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‘Dead serious’: Recalling Petaluma’s famous Halloween Houdini séances

Over the course of Bill Soberanes’ life, the gregarious local newspaperman met thousands of famous people. But one celebrity he never made the acquaintance of was Harry Houdini, who died in 1926, just five years after Soberanes was born. Houdini’s death, it turns out, was not enough to stop Soberanes from trying to meet the famous magician and escape artist anyway.

"Bill’s annual Houdini séances were always the big event of the Halloween season in Petaluma,“ recalled Bill Linnell, a Petaluma actor, longtime friend of Soberanes and a frequent Houdini séance participant.

“Bill had a great sense of humor, and loved a good practical joke,“ Linnell added, ”but when it came to the Houdini séances, he was dead serious, so to speak. He never played them for laughs.“

Perhaps a little context will put this eccentric Petaluma activity into perspective.

Harry Houdini, at the age of 54, died in Chicago of a burst appendix. It was Oct. 31. For years previous to his death, Houdini had set out to debunk spiritualists’ claims of being able to contact the dead, exposing countless mediums and psychics as frauds. As an experiment, Houdini and his wife Beatrice created a secret password, promising that whoever died first would try to reach out from beyond, using that secret code as proof of their spectral identity. Then Houdini died on All Hallows Eve. For the next 10 years, every time the anniversary came around, his widow held a séance to give Houdini’s spirit every possible opportunity to communicate from the land of the dead.

Eventually, she declared that 10 years was long enough to wait for any man, and ceased the yearly seances. But the eerie annual event had become famous, and ever since, all around the world, on the 31st of October, people have gathered to try to contact the ghost of Harry Houdini. Even magicians Penn & Teller have taken up the practice. To date, however, the ghostly guest of honor has never conclusively graced any of these gatherings with his otherworldly presence.

But that has never stopped them from happening.

And it only gave Bill Soberanes the irresistible idea of trying the same thing in Petaluma. It was 1964 when he officially joined the world-wide Houdini-contacting effort, organizing Petaluma’s first-Harry Houdini Memorial Séance, held at midnight on Halloween evening.

Though Houdini never did accept the invitation, the annual event quickly became a local tradition that would continue for decades.

“Bill never missed a trick in finding new ways to promote Petaluma, and the séances definitely had people talking when they rolled around every Halloween,” said Linnell.

Among Soberanes’ many skills, he pointed out, was the ability to infect others with whatever new enthusiasm he was cultivating. Whenever he launched an elaborate new project, including the séances, there was never any shortage of willing folks ready to collaborate with Soberanes on bringing those projects — and maybe a ghost to two — into existence.

“Oh, yeah, Bill was a first-rate delegator,” confirmed Linnell. “A lot of us helped with the séances over the years, including Dan Hess, who created this fantastic slideshow about the life of Harry Houdini. It was really creepy. And Bill would play that as part of the seance.”

To this day, Linnell remembers those séances extremely well, describing the events with elaborate attention to detail.

“About 20 minutes to midnight, those of us invited to take part in the ‘chosen circle,’ we would assemble around a table, which would always be decorated with what Bill told us were ‘séance icons,’ such as a bell, a pistol, some candles and things the other world might use to contact us.”

When the seance was held in a large space, such as the Phoenix Theater, a large audience of non-participants would observe the seance as it took place around that table. There would also be a few “Houdini items,” such as handcuffs and ropes, “Things the guy had used in his magic show performances,” recalled Linnell.

Those around the table linked hands, and at exactly 13-minutes to midnight, someone struck a gong, and Soberanes would say, “Midnight is approaching, and the séance will begin.”

As the slideshow played — “With really spooky background music,” recalled Linnell — the participants linked hands and concentrated as hard as possible on summoning the spirit of Harry Houdini.

“We’d sit there for 13 minutes, doing our darndest to break through the other side, and when the time was up, Bill would check his watch an go, ‘Well, okay, I guess our time has elapsed, so now I’d like to talk to everybody and find out what everyone experienced.”

Soberanes, always in search of a good story, then went around the table listening to anything the participants had to say about whatever they might have felt.

“Some people would say they felt a chill, or felt some presence nobody else felt, or whatever,” Linnell said. “Some of them were pretty loony, but Bill never judged anyone. He would listen patiently, and the next day or so, he’d publish his annual Houdini report in the newspaper. It was always a pretty big deal. Everyone in town read that.”

Over the years, some of the séances were held in public places, others in private homes, with a special emphasis on houses believed to have been haunted. The final Houdini Memorial Séance took place in 2002, just over seven months before Soberanes died. Ten years later, in 2012, local filmmaker Tom Wyrsch resurrected the annual event, and even made a documentary titled “The Annual Harry Houdini Séances.”

Though Soberanes may be best remembered for his many other contributions to Petaluma, to those who remember them - and all those who participated - the Houdini Séances will never be forgotten.

“Do I think Bill really believed in the hereafter? Did he actually think Houdini would show up at one of his séances? No I don’t,” said Linnell. “The séances were just another way of calling attention to Petaluma. But if Houdini had ever appeared, I think he’d have been nonchalant about it, and would have just asked him questions about working in vaudeville or something. I don’t think he’d have shown any surprise at all. He’d have just used it as another item in the next edition of the paper.”

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