Orson Welles remembers Houdini

In the fall of 1926 eleven year old budding magician Orson Welles went to see Harry Houdini perform his “Grand Magical Revue” at the Princess Theater at 319 S. Clark Street in Chicago’s loop. This was Houdini’s final Chicago appearance.

Houdini made his fame and fortune performing death defying escapes as a vaudeville headline act but he always dreamed of performing a full evening magic show. His “Grand Magical Revue” consisted of three acts: escapes, a lecture on spiritualism, and magic.

Welles recalled that the escapes were “thrilling”, the lecture was “riveting” but the magic “was awful stuff…a bunch of silly mechanical tricks”(1). Orson’s pal and fellow magician, David Bamberg, saw the show on opening night and recalled that Houdini’s first illusion was the vanishing and re-appearing lamp, a mechanical trick handcrafted in Germany. The trick failed. Houdini stopped the music, stepped to the footlights and announced: “The cause of the failure of this trick is due to the poor workmanship of Conradi-Horster of Berlin.”(2)

Both Bamberg and Welles went on to perform full evening illusion shows themselves, but they also spent late nights together trading sleight-of-hand card tricks.(3) Looking back, Bamberg made an assessment Houdini’s botched show: “In spite of Houdini’s experience, showmanship and personality, the show was a flop. It just wasn’t his métier. Alongside his sensational escapes, his tricks and illusions were flat. The background of suspense and danger was lacking and he just wasn’t being Houdini.


1. Steinmeyer, Jim Hiding The Elephant New York: Carroll & Graf 2003 P. 12

2. Bamberg, David Illusion Show Glenwood, IL: David Meyer Magic Books P. 46

3. Both Bamberg and Welles cast lovely assistants in their shows. Welles was famous for casting Rita Hayworth and Bamberg became infamous for the assistant that he refused to cast. Bamberg spent most of his career in Buenos Aires and in 1937 he turned down dancer Eva Durante in a one-on-one audition. Thirteen years later Eva became Eva Perón, “Evita” the powerful Argentinian first lady. David forgot their brief meeting and her failed audition but Eva never did and made him pay for it over and over again.

Learn more about Houdini’s Chicago appearances in my show Timeless Magic at Theater Wit: https://theaterwit.org/tickets/productions/308/performances#top