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Houdini Live Here (Well, Maybe)

Nobody Knows if the Grand Illusionist Actually Lived on This Patch of Laurel Canyon Surreal Estate. But Why Sully a Great Fable With Facts?

March 01, 1998|BILL SHARPSTEEN | 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:

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