RETRO: Houdini saw great escape in city attic

Randini'Randolph Robert Osborne Douglas'A signed publicity postcard - signed in 1920''Taken from Randini - The man who helped Houdini by Ann Beedham
Randini'Randolph Robert Osborne Douglas'A signed publicity postcard - signed in 1920''Taken from Randini - The man who helped Houdini by Ann Beedham
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He is one of the most intriguing figures in Sheffield history and a man credited with changing stage magic forever.

Randolph Douglas was the Greenhill-born boy who would become friend, advisor and ultimately inspiration to the most famous showman of all time, Harry Houdini.

Randini'Randolph Robert Osborne Douglas - publicity shot''Taken from Randini - The man who helped Houdini by Ann Beedham

Randini'Randolph Robert Osborne Douglas - publicity shot''Taken from Randini - The man who helped Houdini by Ann Beedham

But for poor health, this young man - Randini as he was known in his own short stage career - might have been as big a star as the master-escapologist himself.

As it was, exactly a century ago this year, Randolph - then aged just 19 - invited his hero to his family home for tea and showed the great man a stunt which would become the magician’s trademark trick: the upside down escape.

“It’s strange to think that arguably Houdini’s most iconic stunt was born in the attic of a house in Carrington Road, Endcliffe,” says Ann Beedham, the author of Randini, a fascinating biography released five years ago. “But it’s true.

“With help from his mother, Kitty, Randolph was put in a straightjacket and hung upside down from a roof beam. Then, as Houdini watched, he escaped the jacket and emerged with arms open like a butterfly. Houdini’s next great stunt was born.”

The superstar’s house call was not dissimilar, says Ann, to Lady Gaga turning up for a brew at the house of a fan today. But the meeting - the exact date of which is unknown, though June 1914 seems most likely - was actually the culmination of a 10 year relationship.

Houdini had first visited Sheffield in January 1904 to perform a week of dates at the Empire Theatre in Charles Street.

His fame was still in its early days then but he had the city talking after a promotional stunt in which he escaped a locked cell at the central police station.

It seems almost certain the nine-year-old Randolph - who had already developed a taste for escapology - would have seen the show.

“They didn’t meet at that point,” says Ann, a graphic designer of Woodseats. “But when Houdini returned to the same venue in later years, Randolph went back stage and introduced himself to his hero.”

Though Houdini was 20 years older they became firm friends in 1913 after the magician realised this South Yorkshire fan was a gifted illusionist.

Randolph had gone backstage again and the pair ended up chatting for some time before Houdini gave the younger man his home address to write to.

“After that they would send each other notes, letters and postcards,” explains Ann. “It’s obvious from these, held both in Buxton Museum and at the Magic Circle in London, that they greatly enjoyed their joint obsession with locks.”

Indeed, by his late teenage years Randini - whose family lived in Main Road Greenhill before moving to Endcliffe - had very real ambitions to eclipse Houdini as the world’s greatest showman.

His first show at the Catholic Young Men’s Society, in Solly Street, in 1911 had been a major success, and his obsession was such that he would regularly get his mother to lock him in a steel-lined trunk to practise both his escapology and his ability to survive for long periods with shackled limbs and limited air.

In many ways, his upside down performance to Houdini that night in 1914 (while the Hungarian was on a tour of the UK) may have been a friendly warning to his hero that he was after his crown.

“Ultimately, though, his health prevented him pursuing a stage career,” says Ann. “After he volunteered for the Army in 1916 he was sent home from basic training because it was discovered he had a rheumatic heart.

“That was effectively the end of his escapology career.”

Instead, Randolph became a model maker, crafting tiny models for promoting firms.

He and wife Hetty Brown - a Walkley woman he met at an Arundel Street silversmiths and married in 1926 - moved to Castleton where they opened a House Of Wonders museum.

Randolph stayed in touch with Houdini until the great man died in 1926. Randolph passed away in 1956, aged 61.

“This was a talented and colourful Sheffield character,” concludes Ann. “He is someone who a lot of Sheffielders know nothing about but one who ought to be remembered and celebrated for his influence on the history of stage magic.”

Randini meets Houdini

Randolph Douglas may have been 21 years the junior of Harry Houdini but the pair immediately struck it off over a love of locks and escapology.

They first met properly backstage at the Empire Palace theatre in Charles Street where Randolph was searching for his hero’s autograph on April 27, 1913.

“When I first met Houdini he soon realised that I was not the usual type of fan or autograph hunter,” the younger man told The World Fair newspaper in 1938. “I think I impressed him with my knowledge of locks and the art of escapology.

“Ever since I was 13 I have been fascinated by the mechanism of locks. Every lock I could get hold of I used to dissect and assemble again. Hundreds passed through my hands, and from that stage I turned to handcuffs, and so on.”

Houdini gave him his home address and the pair corresponded - and met up - for the rest of the great man’s life.