Theo was a handcuff and straightjacket escape wiz (he’s actually the one who pioneered the straightjacket act). Another of his specializations was escaping from a tramp chair. What’s a tramp chair, you ask? Just an 800-pound iron cage, shaped like a chair on wheels, designed to punish the homeless during the Great Depression. Policemen of the day would throw the “tramp” into this soft-torture behemoth, and physically roll them out of town. In a dramatic performance in Bangor, Maine, Theo escaped the chair in 11 minutes.
The parents of the Houdini brothers emigrated from Budapest to Wisconsin in the late 1800s, and Theo and Harry began performing together as teenagers, mostly to bring home money for the family.
They soon took their act on the road, and toured to Coney Island, where Theo began courting Beatrice, a young perfomer in a vaudeville act called The Floral Sisters. This Beatrice would later become Bess Houdini, aka Harry’s long time wife and future worldwide sensation. Within a month, they were married, and Bess quickly usurped Theo’s place in the traveling show.
Left to formulate his own act, Theo reinvented himself as “Dash Hardeen.” The brothers remained good friends as they pursued separate careers, and despite the name change, Theo proudly boasted that he was Harry’s brother, even concocting a fake rivalry to stir up press.
For a period of time, Theo stopped performing and ran his brother’s film company and also founded the Society of American Magicians, serving as its first president.
Theo was just finding a new career as a Broadway star in Hellz-a-Poppin when Harry died unexpectedly in 1926, after being famously punched in the stomach by a McGill University student at age 52. Determined to carry on his brother’s legacy, Theo went back to work.
He used his brother’s book of tricks (inherited after Harry’s death, along with all his stage equipment) and toured the US and Europe until the early 1940s.
Theo performed acts like “Radio of 1950”, which imagined a radio of the future where any woman a man desired, would suddenly appear by turning the dial.
Or the Milk Can escape, where Theo escaped from an over-sized, water-filled, locked milk can…
Much like his brother, Theo was fascinated by the occult, and dedicated his time off-stage to continuing Harry’s other passion: debunking “spirit crookery”, which was big business for con artists of the day. In their earlier years, while performing as “The Brothers Houdini”, they had toured with a traveling medicine show, where the brothers themselves would go into a fake trance onstage and “pass on” messages from the dead. Having used many of the fakery themselves, Harry and Theo became esteemed investigators, who actively sought to expose the industry’s trickery at the height of the spiritualist movement.
After Theo died in 1945, the props from his show (that once belonged to Harry, of course) were mostly sold to the famous magician David Copperfield, who keeps them in a secret museum in Las Vegas. Called the “International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts,” it’s a climate controlled warehouse, that houses over 80,000 pieces of magical relics. Apparently, it’s disguised as a sex shop, and to get in you press a nipple on a mannequin to open a secret door. We’re guessing our invite got lost in the mail.
But lucky for us, Oprah took a tour of the place in in 2012.