Brothers (from left) Theodore Hardeen, Harry Houdini and Nathan Joseph Weiss. Photo courtesy Sara Belle November
Before his death in 1926, Harry Houdini entranced audiences in theaters throughout the world, leaving a legacy of magic tricks and escapes unsurpassed even today. However, as far as I can learn, he never had a theater named for him.
Sara Belle November, Houdini's cousin and a Richmond resident, shakes her head when asked how many Richmond theaters now bear her name.
"I wince when I say that I believe there are seven. Everybody must think I have an enormous ego, but Neil [her husband of 62 years] never asks me. He just does it as a surprise," she says. In 2005, they moved into Westminster Canterbury. One of the Sara Belle November theaters is located there, and the latest is the former Empire Theatre.
Like her famous kin, November's love for the stage began early in life.
"I was a first-grader when I recited a poem on stage. From that time on, I was hooked," she says. During college, she attended summer acting school and became part of the Pennsylvania Straw Hat Circuit.
She married in 1950, came to Richmond and appeared on stages here: "There was the 3200 Club, the RPI Theater that's now VCU, The Barn on Patterson Avenue and the Westhaven in the North Side, although not one is still around," she laments.
November heard many stories about Houdini, some true and some perhaps fabricated by Houdini himself. Born to a devout Jew and his second wife in Budapest, Hungary, Houdini used to claim he was born in America. The family immigrated when he was about 7, settled in Appleton, Wis., and became practically destitute, especially after his father's early death.
At 20, he changed his name from Ehrich Weiss to Harry Houdini, perhaps to stave off anti-Semitism, borrowing the moniker from Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, a French magician.
Houdini's magic escapades circled the globe when a London newspaper article described his escape after being wrapped around a pillar and handcuffed at Scotland Yard.
Rosalind Slusky, Sara Belle November's mother, was Harry Houdini's cousin. She grew up in New York, married and moved to Augusta, Ga., where November, now 84, was born two years after the famous magician's death on Oct. 31, 1926.
While visiting Montreal's McGill University, Houdini was lying on a couch nursing an ankle broken during a performance. Earlier, he had explained to some students that he could stiffen his muscles, not feeling pain when struck. One of those students questioned the validity of the claim and, without giving Houdini time to tighten his muscles, landed several hard punches on the magician's stomach.
In constant pain, evidently from a ruptured appendix, Houdini ignored his wife's pleas to seek medical help and continued performing for several days. After two surgeries, the great escape artist, 52, died of peritonitis. Houdini's brother, Hardeen, carried on with the show.
November told me that Houdini would hold out his palm with a pencil in it, and say to her mother, ‘Tootsie, tell that pencil to go up or down.' He had such magnificent control of all his muscles that he could make the pencil stand up or lie flat without moving his hand."
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2012. All rights reserved.