Thelma Griffith

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 Thelma meet and when they married is a mystery. It probably happened sometime between Fred’s first marriage in 1903, which seems to have ended quickly, and September 1907, when they begin touring together.

As a comedy magician, Fred specialized in sleight-of-hand magic with cards, coins and billiard balls. Thelma performed a “chalk talk” act. The crayon artist would quickly draw comic figures with a few strokes of a large crayon on a large piece of paper, while making jokes and comic asides. They combined their specialties into an act and toured small mid-western towns in the fall of 1907, billed as the “Griffiths.” They soon begin to add escapes to the act, starting with the “Hindoo Trunk Mystery.” In this effect Thelma was handcuffed, tied into a sack, locked in a trunk, and then tied with 100 feet of rope. She escaped in 30 seconds. Thelma was now billed as a comedy cartoonist and handcuff queen, and they advertised themselves as being “three acts in one.”

North Tonawanda Evening News, June 15, 1908

A little later they changed their name to “Griffith & Thelma Company” and kept touring small- time vaudeville houses in mid-western and eastern states. They begin challenging audiences to bring handcuffs, “the older the better,” to the performances to see if they can “stick her.” So started the challenge escape act.

In the summer of 1908 Thelma added jail breaking to her repertoire, though not always successfully. While playing Pittston, Pennsylvania, Thelma announced she had consented to be handcuffed and shackled by a committee of local citizens and locked into a cell at police headquarters. However, the policeman in charge of the jail wanted to put a large lock on the cell door, in place of the usual cell lock. He would not let Fred or Thelma see the new lock, so they cancelled the escape. This did not detour Thelma from doing a jail escape the following week in Wilkes-Barre, just seven miles down the road.

By the fall of 1908 the act had expanded to included escapes from handcuffs, straitjacket, prison muff, crazy crib, mail bag, and packing box. A spirit cabinet routine had even been to provide some comedy relief.

Altoona Times Mar 9, 1909
Hartford Republican, Sep 10, 1909

In January 1909 they played Baltimore’s Lubin’s Theatre as one of the feature acts. The headliners were Mrs. Tom Thumb, her husband Count Magri and her husband’s brother, Baron Magri. They performed a comedy sketch titled “Two Strings to Her Bow.” Before one of the performances the trio even traveled to Washington, DC to meet President Roosevelt in the East Room of the White House. As one would expect, the local newspaper coverage of these little actors overwhelmed any for Thelma. Still, Fred and Thelma must have enjoyed being on the same stage as these famous performers.

Soon after this they announced a new challenge: escaping from a whiskey barrel. Up to this time escaping from a packing crate provided by a local company was their routine challenge escape. Their publicity exclaimed that other performers, such as Houdini, did similar escapes but with specially prepared barrels they carried with them. Thelma would escape from an actual used whiskey barrel supplied by a local wholesale liquor dealer.
This escape was probably first performed in Utica, New York, and it was a rough experience for Thelma. The barrel was two feet across at the top and bottom and contained about 14 cubic feet of air. There were bung holes in the top and bottom to let in a little air. Thelma was handcuffed, shackled and placed into the barrel. After the top was put in place, additional iron hoops were hammered home around the barrel’s outside, two at the top and two at the bottom. She had put cotton into her ears to help deaden the noise. All told this took about 15 minutes. Yet for part of it, Thelma was upside down in the barrel. After the barrel was secured, she took 12 minutes to escape. Thelma told a reporter the next morning:
“I will never attempt such a feat again. The fact that it was a dare led me to make the trial. I could not get a breath of fresh air in the barrel and the fumes from the wood were almost suffocating. When I got out of the barrel I was so weak that I had to be assisted to my dressing room. So far as I know this feat has never before been attempted. Brindamour, Houdini and Hardeen do barrel feats, but they do not take one from a local liquor store, as I did. The feat is absolutely the worst I ever attempted and no amount of money could tempt me to repeat it. When the bands were being hammered into place the noise was almost deafening, as anyone can prove by placing his head in a barrel and allowing someone to pound on the outside. I am glad the feat is done, but no matter who is the future offers me the dare I shall refuse”

Of course, Thelma kept on performing this challenge escape. A few weeks later in Altoona, Pennsylvania, Thelma apparently took 55 minutes to escape from the barrel. Completely exhausted, she staggered off stage and fainted. A short time later in her dressing room, Thelma told a reporter that the barrel was too small, and she did not want to do the escape. However, her manager insisted that since it was advertised she had to try.  She vowed that “never again will I attempt an escape where I am so greatly handicapped as last night, advertised or not.” Thelma must have finally put her foot down, as this was the last time this escape was attempted.

Evansville Courier, June 3, 1909

In April 1909 they signed with the Jake Wells Circuit and toured theaters across the South. While playing the Academy of Music in Charleston, South Carolina, the pair tried a new publicity stunt. It was announced that Thelma would be handcuffed and shackled to the train tracks just before the next express train was scheduled to arrive, and she would escape unharmed. A large group of newspaper men and local citizens were going to be there to witness the event. However, the railroad company refused to give permission, and the escape never took place. The next day it was announced at the theater that they would try the escape on another railroad’s line. The Griffiths and the theater manager also would each contribute $500 to charity if the escape failed and again offered to waive all the railroad’s liability. This offer was also not accepted. This stunt got the Griffith and Thelma Co. so much publicity that the theater was sold out and people were even turned away for their week-long engagement.

They kept playing Southern cities for the rest of 1909 and early 1910. Sometimes they filled most of the bill with Fred performing magic and Thelma doing escapes, her chalk talk act or —billed as “May Griffith the Talkative Singer”—sang popular songs. One of their last performances was in Jonesboro, Arkansas at the Majestic Theater for the week of January 10, 1910. The advertisement read in part: “See the comedy cartoonist, the spirit cabinet, the magician, the mail bag escape, the packing box, and the strait jacket.” The local newspaper gave them very good reviews.

There is no apparent reason why they stopped touring in early 1910. It may have been that they were not finding enough work or maybe they just wanted to settle down. Whatever the reason, the Griffith and Thelma Company retired from the stage.

Florence Herald, Dec 16, 1909

Their last performances show the versatility they had developed. They could do a short vaudeville act or provide all the acts on the bill. Besides the standard escape from handcuffs and other restraints, Thelma’s escape act could include:
·         Mail bag escape. Thelma would be locked into a large mail bag with a child from the audience. She would escape, and the child would be left inside the bag. When asked, the child had no idea how this happened.
·         Escape from a prison muff. After being handcuffed, a canvas muff would be placed over them and straps attached to it would be tied around her waist.
·         Sack escape. Thelma would be placed on a platform and a large bag would be placed over her and locked on two sides to the platform. A committee examines it and cannot raise the bag; it is locked tight. One of the committee is instructed by Fred to grab his hand when he gives the word. The platform is then pushed into the cabinet, and Fred follows and draws the curtains. Fred gives the word, and the committee members grasp the hand of Thelma instead. When the curtain is pushed back Fred is found inside the bag still locked to the platform.
·         Spirit cabinet. Thelma would be tied to a chair inside the cabinet. A volunteer from the audience would enter the cabinet with her. After the curtains were drawn, bedlam would soon break out. When the curtain was opened, Thelma was still tied to the chair, and the volunteer had a sack over his head.
·         Packing box escape. This was the standard packing box escape. Thelma would be placed into the box, and the top would be nailed on by members of the audience or by the firm that provided the box. This was sometimes done as a challenge escape.
·         Strait jacket escape. This was done visibly on stage and was a standard effect in all of their shows.
·         Escape from a paper bag. Thelma would be sealed inside a large paper bag and escape with the bag intact.

Fred usually performed magic, either as an aside during the escapes or as a single act on the bill. He would tell rapid-fire jokes while doing various sleight-of-hand effects with cards, coins and billiard balls. The latter was his specialty, and he did it with 8 solid balls and no gimmick. If more time was needed he added other effects, such as the dancing handkerchief or the guinea pig from bottle. In addition, Thelma could do her chalk talk act or sing.

By the summer of 1911, Fred was back on the stage. He was billed as “Fred M Griffith – The Talkative Trickster” and was playing small-time vaudeville circuits. Fred was doing the comedy sleight-of-hand act he had perfected over his years of touring. He soon changed the tag line to the “Tricky Monologist” and used this for most of his career. He signed with the Western Vaudeville Managers Association for the fall of 1912 and started to use “I’ll dare you to talk about me” in his advertising. This soon became his moniker. Fred became a well-known vaudeville act and continuously toured both big and small-time circuits for many years.

Courtesy of the David Ben Collection
Billboard Dec 14, 1912

In the spring of 1914, Thelma began to accompany Fred on tour as his assistant. They were billed as “Fred Griffith and Excess?” How long she toured with Fred is not known. In the summer and fall of 1917 they resurrected the “Griffith-Thelma and Company” and toured the west coast. Billed as “Mythical Mysterious Fun,” Fred did his usual magic routine, but the finale for the act was the “Hindoo Trunk,” an effect that they used on their first tour back in 1907.

In early 1918 Fred suddenly stopped touring, and nothing else is heard about Thelma. Maybe their tour together had been her last hurrah. They may have separated, or she may have passed away sometime in 1918 or early 1919. Fred’s World War I draft registration card, which was submitted in Canon City, Colorado after the December 31, 1918 deadline, stated that his step-father was his nearest relative. At the time he listed his step-father’s address as his permeant one and no occupation was listed.

Fred reappeared again in the fall of 1919 and was billed once again as the “Tricky Monologist.” However, by December he changed his billings to “Alan Gray – The Talkative Trickster” and used this for the rest of his career. He married his assistant Charlette Haynes (1901-1989) on June 28, 1920 in Cleveland. At the time he was living in San Francisco.  Fred continued to tour vaudeville theaters and other performance venues with his comedy magic act until around 1925. No records of Fred were found after this date.

Thelma was one of the few female escape artists that did a challenge handcuff escape act similar to Houdini’s. She took on all handcuff challenges, escaped from packing boxes and straitjackets, and did jail escapes. However, the act itself was a mixture of magic and escapes. Fred’s comedy magic detracted from the thrill of Thelma’s escapes. All the newspaper reviews talked about Thelma, and only acknowledged Fred. While this entertained the audiences, it never allowed the escape act to reach the next level. In the end they just played small-time circuits and independent time.  To paraphrase Marlon Brando, “Thelma coulda been a contender.”

Conjurers’ Monthly Magazine, April 15, 1907
Pittston Gazette, August 6, 1908, Pittston, Pennsylvania
World War I Draft Registration Card, Frank Marion Griffith, 1919
Billboard, March 27, 1915
Billboard, June 30, 1917
Rockford Morning Star, February 2, 1904, Rockford Illinois
Variety, September 14, 1907
Marriage Records, Vigo County, Indiana, November 2, 1903
Daily Times, March 31 and April 2-3, 1908, Dover, Ohio
Evening News, News, June 15, 1908, North Tonawanda, New York
Star Gazette, July 13, 1908, Elmira, New York
Pittston Gazette, August 6, 1908, Pittston, Pennsylvania
Wilkes-Barre News, August 13, 1908, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania
Wilkes-Barre News, August 20, 1908, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania
Mount Carmel Item, October 7, 1908, Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania
Tribune, February 15, 1909, Utica, New York
Baltimore Sun, January 24, 1909, Baltimore, Maryland
Baltimore Sun, January 29, 1909, Baltimore, Maryland
Herald Dispatch, February 20, 1909, Utica, New York
Altoona Mirror, March 12, 1909, Altoona, Pennsylvania
Billboard, April 24, 1909
Evening Post, May 12 and 14, 1909, Charleston, South Carolina
Messenger Inquirer, September 22, 1909, Owensboro, Kentucky
Jonesboro Daily Tribune, January 8-14, 1910, Jonesboro, Arkansas
Hartford Republican, September 10, 1909, Harford, Kentucky
Tennessean, June 13, 1909, Nashville, Tennessee
Augusta Chronicle, June 15, 1911, Augusta, Georgia
High Point Enterprise, March 26, 1912, High Point, North Carolina
Player, August 23, 1912
Billboard, December 14, 1912
New York Clipper, March 14, 1914
Oregonian, August 27, 1917, Portland, Oregon
Wyoming Star Tribune, January 7, 1918, Cheyenne, Wyoming
United States World War I draft registration cards 1917-1918
Wyoming Star Tribune, October 15, 1919, Cheyenne, Wyoming
Atlanta Constitution, December 31, 1919, Atlanta, Georgia
Cuyahoga County Marriage Records and Indexes, June 28, 1920
California Death Records, Charlotte Margaret Wood (Hayes), April 25, 1989
Oregonian, August 16, 1925, Portland, Oregon
(references are in order they were first used)

Gary Hunt Copyright 2018


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