The Great Escape: When Harry Met Amon

When a big celebrity comes to town, often that town will present the celebrity with the key to the city. But when you’re that celebrity, and your name is “Harry Houdini,” who needs a key?

So, instead, when Houdini came to Fort Worth in January 1916 the city made him feel welcome by hanging him upside down in a straitjacket fifty feet off the ground in front of the Star-Telegram building in eighteen-degree weather.

This is what happens when two master promoters—Harry Houdini and Amon Carter—have a playdate.

Houdini had come to town to appear at the Majestic vaudeville theater as part of his tour of the Interstate theater chain. Houdini might have been promoting Houdini, but Star-Telegram vice president and general manager Amon Carter would, as much as Amonly possible, use Houdini’s appearance to promote the Star-Telegram. Every day for a week Houdini’s face and feats were in the Star-Telegram to promote an escape attempt that he would make—at the Star-Telegram building, of course.

Harry Houdini was billed as the “elusive American,” the “arch mystifier,” the “world-renowned self-liberator.” He had escaped from chains, ropes, handcuffs, shackles, safes, packing crates, plate-glass boxes, mail pouches, and straitjackets. He had leaped handcuffed into frozen rivers and had escaped from a Siberian prison van and the jail cell that once held the assassin of President Garfield.

houdini must hang 1-11On January 11 the Star-Telegram announced that on January 13 city police detectives would wrap Houdini in a straitjacket, tie his ankles to a rope, and hoist him upside down to a scaffold suspended over the edge of the top of the Star-Telegram building. The Star-Telegram building in 1916 was located at 815 Throckmorton (the parking lot of the Waggoner Building today).

houdini 1-12 panelThe Star-Telegram story of January 12 had the tone of a carnival barker: “It’s dollars to doughnuts you’ll be in front of The Star-Telegram office Thursday.” “The thrills will go chasing up and down your backbone like a million pollywogs in a pool along the West Fork.” “You have another engagement? Break it this minute.” “So you and you and you—come down in front of The Star-Telegram tomorrow at noon.” “So be there! The Star-Telegram!”

houdini 4000 see 1-13 smallOn January 13 the Star-Telegram reported that a crowd of four thousand—“the biggest ever seen in front of The Star-Telegram”—had watched Houdini shuck that straitjacket “in faster time than any man in the crowd dreamed he could.”

houdini photo spread 1-14-16The next day the Star-Telegram printed photos of the escape, the words “Star-Telegram” appearing in both the headline and a photo.

s-t building 815 throckmorton 1907(This photo from 1907 shows the Telegram building at 815 Throckmorton.)

houdini tires 1-9-16Meanwhile, on January 10 Houdini had begun a week-long engagement at the Majestic Theater performing his escape from the “Chinese water torture cell.” On January 9 the Majestic had begun its carpet-bomb ad campaign in the Star-Telegram.

For Houdini’s nightly escape from the “Chinese water torture cell” on the Majestic stage, he had his ankles locked in a wooden clamp that was encased in steel. Then he was lowered upside down into the water-filled wooden “torture cell.” The cell was closed, bolted, and encased in a steel cage with twenty-two double padlocks. An attendant stood by with an ax in case Houdini needed to be rescued.

Fear not. The “escapist premier” freed himself in about ninety seconds.

The Majestic Theater where Houdini performed was not the original. The Telegram on November 28, 1905 had announced the opening of the original Majestic Theater on Jennings Avenue south of the 1896 federal building/post office and west of St. Ignatius Academy. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.)

houdini 2 PCsThe second Majestic Theater was located on Commerce at 10th Street (just south of the old bus station). And Harry Houdini could scarcely have chosen a nicer place to be tortured. Built in 1911 to present movies and vaudeville of the Interstate circuit, the Majestic Theater building did not present an impressive exterior. Ah, but plunk down your fifteen cents, buy a ticket, and step inside. The interior of the Majestic lived up to the theater’s name. Interstate mogul Karl Hoblitzelle had given Fort Worth opulence: statuary, gold leaf, marble columns, mosaic floors, crystal chandeliers, hand-painted curtain, smoking room, children’s nursery. By today’s standards, the Majestic interior looked more like an opera house than a vaudeville  theater. A surviving example of Hoblitzelle’s opulent Interstate theaters is the Majestic Theater (1921) in Dallas.

About the postcards: Although the second Majestic was located on Commerce, a “MAJESTIC” banner hung over Main Street. Rising in the background (left and right) are the Farmers and Mechanics National Bank and Texas Hotel (both 1921, Sanguinet and Staats).

houdini majestic to open 8-21-11The second Majestic Theater opened on August 28, 1911. Clip is from the August 21 Star-Telegram.

houdini majestic ad 8-27-11This ad appeared in the Star-Telegram on August 27, 1911.

houdini majestic 9-1-12 stIn 1912 the Majestic—“everybody’s theater”—presented the musical comedy “Suffragettes.”  “Everybody must scream.” But not until 1920 would the Nineteenth Amendment give women the right to vote. Ad is from the September 1 Star-Telegram.

houdini majestic 1914Ad is from the 1914 Star-Telegram.

houdini rogers 13 marx 14Among stars who appeared at the Majestic were Will Rogers, the Marx brothers, the Ritz brothers, Jack Benny, Fred Astaire, Burns and Allen, Mae West, Edgar Bergen, Katharine Hepburn, Eddie Cantor, Jimmie Rodgers, and Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, and Ray Bolger, who in 1939 would be the Cowardly Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. Others to appear on the Majestic stage included Enrico Caruso, Rose Marie (Dick Van Dyke Show), local girl Ginger Rogers, and Irene Castle, widow of Vernon Castle. In the bottom clip from 1914, Julius is Groucho, Leo is Chico, Arthur is Harpo, and Milton is Gummo.

houdini marx 1917

Ad is from the 1917 Star-Telegram.

majestic mae west 1914Mae West was twenty-one years old and nineteen years away from She Done Him Wrong when she appeared at the Majestic in 1914.

majestic fields 1927In 1927, when William Claude Dukenfield appeared on the Majestic stage in “Fields’ Family Ford,” “the laughing hit of vaudeville,” he was forty-seven years old and thirteen years away from co-scripting My Little Chickadee with co-star Mae West. W. C. Fields appeared at the Majestic on the same bill with “Thompson the Egyptian,” who could, through the magic of “zonery,” show his audience how to grow hair on a bald head and relieve “all human ills.”

majestic bob hope 1930Bob Hope was twenty-seven years old in 1930 and eight years away from his first film appearance in The Big Broadcast of 1938, in which he sang “Thanks for the Memory.” He appeared on the Majestic stage with “Fort Worth’s prettiest daughters in a pageant of pulchritude.”

shows smithThe Interstate chain would eventually operate a dozen theaters in Fort Worth, including the Majestic, Hollywood, Worth, Palace, Bowie, Tivoli, Varsity, and Parkway. (W. D. Smith photo in Fort Worth in Pictures.)

houdini dead 11-1-26 dmnAs for Harry Houdini, he could escape from everything but Amon Carter and death. Clip is from the November 1, 1926 Dallas Morning News.

majestic torn down 1966And the Majestic Theater could escape from everything but change. In the summer of 1966 the theater was demolished when fourteen blocks of the south end of downtown (the old Hell’s Half Acre) were razed to build the $16 million ($113 million today) Tarrant County Convention Center.

majestic-utalmajestic-camilleThe Majestic Theater in 1955. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)

majestic classified 1966By October the once-majestic Majestic had been reduced to an ad in the “Building Materials” classification.

And the days of the convention center’s domed arena, too, may be numbered as the city of Fort Worth seeks a way to expand the convention center, in the process demolishing the domed arena to create more meeting space. The gods of change seem to promise to entertainment venues only twoscore years and ten. The Majestic lived to age fifty-five. On 7th Street’s Show Row, the Worth and Hollywood theaters stood for forty-five years, the Palace for fifty-seven. As of 2017 the convention center is forty-nine.

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10 Responses to The Great Escape: When Harry Met Amon

  1. Excellent piece! Love the maps! Do you have any info or referrals on Houdini’s appearances in San Antonio?

    • hometown says:

      Thanks, David. I did not search the Fort Worth papers for other Texas appearances by Houdini. Could find no clips on his Fort Worth motorcycle stunt with local boy Ormer Locklear in 1916 or his program at the local Ku Klux Klan in 1924. The Houdini File

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