Magician Escapist Dorothy Dietrich – Inspired by Houdini – Part I

When you were putting together Legos or dressing dolls, one little girl was picking locks, making a ball appear and disappear and changing a lit candle into a silk handkerchief: The trick. She had an empty 14-inch tube out of which she’d one day pull a 20-foot silk scarf, a feather boa, six balls, and a can of Coke. Dorothy Dietrich would be the first woman to saw a man in half, get out of a straitjacket – taking Houdini’s feat further – and the second in history to do the bullet catch. She was a burgeoning magician.

Early Days

“As children we believe that anything is possible. The trick is to never forget it.” Magician David Blaine

The Dietrich family, nine kids and two parents, lived in Erie, Pennsylvania. Mr. Dietrich was an abusive, irresponsible alcoholic, which left his wife to work multiple jobs. When Dorothy wasn’t doing chores, she could often be found up a tree to avoid being dragged across the floor by her hair or beaten. The Dietrichs successively lived in three houses – the first, lost to taxes, had no running water, the second was rat infested. (The third Dorothy would buy back after her father’s death.)

Dorothy

School offered no respite. Attending a Catholic institution on charity, wearing second-hand uniforms, Dorothy was mercilessly teased by her peers and “disciplined” by the nuns. To her, church meant occasional Latin liturgy “heavenly” and 6 a..m donuts before school. She was hungry. Every Dietrich sibling fended for themselves.

At 11, feeling there was no way out, she ran in front of a tractor trailer. The driver screeched to a stop and sat on the curb with her. “Whatever it is, I want you to know something. Even if you think your life is not worth living, you can’t do this to another person. How could I live with myself if I killed you?!”  “He said he used to be me,” she recalls. “He saved my life.”

A transfer to public school brought an end to one source of mistreatment. In its auditorium theater with vividly remembered red curtains, Dorothy saw her first magician. “I was mesmerized. The impossible is happening-how? I thought, if he gets paid, I want to do this.” There was a single novelty store in town. The preteen bought what they had of purposefully showy (not card) tricks, and practiced. And practiced.

One day, playing cowboys and Indians with her brothers, she was, as usual, tied up. Self described as scrawny, she slipped out of the knots. “My aunt saw me and said, ‘Who do you think you are, Houdini?’ I went to the library and tried to look him up under ‘W’ for Whodini.” With help, Dorothy checked out Walter Gibson’s book Houdini on Magic and Escapes. (Gibson was an author, ghostwriter, performer, and creator of the popular pulp series The Shadow.)

An Early Performance

For the book, its writer had access to Houdini’s notebooks and memoranda as well as assistance from Houdini’s widow, Bess. Magic and Escapes is touted as the most thorough description of the artist’s feats and how he performed them. Dorothy calls it “a tutorial.” The book became her magic bible. She began to perform at local events, convinced magic would be her vocation. After all, the German word dietrich translates as “lock pick.”

Until then, the youngster worked like crazy to contribute to her household – shoveling snow, raking leaves, cleaning houses, babysitting… Determined to leave, she now started squirreling away funds in the hem of a family room curtain so her father couldn’t steal from her. Somehow she was able to amass $3,000.

At 13, Dorothy tells me, she got a ride to New York with a friend’s brother. “I didn’t know who could do what to whom, but no one came after me.” A roommate-wanted ad in the back of Show Business Magazine lead to the fourth floor, Hell’s Kitchen walk-up of three young, aspiring actresses. “For the first time in my life, I felt secure; not helpless. Here’s the thing about New York, no one judged me.” She lied about her age.

When she finally called home, Mr. Dietrich said, don’t come back. Her new roommates showed the underage girl how to make up to look older and create a fake resume. Savings paid for dance and acting classes. “A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician,” she says, quoting Jean Eugene Robert Houdin. Without a social security card, there was no question of a real job. “I was offered porno movies, nude photography, and stripping jobs.” Dorothy refused. Apparently she’d learned acute “diplomacy” with her father which kept compromising situations at bay. Quite a trick. She busked in Central Park.

“Agents have small spots to fill. One finally took a chance on me. That led to work in small dinner theaters. I started with a ‘flash’ show (music and a series of tricks without speaking) to show my skills while avoiding catcalls.” That summer, she was hired to do 30 family-oriented shows in Westchester parks. The parks department recommended her to the New York Board of Education. Dorothy put together a presentation called Believe in Yourself, essentially her own story, and took it into public schools. She opened with, “When I was a kid, everybody told me girls can’t do magic,” and ended with, “so…do you think girls can do magic? “YES!” rang out. “Do you think girls can drive a truck? “NO!” came the answer. “There’s no reason a girl can’t do what a boy can…” She was 14.

A Phoenix Rises from the Ashes

“Personality must be bigger than the prop.” Magician Harry Blackstone Jr.

Try it, it works. (photo CC Public Domain)

Magic shops have always been hosts to a selective social scene. In those days there were several at which practitioners gathered to gossip, network, and show off. Though status/success/skill was acknowledged, it was possible for a newbie to rub elbows with an icon. At Russ Delmar’s Magic Center, Delmar nurtured the determined teenager. “Russ was someone who really cared about his customers. He was family to me as well as a working magician who gave helpful tips.” Mike Tannen’s Circle Magic Shop and his kid brother Louis’ Tannen’s might have more and better to sell, but owners had little time for her.

Al Flosso, “The Coney Island Fakir,” was another mentor. For 37 years he helmed Martinka & Co., America’s oldest magic company once owned by Houdini. (His name comes from a slang term for cotton candy, “floss.”) An old time practitioner, he was the first magician invited on The Ed Sullivan Show and appears as a Punch and Judy puppeteer in the film, A Night at the Opera.

Magazine Cover by Permission of Genii Magazine

Flosso held court on an old, threadbare sofa at the back of his shop, a kind of fraternity house for magicians. “Picture a pitchman at a carnival, add a wise guy personality with a comic spin…He’d go right to the edge of being rude, but left  people giggling.” This artist taught Dorothy ‘The Miser’s Dream,’ which makes coins appear out of thin air, landing in a bucket with a clink. She sometimes convinces child volunteers they can work magic with this trick.

Next came a job at Tommy Laird’s Times Square basement ten-in-one (a program of ten sequential acts under one tent for a single admission price). Dorothy describes it as appropriately “dirty, dank and sleazy…Each act had its own stage and curtain. A crowd moved around the room. “I was there to hone new routines and my adlibbing chops.” Not to mention paying her rent.

“Tommy was a magician and pitchman. He sold magic tricks on the street and had a small shop in the 42nd street subway station. In the 1970s, he took over the old Ripley’s Believe It or Not space, turning it into the American Theater of Magic. Tommy employed sword swallower Estelline Pike and Hezekiah Trimble, who did a wildman/witch doctor act and was known as Congo-the Jungle Creep.” (Performer/Historian Todd Robbins) Dorothy particularly remembers Congo’s leopard loin cloth and that he scared the crowd with wet, rubber snakes.

All Bound Up (Photos by Dick Brooks)

Other magicians at the basement venue included Lou Lancaster, according to Dorothy, “a magic know-it-all” who would one day become her right-hand man, fitting rigging for a straitjacket escape that took a Houdini stunt one step further, and mentalist Dick Brooks who became her life partner. The theater closed in the early 1980s and the building was torn down to build the Marriott.

“Adopted” by senior professionals, she was sometimes a guest at The Society of American Magicians (S.A.M.). Under 18 at the time, Dorothy was turned down for membership. Nonetheless, the Parent Assembly hired her for their annual show. Her flash act was well received. “I kept it elegant and classic, lots of colorful silk scarves, lit candles and doves.”

One of the people who came backstage to congratulate her turned out to be the elderly Walter Gibson. Discovering who he was, she chased him down a hall. Gibson became a mentor and friend, teaching her not only about the business of the business, put plausibly some of Houdini’s methods only he might know. “I get goose bumps when I think how lucky I was to know Walter. He was my window into Houdini. They were close friends. I’d ask, ‘what would Houdini think or handle this or that.’”

”A lot of people believed Houdini was either supernatural or had some amazing secrets. Actually, other magicians had bigger tricks, but no one had his style.” Walter Gibson (The New York Times, November, 1981 article by Daniel E. Harmon). Gibson believed Dorothy had style. The magician’s performance was feminine without resorting to sexual innuendo.

A later photo of Dorothy and one of her doves. (Photo by Dick Brooks)

Dorothy and Dick moved to a storefront on East 6th Street. Here, she could house the birds (doves) and animals she used in her act. “Doves are wonderful critters. I generally bought them from magicians as babies. As long as they know they can trust you to take care of them…You can’t just borrow some doves for a show and then return them.” A few years later, she’d author an article called The Magician’s Field Guide to Doves, which explained how to breed (they need privacy) and keep them (no overcrowding). “I currently use five doves, two small ducks (a breed called Calls), a rabbit, and a poodle.”       

By now she was levitating people. Dorothy used the stationary method in which whatever the volunteer lay on was taken away, leaving them floating. It would be some years before she performed the moving technique wherein someone suspended would float up with no visible means of support. The time gap was not because of skill, but rather because the second effect is expensive and cumbersome to transport.

Television came calling. She appeared, in part, on the Tom Snyder, Montel Williams, Bill Cosby, Gary Moore, and Robert Klein shows. Tired of being mistaken for an assistant at stage doors, Dorothy became the first woman to saw a man in half, a trick that had been popular in magic acts since 1921. “Just think how famous I’ll become if this doesn’t work,” she quipped to Robert Klein who lay under her saw. The Robert Klein Show excerpt on YouTube.

The Bill Cosby Show (Photo by Dick Brooks)

Uptown at 61st and Third, amateur magician Eddie Davis was having trouble keeping his Magic Towne House afloat. Dorothy and Dick who had been performing there bought the venue (on installments) and moved in upstairs. Both established magicians and fledglings appeared on stage at what became the New York Mecca for magic. The only other places for magic acts were The Playboy Club or comedy venues. David Copperfield, Penn and Teller, Harry Blackstone, Jr. and other headliners visited.  Even Johnny Carson, himself a magic aficionado, was seen in an audience.

Peter Samelson, then in his twenties, was among the first roster of in-house magicians. He remembers Dorothy as a kind of den mother. She was fair, took good care of the magicians, and critiqued when she thought it might be helpful. Joe Devlin was an 18 year-old intern/dogsbody who eventually performed at the House’s children’s parties. “I remember clearly the amount of dedication, creativity and promotional savvy that Dorothy lived by,” he says.

Eric DeCamps arrived as an apprentice. After a main performance, audiences were invited to stay to watch newbies. When the young man felt ready, he was encouraged to try his act here. It was, he recalls, a disaster. “Nobody told me you had to be entertaining!” Dorothy and Dick spent 45 minutes critiquing the show, all in a positive tone. They told him he was welcome to keep coming back. DeCamps did just that and became a professional magician. One of the things the alumnus particularly remembers is Dick’s innovative use of mirrors above a close-up magic table so the entire audience could see what was going on. Ahead of its time, the set-up preceded the use of video cameras.

Poster of The Magic Townhouse courtesy of Anique Taylor, artist*

Public awareness came with a piece in The New York Times ‘Going Out Guide’ by Howard Thompson. “Whether you’re into the craft of illusion or merely curious, a visit to the Magic Towne House can be a delightful surprise. On Fridays and Saturdays, from 9 p.m.. until 1 a.m. or so, you can relax comfortably in an attractive lounge on the midtown East Side and enjoy a variety of legerdemain by professionals. The evening tab is $6 on Friday and $7.50 on Saturday…You enter beneath a chandelier and face an inviting, mirrored stairway of red rails and deep carpeting…The real surprise…was a cheerfully tasteful sanctum with some rakishly eerie touches (dig the big, white spider web in the ceiling extension.)”

At the Towne House- Courtesy of Dorothy Dietrich

A shop sold rubber chocolates, vanishing ink, candy-covered beetles, bugs in fake ice cubes and jars that erupted in snakes. Dorothy (and Dick) used the Towne House as home base. At this point her agent was getting her a lot of private events. She performed for David Rockefeller, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and at Sean Lennon’s 5th birthday party.

October 9, 1980 Sean Lennon’s Birthday (Photo by Dick Brooks)

From 1978 to 1982, she and Dick also published Hocus Pocus Magazine. (Genii was in California, Tops in Michigan.) They painstakingly used a Linotype and Headliner machine. “We gave the East Coast guys the publicity they needed to get into worldwide conventions.” The newsprint journal ran articles about and interviews with magicians, advertisements for books and tricks, descriptions of effects, a classified for exchange of magic related items and a consumer complaint department for those professionals who had issues with magic paraphernalia.

There’s no question of the couple’s dedication to nurturing magic and magicians. Working hard, Dorothy nonetheless needed help making her way up a ladder that seemed to simulate the Indian Rope Trick: a rope that levitates with no external support and is climbed by an assistant. She gave back.

Opening Magazine Photo by permission of The Society of American Magicians and Genii Magazine

*More information about artist Anique Taylor can be found here and here.

Click to read part II.

About Alix Cohen (1169 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.