Part One: The Tao of The Pendragons
The word doppelgänger is German and literally means double walker — as in a ghost or shadow of yourself.
Last week in my Substack It Started In A Box, I discussed the evolution of the Pentagon's sub-trunk performance, which, when we first presented it, we used a classic curtain. In our last days together as a duo, a foulard, which was split in two, revealing Jonathan in less than .30 seconds, replaced the old curtain. That's right, less than a 1/2 of a second. This week in the Tao of The Pendragons.
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Famous English magician John Nevil Maskelyne, best known for creating the levitation, invented metamorphosis, but Houdini's performance with his wife Bess popularized the illusion. With their dynamic performance and incredible speed, The Pendragons took this illusion to a new level, which has become the gold standard in magic.
This week, I talk about the eerie likeness of the careers of The Houdinis and their predecessors, The Pendragons, focusing on the metamorphosis and how their extraordinary performance of this effect inspired magicians everywhere.
A few years before our separation we were producing a show called the town of Houdini named after Patrick Culliton‘s book. This is a graphic I created for the show displaying the likeness between Jonathan and Houdini
My memory was foggy when I met my friend Patrick Culliton, a successful actor, magician, and the foremost expert on escape artist Harry Houdini and author of many books, including the best-seller “The Tao of Houdini,” using the name Houdini’s Ghost nom de plume. I told Patrick the story of my father, who, when he was a boy of about six years old, saw Houdini perform The Milk Can Escape in a container of apple cider instead of milk. The combination of the aluminum chemically activated fumes and the acidic cider caused Houdini to faint. As a Houdini researcher, Culliton was astonished because he'd heard this only as a rumor. My father’s story provided confirmation the narrative was real and not a tale. He witnessed a unique historical event that day in Washington State. So Jonathan and I immediately connected to Patrick.
What I remember most about Culliton was how stunned he was by the likeness between Jonathan and Houdini. I think it was during a visit to The Magic Castle one evening back in 1977, sometime when we first performed metamorphosis, that Culliton met us backstage. As an expert on Houdini, he immediately gravitated to us and was very impressed by our looks and athletic performance. Mostly, though, Patrick could not get over the resemblance between Jonathan and Houdini, and not just the similarity in looks but also how much our show reminded him of Harry and Bess on stage, who popularized metamorphosis during their time in the late 1800s to early 1900’s performing as “The Houdinis,” whose show included dove productions mixed with escapes. That night at the Magic Castle, we were performing our dove act, ending with our version of metamorphosis, serendipitously following The Houdini’s path on stage. So, the Tao of The Pendragons mirrored that of The Houdinis. From that moment forward, we were forever connected to The Houdinis by fans of the famed magician who wanted to think we were Harry and Bess’ doppelgängers. This is especially true of Jonathan, who shares an uncanny sameness with Harry Houdini.
Actor and Houdini expert Patrick Culliton who owns the original Houdini metamorphosis trunk we used on the TV Special The Search For Houdini.
In the late 70s, Patrick supplemented his acting income with a lecture/show called The Houdini Mystery Tour, presented at colleges and universities nationwide. It was during these tours Patrick gave birth to the Tao of Houdini. Tao or Dao is an East Asian mysticism concept meaning the path, the way—a code of behavior based on yin and yang which dictates how one lives their life. Tao of Houdini is a book authored by Culliton, who wrote it as if Houdini himself were penning his autobiography about his life on stage as a skilled magician and escape artist and off stage exposing spiritual charlatans. Although we never went after charlatans, we had much in common with Houdini’s path on stage. Like him, our approach was metaphysical, and we believed the performer was far more critical than the performance and props, therefore presenting a minimalist style onstage that focused on the actor and not the mechanics of the illusion. This was the tao, the path, the way of The Pendragon’s, solidified by the same athletic, dramatic flair that was the signature of The Houdinis.
For health reasons connected to injuries during the Vietnam War, Patrick required a leave of absence from his Houdini Mystery Tour that fall, so he had the idea of Jonathon replacing him. In October, Jonathan, a kid who grew up in Orange County, California, during the 50s, 60s, and 70s when agriculture still ruled and Disneyland was still a dream of Walt’s, went off for the first time to the concrete jungle known as New York City, which enveloped him and enticed his senses. During his free time, he visited Greenwich Village, where famous Peruvian “esoteric” magician Richiardi performed his “realism” magic show. Richiardi’s avant-garde approach to illusions often left his audiences speechless as he performed incredible visual feats like sawing his daughter in half and out of her inside came what was seemingly her guts and ending with her whole again while wearing a blood-stained stark white hospital gown. Skeptics in the audience were invited on stage for a close-up of his daughter’s intestines, proving she was divided in two halves. To heighten the sensual experience, the aroma of formaldehyde carried throughout the theater, causing the doubters to question certainty. Richiardi didn’t manipulate just cards; he manipulated reality. Several years later, I watched him perform in Los Angeles at the Variety Arts Theater, and particularly noticeable was his intensity, which matched descriptions of Houdini. But what most impressed me was Richiardi’s magnetism. Like Houdini before him, he owned the stage. Jonathan shared a kindred spirit with Richiardi and the late Houdini. From that point on, the stage was Jonathan’s. At the time, we were still called Jonathan and Char; we set out to develop the dynamic, alluring show known by audiences worldwide, inspired by Houdini, who also inspired Richiardi. It was Houdini’s career that The Pendragons reflected.
Richiardi performing razor blades from the mouth. a Houdiniesque piece of magic on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1968
A year later, Jonathan continued The Houdini Mystery Tour but presented it on the West Coast where we lived, enabling him to expand the show and add The Bullet Catch (I discussed in my previous article and a Houdini favorite) and Metamorphosis as a closing effect to his lecture, making it an actual Houdini-like performance. My reward was receiving first-hand experience playing the integral role of Bess Houdini and, through my looking glass, seeing her as she was — back in time. Whereas Jonathan related to Houdini on multiple levels, in appearance, I mostly shared the same physicality as Bess. As a woman partnering with a magician, Bess supported Harry on and off stage. Like myself, she spent her time sewing their costumes, looking after animals, managing an extensive doll collection, and began her professional life as a dancer.
Bess and I had a lot in common. We are the infrastructure that kept our husbands' careers and personal lives—alive. Behind every great man is a great woman - the old saying goes. So true for Bess Houdini and myself. It's a quiet job to manage all tasks on and off stage. The role is not often acknowledged as more than an assistant, but in my case, Jonathan and I were equals on stage. Houdini named their act The Houdinis and not just Harry Houdini when he performed alongside Bess, showing his utmost respect for her position. Bess and I didn’t look alike, but we shared a similar magical route, ending with different departures.
For Bess, Harry died at age 52 from appendicitis caused by an audience member accepting Houdini’s dare to punch him in his gut. Houdini usually overcame this challenge by tightening his abdominal muscles so they were rock-solid. Unfortunately, on that fateful night, the guest hit Houdini with all his might before he could flex his core. The blow ruptured his appendix, and later, Harry died from the wound. Bess was left a widow earning her living from Houdini’s estate by keeping Houdini’s name prominently in the media by attempting to contact him through séances, an agreement the couple made in the event of his death. Ironically, Houdini abhorred this when exposing mediums as fakes, cheats, and con artists. On the other hand, a divine force intercepted my union with Jonathan, and God sent me on another route. Both Bess and I were left discovering our own “Taos.”
I can easily say the journey of my own Taos began when I rehearsed metamorphosis for the first time in our home in Fullerton when I was 22 years old. That’s when my life took a turn and changed forever. After studying previous magicians who perform this illusion, most notably current magicians of that time, Doug Henning and Siegfried and Roy Jonathan and I began rehearsing ours in our living room. While watching Doug and Debbie perform the transformation, my first impression was to wonder if it could be done faster. With all due respect to the Hennings, who brilliantly performed this illusion, I had the idea to “speed things up.” In our version, we wouldn’t have time for the old “1-2-3, it’s me!” routine, which was the standard of the time. For my part, I had to invent a new way to physically maneuver during the transformation, enabling the velocity and agility required to execute the feat. There was no one to teach me specifics. I was left alone to develop a new move not used by another magician or partner. Although I can't go into the specifics of my movement without revealing my secret, together, we moved in perfect unison like cats dancing.
Sometimes, we’d invite friends to watch and critique. Two of those friends, brother and sister Mark and Rebecca Meyers, came over to watch our metamorphosis in its infancy and the bullet catch, another of Houdini’s effects we were rehearsing. Rebecca was also practicing magic, and she had worked with Jonathan at the Renaissance fair a few times. I laid in bed ill. This is Mark’s nostalgic memory of that practice session with the trunk and bullet catch:
“My sister, Rebecca, and I were invited up to your apartment to watch your metamorphosis routine and give you feedback. I didn’t see any flaws at all, and I thought it was definitely a winner! A little later, Jonathan wanted to try for the first time a black powder pistol he wanted to use in a new act. He and I went down the stairs for the trial. He was behind me when it went off, sounding like a Howitzer echoing through the complex! I turned to see him running back up the stairs to the apartment, so my instinct was to run, too. I wasn’t paying attention to the fire extinguisher mounted on the wall, and my shoulder hit it as I ran past. We all waited to see if authorities would show up. After a while, the coast was clear, and everyone laughed. I have memories of Rebecca practicing some of your acts during those times. And when I get to all of the boxes in my storage unit, I’ll send the old Super 8 film (no sound) of you performing at the Renaissance Fair.” Mark Meyers
Once we began performing the sub-trunk for the public, the rest is history. At one of those performances, a prominent TV producer for the BBC from England named John Fisher along with Paul Daniels star of The Paul Daniels Show watched us at the Magic Castle. By now, we had excelled in more than one illusion. Our famous fire basket and sword suspension were also part of our powerful performance. Our show blew away John, and it was a Cinderella moment as he began inquiring who we were and why the powers of the Hollywood local magic community hadn’t shined a spotlight on our career. Immediately, Fisher invited us to the UK to perform on The Paul Daniels Show, a top-rated TV show equal to Johnny Carson. It was my first time in Europe, and we stopped in Germany to be part of a TV show before going to London for the Paul Daniel’s Show. Since that time, I’ve performed countless times over the years in Europe. Sometimes, I go back and forth several times a month. Europe became my home away from home.
Featured here as the closing performers showcasing our entire three illusion act on The Paul Daniels Show in the UK for the BBC. Performing our sword suspension, fire basket and metamorphosis. After the hundreds of TV Shows, this one is still one of my favorites. Watch until the end to watch us and other guests including Debbie McGee, a talented dancer and choreographer who later married Paul out of a giant Christmas pudding.
“Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.“Mark 6:4
When we left Hollywood for Europe, we were Jonathan and Char and had just became The Pendragons hoping for a rewarding career in magic. It was in Europe we found success, just like Houdini, whose pilgrimage to that continent brought him much fame and fortune. Upon his return to the USA, his deserved respect was given to him by Americans. We followed the same direction. A little aside here —similarly, The Beatles rose to much higher fame in England following their stellar performance on the Ed Sullivan Show in America. I always advise talented artists to try and make a mark outside their community and return home. I can attest to the fact from my own experience, there is much merit to that plan.
Pictured here after a show with Sergio Mendez In Hanover, Germany during our first tour of Europe.
When the tour of Europe concluded, our return to America was met with high regard, where demand for our show increased, including offers in Las Vegas. In Vegas, Johnny Stuart produced a successful show called Legends in Concert at Imperial Palace. Entertainers played everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Frank Sinatra. Johnny wanted to add variety to the front, and he thought an actor playing Houdini was a great choice. He heard about our act and called to book us as The Houdinis, offering us an outstanding contract, which we turned down. Although we were flattered by the tempting offer, we passed on the proposal because our future would have been mapped for us—playing Houdini and continuing to make him more famous while silencing The Pendragons. Johnny never offered the role to another magician. I didn’t see Johnny for years until the early 2000s when he wanted to help produce The Pendragons in their theater in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. We tried to carve our path in magic, and merging our career with a dead escape artist was not on our goal list. However, Houdini fans would have been overjoyed to watch us perform as The Houdinis.
On some occasions, when our road crisscrossed with Houdinis, I felt a “spiritual jealousy” coming from the beyond. Following in the footsteps of Bess, magicians continue to this day attempting to contact Houdini through séances on Halloween, the day Houdini died. One of these séances occurred October 31, 1987, on a “live” broadcast called The Search for Houdini, a two-hour magic variety show produced by Ken Ehrlich and hosted by William Shatner. For our part in the show, we performed metamorphosis twice. First, act the characters of Harry and Bess by wearing attire similar to theirs and using their original Substitution trunk and awkward curtain to complete the routine. Second, we performed it in our fast-paced style with my lightning-speed movement and Jonathan’s signature “whisking away the foulard,” making it appear as a natural transformation when he appeared in my place. Everything was fine during our rehearsals, so we got ready for our show because our routine was first up for this live performance.
I was with the makeup artist when a stage crew member informed me that our trunk was missing. The Amazing Randi injured himself during his rehearsal, and Dean Gunnarson, his assistant, would be taking his place and ironically performing the Milk Can illusion - the same piece of magic my father saw Houdini perform when he fainted. An emergency rehearsal was called, and it was during Dean’s practice run that our metamorphosis trunk was moved, and no one could find it. It was located just minutes before we performed in front of millions of people on a lift often used backstage, enabling more room for props. Since the space was tiny, someone had the idea to place our metamorphosis trunk on the elevator so Dean could access Randi’s equipment for the emergency rehearsal, which action was unprofessional without first notifying an artist of the change. The fault fell on the crew and not Dean or Randi, but to this day, it's unclear who placed our illusion on the elevator. I set the inside of the trunk and my curtain in a certain way. So I had a few frantic moments to redo our foulard and my costume inside the box. All I can say is I did my best and prayed all was well. A few seconds later, the LIVE show began with The Pendragons opening the show. Our performance using Houdini’s trunk went off without a hitch. Following our performance using Harry’s trunk stagehands brought our trunk on stage for us to perform the trunk The Pendragon “way”.
“William Shatner shows a clip of a recreated magic trick made famous by Harry Houdini. In the clip, The Pendragons beat Houdini's record by three seconds, but have a small wardrobe malfunction, which surprised Shatner.”
Everything was working great. The foulard was perfect. I got to breathe for a second while I was in the trunk, listening to the audience's response. Then I changed costumes, and “Danger! Danger!” said the Robot to Will Robinson. The bottom half of my outfit was twisted in a way where only a spaghetti strap ran between my legs. There was no time to correct the mistake, and I knew I could not step out of the trunk with my extreme costume malfunction. I partially showed myself from my waist up, with my arms in the air and a big smile. In all honesty, the audience would not have been any wiser except the show's host, William Shatner, knew our routine, and he was quick to point out my costume mishap to the millions of American viewers. The viewers at the theater saw the stagehands carry the trunk off stage with me inside. I was mortified, and Jonathan was heartbroken and miserable. Following the show, the entire cast went to dinner, and Jonathan and I rode in separate vehicles. Despite the problems, William Shatner gave us much publicity. In later years, he often spoke about my incident on talk shows, including this one with Dick Clark, who owned a successful talent agency in Hollywood and, following the show, immediately signed us. We managed to make lemonade out of lemons.
This clip Is taken from the search for Houdini TV special. Showing here is William Shatner on live TV in front of millions of Americans pointing out my costume malfunction. I am happy I have a sense of humor.
During the séance that night, Houdini failed to appear, but regardless, I felt as if his spirit was inside our trunk that evening. I was told later Randi’s injury and Gunnerson was all an act. At least, that’s the rumor. If so, then perhaps the spirit of Houdini caused his stunt to backfire on him. One can only speculate. I know this: despite the costume malfunction, it was a turned into a successful night for the Pendragons. Crossing paths with Houdini that night was fate. Thank you Harry!
A quote from a 2003 magic discussion by an audience member: “I was in the audience when Bill Shatner mc'ed the notorious Houdini/Halloween television special in Los Angeles. (The highlight of the show was Charlotte Pendragon's courage under fire when the costume change in the sub-trunk didn't "come off as planned.") Brisbin
Here I am bowing in the trunk at the end of our metamorphosis routine on The Search For Houdini. Because of my costume malfunction I could not get out of the trunk.
Next week, in part two, I discuss our Houdini-inspired Bullet Catch and my Underwater Escape at Lake Mead on a TV Special called Houdini: Unlocking the Mysteries.
Thanks for reading The Charlotte Pendragon Diaries by Charlotte Pendragon ! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.