Talking to the dead
Published: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 12, 2012 at 9:30 a.m.
Is it really possible for the living to communicate with the dead? Master magician Harry Houdini was surprisingly a skeptic when it came to the supernatural and spent much of his life exposing mediums as nothing more than charlatans. But he didn't rule out the possibility of the dead being able to talk to the living.
“Playland at the Beach” and “Sutros: The Palace at Lands End”
When: 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14
“The Annual Harry Houdini Séances”
When: 1 p.m. Nov. 3
Where: Boulevard Cinemas, Petaluma Boulevard at C Street
Information: www.cinemawest.com or call 762-7469.
Before Houdini died, he and his wife, Bess, agreed that if Houdini found a way to communicate after death, he would send her the secret message “Rosabelle believe.”
Houdini died Oct. 31, 1926, and for the next 10 years Bess held séances on Halloween night in an attempt to make contact with her husband. He never showed, and in 1936 Bess called it quits and is quoted as saying “10 years is long enough to wait for any man.”
The mystery of the Houdini séances have continued through the years, with séances being conducted on Oct. 31 worldwide in efforts to communicate with the great illusionist.
From 1964 to 2002, Houdini séances were held each Halloween night in Sonoma County. Organized by former Petaluma Argus-Courier columnist Bill Soberanes, along with local residents Fred Daniels and Nahmen Nissen, the séances became an anticipated event each year, with accounts of the séances appearing regularly in the Argus-Courier.
“As a kid, that was something that would really fascinate me,” said Tom Wyrsch, a Petaluma filmmaker who has just finished a film about the Houdini séances. “I used to wait for the Halloween issues of the Argus-Courier because I knew Bill would be writing about the séance. I'd run out and grab a copy just as it was being delivered. Every Halloween, that was a big deal.”
Wyrsch got into filmmaking around 2006 when his friend, Bob Wilkins, who is best known as the host of the KTVU television show “Creature Feature,” asked him for help in putting on a “Creature Feature” show in Oakland.
“We ended up doing the show with John Stanley, who took over ‘Creature Feature' when Wilkins retired,” said Wyrsch. “We did about 100 shows and conventions together. I continually got asked questions about the show itself. Someone eventually said that I should do a documentary on ‘Creature Feature,' so I did.”
The documentary “Watch Horror Films, Keep America Strong!” was released in 2008 and ignited Wyrsch's passion for filmmaking.
“The film was really successful and fun to do,” he said. “But then you get this bug where you want to see if the success was just a fluke or if you're really good at this.”
Wyrsch went on to create the films “Playland at the Beach,” a documentary on San Francisco's famous amusement park, and “Sutros: The Palace at Lands End,” which is about the Sutro Baths.
“The response to the films was unbelievable,” said Wyrsch. “Sutros was the top grossing non-studio film in San Francisco when it played at the Balboa Theatre. Then we were able to take the films as a pair around the Bay Area and it played to sold out theaters just about everywhere it went.”
Wyrsch believes the success of the films has a great deal to do with nostalgia. Playland and the Sutro baths are memories from childhood for many San Francisco and Bay Area residents who remember them with great fondness. This also got him thinking about his own childhood and his fascination with the Houdini séances.
Wyrsch was fortunate enough to have met Nahmen Nissen, who owned a hardware store in Penngrove. The meeting eventually led to being able to attend the seances, which were invitation only.
“I went to a few of them and they were always really interesting and fun,” said Wyrsch. “What struck me was that they were done honestly. It wasn't a show or something done as a joke. They were serious about what they were doing. It's been so many years since those séances and it got me thinking I should do a documentary on them.”
An interesting aspect of the séances, which were held at various locations in Petaluma and around Sonoma County, is that they were considered “official seances” thanks to Soberanes getting local magician William Allstrand, a personal friend of the Houdinis, to participate each year. Allstrand was said to have a coded message given to him by Houdini and his wife.
“It was really neat that they had this personal connection to Houdini through Allstrand,” said Wyrsch. “The séances weren't something they made up out of the blue for fun, but something that really had a connection to Houdini. Soberanes kept the séances going every year up until his death in 2003.”
The séance candles may have burned out with Soberanes, but the stories from those mysterious evenings live on through Wyrsch's documentary, which includes interviews with attendees, Nahmen Nissen, Tom Gaffey, Rosanne Reynolds, Jim March and Tom Wagner.
Did Houdini find a way to contact the circle of Sonoma County residents during those séances? Local residents can find out by attending the “The Annual Harry Houdini Séances,” screening at 1 p.m. Nov. 3 at Boulevard Cinemas.
Wyrsch's films “Playland at the Beach” and “Sutros: The Palace at Lands End” will also be shown at 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14 at Boulevard Cinemas. Wyrsch will host a question and answer session after both screenings. Tickets for all shows are $10.
For more information, visit www.garfieldlane productions.com.
(Contact Yovanna Bieberich at email@example.com)
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