World-famous magician Harry Houdini arrived in Vancouver a hundred years ago to pull off a daring stunt of freeing himself from a straitjacket while suspended upside down in front of thousands of Vancouverites.
Houdini performed the signature act, which usually took him between five and ten minutes, on March 1, 1923, in front of the former Vancouver Sun building located on Pender Street.
The escape was to drum up attention for his performance at the city’s Orpheum Theatre, a predecessor to the building which continues to bear the same name.
Houdini was a prominent performer in the early 1900s, known for his escape artistry. He toured across Europe, the United States, and Canada, performing vaudeville, popular live entertainment shows that featured acts such as comedy, music, or stunts.
Aside from Houdini, other well-known vaudeville names to perform in the city include Charlie Chaplin, silent film actor Fatty Arbuckle, and comedian Jack Benny, who opened for Houdini playing the violin before making his switch to comedy and eventually a long career in radio and television.
During his three-day visit in 1923, from Feb. 28 to Mar. 3, Houdini performed seven matinees and evening shows at the former Orpheum Theatre located at 796 Granville St., where the present-day Pacific Centre mall stands. At these theatre performances, Houdini’s big stunt was known as the “water torture cell.”
It involved him being suspended upside down in a locked glass cabinet full of water, holding his breath for more than three minutes while he escaped, a performance that a reviewer in The Province described as “undoubtedly one of the best of the season.”
In the week leading up to Houdini’s public performance, the Sun published a series of articles promoting the stunt, which it described as “unique” despite being an established part of the magician’s routine.
The paper reported that a pair of Vancouver police detectives had promised to lock Houdini up in a “burglar-proof” escape jacket, with monetary awards offered for anyone who could figure out how he managed to pull off his escape.
As Houdini was hung upside down, police estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 people showed up to see if he could get free. He “furiously struggled” for three minutes and 29 seconds, according to the paper’s report, and when he showed he was free, “a cheer arose and swelled into a roar.” And while it may have been showmanship, Houdini had praise for the audience, as well, calling it “the greatest outdoor crowd I have ever seen.”
The visit was a part of an East-to-West tour through several Canadian cities, according to John Pellatt, a Vancouver-based writer and magic historian who researched the visit for a series of articles on the website Canada’s Magic.
A few days earlier, the magician had made similar headlines in Winnipeg. At the time of his Vancouver show, Houdini was 49 years old. He died from a ruptured appendix just three years later.
Pellatt said Houdini’s work continues to resonate, as he was trying to tell people that they can escape the boundaries of their own daily limitations in different ways. “I think, in many ways, it was a metaphor for people’s own humdrum lives,” he said. “And I think people then and now still need that kind of hero to look at and to maybe aspire to.”»Harry Houdini arrived Vancouver Canada 100 yrs ago this week for a daring stunt: Free himself from a straitjacket while suspended upside down«