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History

11 Dec 2019

History Image

Melbourne goes wild about Harry!

By the middle of another hot February day in 1910, the crowds along Princes Bridge, the main thoroughfare to the south of the city, were starting to grow and soon would become three-deep.

Estimated at about 20,000, they were a mixed lot, young and old, including stevedores, carriers, clerks and office boys.

The rising temperature did nothing to improve their mood after a few days of extreme heat, with pushing and shoving taking place.

They were there to see an extraordinary event, where the famed escapologist Harry Houdini planned to plunge into the Yarra, padlocked, chained and wearing handcuffs, and extricate himself before rising to the surface.

By 1.30pm he had arrived by car, wearing a tight-fitting blue costume. After the chains around his body were checked, there was a hush as he stood on top of the bridge, looked out over the crowd, took a deep breath and dived into the murky waters of the river!

Houdini had been born Ehrich Weiss, the son of a Hungarian rabbi, and landed in the USA at the age of four. He had worked in a variety of roles in the theatre in the States and the fresh-faced young man had developed an act that was based on escapism.

Gradually he became a sought-after star of the circuit and in 1910 he travelled by ship to Melbourne to headline a season of entertainment at the New Opera House, forerunner of the Tivoli.

The long trip was a nightmare for him, as he suffered from seasickness and badly missed his mother. He was part of a long programme of songs, dances and comedic sketches and his routine included escaping from a veiled cabinet while bound, escaping from a tied sack within a trunk, and exiting from a straitjacket.

Acclaimed by Melbourne audiences, he was poised to make another amazing escape after diving into a river. Houdini had plenty of tricks in his bag including false fingers that contained a key, handcuffs that were designed to open when turned over and having a friend slip him a key during a handshake before the jump.

Police boats were patrolling on the river near the bridge, with officers prepared to retrieve Houdini’s body if he could not escape in time. The crowd stayed hushed as the seconds ticked away. Just as things were looking ominous, he broke through the water and was pulled into the police boat.

He had done it, using all the flair and showmanship honed through years of performance and producing another chapter in his illustrious history of escaping. That night he received massive applause at the show.

However, Houdini was not finished with astounding the Australian crowds. He was about to undertake the first powered aeroplane flight in Australia. At the town of Digger’s Rest, he had parked his Voisin box-type aeroplane in preparation for the flight in March. But that’s another story!

 

Robin Grow

President - Australian Art Deco and Modernism Society

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