Friday, August 26, 2011


The name Houdini is synonymous with magic. In fact, it has become almost a part of the English vernacular (ie. “I’d have to be Houdini to get out of that jam”).  Last week I attended a wonderful exhibit at the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles; it highlighted the life and times of Harry Houdini. (“Houdini: Art and Magic”).
For those of you unfamiliar with the amazing feats of this extraordinary magician, Harry Houdini is considered, by many, to have been the best magician who ever lived. Actually, this distinction may be due, in part, not only to the fantastic illusions he performed but to his phenomenal gift of self promotion.
Born in 1874 in Budapest, Hungary, Ehrich Weisz’s (Houdini’s name at birth) father was a rabbi. The family emigrated to Appleton, Wisconsin where Harry (derived from ‘Erry) discovered his passion at an early age. He adopted the name Houdini, to pay tribute to French magician, Jean Houdin, whom Houdini claimed was his inspiration.
Throughout the early part of the 20th century, Houdini, accompanied by his wife, Bess, performed in vaudeville houses across the country. In an era lacking television and the internet, his appearances drew thousands. A master escape artist, he used ropes, chains, handcuffs, and other assorted props to add to the suspenseful scenarios he’d create. Some of his famous “escapes” included: the mirror handcuff challenge, the Chinese water torture cell, the milk can escape, the suspended straightjacket escape (he once did this while dangling by his feet above a newsroom), and the overboard box escape.
In addition to his career in magic, Houdini was an early aviator, dabbled in motion pictures, and acted as a “debunker of spiritualism”, exposing phony séances. An interesting man to say the least and quite a showman.
            It was his “debunking of spiritualism” that cost him the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes) since Doyle and his wife were noted spiritualists.  Ironically, while Houdini exposed séances as shams (he tried to connect with his beloved, deceased mother at one time and failed) he apparently “hedged his bets”. He and Bess came up with the code, “Rosabelle believes”, that Houdini would use should he find himself able to communicate from “the other side” after his death. Bess kept a vigil for ten years then gave up stating that “ten years was enough to wait for any man”.
            Contrary to the Tony Curtis movie depicting Houdini’s life, Houdini didn’t die as a result of the water torture illusion gone bad. He suffered a blow to the stomach which may have contributed to a ruptured appendix and he ultimately died of peritonitis on Halloween, 1926.  To this day, worldwide séances and tributes are held in his honor on October 31.
            The exhibit at the Skirball ( 310-440-4500) will be there for another week or two and on Thursdays admission is free. (A companion exhibit showcasing the lives of other magicians who lived at that time will be continuing through the end of the year). The Houdini exhibit will then move on, first to San Francisco and then to Wisconsin. I’d encourage you to attend any of these exhibits if you can.
            In an age of “fifteen minutes of fame” and instant reality show celebrity, Houdini’s is a name that has endured.
            Attempting to compile a list of the greatest magicians of all time was difficult. Most lists I checked either focused on magicians of the 20th century or tended to be somewhat biased in favor of American magicians.
            In the end, I decided to list those magicians, older as well as up and coming ones, whose names came up most often when speaking of great magicians, beginning with Harry Houdini. The list is in no particular order and I must admit I was unfamiliar with many of the more obscure names. Feel free to add to the list if I’ve missed someone significant.

  1. Harry Houdini
  2. David Copperfield
  3. Ricky Jay
  4. Penn and Teller
  5. Lance Burton
  6. Dai Vernon
  7. Doug Henning
  8. Siegfried and Roy
  9. Tony Slydini
  10. Criss Angel
  11. Cyril Takayama
  12. Harry Blackstone Jr.
  13. David Devant
  14. David Blaine
  15. Mark Wilson
  16. Harry Anderson
  17. Theodore Hardeen (Houdini’s brother)
  18. Juan Tamariz
  19. Dynamo
  20. Dante

Have a great weekend and thank you for joining me this week along,



Friday, August 19, 2011


            Prior to the Surgeon General’s warning, in 1964, pronouncing that cigarettes could be harmful to one’s health, cigarette smoking did not have the evil connotation that it has today.  On the contrary, movie stars, crooners, politicians, and even athletes, made cigarette smoking appear glamorous.
            In many ways, smoking was, for a long time, regarded in much the same way we look upon drinking coffee or having a beer: something to be enjoyed in moderation and by adults. Or maybe it was seen as a bad habit, like chewing gum. (Just imagine if, twenty years from now, you were informed that chewing gum could kill you).  Smokers may have experienced a hacking cough, a raspy throat, and/or yucky, yellow-stained fingers and teeth, but while it may have been considered a dirty habit it wasn’t considered to be a deadly one.
            Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that cigarette smoking is costly, causes wrinkles and shortness of breath, and is associated with a multitude of health issues, including heart and lung disease.  In its time, cigarettes served a purpose: to some degree, it calmed one’s nerves, assisted in weight loss, made people (particularly teens) seem “grown up and sophisticated”, and was a terrific “prop” for actors.
            Certainly I am not suggesting a return to cigarette smoking but merely attempting to explain why people chose and still choose to smoke.  Unfortunately, by the time one realizes the benefits of stopping, it is a major challenge to do so.
I should add that though I am not a smoker nor am I an advocate of cigarette smoking, neither am I in favor of making the smoker a pariah. Often, in today’s society, smokers are treated only slightly better than child predators. For example, the “heavy” in films today can be a smoker, whereas the hero cannot. (Unfortunately, knowing this frequently gives away the ending). I understand that the purpose of this, where film is concerned, is to make cigarette smoking less appealing to young people, but I think there is a measure of political correctness going on in our daily lives as well.
I was once told of an eight year old boy who pointed to a smoker (who, by the way, was standing in a ‘smoking permitted area’) and said “smoking is bad for you”, while his self satisfied mother looked on.  Someone should have informed the woman that raising a disrespectful, ill-bred child was as repulsive to some as smoking is to others.
            Of course it’s best not to begin to smoke, especially since smoking is one of the most difficult addictions to break. My hat goes off to the smoker who has successfully licked this habit either by stopping cold turkey or by other means.
            So…how many of you can remember the old cigarette commercials and the memorable slogans associated with them?  Here’s a quiz to test your memory.  When you’re finished, scroll down for the answers. (BTW, a cigar or two might be included in this list).

1.   Why don’t you pick me up and smoke me some time?        A.  Salem
2.   -------- - The House of Menthol                                           B.  Tarryton
3.   Call for ----------   -----------                                               C.  Pall Mall
4.   To a smoker, it’s a ----------                                                D.  Marlboro
5.   I’d walk a mile for a --------                                                 E.  Virginia Slims
6.   ---------- means fine tobacco                                               F.  Viceroy
7.   Blow some my way                                                             G.  Muriel
8.   Cigars, cigarettes, ----------                                                 H.  Winston
9.   I’d rather fight than switch                                                  I.    Lucky Strike
10. 20,000 filter traps                                                                 J.   Chesterfield
11. --------- tastes good like a cigarette should*                        K.  L & M
12. Come to --------- Country                                                    L.   Phillip Morris
13. You’ve come a long way, baby                                            M.  Kent
14.  ------ - feeling free.                                                             N.  Tiparillos
15.  Wherever particular people congregate                              O.  Camel
16.  Just what the doctor ordered                                               P.   Kool

*    Another popular slogan for this brand:
“It’s what’s up front that counts”          

Ready for the answers?  Scroll down to see how well you did.

1.G;  2.P; 3.L; 4.M; 5.O; 6.I; 7.J, 8.N; 9.B; 10.F; 11.H; 12.D; 13.E; 14.A; 15.C; 16.K

Have a great weekend and thank you once again for joining me on this week’s journey along,



Friday, August 5, 2011


I was more or less raised on the genre of film noir, having been introduced to it by my older brother when I was very young. The black and white graininess of the films, the stark sets, the clipped, direct conversations, and the often lush music that accompanied them…all of it appealed to me.
The most noted noir actors include Zachery Scott, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Dana Andrews, Richard Widmark and Robert Ryan. Robert Young, often thought of as Jim Anderson of Father Knows Best or as Dr. Marcus Welby, is featured in what is probably his only role as a heavy in the noir film, They Won’t Believe Me.
And let us not forget the women! There were always enough dames on hand to mess up a good man’s life. Though many viewers are familiar with the more popular actresses of the era such as Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyk, and Lana Turner, actresses such as Jane Greer, Janis Carter, Ida Lupino (one of cinema’s earliest female directors), and Gloria Grahame heated up many a film with their rouged lips, stiletto heels, and perfume that pretty much wafted off the screen.
I consider there having been two types of noir films: the hardboiled (lots of police sirens, prize-fighters, people who lived on the seedy side of life, and nightclub singers named Ruby) and the more personal stories, ones that often dealt with psychotic women and the men who made them that way. Truthfully, I’m more partial to the latter.
Some of these movies show up on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), some do not and can only be purchased online, viewed at a retro theater, or rented at a video store specializing in old films. (EDDIE BRANDT'S SATURDAY MATINEE is a phenomenal, family owned video store here in L.A. that carries virtually everything).
For those unfamiliar with the genre who would like an introduction to some great films, I’ll share a dozen of my favorites. Some might not be technically considered noir, but are not to be missed films none the less. They are, in no particular order:

1.   LAURA (1944) - David Raksin’s haunting theme competes only with the beauty of its star, Gene Tierney.

2.   THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (1947) - A great, ‘had she but known’ story, starring Barbara Stanwyk, Humphrey Bogart and Alexis Smith.

3.   THE LOCKET (1946) - Probably has the distinction of having the most flashbacks within flashbacks.

4.   THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946)  - See the original, starring a rugged John Garfield and a sizzling Lana Turner.

5.   DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) - Featuring Fred Macmurray in a role very much unlike the one he played in My Three Sons.

6.   MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1944) - A hidden, often overlooked, gem starring Nina Foch and Dame May Whitty.

7.   THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946) - Brilliant performances by Barbara Stanwyk, Van Heflin, and Kirk Douglas (who plays a weak politician to perfection).

8.   THE BIG CLOCK (1948) - A terrific cat & mouse thriller with Charles Laughton as the cat and Ray Milland as the mouse.

9.   MILDRED PIERCE (1945) - Joan Crawford at the top of her game as she plays a mother willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of her ungrateful daughter.

10. THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) - In one of his most memorable performances, Humphrey Bogart stars as Det. Sam Spade in this classic mystery based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett.

11. D.O.A. (1950)  - Again, go for the original, starring Edmund O’Brien.

12. NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)  - The only movie ever to be directed by Charles Laughton, very eerie; my all time favorite.

There are many ‘neo-noir’ movies, recent films that have managed to capture that old time feeling; I’ll save that discussion for a future posting. Now is the time to put on an old fedora, pour yourself a double scotch, and curl up with one of the above mentioned films --- an evening well spent.

Have a great weekend and thank you for joining me on this week’s journey along,