and England, there was a greater cross over between the two. People from all walks of life would visit the New Opera House and they would also visit the Opera , Ballet or drama. It was a time of flux in terms of social mobility and social acceptability.
In order to meet and encourage the broadening demand for entertainment, the vaudeville and variety theatre owners had attempted to make their form of entertainment less risquť and more family friendly. The theatres in 1910 were thus more formal places than they had been forty or fifty years before. The audiences were encouraged to show their appreciation by cheering or clapping rather than throwing objects on stage. It was a time when manners and politeness mattered, and the whole of society was undergoing major technological, cultural and social changes.
Houdini was fully ensconced in this age. He was a man of formal manners, a man who projected himself as a respectable married gentleman. His act was firmly associated with the popular brand of entertainment.
At the time of Houdiniís appearance in Melbourne there was a great deal of competition in the entertainment industry. In terms of variety and vaudeville, the Gaiety Theatre was a prime competitor. When Houdini appeared, the Crottons, the original Grecian gladiators and Mora the White Mahatma were appearing at the Gaiety. Mora could answer any question the audience asked, blindfolded, a mentalist act.
As far as legitimate theatre was concerned, the main competition was the drama. Australian born Oscar Asche and his wife Lily Brayton were performing Count Hannibal to great acclaim. In addition a new medium , the moving picture was beginning to encroach upon the theatreís stranglehold. When Houdini took the stage in Melbourne, Spencerís pictures were presenting pictorial interviews with famous celebrities including author Hall Craine.
Sport, the constant diversion of Australian life was ever present, and was another competitor. Melburnians could divert themselves with cricket, Australian Rules football, horse racing and boxing, amongst other sports.
Houdini opened at the New Opera House on Monday Evening, February 7th 1910. He was part of a long programme of songs, dances and comedic sketches, which all began around 8pm and lasted for almost two hours. The Opera House programme was under the direction of musical director Fred Hall, stage manager, James Bell and business manager Frederic Aydon who was the brother in law of Harry Rickards.
When Houdini arrived at the theatre for his performance, he would have checked his dressing room allocation on the notice board at the stage door. He would then have obtained the key from the stage door manager. As headliner, Houdini would have been allocated dressing room number one by the stage manager, James Bell. Usually stage hands would have taken his wardrobe or props trunk to the room before his arrival. The big theatres generally had a small number of permanent stage staff during the day. They supplemented this small contingent during the evening, with part time workers.
The New Opera House programmes of the time consisted of two parts. The first part was a series of individual turns by regular Opera House performers such as Fred Bluett, Clyde Cook or George Sorlie. These turns were presented in a minstrel style. The regulars would sit in a semi circle, there would be end men and an interlocutor. The interlocutor was master of ceremonies and straight man to the end men. Each regular would present their individual act in turn. Such acts would be serio comic songs, dances, or comedic skits. Sometimes the first part would be a revue where the individual turns were linked by a theme. For example during Houdiniís appearance a theme used for the first part was "The Fishing Village."
After an interval, the second part of the programme would be presented. This part was presented in a more traditional vaudeville style. It consisted mainly of imported or speciality acts. The Tivoli circuit was unusual in that Rickards often had more than one imported act on the bill. Most vaudeville theatres presented only one. Thus the Martine Brothers, comedic acrobats, shared the bill with Houdini in Melbourne and Lily Langtry shared it with him in Sydney.
When Houdini appeared at the New Opera House, he was accompanied by acts such as Fred Curran, the quaint comedian, and Teddie, Decima and Roy McClean, the Australian Dartos. Ted Kalman, the comic singer, and a host of other performers also appeared on the same bill. Houdini was due to appear in the second half of the programme, after interval, second from last, a prime headlining spot.
During his early February performances , The Donnelly family immediately preceded Houdini. They were a dance troupe. Their little daughter Kitty, was the highlight of their turn. After the orchestra had escorted them off the stage it was time for the headliner of the night.
The theatre was full. Approximately fourteen hundred people were in the audience waiting for Houdini to appear. It was late evening, they had been entertained, had laughed and cheered and were now prepared to be befuddled by the mysteriarch.
Houdiniís appearance on stage was introduced by moving pictures. The first film showed scenes from an Houdini escape of 1906. The location was Philadelphia. Houdini was shown being shackled and handcuffed by members of the local police force. He then stood upon the Market Bridge and dived into the river below. The film then focused on a group of boatman on the river. They were shown resting on their oars waiting for Houdini to emerge from the water. After a few minutes, the footage showed Houdiniís head, popping up above the water line. He was smiling and holding the shackles triumphantly high above his head. He then swam to the nearest boat, was dragged aboard and taken to the wharf.
The second piece of film showed a similar scene which had reportedly been filmed in April 1909. Houdini was shown leaping into the Seine River from the Paris Morgue. A suitably macabre location.
Houdiniís use of moving pictures was an acknowledgement of the power of the new medium. He was using the new technology for his own purposes. These films in particular also introduced the concept of the manacled bridge dive to the audience and previewed his own dive from the Queens Bridge into Melbourneís Yarra River.
The films prepared the audience for the appearance of Houdini in the flesh. They introduced the concept of escapology to the crowd. After the films had flickered into darkness, Houdini appeared on stage. He was dressed in black and white evening clothes. A relatively small man, of stocky build, with curly dark hair and an hypnotic gaze. He probably bowed briefly as the audience applauded in recognition.
Houdini gestured and a veiled cabinet was wheeled to the centre of the stage by uniformed attendants. A committee of approximately twenty men came from the audience, walked up some stairs and joined Houdini on stage. Members of this committee, bound Houdiniís hands tightly behind his back. Houdini was still wearing his suit coat as they did so. The escapologist then walked behind the curtained cabinet and in seconds the coat was thrown out in front of it. The mystifier then re emerged. His hands were still securely fastened behind his back.
The next feat was Metamorphosis. This was also known as the trunk substitution feat. A large trunk was rolled to the front of the stage by Houdiniís uniformed assistants. Members of the audience committee once again secured Houdiniís hands behind his back. After making sure that he was tightly bound, they helped the escapologist climb into a sack. The committee tied and secured the top of the sack over his head. The sack, with Houdini enclosed was then put into a trunk. The trunk in itís turn was roped and nailed shut by the committee. The trunk, escorted by Bess Houdini, (Harryís wife), who was dressed in black knickerbockers, was wheeled into the cabinet. Then the trunk with Bess posing beside it, was curtained off from the audience.
In a few seconds, Houdini clapped his hands. He popped out from the cabinet, and appeared in front of the audience. The trunk was wheeled out and opened. The sack was untied and from it emerged Bess Houdini. She was wearing the coat that Houdini had been wearing when he entered the trunk. The fastenings of both trunk and sack looked completely untouched. Bess and Harry had been performing metamorphosis for many years before they took it to Australia. It was an old trick, but still had great impact on audiences.
For the finale, Houdini escaped from a strait jacket. Clad in a white shirt and black trousers he was trussed tightly by members of the committee. A contemporary report described the ensuing struggle in graphic terms;
For the next minute or so, the audience caught
fleeting glimpses of a wriggling bundle of
white shirt and dress clothes as it bounced and
kicked itself about the stage.... In a minute and a quarter
the white shirt "rather kicked about but a good one still"
straightened into shape and the audience found itself gazing at
a gasping Houdini.
The strait jacket escape was a very physically demanding one. Houdini later stated that it was performed entirely by muscular exertion.
The audience on the first night, were enthusiastic and screamed for more. Houdini bowed and announced to the audience that he intended to jump, shackled into the Yarra river, after he had obtained permission from the authorities.
The charismatic showman bowed, then exited the stage. Thus ended the first appearance of the master escapologist Harry Houdini in an Australian Theatre.
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