In celebration of Jason Bishop: Believe in Magic, coming soon to The New Victory Theater, we spoke to Manhattan's resident history buff Tim Dolan about one of Jason's idols—Harry Houdini—and his time on 42nd Street.
While Broadway is mainly known for big budget musicals and plays, magicians, like the The New Victory's upcoming illusionist Jason Bishop
, have always been in the mix. As early as 1899, Harry Houdini was performing his handcuff escapes in vaudeville theaters all over America, eventually appearing throughout his career at a handful of Broadway theaters in Times Square. He made his last Broadway appearance in 1926 alongside his wife Bess just one block south of The New Victory at The Nederlander Theatre (then called The National) on 41st Street.
While Houdini never performed on the mainstage of the New Vic, he did perform on the roof! Rooftop garden theaters began to pop up in Times Square to provde open-air entertainment during the hot summer months in a pre-air conditioned world. Always incorporating some sort of floral element for a "garden feel," each rooftop presented small revue shows, magicians, acrobatic performances and famous comedians of the day. Oscar Hammerstein I, who built The New Victory in 1900, created the Paradise Rooftop Garden atop his theater to rival others in the area. It was outfitted with over 600 seats (over 100 more seats than inside the New Vic today) and a metal covering overhead to protect patrons from rain.
During the summer of 1912, Houdini erected a 5,500-gallon water tank centerstage at the Paradise Rooftop Garden. In front of a packed audience, he escaped from leg shackles and handcuffs while in a submerged box that had been nailed shut and encased in chains. After performing this trick successfully the week prior in New York's East River, this was the first performance of the act inside of a theater. He would later perform the same feat at New York's largest theater, The Hippodrome, on Sixth Avenue—just a few blocks to the east of The New Victory Theater.
The "overboard box escape" wasn't the only act Houdini performed at The Hippodrome. On January 7th, 1918, Houdini walked onstage in front of thousands of World War I soldiers in uniform who were preparing to embark on their first tour overseas—he carried with him a few different sets of handcuffs. To thank them for their patriotism, Houdini prepared an educational performance. It's widely known that magicians like Houdini and Jason Bishop never reveal their secrets, but for this performance, Houdini did just that. He demonstrated how to escape the restraints of German handcuffs, how to free oneself from jail cells and what to do if trapped under water.
Gizmo and Jason! Photo: Alexis Buatti Ramos
While the performance was meant to be educational, Houdini unveiled a new trick at the conclusion for an entertaining twist. The troops watched as stagehands brought out an enormous cabinet and placed it center stage, followed by one other performer: Jennie, the daughter of P.T. Barnum's world famous elephant Jumbo. Jennie, Houdini explained, would be the first elephant he would ever make disappear. After having Jennie perform a few of her standard circus tricks, Houdini loaded her into the cabinet, placed a curtain over the front and waited. After a few minutes Houdini removed the curtain to reveal…an empty cabinet. To this day, Houdini's notes for the vanishing elephant trick have not been found, and it is his only act that remains shrouded in mystery. While Jason Bishop's animal assistant, Gizmo, is quite a bit smaller than Jennie, you can still expect some mind blowing illusions starring the pint-sized pup.
As audiences settle into the plush seats of The New Victory Theater to enjoy the magic of Jason Bishop: Believe in Magic
, they are joining the millions of audience members before them who have been fascinated by other illusionists on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in vaudeville theaters all over the United States—and are just a few floors below the same spot where Houdini conjured up his magic 105 years ago!
||Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but this show is so delightful! Back by popular demand after last season's sold-out run, Jason Bishop returns with even more tricks (and wry one-liners) up his sleeve. Get your tickets to Jason Bishop: Believe in Magic today!