People & Events
Martin Beck (1867-1940)
In the spring of 1899, twenty-five-year-old Harry Houdini was ready to retire as an entertainer. For six years he had traveled ceaselessly, performing in small-time dime museums and medicine shows, sharing the stage with "physical anomalies" and other assorted freaks. For five of those years, his wife Bess had shared his meager lot, performing with him as he desperately sought an act that might lead to greater success and a life in high-class vaudeville. Acrobat, illusionist, hypnotist, and puppeteer -- Houdini had tried all of these and more, and nothing had worked. Then he met Martin Beck.
Houdini's luck changed at a beer hall in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Beck and a few other visiting theater managers caught what might have been one of his last acts. Beck was intrigued by Houdini, and challenged him to escape from several pairs of handcuffs he promised to bring the next day. Houdini did. Soon after, Beck telegraphed Houdini from Chicago: "You can open Omaha March twenty sixth sixty dollars, will see act probably make you proposition for all next season." As Houdini later wrote at the bottom of the carefully preserved telegram, "This wire changed my whole Life's journey."
Martin Beck had the power to change lives because he was on his way to becoming one of the biggest tycoons in American entertainment. It was Houdini's good fortune to meet Beck just as he was becoming a player in the rapidly expanding world of vaudeville theater. Beck had come to America from his native Austria sixteen years before with a troupe of German actors. The teenager worked as a waiter in a Chicago beergarden before going to San Francisco with the Schiller Vaudeville Company in the early 1890s. While there Beck befriended the owner of the Orpheum Theater, and when it changed hands in 1899 he helped new owner Morris Meyerfeld expand by acquiring other theaters. By 1905 he was running the whole organization, which soon extended from Chicago to the West Coast.
Beck's chain of Orpheum theaters was one of two chains that dominated big-time American entertainment. His rival in the East was the Keith circuit, owned by B.F. Keith and Edward F. Albee. By the 1920s, every major vaudeville house in America had "Orpheum" or "Keith's" on its marquee. Cooperation between the two giants made breaking into vaudeville even more appealing for performers like Houdini, who hoped to become as famous as possible. After several months of successful bookings in the West, Beck began to book Houdini on the East Coast as well.
To both performers and the public alike, vaudeville at the turn of the century meant high class. A far cry from medicine shows and dime museums, vaudeville brought entertainers to large cities, where they performed in lavishly appointed theaters with the best props and costumes. It also meant better travel, fewer performances, and more money. Houdini, accustomed to $25 in a good week, saw his weekly salary quickly escalate to $400, a great improvement even with Beck's 20 percent cut. But beyond the tangible benefits, it meant that one had arrived as a performer. Before the advent of radio, film or television, vaudeville offered the best in American entertainment.
Within a year of taking Houdini on, Beck had made good on his promise to "boom you to the top notch." His careful management and sound advice had given Houdini a raft of great reviews and put him in demand across the country. Despite this debt, Houdini soon began to chafe under Beck's management. The two had been bickering for months when Houdini left to make a name for himself in Europe. When he found that an agent working for Beck had lied to him about arranging bookings in London, Paris and Berlin, the rift became irreparable. After succeeding in Europe on his own, Houdini wrote Beck in July, 1901 to be let out of his contract. While they remained on friendly terms, Houdini downplayed Beck's contribution to his career for the rest of his life. Although he later wrote that "[I] have had to be my own manager," his brother Dash seems to have been closer to the mark: "Although many persons claim to have made Houdini, all credit should go to the astute Martin Beck."
Although he was voted out of the presidency of the Orpheum circuit after it went public in 1923, Martin Beck remained a potent force in theatrical circles. He opened the impressive Martin Beck Theater in 1924, the only theater in New York on which there was no mortgage. He returned to vaudeville in 1932, running the booking office at RKO, and in 1934 brought the prestigious D'Oyly Carte Opera Company to America for the first time. At the time of his death in 1940, he was enjoying the run of Cabin in the Sky, the latest production he had brought to the Martin Beck Theater.