Harry Houdini’s 137th Birthday Honoring Masons and Magicians
Masons and Magicians
Posted by: Daniel Genchi
In the world of professional stage magic, few names resonate with such acclaim as Harry Keller, Howard Thurston, Harry Houdini, Charles Carter, and Harry Blackstone, Sr. In addition to being brothers in the fraternity of American magicians, each was also an active Freemason. Nearly amazing as the magic acts these great illusionists are famous for is the fact that all of the great magicians made time in their busy lives for Freemasonry: Despite the extensive travel entailed in their careers and all the allurements to the vices of the world, each recognized the value of the Masonic brotherhood.
Masonic Bro. Harry Keller (1849-1922) was the founder of what has been described as the Royal Dynasty of American Magicians. Keller began the tradition of passing the mantle of “Greatest American Magician” to a successor, his Masonic Brother, Howard Thuston. The lineage of the Keller dynasty has over the years passed from Bro. Thurston to Masonic Bro. Dante (Harry Jansen, 1883-1955), to Lee Grable (1919 – present, especially famous for floating and revolving his wife in mid-air as she plays the piano – a variation of Levitation made famous by Bro. Keller), and to the current successor, Lance Burton. However, much of what we know of Keller is learned from his friend Bro. Harry Houdini who was a frequent guest at Keller’s Los Angeles estate and interviewed the great magician to document the history of their craft: Long after Kellar had retired and just a few years before his death, Houdini cajoled his friend on stage for a mammoth show to benefit the families of the men who died when the troop transport Antilles was sunk by a German U-boat. Houdini arranged for Kellar to be carried off in triumph after his final public performance, as six thousand spectators sang Bro. Robert Burns poem “Auld Lang Syne.”
An amusing anecdote related to Bro. Keller’s Masonic membership was when he was shipwrecked in the Bay of Biscay and his Blue Lodge diploma went to the bottom of the sea. It was later recovered by divers who brought up baggage from the sunken steamer. Bro. Keller later remarked it had been viewed by Grand Master Neptune and returned.
Bro. Howard Thurston (1869-1936) was initiated in Manitou Lodge No. 106, New York City, on July 22, 1907. He received the 32° in New York City on July 10, 1910, and later became a Noble of New York’s Mecca Shrine Temple (Mecca is the first and oldest Shrine Temple, having been established in 1871 by actor Bro. William J. “Billy” Florence, Bro. Dr. Walter M. Fleming, and others). During Thurston’s stage show, he was known to say, “pronounce the magic word ‘Hiram Abif’ and the rooster and the duck will change places.” Through this patter, he prepared his audience to be amazed and, also let his Masonic Brothers know that a fellow Freemason was on the stage.
Bro. Thurston said of Freemasonry: “I sometimes think that the traveling Masons have more opportunities of being both proud and glad of the social distinction designated by the Square and Compasses than those who remain home most of the time. This is certainly true of a public entertainer, and especially of a magician…. What a wonderful thing for a stranger to be able to meet the best men of the community as a brother and a friend!”
Bro. Keller and Thurston’s contemporary, Bro. Harry Houdini (born Erich Weiss, 1874-1926) passed his own secrets only to his biological brother Theodore Weiss who performed under the name, Hardeen. The brothers began their magic act playing lodge banquets, beer halls, dime museums and any other bookings they could obtain. By 1919, Bro. Houdini’s fame as an escape artist had spread world wide. One illusion he never attempted was the bullet catch, of which his friend, Bro. Harry Keller warned Houdini that there were too many things that could go wrong and requested that he not do the stunt: Houdini had announced that would try the stunt after well known headlining magician Chung Ling Soo (also a Bro. Mason whose real name was William Ellsworth Robinson) had been killed performing it, but assented to Bro. Keller’s sage advice.
Harry Houdini was initiated in St. Cecile Lodge No. 568, N.Y., July 17, 1923, Passed July 31, and Raised August 21. In 1924 he entered the Consistory. Houdini gave back to the Masonic fraternity of which he was so proud, including giving a benefit performance for the Valley of New York which filled the 4,000 seat Scottish Rite Cathedral and raised thousands of dollars. In October 1926, just weeks prior to his untimely death on that Halloween, he became a Shriner in Mecca Temple.
Last rites for Bro. Houdini were held November 4, 1926 at the Elks Clubhouse in New York. Services were conducted by Rabbi Tintner who joined in the Elks “Hour of Remembrance,” a tribute was delivered by Rabbi Bernard Drachman and eulogies by Loney Haskell of the Jewish Theatrical Guild and Henry Chesterfield of the National Vaudeville Artists, followed by a service by the Society of American Magicians, and concluded, as by tradition of the fraternity, with Masonic Rites.
Another contemporary was illusionist Charles Carter (1874-1936), who hailed from San Francisco: He started his career as a magic journalist and prominent lawyer. Because of stiff competition in America, he chose to concentrate his magic career abroad, where he achieved great fame. His magnificent home in San Francisco is presently used as a foreign embassy headquarters.
Famed magician and Bro. Mason, Maurice Raymond, himself an escape artist, had a long running professional fued with Bro. Houdini. The Great Raymond proved his devotion to the Masonic fraternity when, on retirement, he toured the United States lecturing at Masonic Temples about his life in Magic: A favorite anecdote was performing in Ecuador, where he used two authentic shrunken heads as props.
Other great Masonic Magicians included: John Henry Anderson (1814-1874, who like Bro. Chung Ling Soo was famous for the bullet catch), Alexander Herrmann (1844-1896), Frederick Eugene Powell (1856-1938), Chung Ling Soo (born, William Ellsworth Robinson, 1861-1918), Dante (August Harry Jansen, 1883-1955, who appeared with his Masonic Bro. Oliver Hardy in Laurel and Hardy’s films A-Haunting We Will Go and Bunco Squad), and Okito (born Theo Bamberg, 1875-1963).
The tradition of Mason Magicians represented by these great vaudeville era illusionists has been perpetuated by the “Invisible Lodge” founded in 1953 by Bro. Brewerton H. Clarke who performed under the stage name Sir Felix Korim (1905-1986). The “Invisible Lodge” was not actually a Lodge, but rather a club for Masonic Magicians which convenes its sessions at major Magic Conventions. The club follows its own ritual, which encompasses elements from both Masonry and the world of illusion: The preferred time for the Invisible Lodge’s sessions has been midnight. Members of the Invisible Lodge have included, Blackstone (born Henri Bouton, 1885-1965), Okito (born Theo Bamberg, 1875-1963), Ballantine (born Meyer Kessler who, as an actor played Lester Gruber on McHale’s Navy with his fellow Mason, Bro. Ernest Borgnine), and Jack Gwynne (1895-1969).
The brethren of Mill Valley Lodge No. 356 have supported this tradition in 2000 when Masonic Magician David Lowenstein (stage name of Bro. Michael Tomofeev of Sotoyome Curtis Lodge No. 123, Healdsburg, CA) entertained the Lodge and guests at the Lodge’s Pillars of the Community dinner in honor of Marin’s new Eagle Scouts. As a further homage to our brethren of yesteryear, the green room of the Lodge’s vaudeville era stage has been decorated with the lithographs appearing on this page, celebrating the careers of these great Masonic conjurors.