In its heyday, Cross Lane in Salford buzzed with activity. Within half a mile, there were butchers, bakers, chemists, furniture shops, clothing shops, toy shops, two undertakers’ parlours, a railway station, two music halls, two cinemas, a drill hall, an open market, churches, and eighteen – yes, eighteen – pubs. Standing high on Cross Lane was the Regent Theatre – later known as the Palace.
Upon opening in 1895, theatrical magazine ERA – with the nickname “The Actor’s Bible” – noted “the vast experience of the architect could suggest has been done to make the building as complete and comfortable as possible”. Shaped as a horseshoe, the interior was brightly decorated in cream, lavender and gold. Entering the theatre, you would walk across grand mosaic tiled flooring to reach the 1700 capacity auditorium split into the pit and a lavish gallery. Local historian Tony Flynn, in his book The History of Salford Cinemas, calls the Regent Theatre a “magnificent building”.
In this grand theatre, which cost £14,000 to build (around £1.5m in today’s terms), magician and escapologist Harry Houdini was lying in a coffin. He wasn’t dead. This was September 1904. It would be another twenty-two years before the artist, whose real name was Erik Weisz, would meet his fate after rupturing his appendix in a stunt gone wrong. The magician was performing his infamous finale, ‘Mysto’s Coffin Trick’.
Tony Flynn argues that the theatre always produced a series of firsts in Salford.
He said: “The Regent Theatre had established itself as Salford’s foremost place of entertainment. The theatre was the venue for Salford’s first moving picture show in 1901, courtesy of Thomas Edison’s Animated Picture Company.
“(When it became a cinema) The Salford Palace could claim to be the first cinema in Salford to show talking films. The Jazz Singer was screen there on September 2nd 1929.”
Hidden behind a curtain, Houdini was placed in a coffin with the lid screwed down and the screws were covered in sealing wax. He was free within two minutes. The sealing wax was miraculously unbroken. The great showman then dared his captive audience to perform the same trick for a fee of £300 if they achieved it. He produced the banknotes onstage. There were no takers.
Houdini had fared worse in another Lancastrian town forty miles away called Blackburn, two years earlier. Throughout Europe and the US, Houdini had earned the nickname of “The Handcuff King”, where he challenged audiences to bring forth a pair of any regulation handcuffs and he would break free from them. On October 24th 1902, the proprietor of the Blackburn School of Physical Culture, William Hope Hodgson produced a set of irons wrapped in twine and with the locks altered to a packed house at the Palace Theatre. Reluctantly, with many vocal protests, Houdini accepted the challenge.
After two hours of contortion and false starts, Houdini staggered from behind his curtain onto the stage with his shirt torn from the cuff to the shoulder, his wrists and biceps bleeding profusely, and barely able to stand. When asked two years later about several scars “as though some tiger had clawed him”, Houdini explained that he had simply been to Blackburn.
However, onstage at the Regent Theatre in Salford, Houdini was having an easy ride. After receiving no volunteers to take on Mysto’s Coffin Trick, he repeated the stunt in under a minute – half of the original time. But Houdini did something that made his act different from other copycats, he broke the ‘Magic Code’ and explained how the trick was done: the screws from the head of the coffin had been removed, which gave him time to escape and then replace them.
Magicians and clairvoyants are sometimes synonymous. They apply the same techniques, cater to the same audience and their entire craft relies on illusion. The distinguishment between a clairvoyant and a conjuror is: honesty.
At the start of his career, Houdini and his wife Bess were known as Professor and Mademoiselle Houdini, clairvoyants. However, he had a change of heart after he had a sudden realisation of the “seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed”. As well as being a magician, Houdini became a debunker – a tradition inherited by the likes of James Randi, Paul Zenon and Derren Brown.
Harry Houdini was the ultimate PR man – he knew how to spin and sell tickets for his shows. Before his appearance at the Regent Theatre, the Handcuff King asked the Chief Constable, Mr J W Hallam, if he could be locked in the police cells in Bexley Square. Tony Flynn describes the incident in his Cross Lane book:
“Permission was reluctantly granted. Houdini was shown into a cell, his clothing was taken off him and the cell was locked. His clothes were locked in an adjacent cell. Within five minutes he escaped, broken into the cell, got dressed and informed the police he was free.”
Tony hypothesises that it was likely he had hidden a skeleton key in his mouth and picked the mouth. It is a good theory. Always accompanying Houdini was his wife Bess and his brother Theo. During a similar escape in the Kremlin, Houdini escaped a Siberian Transport Cell under the guard of the Russian Secret Police. Theo had assisted by sneaking in a skeleton key.
Lock picking was a relatively new skill for Houdini, as the Manchester Guardian reported in 1904. One day, his fellow boarders in a hotel “scoffed at him” one night as the infamous escapologist had to ask for a key from reception as he had lost his.
Tony Flynn calls the trick at Bexley Square a “unusual publicity stunt”, but it was trick Houdini employed to every town and city he played in. Again, to show the shrewdness of Houdini’s public relation skills, when Scotland Yard refused to allow Houdini to perform a similar stunt in London – and with dwindling ticket sales – all of a sudden, a Daily Mirror reporter challenged the magician to escape manacles created over five years, specifically for Houdini to escape from. After more than an hour onstage at the Hippodrome, he was free. The Daily Mirror representative presented a silver replica of the handcuffs as a reward, and all the English newspapers reported on it. His captive fan were unaware of Houdini’s cosy relationship with the Mirror, where he produced columns for them, and the fact that the replica pair had been created a year prior to the challenge.
The Regent Theatre where Harry Houdini ‘treaded the boards’ is sadly no more, after being demolished in 1963. Cross Lane is virtually unrecognisable. The eighteen pubs have been reduced to one, the cinemas are gone and the railway station no longer exists. But the memories still endure, where Harry Houdini joins the alumni of Cross Lane with the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, King Edward VII, W C Fields, David Lloyd George and Tommy Cooper all known to set foot in the once busy half a mile in Salford.