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Thelma Griffith

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Houdini once complained about the “horde of imitators” performing on stages across the country. He had popularized the handcuff and challenge escape act, and audiences clamored to see such a performance. Houdini only played big-time vaudeville circuits and was also out of the country for many years touring Europe and Australia. Numerous performers emerged to fill this void and spent their careers playing small-time vaudeville. One example was the husband and wife team of Fred and Thelma Griffith.
Nothing is known about Thelma’s background. This may not even be her real name. In a fanciful interview, she said that she was a native of Ostra-Toten (sic), Norway. Her father, of course, had been a locksmith. Fred was the stage name of Frank M Griffith. He was born in Green River, Wyoming around 1883. He started working in sideshows as a ticket seller and talker and was with the John Robinson Shows in 1899. By 1904 he was touring small-time vaudeville as a comedy magician. How Fred and Thel…

Blanche Vassar

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Blanche Vassar was born in Oregon on July 20, 1882 and grew up in a large farm family in Topeka, Kansas. She was born intersexed and was taught by her parents to dress, act, walk and talk like a girl. By 1905 she lived in a Topeka rooming house and worked for the railroad, probably as a cook. She was part of the local social scene and seemed to fit well into society. By 1915 she was living in Alva, Oklahoma and employed as a cook. Alva was a growing city, a stop on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and home to the Northwestern Territorial Normal School. Around this time Blanche developed an escape act that included escaping from handcuffs, ropes and packing boxes. She was offered a job with a sideshow wintering in East St. Louis, Illinois. This may have been the Jones Brothers Circus.

However, she had some male characteristics, and these caused problems as she traveled. When she stopped in Wichita, Kansas on her way to St. Louis, she was arrested for wearing the clothes of the…

Effie Lorraine

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When Houdini opened in Boston at the end of February 1906, his performances became the talk of the town. Over the next six weeks, Houdini escaped from handcuffs, ropes, packing cases, paper bags, wicker hampers, straitjackets, and even a witch’s chair. He made the front page with his escape from a jail cell in Boston’s famous Tombs Prison. There was so much interest in Houdini’s performances that standing-room-only crowds occupied part of the stage. The Houdini craze was on.

Two weeks after the escapist closed, Austin and Stone’s Museum announced that Mons. and Mme. Bellyea would introduce “‘The Missing Princess’ a la Houdini.” In the newspaper advertisements, the billing was “Bellyea, King of Cards,” with no mention of Mme. Bellyea.

That changed the next week. Mme. Bellyea’s performances must have been the highlight of the act, as the billing changed to “Bellyea and Effie Lorraine introducing the most Marvelous Trunk Mystery.” The effect was Lorraine escaping from a box, placed insi…

Lasco - "The Female Houdini"

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The premiere of Houdini’s serial The Master Mystery was shown on November 18, 1918 to a sellout crowd at Boston’s St. James Theatre. This was Harry’s Hollywood movie debut. Each of the 15 episodes featured Houdini escaping from various life-threatening situations: being restrained at the bottom of an elevator shaft with an elevator car rapidly descending, being strapped into an electric chair, being snared in coils of barbed wire. All were filmed close-up with no cuts, to reassure audiences that no trick photography was used. This thrilling adventure even included the first robot featured in a movie. The serial opened to good reviews and was shown all over the world.
To publicize the film, Houdini made 15 personal appearances in theaters in the Boston area in a single day! This was preceded by extensive publicity using billboards, newspaper advertisements and flyers. Building on this promotional effort, one enterprising theater booked Lasco “The Female Houdini” as one of its vaudevill…

Ybur

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On November 30, 1908, Mlle. Ybur stepped onto the stage at Vancouver’s Grand Theatre and thrilled the audience by escaping from various handcuffs - some provided by the local police -  and then from a sealed sack locked in a trunk. It was announced that later in the week she would escape from a straitjacket and a wooden packing crate. Soon she added the milk can escape to the act, advertised as follows: “The Death Defying Milk Can Mystery. A pretty girl. A bathing suit. A milk can filled with water. Six padlocks. From the new Wigwam Theater, ‘Frisco.” From here she continued through eastern Canada and the Northwest and Midwest United States.

Ybur, her real name is sadly unknown, was reportedly from San Francisco, California. She said she started her career there when a local manager helped her develop the act. In a later interview, Ybur mentioned a handcuff dive off the Washington Street dock into San Francisco Bay. When Ybur swam to shore she was immediately arrested for attempted s…

Madame LaDa

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In 1914 Emily Schupp began her professional career performing interpretive dance as popularized by Isadora Duncan in the early 1900s. Emily spent years studying folk dancing in Europe and brought these skills to the American stage. Her New York debut in April 1914 was a rousing success and she became a very popular performer. Adopting the stage name of “Lada”, she successfully toured until the early 1920s.

Seeing the growing popularity of Schupp’s performances, in 1915 some enterprising vaudeville manager started a novelty dance act called “Madam La Da & Company.” The novelty part was that “Madam La Da” did escapes. Billed as “The Wizards of Locks, Bolts and Bars,” she escaped from handcuffs, a locked mail bag and a straitjacket in full view of the audience. How they combined a dance number with escapes, unfortunately, was never mentioned in the reviews. Not surprisingly the act lasted only one season. Much shorter that the real “Lada.”

The name of the performer who was billed as …

Marie Shannon

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On Sunday, July 18, 1909, the vaudeville juvenile quartet the “Four Shannons” left Louisville on the way to their next performance in Owensboro, KY. As the train pulled out of the station two young girls sprang from their car to the platform and ran through the waiting room to a local theatrical boarding house. The escapees were Elizabeth Shannon, age 17, and her older sister Marie, age 22. Two days later Elizabeth, considered a minor, was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct preferred by her mother. Over the next two days, the case played out in court with allegations of cruelty on the part of the mother and wildness and disobedience on the part of the daughter. Faced with spending time in juvenile detention until her 18th birthday, Elizabeth relented and returned with her mother to Owensboro. Marie declared she would have nothing further to do with her mother and left for Chicago to find work for the rest of the season. So, began the career of Marie Shannon – Handcuff Queen.

Ma…