1914 recording of Harry Houdini speaking

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Postby Guest » 08/11/07 09:07 PM

It's something, isn't it? While there are thousands of images of Houdini and hours of film, the 80-second audio recording, preserved on an Edison wax cylinder, appears to be the only record of his voice. I've been trying to encourage Al Cohn to write a column about this sound recording . . . but I'll save that story for another day.

This would also be an excellent entry for NPR's Lost and Found Sound program.

Gary
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Postby Guest » 08/14/07 09:57 AM

Along this same note, I have a video of that Houdini narration entitled "Houdini Speaks"...a film by Al Rosson".

Jay Marshall and several other names are among the credits. Jay provided the Edison cylinder, I gather.

It's a b&w animation of Houdini wearing a tux, standing next to his WTC - he's mouthing the narration and gesturing with his hands...as though you were sitting in the audience and watching-listening to Houdini on stage.

Credits list the Edison cylinder from: Oct. 29, 1914.

I was led to believe that this little film was some sort of "underground magic film" - not widely distributed. Interested in hearing more info. about it.
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Postby Guest » 08/14/07 11:03 PM

Thats awesome! Plus that voice doesnt match AT ALL the picture I have of Houdini in my head. Weird.
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Postby Guest » 08/14/07 11:47 PM

Bear in mind to make an Edison cylinder recording (and I'm no expert) - the speaker must purposely speak SLOWLY and DISTINCTLY into the "horn" of the recording device.

So, whether or not that is an accurate recording of Houdini's true "stage voice" remains unknown.

However, it is fascinating that ANY voice recording of Houdini does exist!
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Postby Guest » 08/15/07 12:13 AM

Indeed J Fox, my father made a similar point: i.e., that this was more of a demonstration/test of Mr. Edison's new-fangled machine than it was a sample of Houdini's actual presentation/oratory...

We have always heard that he spoke with a heavy accent, and that he didn't need to talk so much after-all, as his feats of derring-do spoke in large part for themselves...

At any rate, I was glad to pass along this link because it does take one back, and make one think, n'cest pas fraters?
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Postby Guest » 08/15/07 03:43 AM

We have always heard that he spoke with a heavy accent,
Maybe my memory is faulty, but I've read the Kellock, Christopher, Gresham, Culliton, and Silverman biographies, and I don't remember any of them saying Houdini spoke with a heavy accent.
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Postby Ian Kendall » 08/15/07 03:54 AM

I was told by someone that since he started out in the Carneys he sounded a lot like WC Fields, as that type of diction would have been required to make oneself heard on a midway.

As ever, I'm probably wrong though.

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Postby Guest » 08/30/07 08:49 PM

Originally posted by J Fox:
Along this same note, I have a video of that Houdini narration entitled "Houdini Speaks"...a film by Al Rosson".


I was led to believe that this little film was some sort of "underground magic film" - not widely distributed. Interested in hearing more info. about it.
Mr. Fox-

I can't believe you have that film. That was the point of my Al Cohn story -- I had gone to his shop for the first time around 2001. For years, I had heard that he had a bootleg copy of the edison cylinder in the back room on audio cassette, but by the time I went to the shop, I had heard the recording via the web. Having told Al about that, he advised that he had something else for me, and pulled out the very film you described. It was wonderful. I think I remember Al indicating that the guy who made the film was a former Disney animator, who made the film on his own dime.

Gary
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 08/31/07 06:50 AM

On the stage in a large theater with no amplification, you would need to speak loudly, slowly, and articulate carefully in order to be heard.
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Postby Guest » 08/31/07 08:51 AM

Houdini was supposed to be able to be heard in the top balcony...a testimony to his skill and ego, that HE be heard.
Pete Kortes, told me of watching Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show...and how he was heard in an arena, as he spoke each word, s-l-o-w-l-y, giving each sylable, time to reach each person.
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Postby Guest » 08/31/07 09:32 AM

Didn't someone once describe Houdini as the "syllable-accenting American?" That suggests he may have spoken in a more pronounced way than other vaudeville acts. But maybe he was speaking a foreign language in that case.

One biographer said his stage voice could be heard in the lobby of theaters.

The literary critic and amateur magician Edmund Wilson, who saw Houdini perform in the 1920s, if not earlier, described him as having a German accent even then.

I didn't detect any foreign accent in the Houdini recording which, by the way, is included in that 1995 British-Finnish documentary about him, "Houdini, the World's Greatest Escapologist."

We know he spoke German in his youth and probably always with his mother. It's odd that the biographies don't go backward in his family history much. Don't Weiss and Steiner sound like German names, not Hungarian?
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Postby Guest » 08/31/07 10:00 AM

Mr. Fox-

I can't believe you have that film. That was the point of my Al Cohn story -- I had gone to his shop for the first time around 2001. For years, I had heard that he had a bootleg copy of the edison cylinder in the back room on audio cassette, but by the time I went to the shop, I had heard the recording via the web. Having told Al about that, he advised that he had something else for me, and pulled out the very film you described. It was wonderful. I think I remember Al indicating that the guy who made the film was a former Disney animator, who made the film on his own dime. --Gary.
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Gary:
It is indeed a nice little film gem.
Mmm, I think I'll e-mail Al Cohen for any more background information on it. Thanks!
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Postby Guest » 09/07/07 09:55 PM

Dear Mr. Lovick: You are correct.
I've also read some of the books you mentioned (& maybe another dozen about HH over the years, only a few of which I still have on hand, unfortunately)
--it IS true: I honestly can't say specifically when I formed the idea that he'd have a heavy european accent.

--Did I mix him up with other long ago stories about say, Malini, and just ASSUME that since he was born outside the U.S., and his parents didn't speak english very well that he'd automatically HAVE to have a heavy accent...or did I hear/read it somewhere? Hmm...

So far, the one quote I can find about his accent, right-off-the-bat is from Bert Sugar's Foreword in his book with Randi, "Houdini, His Life and Art", a copy of which recently went for $9,999 on ebay ;)

"His stage voice was practiced, with strong enunciation given to almost every syllable; he reminded some listeners of a barker and sounded to others like a man with a slight German accent. His manner was straightforward, even quaint, with none of the suavity of other magicians, and often he signaled the end of a trick with a conventional 'Will wonders never cease?' "

Only a "sleight German accent" mentioned there...I'll keep looking.

P.S. & I'm going to use "will wonders never cease?". Great line.
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 09/08/07 07:34 AM

He would not have had a German accent, but, if anything, a Yiddish accent. Most Jews today still have a mild Yiddish inflection in their voice if they're from the New York area.
I, too, had the idea that Houdini had both poor diction and an accent--I think it came from the Gresham bio which I read as a kid.
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Postby Guest » 09/08/07 08:47 PM

In the January 1923 M-U-M Houdini wrote an essay about speaking on stage. He says, Incidentally, once upon a time my grammar was corrected by a newspaper man" and that he was grateful for it.

This jogged my memory of something I read years ago in one of the bios (have no idea which one). Theres a story (and this is my not-too-solid memory of the anecdote) about someone asking Houdini, Why do you say As youse can see I aint got nothin up my sleeves.' And Houdini says, Cause I aint. And the man explains that the problem is his Newyorkese.

Im sure I have some of the details wrong, but if the story is true, it may be the incident Houdini refers to in the essay.

He goes on to say in the essay that classes from Boston Polyclinic and various other schools would go to Keiths Theatre to study his enunciation and manner of delivery.
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Postby Guest » 09/09/07 09:38 PM

"Addressing an audience", is reprinted on page 238, of "Houdini on Magic", by Walter B. Gibson.

Hard for many to realize today, the top singers, politicians, preachers, etc. speaking to large crowds without any electronic amplification, back then.
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