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Don Wilmeth on:
the heyday of Houdini's career

Don Wilmeth The really important thing to remember about the heyday of Houdini’s career in Vaudeville (that period from about 1906 to 1920) is that this is indeed the heyday of live entertainment in this country. He was competing with all kinds of entertainment. Don’t forget that this is the heyday of the reviews. This is the great period of the Ziegfield Follies. This is the great period of the Broadway stage. I mean, in this period, especially in the teens and moving into the twenties, there were hundreds of plays that opened every year on Broadway. There were dozens of Vaudeville theaters. More people went to Vaudeville than went to the legitimate theater, by the way. So to be a headliner in Vaudeville in that particular period meant that you were really at the top of your profession.

Houdini’s career parallels the rise of American popular entertainment, and his timing was almost perfect, in that he created a kind of entertainment that was perfect for the form that evolved. In other words, his act was made for something like Vaudeville. He probably didn’t know this, because when he started, there really was no Vaudeville. There was very little variety. But he cut his teeth on forms like dime museums and circuses and medicine shows, that allowed him to try out various things. And then as he was developing, variety entertainment was reaching its peak. He reached his peak about the same time that Vaudeville reached its peak. It was the right time, right place.

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