On Saturday, July 21, 1917, legendary escape artist and entertainer Harry Houdini returned to Monmouth County, accompanied by his wife, Bess, his brother Theodore “Hardeen” Weiss, and a group of fellow magicians from New York City, to visit a colleague who was living in Keansburg.
This trip occurred about three years after Houdini had come to Asbury Park with his brothers to visit the hotel room where their mother had died in 1913, while Harry was touring in Europe. This and the Keansburg visit are the only known occasions when Harry Houdini came to Monmouth County for certain. There is evidence that he once appeared at a fundraising event for a local hospital, but the one and only document that supports this is not verified, and there is nothing to confirm that the event occurred. Other than this, there is no evidence that the great Houdini ever performed his act here, despite the many vaudeville theaters in our region at the time. But on this occasion in 1917, he brought a whole host of magicians to our shores.
Francis J. “Frank” Martinka (1842–1924) and his brother Antonio (1833-1915) founded the magic shop, Martinka & Company, in 1877. They called it the “Oldest Magic Supply House in America,” and it was surely the oldest magic shop in New York City. The Society of American Magicians (SAM), “the oldest and most prestigious magical society in the world,” was formed there on May 10, 1902. Harry Houdini served as the group’s eleventh president, from 1917 until his death in 1926. Harry’s brother Theo, a celebrity entertainer in his own right, was SAM president from 1926-1930. After changing hands several times, the Martinka magic store finally closed in 2000.
Frank Martinka and his wife had a home called “New Comfort Point” in Keansburg located not far from where the ferry docked at the end of the fishing pier that still exists. We have two accounts of Houdini’s visit to Keansburg, one courtesy of the Keyport Weekly newspaper, and the other from the official magazine of the SAM, called “M-U-M,” which stood for the group’s motto, “Magic-Unity-Might.” Houdini was SAM president when this article appeared in the group’s magazine. Note that some names are repeated or misspelled in these two accounts.
One of the participants on this one-day excursion was the Belgian magician Servais Le Roy, who during this visit fell in love with Keansburg, and moved there in 1918, where he resided in a mansion on Carr Avenue for 30 years until his death in 1953. Le Roy is credited with originating the “levitation illusion” still performed by magicians today. He performed at Reade theaters in Monmouth County in Red Bank, Long Branch and Asbury Park over the years.
Magicians Visit Keansburg
Mr. and Mrs. Martinka were visited last Saturday afternoon at their home along the boardwalk, New Point Comfort, by Harry Howdin [sic], the world-renowned magician, and about fifty friends from New York. Mr. Martinka is some magician himself, being a charter member of the Society of American Magicians. The visitors were well suppled [sic] with noise-making instruments and while Mr. Martinka was expecting Mr. Howdin, he was greatly surprised at the number of friends who came with him. Nevertheless, he was equal to the occasion and the visitors were highly entertained until they returned by the 8 o’clock boat.
Servius LeRoy [sic], the Belgian Magician, was in the party. He has rented three bungalows here and R. Van Dien, a former president of the society, is occupying a bungalow on Main Street. Everyone was pleased with the trip and it looks as if Keansburg would soon have a colony of Magicians.
Keyport Weekly, July 27, 1917, P. 2.
A GALA DAY
Thirty—count them—members of the S. A. M. with their families and friends, on a mysterious mission bent, met at the Battery, New York City, Saturday, July 21st, boarded a steamer and landed at Keansburg, N. J.—Hist! “gentle reader,” they had made the journey to surprise Mr. and Mrs. Francis J. Martinka, as a slight token of esteem, and when that thirty-strong arrived at the Martinka house, just off the board walk, all the neighbors came a-running to see what mad mob had assembled, and what all the noise was about. Most of the folks were equipped with noise producers and American flags. Notwithstanding the fact that everybody brought lunches; the ladies vied with each other in “giving away their best sandwiches” and there was a bountiful supply; enough food for all members of the S.A.M. had they by any spell of mystery happened to drop in the midst of the merry makers.
Officially, the society was represented by its President, Harry Houdini, Past Presidents Sargent, Werner, Wm. A. Ransom, Van Dien, and Teale (Secretary); Treasurer Rullmann and other members of the Council, C. Fred. Crosby, and G. G. Laurens. The other members and guests were: Mr. and Mrs. Martinka, Mr. and Mrs. Servias Leroy, Mrs. Houdini, Mrs. Sargent, Mrs. Crosby, Mrs. Rullmann, Mr. and Mrs. T. Weiss Hardeen, Miss C. Gladys Weiss, Miss Gladys Parsons, Miss Wallie Müller, Miss Lauretta Butler, Miss Karcher, Miss Frances Laurens, Miss Elsie Laurens, Mrs. Kramer, Harry Houdini, Weiss, S. Theo. Weiss, Herbert Ransom and a grandson of Past President Wm. A. Ransom.
We were all delighted to have congenial Frank Werner along with us, it was his first appearance since his “non-appearance” at the Banquet, and he seemed to be, as usual, the life of the party. The little company very reluctantly left Keansburg on the 5:30 steamer for New York, and all Mrs. Werner, Mrs. Houdini and Mrs. Rullmann went a-coffee cooking just as Mr. R. VanDien arrived loaded up with large bottles of genuine country cream.
Such a happy time; and if anything can beat the pleasure all concerned experienced, we do not know it.
Surprise followed surprise, and when the Human Fish, Laurens, disported himself in his silken “bawthing” (not bathing) costume, the ladies were delighted, for he was the only one who had brought a bathing suit.
Mr. O. S. Teale led the band of Noisiness, and the joy experienced by Mr. and Mrs. Martinka, when they discovered that the music, if such it can be called, was entirely for them, was well worth the journey, voted it a most pleasant affair and one that will linger long and fresh in the memory of all who were, fortunately, able to attend. That the society should be represented by the largest number possible, invitations had been mailed to all within a radius of 25 miles of N. Y. City. Several responded with letters of regret at inability to attend, others are sorry but all could not go and again, “it is always the unexpected that happens.”
Keansburg, N. J., July 23, 1917.
Mr. Harry Houdini,
Dear Friend and Brother:
In behalf of Mrs. Martinka and myself we wish to express our sincere thanks for the unique surprise tendered to us which will remain unforgettable. Kindly convey our thanks to all who participated in the delightful visit which touched both our hearts with gladness.
F. J. MARTINKA.
M-U-M, The Society of Magicians, No. 52, July, 1917, P. 2- 3.
A Gala Day. (1927). M-U-M, The Society of Magicians, No. 52, July, 1917, P. 2- 3.
American Magicians A Gala Day. (2019). Keansburg Historical Society & Museum, February 20, 2019. Available: https://www.facebook.com/KeansburgHistory/photos/pcb.2687054351334895/2687091187997878/
Bayshore Bureau. (1953). Servais Le Roy, Magician, Dies. The Daily Record, Long Branch, N.J., June 6, 1953, P. 2.
Cox, John. (2016). Happy 4th of July. Wild About Harry, Monday, July 4, 2016. Available: https://www.wildabouthoudini.com/2016/07/happy-4th-of-july.html.
Magicians Visit Keansburg. Keyport Weekly, July 27, 1917, P. 2.
Martin, Douglas. (2003). Jackie Flosso, 77, Magic Shop Maven, Dies. The New York Times, October 1, 2003, Section A, P. 21.