SMITH OF THE STAR - The city man behind the great Houdini

HE'S one of the most tragic and intriguing figures in Sheffield's history and the man who changed stage magic and illusion for ever.

Gifted, obsessive and with a love of the macabre, Randolph Osborne Douglas was friend and advisor to Harry Houdini, the greatest showman on earth.

Had it not been for his poor health, Randolph, or Randini as he was known in his short stage career, might have been as big a star as the master- escapologist himself.

But one afternoon in June 1914 young Randolph showed the great man a trick he was to adopt and make his trademark all over the world.

Houdini had done his act at the Nottingham Empire the night before and came up to Sheffield to visit 19-year-old Randolph, whom he had already known for some years, at the Douglas family home in Carrington Road, Endcliffe.

After tea in the parlour Houdini was led to the attic room by Randolph and his mother Kitty.

Randolph put on a strait jacket, an item which Houdini was already using in his act.

Then he did something different which would define escapology for 100 years.

Sheffield writer Ann Beedham describes the events in her new book Randini, the man who helped Houdini:

'Randolph lay down as Kitty tied the rope around his feet then walked over to a winch.

'After asking Mr Houdini to give her a helping hand she hauled Randolph into the air until he was dangling upside-down from the beam.

'Then, as a bemused Houdini watched, Randolph proceeded to shed the straitjacket looking like some kind of emerging butterfly.

'The jacket fell to the floor and Randolph swung to and fro, his arms open in a gesture of accomplishment.

'An iconic image was born.

'Carefully Houdini helped lower his young friend down.

'He had come up with a winner.'

And Ann Beedham is hoping that she has too.

Graphic artist Ann spent more than a year researching and writing the book.

"Houdini turning up in Endcliffe Park at that time would be like David Beckham coming over for a kickabout with you in the park today," said 51-year-old Ann.

"He was a world superstar but he came to Sheffield to see Randolph because his young fan knew so much about locks and escapology.

"A lot of stars have a lot of fans and they don't usually travel to have tea with them, but Randolph was a gifted young man."

Unfortunately for the Sheffield man his health was to prevent him having a lasting stage career.

"After he volunteered for the Army in 1916 Randolph was sent home from basic training because it was discovered he had a 'rheumatic heart'.

"That was effectively the end of his escapology career but being invalided out of the Army could well have saved his life."

Randolph's interest in escapology started early. He was apprenticed to his father Robert Strachan Douglas, a talented silversmith, modeller and designer.

One of Randolph's notebooks lists locks, handcuffs and a straightjacket as a shopping list in 1911 – not the usual type of haul for a 16-year-old's pocket money.He would buy locks from Sheffield's 'rag and tag' market.

The detailed and painstakingly-researched book is put together from press cuttings, contemporary accounts, letters and postcards between the two men contained in the Magic Circle archives, as well as the Douglas Collection which is housed at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. This is to go on display with its locks, models and sketches in from January 16 to April 5, 2010.

"Randolph was a talented and colourful character," adds Ann. "He is someone that a lot of Sheffielders know nothing about but one who ought to be remembered and celebrated for his impact and influence on the history of stage magic."

Randini, The Man Who Helped Houdini, by Ann Beedham is published by and is available from the Star Shop, 9.99.

'Houdini soon realised I was not the usual type of fan...'

WORLD superstar Harry 'The Handcuff King' Houdini came to the Sheffield Empire Theatre, Charles Street, in January 1904.

Considering the then nine-year-old Randolph Douglas's passion for escapology, he was likely to be present that night.

Ever the self-promoter, Houdini had already got the Sheffield public hooked with his pre-show escape from legendary burglar and murderer Charlie Peace's old cell.

To prove it he was given a certificate of authenticity by the police.

A report in the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent newspaper tells of the 'enthusiastic crowd' at the Empire which is where Randolph first met Houdini.

Houdini knew immediately that Randolph was no ordinary fan with his knowledge of locks and stage magic.

"The two became friends and whenever Houdini performed at the theatre in Sheffield, Randolph went backstage to help,' said author Ann Beedham.

"It is obvious from notes, letters and postcards between Randolph and Houdini, held both in Buxton Museum and at the Magic Circle in London, that they greatly enjoyed their joint obsession with locks."

Speaking to a reporter in a newspaper cutting from 'The Worlds Fair' of May 28, 1938, Randolph says: "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.

"When I first met Houdini – I was living in Sheffield at the time – he soon realised that I was not the usual type of fan or autograph hunter, and I think I impressed him with my knowledge of locks and the art of escapology".Welcome to the house of wonders

NOT SO long ago something quite strange lurked in the picturesque back streets of Castleton.

The Peak District Village was home to the 'House of Wonders' – a museum that was to become the home for the life collection of Randolph Douglas, The Great Randini.

Unable to be a stage performer and escapologist due to ill health, Randolph made money as a model maker, making tiny models for promoting firms, including a tiny chair and lamp for a dentist and miniature saws for a tool manufacturer.

He also made large scale models for factories.

His letterheads described him as 'maker of better models' and 'specialist in scale models.'

He had also worked at Cooper Brothers Siversmiths, on Arundel Street, Sheffield.

It was at Cooper Brothers that Randolph met his future wife, Hetty Bown, from Walkley, who managed the warehouse.

They were married on March 31, Randolph's birthday, in 1926.

They moved to Castleton where their home became the Douglas Museum, full of his quirky and exotic acquisitions, a House of Wonders.

The couple lived in one part of the cottage, and the other was the museum, which became a popular tourist attraction where visitors were shown round by torchlight, for a sixpenny fee.

As well as Randolph's collection of locks and tiny models, there were zulu masks, fossils, clay pipes, minerals, handcuffs, butterflies and spears.

Randolph used to make items to sell in the museum, as souvenirs.

Randolph and Hetty ran their museum together until Randolph's death on December 5, 1956, aged 61.

He was buried at the Castleton church of St Edmund's.

Hetty continued to run the place until her own death on April 21, 1978, but with the couple gone, the House of Wonders came to an end. The museum was closed, the marvels boxed and the cottage sold.

Castleton Information Centre has a Randolph Douglas display with photos and models.

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