Houdini Live Here (Well, Maybe)

Bill Sharpsteen's last article for the magazine was on PBS' "This Old House" program, which featured the televised renovation of a home in Tucson, Ariz

The young magician steps over an old brick and stares out with quiet reverence, as if he's traveled miles on bloody feet just to be here. Here, however, needs some sprucing up. At the moment, workers are moving dirt, dead shrubs and garbage from the crumbling ruins of a Laurel Canyon house and garden where, the man believes, Harry Houdini lived in the 1920s. And so, despite the dust and decay, he searches the so-called Houdini House, hoping to touch the ethereal locks of the master's handcuffs.

Then again, several reliable accounts place Houdini's Los Angeles home across the street--the street being Laurel Canyon Boulevard. But try confirming it. The escapist had a quaint habit of never putting his name on ownership papers. Which leaves us with a wonderful metaphor but little proof of his whereabouts. One canyonite complains that, just once, it'd be nice if the media got its Houdini facts straight. But when I ask for those elusive particulars, he concedes he isn't sure either.

It would seem that a lot of Houdiniphiles need to believe he lived somewhere here in Laurel Canyon, if for no other reason than a legend requires a few plausible details. During the more than 30 years that the Houdini House property sat vacant at the corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Willow Glen Road, devotees held seances tainted with black magic every Halloween, hoping to beckon the magician for a posthumous chat. Not that they were successful at anything more than alarming the transients who lived hidden in the undergrowth.

One thing is certain: Last summer, the remains of someone's house at 2400 Laurel Canyon Blvd. were stripped of years of obscuring brush. Framed by ominous-looking oak and palm trees, the crumbling stonework stairways, the walls, bridges, fountains and other ruins have distracted commuters on their way to the San Fernando Valley ever since and revived the Houdini-slept-here stories anew. Not that any of them are actually true.

Patrick Williams has heard them all. When the antiques dealer from Columbus, Ga., bought the property last June and cleared the brush, 15 to 20 people a day dropped by to gawk and offer their versions of who once lived there. They found the right guy. With his wire-rimmed glasses and short-cropped hair, the 56-year-old Williams looks like a curator keen on finding out as much as he can about the artifact he now owns. He's in awe of the 14-odd terraces that surround the house's foundations and points out tiny steps cut into the concrete along the stairway leading from the street that gardeners once used to reach massive cone-shaped planters. He shows off the cozy hideaways, like caves for lovers, that dot the pathways; the concrete table that bears the impression of a fern pressed into the wet cement; the artesian spring, seeping from a small arched alcove of chipped granite embedded in concrete and trimmed with brick, which looks like a spiky altar. Originally, the water spilled down through a series of concrete streams and falls, making stops at various pools and fountains before being pumped to a 25,000-gallon tank hidden at the back of the property.

Which brings us to the Houdini question.

"The fascination with water and level of water on the property," Williams says in his soft drawl, "is something that associates itself with Houdini and his famous water tricks." He then stretches the already threadbare Houdini theories by speculating that perhaps the magician himself helped design the grounds as a reflection of his feats of escaping water.

Hey, why not? Given that we're mostly stuck with the vagaries of oral history and few official records, such nascent Houdini folklore is just about as good as any of the other innuendo. After talking to several septuagenarian canyonites, I've concluded that when it comes to Houdini, everyone has a different version. Put together, it goes like this:

The property's earliest recorded owner was the Laurel Canyon Land Co., in 1907. Laurel Canyon Boulevard was then a narrow lane often flooded by two streams crossing near the corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Lookout Mountain Avenue. R. J. Walker, who owned a major department store in downtown Los Angeles also held stock in the Laurel Canyon Land Co. Around 1915, he constructed a house at the corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Willow Glen Road. ( At about the same time, he built a guest house across the street next to actor Tom Mix's log cabin). Wanting a more continental look than the canyon's rustic lodges, the dry-goods mogul went to Europe and imported stone masons, woodworkers, muralists and anyone else who was the best at his craft. They stayed in some cases until 1924, when the completed Mediterranean villa stood on the steep hillside like a hotel--three stories, 11 bedrooms, nine baths and a basement pool. There was a ballroom, a 15-foot stage for musicians and a ballet room--equipped with mirrors and barre--large enough for 10 dancers. For a touch of decadence, he threw in a circular staircase that turned around a marble newel post lit from inside, a huge aviary and murals of European scenes painted on ceiling-high canvases.

According to Gene Loose, who lived there in the late '40s, about the only poor taste Walker showed was the "bilious" yellow paint in the large breakfast nook. "Going in there and facing an egg would have been impossible," he says. Walker did specify one practical accessory: a turntable at the top of the narrow driveway. One drove up, parked and spun the car around, conveniently pointing it downhill for the exit.

Somehow, Walker met Houdini. The magician was in town between 1919 and 1920 to act in two movies, "The Grim Game" and "Terror Island," and in fact, the climactic scene of "The Grim Game" was shot atop nearby Lookout Mountain. According to Houdini biographer Pat Culliton, Houdini invested in Walker's Laurel Canyon Land Co. and moved into the boxy four-bedroom guest house next to Tom Mix's across the street, although it's not clear which he did first. Culliton claims that an elevator in the guest house descended to a tunnel beneath Laurel Canyon that led to the Walker mansion, so it's hard not to believe that Houdini didn't sneak over on occasion.

And those are the slim facts upon which the entire Houdini House folklore is based.

Houdini died in 1928. The house lived through a chain of owners and lessees who followed Walker. The next owner, a real estate broker named Charles Wilson, looked at the 11 bedrooms and saw cash flow. The villa was rented to evangelist Joe Jeffers, who turned the mansion into the Temple of Yahweh. Jeffers gathered his flock the old-fashioned way, with charisma and piercing eyes, and earned a small fortune by requiring $50,000 to $100,000 donations for the privilege of joining the fold and staying at the house.

Following Jeffers' departure, the house was occupied by a creature known only as the Green Virgin, a.k.a. Eve, a beautiful heiress with translucent skin who wore her braided hair like a turban and donned gossamer gowns as everyday garb. "She had a gender problem," Loose offers. "She pitied women. She thought they were put upon." Eve claimed to have earned her moniker when, in Mexico, she wrapped green transparent tulle around herself and some boys dubbed her the Green Virgin. She devoted herself to raising the level of women through poetry, songs and a play about a handicapped girl called "The Atomic Apple," which she performed at a nearby Hollywood theater.

Sometime after Wilson's death in 1954, Fania Pearson bought the property intending to turn it into a girls' school. The four-day Willow Glen fires of 1959 partially burned the main house and destroyed the guest house where Houdini may have actually lived. Abandoned, charred and ramshackle, the "Houdini Castle" became a theme park of sorts for '60s teenagers looking for a supernatural interlude before cruising the Sunset Strip. L.A. historian Jim Heimann and his friends were among those whose dweebish quest was to find the mansion's bowling alley (there wasn't one). "I think the word just sort of spread--that this was a haunted place to go and get a quick thrill, then go down to Sunset and get a hamburger," Heimann says.

Some say the villa could have been repaired, but it remained derelict until 1968, when the city razed the remains for safety reasons. The property took on still more residents, however. They just lived among the trees and weeds, constructing platforms on the steep hillside for beds and setting the occasional fire. The best-known was an itinerant drummer named Robin Hood, who established a squalid nest in one of the many alcoves furnished with old mattresses and a curtain across the entrance for privacy. By all accounts, the squatters never saw Houdini.

With a $10-million price tag, the property remained unsold. But as the place further decayed, so did the value, until Williams offered $333,333.33 and paid $377,777.77, much of it going for uncollected taxes. He's already spent $250,000 excavating and returning parts of the grounds to their original state. "It would make a great country place in the city," Williams says.

No matter what Williams does with the property--or who buys it--it will probably always be known as the Houdini house around Laurel Canyon, where belief in local legends is as tenacious as the wild fennel that grows straight out of the canyon's granite walls. (For years, a house next to the canyon store where Jim Morrison supposedly lived sported the graffito "MR. MOJO RISIN' " in black spray paint.) Even Williams seems reluctant to totally debunk the stories--indeed, they're a potential sales draw. So Houdini, the great escape artist, will probably have his memory trapped at 2400 Laurel Canyon Blvd. forever--or at least until mystery and magic somehow become less compelling than unvarnished facts.

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