Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative


Tales of the City #3 - Houdini's Visit

July 6, 2020

While waiting for my next book, Becoming Vancouver: A New History, delayed by the COVID situation, to be published, I thought I would introduce the project by telling some "tales of the city."

In Vancouver between the wars popular entertainment flourished in the vaudeville palaces, cinemas, music halls and hotel bars along Hastings and Granville streets. One of the most anticipated shows in the city’s history was an appearance in 1923 by the 48-year-old magician and escapologist Harry Houdini.

Houdini appeared twice daily at the Orpheum Theatre on Granville Street, on a bill that also featured “a Spanish gypsy revue” and a few minutes of “wit, music and patter” by Jack Benny. He arranged with the Vancouver Sun to publicize the show by performing an outdoor stunt at the newspaper’s offices on West Pender. At noon on March 1, as a huge crowd gathered in the street, Houdini allowed himself to be trussed up in a straitjacket by members of the police force (see photo above, courtesy of the Vancouver Public Library 70208A) and hung upside down by the ankles from a crane three stories above the sidewalk.

It took the Handcuff King three minutes and 39 seconds to work himself loose and drop the strait jacket to the ground, at which point, reported the Sun, “a cheer arose and swelled into a roar”. Film footage of the event was quickly developed and used as part of his act that same evening at the Orpheum.

This was Houdini's only performance in Vancouver. He died three years later in Detroit of a ruptured appendix.

July 1, 2020

Be safe.

June 16, 2020

Once or twice when I was young my parents dressed up my three siblings and I in our neatest clothes and hauled us off to the local photographer for a family portrait. The owner of the studio, which was on West 10th, was Mr. Pinkerton. He would attempt to keep us amused as he changed our poses, shifted the lights and generally tried to elicit our sweetest smiles. The results hung on the walls...

June 14, 2020

While waiting for my next book, Becoming Vancouver: a New History, delayed by the COVID situation, to be published next year, I thought I would introduce the project by telling some "tales of the city."

Epidemic disease has always been part of Vancouver's history. The influenza outbreak of 1918-1919 was the most dramatic example -- at least until today -- but smallpox was another dreaded visitor.

Smallpox has played a tragic role in the history of British...

June 8, 2020

As I have already mentioned, my next book, Becoming Vancouver: a New History, has been delayed by the COVID situation and will not be published until next year. In the meantime, I thought I would introduce the project by telling some stories from the book.

Given the wave of Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the globe, I'll begin with the story of "the Great English Bay...

May 29, 2020

Yesterday's mail brought the new issue of Canada's History magazine containing an article by yours truly on the story of prohibition in Canada.

That's right. While American prohibition enjoys a high profile -- Al Capone, Roaring Twenties, bathtub gin, etc. -- many Canadians do not even know we had our own liquor ban in this country....