Spooky Houdini Séance began 50 years ago

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For pure fun, Halloween, with its numerous festive activities, trick-or-treating, costume parties, scary movies and high jinks, is tops when it comes to a day of celebration. It’s a time for werewolves, monsters and creepy crawlers and also for cowboys, superheroes and princesses. And while eerie howling and cobwebs tangled in your hair bring chills and thrills, Halloween is also a time for the mysterious, the occult and the supernatural.

While Petalumans celebrate Halloween in every conceivable fashion, nothing compares to the widespread popularity acquired every year by Argus-Courier columnist Bill Soberanes when he highlighted the annual Harry Houdini Memorial Séance, which he and his followers staged at possibly haunted locations from 1964 until 2002.

Targeting the spirit of master magician and internationally known escape artist Harry Houdini, known as the most influential magician of the 20th century and often called the greatest showman whoever walked the earth, Soberanes, through the séances, sought an answer as to whether Houdini truly possessed magical powers.

It was Houdini himself who thought it possible to make contact with the afterlife and, on occasion, had tried to reach his departed mother. Although unsuccessful, he and his wife, Beatrice, made a pact that whoever died first, the survivor would try to communicate with the other. Together they crafted a pre-arranged message to assure authenticity should his spirit appear. Following Houdini’s death on Oct. 31, 1926, Beatrice attempted on its anniversary, through a carefully planned séance, to reach her departed husband.

After 10 years of trying and failing she gave up in 1936, but passed along the secret message to a friend, magician William Alstrand.

It’s widely known that Soberanes loved the supernatural and believed in haunted houses. An admitted childhood prankster, Halloween was always one of his favorite days of the year. At the suggestion of Soberanes, along with Penngrove magician Nahman Nissen, Santa Rosa magic man Fred Daniels and Alstrand, the first Harry Houdini Memorial Séance, following a strict, no-nonsense protocol was held Oct. 31, 1964. The séance table was lined with props symbolic of magicians: handcuffs, a piece of rope, a slate blackboard and chalk, and a trumpet, all illuminated by flickering candlelight.

From those in attendance, 13 were chosen to sit in the “inner circle,” whose members, at the stroke of midnight clasped hands and remained absolutely silent for 13 heart-pounding minutes. With senses piqued, they awaited a sign, but invariably Houdini failed to appear. Each year, the site of the séance changed. Its locations, all steeped in history, have included palatial homes, Victorian mansions, a cemetery, the Chamber of Horrors at San Francisco’s Wax Museum, and sites that were believed to be haunted.

This Halloween marks the 88th anniversary of Houdini’s death, but his mystique lives on, and coincidentally so does the memory of Soberanes, who died in 2003. On the 50th anniversary of the first Harry Houdini Memorial Séance, he’s still remembered locally with the annual Bill Soberanes Halloween Festival at the Plaza shopping centers, the annual Whiskerino contest, and the erstwhile World’s Wristwrestling Championships that were held here for 52 years.

To celebrate the legacy of both Houdini and Soberanes, Petaluma filmmaker Tom Wyrsch is planning a pair of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the local séances. Both are set for Thursday, Oct. 30, the night before Halloween.

First, Wyrsch’s richly insightful documentary “Harry Houdini, Magic Among the Spirits,” dedicated to the life of Houdini and chronicling the history of the Houdini séances, will air on KCRB-TV channel 22 at 8 p.m. The film reveals a complete back story on the séances and includes interviews by Bob Wilkins, the quirky and droll host of “Creature Features.”

Later that night, at an undisclosed location, Wyrsch will revive the tradition by holding a 50th anniversary séance, with a sincere attempt to reach Houdini.

Although invitations have already been distributed to the private event, those wishing to vicariously take part in the séance can add their energy to contacting Houdini’s spirit can do so thanks to live streaming on the Internet.

The séance is planned for midnight Oct. 30 so that it’ll happen on the anniversary of Houdini’s death, Oct. 31. To watch, just join the link: http://ustre.am/1iiWm at 11:45 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 30, to experience the entire 13 minute séance.

An accomplished filmmaker, Wyrsch became intrigued with Soberanes’ obsession with Houdini as a kid. A 1969 graduate of Petaluma High School, he had read all of Soberanes’ Houdini columns and was friends with magician Nissen. In 1973, Nissen invited him to the séance at the Moreno Mansion in Sebastopol and two years later Wyrsch was invited to sit in the “inner circle” at the historic McDonald Mansion in Santa Rosa.

A lifelong devotee of movie making, Wyrsch would often spend Saturday afternoon’s at Petaluma’s State Theater absorbed in the craft. He worked at the Russ Berrie Company’s Petaluma warehouse for 28 years, as director of operations.

He befriended Wilkins and became the “Creature Features” archivist, which led him forming Garfield Lane Productions and to making his first documentary, “Watch Horror Films Keep America Strong,” featuring Wilkins, in 2008.

Its immediate success inspired Wyrsch and he followed-up with “Playland at the Beach,” bringing to life the famous seaside amusement park that was torn down in 1972.

He’s made seven movies so far, including “Back to Space-Con” the story of the 1970s “Star Trek” and sci-fi conventions, “The Cliff House and Sutro Heights,” “Sutro’s: The Palace at Land’s End,” and “Uncle Forry’s Acker Mansions,” with each one taking about one year to make.

The local Houdini séance ended when Soberanes passed away in 2003, but was revived last year. Wyrsch would like to keep the memories alive.

There’s a new wave of interest and he’s hoping to recapture the spirit of the event. Who knows, this might be the year Houdini reappears, all you have to do is believe.

(Editors note: Tom Wyrsch will provide a follow-up report in next week’s Argus-Courier on what happened at the Houdini séance — just like Bill Soberanes used to do.)

(Harlan Osborne’s column, Toolin’ Around Town, appears every two weeks. Contact him at har lan@sonic.net)

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