November 1897 (125 years ago)
Harry Houdini and his wife and stage partner, Bess, gathered a massive crowd in Garnett, Kans., claiming that, through a live séance, they would solve a recent murder that had terrified the small town. On Oct. 15, while Isaac Paul was away, an unknown assailant broke into the home he shared with his wife, Anne Paul, and stabbed her before ransacking the home. The citizens of Garnett were still on edge as a perpetrator had yet to be arrested. Harry and Bess Houdini arrived in Garnett as part of a traveling performance troupe called Dr. Hill’s California Concert Company, having heard of the grisly murder. Harry Houdini—the stage name of Hungarian-born Erik Weisz—had been performing as a magician since 1891, and up to this point struggled to create a successful career. Quickly after arriving, Harry and Bess began to gather numerous details about the town, visiting the cemetery and noting names, relations, births, and deaths, while the California Concert Company ran advertisements for a Nov. 27 séance by Houdini. When the day arrived, the Grand Opera House was filled to the brim with a buzzing public. Houdini and Bess further fueled the energy of the crowd through various smaller seánces, doling out messages from beyond the grave to individual residents that had recently lost a child or loved one. When the moment arrived for the grand murderer reveal, Bess, in a trance, began to physically describe the killer’s size and facial hair but suddenly and shockingly collapsed before providing the killer’s name. The crowd went wild. In the end, the publicity of that event proved so successful that the California Concert Company added seánces to its roster of traveling performances, adding to Houdini’s fame.
November 1922 (100 years ago)
The Palace Theatre opened in Cleveland with its first set of vaudevillian performances: Singer, silent film star, and Ohio native Elsie Janis; the dancing Cansino family; and newcomer Grace Hayes performed alongside various other acts. The Palace, originally part of the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit, was last major theatre to make up Cleveland’s Playhouse Square, a group of five theatres located a few blocks from one another that had opened within the span of a few months, between February 1921 and November 1922. By the late 1960s, only one theatre, the Hanna, remained open, all the others having been shuttered. But beginning in the late 1970s, a massive restoration project in the Square began, which has since reopened all the original theatres and added more venues, making Cleveland’s Playhouse Square one of the largest performance arts centers in the United States. The Palace Theatre reopened in 1988 and was renamed the Connor Palace in 2014.
November 1947 (75 years ago)
Harry Brown’s war play A Sound of Hunting was performed in the packed room of an apartment building in Houston, Texas, marking the premiere production of a theatre company called the Alley Theatre. Nina Vance, a former high school drama teacher, birthed the theatre from an idea and 214 postcards sent to various locals, asking if they’d be interested in building a new homegrown theatre. When almost half of the postcard recipients responded, Nina Vance knew that there was a way forward for her venture. In the early days of the theatre, members of the theatre paid 10 cents for voting membership, which gave the theatre a large base and literal buy-in from the community. Eventually the theatre would grow into a full-time Equity house. In 1980, Nina Vance died after a period of health problems, but her theatre continues and has become one of the oldest and most prestigious regional theatres in the United States.
November 1987 (35 years ago)
After a brief, lauded tour to Winnipeg, Canada, Tomson Highway’s play The Rez Sisters opened at Toronto’s Factory Theatre in November. Tomson, a Cree playwright from Manitoba, crafted a play that wove the complex lives of First Nation women with Indigenous spirituality and symbolism, in what Toronto Star critic Henry Mietkiewicz described as “one of the most touching, exuberant, cleverly crafted and utter entrancing plays in Toronto.” The Rez Sisters follows seven sisters as they embark on a trip from their reservation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, to Toronto to participate in “The Biggest Bingo in the World.” Their journey forces them to confront a history of lost love, abuse, and marginalization. The tour was populated with a stellar rotating cast of First Nation people, including Spiderwoman Theatre Company founders Muriel and Gloria Miguel. The play would go on to win Tomson Highway various regional new-play awards. In November 2011, the Factory Theatre revived The Rez Sisters, in a production directed by Ken Gass.
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