If you’re into celebrities, Santa Monica is the place. One day while hiking in the local mountains I saw Daryl Hannah, Michael Keaton and Tom Hanks, and they weren’t together. (As he related on the “David Letterman Show,” Hanks got a ticket for having his dog off leash, forgot to pay it and months later was taken into custody — for about 10 minutes. Me, I’d still be there.)
Our fair city being a haven for stars goes back over a century, or about 95 years before TMZ. (I’ve only watched a few minutes of TMZ but something about Harvey Levin sipping a giant soft drink through a straw and fake-schmoozing/giggling with his 20-something staff gives me the creeps.)
To name but a few, mega-celebrities like W.C. Fields, Clark Gable and Will Rogers were drawn to Santa Monica. Rogers built a house on 186 acres overlooking the ocean in the mountains north of Sunset Boulevard. (Donated in 1944 by his estate as a wondrous state park, which as it happens had a recent corruption scandal. I’m hoping the shakeup somehow gives us a beach dog park in Santa Monica.)
Among the most intriguing and mysterious of the myriad of celebrities to spend time here was world-famous magician, escape artist and silent film star Harry Houdini. In 1919 Houdini was featured in “The Grim Game,” a Lasky Players movie which involved his being lowered from one airborne plane to the wing of another high over Santa Monica. (Except it was a stunt double.)
Unfortunately, there was a mid-air collision sending the planes spiraling earthbound, all caught by a camera from a third plane. Both planes crashed, but remarkably no one died. Naturally, Lasky claimed Houdini had escaped death once again and even featured a crashed plane in the lobby at the movie’s premier. Ah, show biz.
I mention Houdini because a friend and neighbor of mine, Albie Selznick, a gifted illusionist, accomplished actor (featured in a mere 236 commercials, TV series such as “Dexter,” “Desperate Housewives,” and “Grey’s Anatomy” and numerous episodic work) and a compelling storyteller, has been fascinated since boyhood with Harry H. (As are millions worldwide 86 years after his mysterious death.)
In fact, tomorrow begins the run for Albie’s unique magic show that he wrote and performs, “Smoke and Mirrors” playing at the Promenade Playhouse through Dec. 16. He describes it as, “The story of a master magician facing his fears.” (And from what I gather can scare the audience out of its wits.) Enhancing fascinating and frightening feats, Albie uses an actual séance recording of Houdini’s haunting voice.
But Albie’s is not a typical magic act at all. Yes, there are frightening illusions, mystifying sleight of hand displays and even levitation. But these are merely eye and mind appetizers for a touching story, one that has humor and heart and comes from a real-life childhood trauma of Albie’s. At 9 Albie’s father died, which left young Albie understandably fearful.
In essence, Albie used magic to escape reality. Interestingly enough, he would put all his fears into a box. In the show one of the climaxes is when the “fear box” is opened and all hell breaks loose. How does Albie survive? You’ll have to see to believe it. (How’s that for a tease?)
Albie, and the cast (Bettina Zacar, Yanna Fabian, Cody Bushee, Leeann St. John, Beck Black and Rob Martinez) take the audience on his journey to heal the loss of his father. In this odyssey he bonds with the larger-than-life Houdini, and leads to his becoming a real life “master illusionist” himself. It’s a remarkable and heart-warming tale of a boy overcoming his fears. As such it’s inspirational for children from 12 and up and to adults who can still remember childhood fears that may still be with them to this day. As a tagline of Albie’s show he playfully challenges the audience, “What are you afraid of?”
Directed by Paul Millet, produced by Michelle Grant and staged-managed by Randall Gray, Albie’s show also deals with spirituality, a lifelong quest of Houdini’s. In fact, Harry and his wife Bessie made a solemn pact that whoever died first the other would hold a séance every year, for 10 years, on the anniversary of their spouse’s death.
Houdini died in 1926 on Halloween night. (How spooky is that?) Bessie held séances religiously for 10 years, after all if anyone could communicate from the other world it would be Houdini. But much to her dismay there was never a sign and so finally she stopped the séances. Bessie, who also had a great sense of humor, famously said: “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.”