Houdini Comes To The Keansburg Boardwalk

Part II

Frank and Antonio Martinka opened Martinka & Company in 1877. Martinka & Company is America’s longest-operating magic company. The business was for a period owned by Harry Houdini around 1919, and throughout the years the company acquired and combined with over 30 other magic firms.

In 1902, the Society of American Magicians was founded in Martinka’s backroom. Early on the Martinka magic shop became a hang-out and gathering spot where both famous and unknown, professional, and amateur magicians alike could socialize, swap stories and share insights. At any point, enthusiasts could rub elbows with Houdini or his brother Theo Hardeen, Alexander Herrmann, Harry Kellar, Howard Thurston, Joseph Dunninger, or later, Woody Allen, Dorothy Dietrich, Penn & Teller, David Copperfield, and David Blaine.

Frank and his wife had a home at New Point Comfort in Keansburg, not far from the current fishing pier where the New York steam-powered ferries used to tie up. It was his refuge from the rest of the world.

Harry-Bess-Keansburg boardwalk courtesy of John Cox- Wiled about Harry website.

On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in July of 1917, there was a knock at the door and the Martinkas received the surprise of a lifetime. There on the porch stood Harry and Bess Houdini and thirty magician members of the Society of American Magicians were marching up the front walk with musical instruments and noise makers and they were joined by neighbors who came out to find out what the ruckus was all about. To say the Martinkas were surprised is an understatement, they had been expecting only Harry & Bess.

Harry + Bess

The party lasted hours. The S.A.M members had all brought food, sandwiches, and salads, and the neighbors that crashed the party all went home and tried to outdo one another with their best dishes. After all, some of the most famous magicians and vaudevillians from New York City were right there on the lawn!

According to M.U.M magazine (the official magazine of the Society of American Magicians), “Officially, the society was represented by its President, Harry Houdini, Past Presidents Sargent, Werner, Wm. A. Ransom, Van Dien, and Teale (Secretary); TreasurerRullmann and other members of the Council, C. Fred. Crosby, and G. G. Laurens. The other members and guests were: Mr. and Mrs. Martinka, Mr. and Mrs. Servias Leroy, Mrs. Houdini, Mrs. Sargent, Mrs. Crosby, Mrs. Rullmann, Mr. and Mrs. T. Weiss Hardeen, Miss C. Gladys Weiss, Miss Gladys Parsons, Miss Wallie Müller, Miss Lauretta Butler, Miss Karcher, Miss Frances Laurens, Miss Elsie Laurens, Mrs. Kramer, Harry Houdini, Weiss, S. Theo. Weiss, Herbert Ransom and a grandson of Past President Wm. A. Ransom.”

The party continued throughout the afternoon. Many of the magicians, including Frank
Martinka, performed for the crowd. All the while musicians performed in the background.
Houdini and Theo had to break up the party in order to get the revelers back to Manhattan on the 5:30 boat. Nobody wanted to leave. They all stood at the rail as the ferry pulled away, waving to Frank and his wife. Later, Houdini received this letter from Frank Martinka:

“Keansburg, N. J., July 23, 1917.
Mr. Harry Houdini,
Dear Friend and Brother:
In behalf of Mrs. Martinka and myself, we wish to express our sincere thanks for the
unique surprise tendered to us which will remain unforgettable. Kindly convey our
thanks to all who participated in the delightful visit which touched both our hearts with
Thankfully yours,

Harry Houdini, to the best of our knowledge, only visited the Jersey Shore on two occasions. The first was in 1914 when he was compelled to visit the hotel where his mother Cecilia passed away, and that crazy impromptu party in Keansburg.

Cecilia Weiss, Ehrie, and Bess

However, they say that on Monday, August 11, 1924, Harry gave a performance at the Ross-Fenton Farm in Wanamassa as part of a fundraiser for Monmouth Memorial Hospital. There is a single document that survives, a playbill of sorts. Unfortunately, there is no corroborating information as to whether or not the benefit ever took place.

Musings of times gone by…

When I was a child, rather than piano lessons or such, my parents recognized my interest in Houdini and magic and gave me the gift of magic lessons when I was about eight years old. Every Saturday, they would drive me to a little local magic shop. The backroom was a small theater with all the trappings of a large professional stage but diminutive in size. It was in that room that one perceived wonderment. We were taught, not by local magicians, but by national acts. I learned the mentalist and spiritualist acts from James Randi, Sleight of Hand, and playing card manipulations by Harry Blackstone, Jr. and many others. My favorite part of the course remains, to this day, the art of escape and lock manipulation. My teacher for that course was another kid who was obsessed with Houdini. His name was Doug Henning.

Doug Henning

I went on to study under Russ Eisenberg in Manhattan and eventually landed a summer job as a teenager in the old ten-in-one at Coney Island. A ten-in-one was ten attractions for one low price. There was a blow-off at the end, an eleventh attraction for a buck. Like the Giant Man-Eating-Chicken. Harry Houdini began his career at Coney Island. That’s where he met Bess, his wife.

If you have never seen the old “Flickrs” of Houdini performing tune in to these:

Houdini Escapes from a straight jacket while suspended from a building.

Houdini Jumps off a bridge handcuffed

Houdini’s Crate Escape

Back in 1983, Doug Henning performed in a Broadway musical/magical show called “Merlin”. The lead-in song had a chorus that resonates with me today. The lyrics epitomize the experience of a magic show, or a Ten-In-One, or a carnival, where for a moment the real world is suspended and for a moment, we become children again believing in magic and wonder.

“It’s about magic.
It’s about wonder.
It’s about takes your breath away,
Can’t believe your eyes!
Don’t you love a surprise?”

-Merlin on Broadway 1983

Johnny Thompson performs “The Gambler’s Ballad”

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