Houdini film ‘Terror Island’ subject of Island Museum exhibition

Men put Harry Houdini in chains in the 1920 silent film “Terror Island,” which was filmed in part on Catalina Island. Photo courtesy of the Catalina Island Museum

The Catalina Island Museum reveals the unknown history of the making of Jesse L. Lasky’s 1920 silent film thriller, “Terror Island, starring Harry Houdini” with a new exhibition that opens on May 5.

Harry Houdini, known for his death-defying escapes and illusions, was revered as a magician in his own time. Ninety-two years after his death he remains a legend.

A little known or studied aspect of Houdini’s career was his transition from live stage performer to movie star.

The Catalina Island Museum explores Houdini as a Hollywood Star and the making of the 1920 silent film thriller he starred in, Lasky’s Terror Island in an exhibition titled “Houdini: Terror on the Magic Isle.”

The movie was filmed in large part on Catalina Island, which is often referred to as the Magic Island. Though Catalina has been the location for hundreds of movies, facts about the making of Terror Island and details about Houdini’s time on the island have been lost to history until now.

“In researching the exhibition we brought Houdini experts to Catalina to retrace the steps of the film and its crew,” said Julie Perlin Lee, Catalina Island Museum executive director. “Though we were able to answer many questions about the making of the film, there is still much that remains a mystery.”

In order to piece the history of the film together, the exhibition presents film artifacts and ephemera from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and several private Houdini collectors. These include the original script of the movie, original studio documents, one of two known original press books for the movie, original movie stills and ephemera from Cuba, Sweden and other countries used to promote the film.

A handwritten letter by Harry Houdini, in which he mentions the film, penned on Hotel St. Catherine stationary; the hotel was the grandest hotel of the era and where Houdini, cast and crew stayed during the filming.

From the Catalina Island Museum’s collection comes newspaper articles recounting an episode where Houdini attempted a real-life rescue of a wayward ship in Avalon Bay. With cameras rolling, Houdini swam into the tumultuous sea, but was washed into the rocky shore. The film of Houdini’s failed attempt mysteriously went missing.

“Harry Houdini’s movies are one of the least known aspects of his amazing career,” said John Cox, Houdini expert and creator of WildAboutHoudini.com. “That’s why I’m so excited about the upcoming ‘Houdini: Terror on the Magic Isle’ exhibition at the Catalina Island Museum. It’s not only the first ever exhibition devoted solely to Houdini’s movies, but the museum has uncovered details about the 1919 production of Terror Island that have never appeared in any book. And to have artifacts such as letters and the original screenplay return to Catalina after nearly 100 years is truly magical. This exhibition will write Houdini history.”

The plot of the film surrounds submarine inventor Harry Harper (played by Houdini), who becomes entangled in the search for a sunken treasure and and rescue of the father of the girl he loves.

The girl, played by Lila Lee, stars alongside Houdini as their tale of love and adventure comes to a dramatic crescendo on a South Sea Island where the locals are preparing their captives for a cannibalistic feast. Houdini spent much time physically training for the film’s stunts as most take place underwater where he escapes a nailed- box, releases Lila Lee from a safe, fights off a villainous diver and releases himself from bamboo frame from which he hangs by his neck.

Unfortunately, two of the film reels of “Terror Island” are considered missing or lost. The exhibition importantly reconstructs the missing film segments with photos accompanied by corresponding lines from the script. The missing segments include two of Houdini’s great escapes in the film: one where he frees himself from locks and chains in a burning room and a second where he breaks out of a wood box which has been dropped to the bottom of the sea. Houdini performed all of the escapes in the film himself. “For the first time ever, experience the making of Terror Island as never told before,” said Joe Notaro, a Houdini expert.

The exhibition is open to the public from May 5–Oct. 7. Admission to the museum is free for its members, $17 for adults, $15 for seniors, military and students with a valid I.D. Children, ages 15 and under, are free every day with a paid adult admission.

“Terror Island,” the film, will be screened at the Catalina Island Museum’s 31st Annual Silent Film Benefit on May 19th in the historic Avalon Casino Theatre, William Wrigley Jr.’s 1929 Art Deco Movie Palace. Attendees will be treated to an authentic 1920s cinematic experience with an original score by Michael Mortilla and The Accompanists and a pre-screening performance by Magician Jim Bentley, who will perform, among other feats, Harry Houdini’s famous straight-jacket escape.

A silent auction featuring original art representing films screened at prior Silent Film Benefits will be held in the lobby of the Avalon Theatre with proceeds supporting future Silent Film Benefit programs of the Catalina Island Museum.

Early ticket purchases are highly encouraged to guarantee a seat at this year’s event. This event is expected to sell out.

Tickets are $25 for members of the museum, $28 for non-members and $10 for children ages 3-15. To buy tickets, call 310-510-2414, visit the museum in person, or go to the calendar page at CatalinaMuseum.org. Members and Non-Members: Purchase your Silent Film Benefit tickets online by May 1 and receive 20 percent off.

The exhibition and 31st Annual Silent Film Benefit are generously sponsored by the Magic Castle.

The Catalina Island Museum offers the best in art and history exhibitions, music and dance performances, lectures by guest speakers from all over the world, and the finest in silent, documentary and international film. Open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Independence Day, the new Ada Blanche Wrigley Schreiner Building is located in the heart of Avalon at 217 Metropole Ave. For more information, call 310-510-2414 or visit CatalinaMuseum.org.

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