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Rediscovering Houdini at Burnley Empire

Updated: Nov 29, 2020

Burnley Empire unlocks Houdini's mystery film 115 years after its' screening at the iconic venue.


Harry Houdini was the greatest escape artist the world has ever seen, and his story is known across the world. Mysteries of his life remain though - Houdini was an early film star, appearing in Hollywood thrillers, but there is some confusion about his first appearance on celluloid. The earliest film available to Houdini scholars is his jump from a bridge in Rochester, NY in police handcuffs, filmed in 1907 by Kodak Eastman and his first narrative film was ‘Les merveilleux exploits de Houdini à Paris’ made in 1909 for Film Lux. This movie featured several spectacular escapes as well as his leap in handcuffs from the roof of the Paris morgue into the Seine


There is a legendary lost film, however, ‘Houdini Defeats Hackenschmidt’, apparently shown in March 1906 after Houdini’s performance in Boston. This film, where he apparently escapes from manacles fastened on him by the legendary wrestler George Hackenschmidt, a.k.a. "the Russian Lion”, has been a mythical quest for scholars of the escapologist, no real references seemed to exist to the film itself. Until now.....!


'I was blown away to hear the story that broke this week. It’s blown my mind, because that show took place where? The Burnley Empire! Concrete proof that not only did the film exist, but it was actually shown at the Burnley Empire'

The blog wildabouthoudini.com has found a reference in the Burnley Express to the film being played at the Burnley Empire in March 1905, a year before it was even known to exist. Houdini researcher John Cox, who runs the website and has been searching for references to the lost film for ten years, has this to say about the revelation: ‘There can be no doubt that this is the same film that played in Boston, here playing a year earlier in England. This confirms that it existed, that it was indeed a film, and, most excitingly, it featured Houdini doing an escape at the hands of challenger George Hackenschmidt. Wow!’

The Burnley Express review of the film on March 22nd, 1905 reads ‘The performance is closed by the Empire Biograph, by which are reproduced "An office boy's revenge" and Houdini extricating himself from manacles placed on him by Hackenschmidt, who appears to enjoy the fun immensely.’


Our Professional Magician and BET Director, Shaun McCree said ‘This is an amazing find, the Empire has proven to be the key that unlocks a mystery that Houdini scholars have hoped to find for years. The news is very timely as Burnley Empire Trust are right in the middle of a Crowdfunder campaign to raise the money for essential stabilisation works to begin the journey to the public once again being able to enjoy the Empire as a gem of the local community - we are proud that the heritage of the building is opening up so many secrets and helping take us forward in our vision to restore, revive and reinvigorate the Burnley Empire for future generations!’


'....To me, is the Empire crying out through history, ’Hello, I’m still here, help!’

TV magician and Houdini expert #PaulZenon, who you can watch in the film below said ‘I was brought up in the Pendle district and I’m a bit of a #Houdini buff, in fact, a bit of an obsessive, that’s why I was blown away to hear the story that broke this week. It’s blown my mind, because that show took place where? The Burnley Empire! Concrete proof that not only did the film exist, but it was actually shown at the #BurnleyEmpire, this is Houdini’s first ever appearance on film, a whole year before the only other mention of it in the States, in Boston. That, to me, is the Empire crying out through history, ’Hello, I’m still here, help!’ So, I’m taking it as a sign we all need to get behind this #Crowdfunder campaign, it’s just too important. It’s incredible that the Empire is still relevant 115 years later and not just affecting local history but history internationally’





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