Monday, April 30, 2012

Harry Houdini at the Magic Collectors Convention

Houdini Collector and Bibliographer Arthur Moses

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing noted Houdini expert Arthur Moses in his Fort Worth home. He'll be appearing in Chicago soon to give a presentation on his favorite magician, as you can read here:

 CHICAGO, IL—Magic and a little bit of mystery is coming to The Windy City.

Hosted by the Magic Collectors Association, the 43rd Magic Collectors Weekend will be held May 10-12 at the Westin O'Hare hotel near downtown Chicago.

In addition to organizing conventions and publishing the long-running Magicol, A Journal of Magic History and Collectibles, the Magic Collectors Association “promotes the mysteries of magicians by collecting and studying posters, playbills, books, photographs, magic tricks, and memorabilia that chronicle the history of this wonderful performing art.”

This year’s Collectors Weekend promises a dazzling array of modern and vintage magical items for sale, along with numerous guest speakers.

This year’s honorees James Hagy and Richard Kaufman will each offer a presentation about their lifelong passion for magic. One of the conclaves features will be an archival video presentation with Harry Riser, Johnny Thompson, Herb Zarrow, and Jay Marshall taking part in a panel discussion. Trevor Dawson will give a talk on his new book on Charles Dickens, and Bill Spooner will offer a presentation on comedy magician, Rex Slocombe.

The great Harry Houdini will also play a big role at the Magic Collectors Weekend, with William Pack discussing how Houdini inspired him, and how he has assembled a magic program that tours libraries and schools. Historian John Cox, who runs the great website, promises his own landmark lecture. Attendees will also enjoy a brief video featuring Teller (of Penn and Teller) in the role of Houdini.

One of the most highly anticipated events at the convention is the "Houdini's Recorded Voice—Have You Heard It All?" presentation by noted Houdini collector and bibliographer Arthur Moses, who owns more than 4,400 Houdini-related items, including books, magazines, keys, cuffs, autographs, photos, movie memorabilia, and much more.

Moses promises a “game-changing” revelation about an Edison wax cylinder recording from 1914, in which Houdini is practicing the patter for his Water Torture Cell illusion, bellowing out its harrowing and imminent dangers. “In utilizing items from my collection, combined with additional research, I bring the real past into light,” Moses says. “The recording you can easily locate and hear on the Internet is Houdini's voice, but what you hear is not exactly what he said.”

Anyone, from practiced magician to part-time illusionist to dispassionate observer, can attend the 43rd Magic Collectors Weekend. Just come prepared to enjoy the magic and the mystery.


Here are just a few of the thousands of items in Moses' Houdini collection:

 Houdini's handcuffs and keys.

The pocket to the pajamas Houdini was wearing when he died.


Houdini's wallet.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Elvis and Graceland

 My article on Elvis and Graceland was in the April issue of Treasures magazine. Here it is, reprinted:

Despite the fact that Elvis Presley died nearly three-and-a-half decades ago (the 35th anniversary of his death is Aug. 16, 2012), The King of Rock and Roll is everywhere. He appears in roadside cafes, posh concert halls, beer-soaked bars, and other venues on a regular basis, shaking his once-controversial hips, flashing his Vegas-era bling, and belting out such beloved hits as “All Shook Up,” “Love Me Tender,” and “Suspicious Minds.”

Of course, we’re talking about Elvis impersonators here, but certain more devoted (deluded?) fans claim that they’ve seen the real deal shopping at Walmart, eating a hamburger at McDonald’s, or cruising down the highway in his patented 1956 purple Cadillac Eldorado, his trademark shades covering his dark (and some might say dreamy) eyes.

While most rational Elvis fans acknowledge his tragic death, all of them will tell you that the spirit of Elvis is indeed very much alive and well, which, in the United States, translates to merchandising. Elvis routinely appears on coffee mugs, bobble head dolls, tin signs, musical statues, pajamas, salt-and-pepper shakers, key chains, compact mirrors, notebooks, gift bags, bottle openers, and countless other items. There’s even a 1968 Comeback Special Mr. Potato Head, complete with removable appendages.
The aforementioned kitsch is readily available through such online retailers as,,, and Most of these types of items range in price from $5 to $35 or so (though there are limited edition dolls and such that sell for much more), meaning most any Elvis fan can own a piece of The King.

When it comes to vintage material—particularly items released during the 1950s and’60s, when few fans had the foresight or desire to hold on to such items beyond their faddishness or usability—things tend to get a little pricey.

Below is a listing of some of the more interesting Elvis ephemera produced in 1956, which is when Elvis became popular and the original merchandising avalanche began (pricing for mint condition items courtesy of Elvis Memorabilia, published in 2001 by TODTRI Book Publishers):

*Record case: $450-600.
*Scrap book: $400-500.
*Photo album: $400-500.
*Autograph book: $450-550.
*Diary: $450-500.
*Bubble gum cards: $1,000 for the 66-card set.
*“Elvis for President” sheet music published by Vernon Music Corp.: $100.
Elvis merchandising subsided somewhat in 1957, but there were still plenty of cool collectibles produced, including: a Jailhouse Rock flip book ($85); Charlton’s Young Lovers #18 comic book ($400); The Elvis Presley Game ($1,200); and a super rare Paint by Numbers Set ($1,500).
The late 1950s also saw the proliferation of magazines with Elvis Presley on the cover, including an issue of Theater Pictorial ($300) that was devoted to Love Me Tender, The King’s first film. Other Elvis magazines from this time include Elvis Presley in Hollywood (1956, $150),
Record Whirl (June 1956, $100), Rock ‘n’ Roll Roundup (Jan. 1957, $100), and too many others to mention (including numerous issues of TV Guide).
Most Elvis fanatics are familiar with the rock legend’s time with Sun Records and his subsequent rise to fame, but for casual fans, a little history is in order. Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, and he moved with his family to Memphis, Tennessee when he was 13 years old. In 1954, when he was 19, Elvis recorded “That’s All Right” at Sun Records, a Memphis recording studio founded by Sam Philips in 1952. With “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the B side, “That’s All Right” was released as Elvis’s debut single.

Philips had been looking for a white artist who “had the negro sound and the negro feel,” and he found it in Elvis.

In 1956, RCA Victor acquired Presley’s Sun contract for a then-unheard-of $40,000, resulting in his first album, Elvis Presley, which featured 12 tracks, including “Blue Suede Shoes,” which was a rousing cover of the Carl Perkins hit. The LP spent 10 weeks at number one on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart, it was the first rock ‘n’ roll record to top the Billboard charts, and it was the first rock album to sell a million copies. In 2003, it ranked #55 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 500 greatest albums of all time.

No Elvis collection is complete without at least a few records, the most desirable of which are the five LPs Elvis recorded for Sun. During a 2008 April Music & Entertainment Memorabilia Signature Auction hosted by Heritage Auction Galleries, a complete original set in pristine condition sold for an impressive $11,950.00 (which included a buyer’s premium of 19.5%).

Elvis is easily one of the most popular entertainers in history, selling more than a billion records worldwide. He’s had 18 number one hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 Pop Chart, and he’s the only performer who’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Elvis starred in 31 feature films, plus two theatrically released concert documentaries. His 1973 television special, Aloha from Hawaii, was seen in 40 countries by more than a billion people. On Jan. 8, 1993, Elvis appeared on a U.S. stamp, and it became the top selling commemorative postage stamp ever released.

And those are just some of the highlights of Elvis’s incredibly successful career, which is memorialized at Graceland, the 23-room mansion where Elvis lived from 1957 until his untimely death in 1977. Located at 3734, Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis, Graceland, which became a tourist attraction in 1982, boasts more than 600,000 visitors per year, which lags only behind the Biltmore Estate and the White House in terms of private homes visited in America.
Graceland houses thousands of rare and valuable Elvis items, including gold records, drinking glasses, trophies, Billboard plaques, photos, movie scripts, and factory sealed LPs. Some of the more standout items include his 1957 gold lamé suit, his army uniform, the red shirt he wore during the filming of Viva Las Vegas, the double-necked Gibson guitar he played in the movie Spinout, the iconic black leather outfit from the ’68 Comeback Special, and Priscilla’s wedding dress (along with Elvis’s tux).
         (Charis and I standing outside the gates of Graceland)

The house itself is a wonder to behold as well.

The labyrinthine hallways of Graceland herd throngs of audio-guided tourists by a series of themed areas of the house, including the music room, the billiards room (the walls and ceiling of which are covered with 350 yards of fabric), the media room (with three TVs so Elvis could watch all three major networks at once), and, of course, the far-famed jungle room, which features a running waterfall and shag carpeting on the floor and ceiling. Visitors also get a peek at the kitchen and dining room, where Elvis undoubtedly put away more than his fair share of peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
Diehard Elvis fan Pam Burnett, who is on a mission to see all his films, has only been to Graceland once, but she’ll never forget the experience and is anxious to revisit the popular tourist attraction. “I remember sitting in the van, riding up the driveway of Graceland, and over the headset they were playing ‘Love Me Tender,’” she said. “I felt like a fool because I was overcome with emotion, and tears were streaming down my face.”

None of the older items in Graceland are for sale, of course, but fans can purchase Elvis items of recent vintage at the historic site’s various gift shops, including mugs, T-shirts, post cards, toy cars, puzzles, dolls, magnets, mints, and Christmas ornaments.

Better yet, any given day finds lots of Elvis items—both new and old—up for auction on eBay. Here’s a listing of recently ended eBay auctions:

*Elvis Autograph RCA 45 RPM Phonograph with accompanying SPD-23 Triple EP (1956): $2,200.
*Hawaiian shirt once owned by Elvis (1966): $676.
*Elvis Presley 75th Birthday Abalone folding hunter knife manufactured by Case (2010): $400.
*Graceland 2011 Christmas CD sent only to Elvis Presley fan club presidents: $355.
*Elvis Presley Enterprises overnight case (1956): $300.
*Signed scarf from concert (1960): $233.50.
*Ultimate Elvis 18-pack VHS set packed in guitar case (1997): $189.99.

Clearly, though he shuffled off this mortal coil almost 35 years ago, Elvis mania shows no signs of slowing down. But why? Why has he maintained such popularity while many other performers from the 1950s have faded into obscurity?

Pam Burnett sums up his appeal thusly: “Elvis had the widest vocal range of anyone I have ever heard,” she said. “He could sing a song and make you believe it. He was a passionate singer, verbally and physically, often moving around in ways that were inappropriate for the time period. He was as handsome as they come and had a great stage presence, but for me the thing that I like most is his voice: his range, his projection, his ability to make you feel the song.”

Today there are more than 600 active Elvis Presley fan clubs. In 2006, Graceland became a National Historic Landmark.

In short, The King is dead; long live The King!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Writers as Major Characters in Film

My feature on writers as major characters in film was recently published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. You can read it HERE.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Book Excerpt from Filtered Future

My new book ebook of short stories contains nine tantalizing tales, including "The Land of Oz," which is set in the classic arcade of the same name. You can read an excerpt below and order the book HERE.

The Land of Oz

The familiar sounds of electronic fighting, pseudo gunfire, virtual racecars and hollow explosions punctured Jeff’s ears as he stood in the doorway looking out the entrance to The Land of Oz and into the mall corridor. An occasional “cool, dude” and “awesome, man” rose above the canned noise.

Jeff strummed his pudgy fingers over the money changer strapped to his belt as he watched young couples walk past hand in hand, smiling, talking, laughing, enjoying the freedom of youth.

Jeff looked at his watch, stifled a yawn and turned to go back inside. He froze in mid-turn, his chin falling to his tree trunk neck.

Three girls walked his way, each of them within kissing distance of the other: a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead—vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. Like a banana split without the nuts.

Jeff had long ago quit pretending not to look. These days he openly stared. What the hell. Sometimes he got dirty looks, and, on rare occasions, a smile. But usually girls couldn’t be bothered to spare a glance toward him or the arcade. And they almost never came in. Unless, of course, they were with a dude.

Jeff stood tall, his eyes painting the girls with even strokes. Each girl was just over five feet tall, he guessed. Their pert little breasts stood unmoving behind tight sweaters. The blonde girl’s sweater rode up just enough to expose her belly button, which sported a small metal hoop.

Jeff clinched his hands into painful fists, his body slowly rotating as he watched the girls pass. He chose the blonde. “Summer,” he decided. She looks like a Summer.

Jeff watched “Summer” walking away, the other flavors forgotten. He looked her up and down, from her silky curls to her narrow back and waist to her apple-round ass.

“Damn,” he uttered under his breath. “Son of a bitch.”

The girls never even looked in Jeff’s direction. He figured they were most likely headed for Hot Topic or the food court or one of the upscale clothing stores. Or maybe to the bookstore to look at fashion magazines. They were probably too young, anyway. Who could tell these days?

“Hey, man, something’s wrong with Immoral Killings.”

Jeff woke from his irreverent revelry. He shifted the toothpick that he had forgotten he had in his mouth and turned around, only to see a sickly looking, pale wisp of a boy trembling before him.

Jeff hated his job at the arcade. He was sick of the claustrophobic atmosphere and the strobe lights and the noise and the dry-aluminum smell of recycled mall air. He especially hated the modern videogames with their emphasis of style over substance and violence over originality: secret codes and special moves taking the place of raw skill and eye-hand coordination; flashy, obtrusive graphics and gimmickry substituting for finely tuned gameplay and beautiful, stark simplicity.

The goddamned ticket redemption games were even worse.

Jeff had started in the business more than a decade ago, when pinball, Pac-Man and pool were king. When arcades were dimly lit places where you could shoot for high scores, smoke cigarettes, flirt with hot girls and listen to rock music. He loved Aerosmith, Judas Priest and The Stones, but his favorite band of all time was KISS: their melodic hard rock music laced with the trappings of comic books, horror movies and sex.

The wisp stood there patiently, waiting for a reply, his eyes pleading silently for a response.

“I haven’t seen you in here lately,” Jeff said. “You been grounded?”

The boy shoved his hands in his pockets and looked at the ground. “Aladdin’s Castle has a sale going. Five tokens for a dollar.”

Jeff scowled like a frumpy schoolmarm. “Don’t you ever play outside? Ride your bike? Shoot some hoops or throw the football?”

The boy shifted his feet nervously, adjusted his glasses, ran the back of his hand across his nose and slowly turned to walk away.

Jeff pinched the back of the boy’s shirt and gently pulled him back. “Hold on,” he said. “What’s wrong with the game?”

“It’s broken.”

As they approached Immoral Killings, the boy glanced back to make sure Jeff was following. The boy had a gleam in his eye, like this was his proudest moment—his chance to prove his value to mankind.

“See, it’s messed up,” he said. “Just a bunch of dumb words on the screen. Where’s Chung Pow and Willy Lee and Kodan Mock? Where’s Jon Kwan Do?”

Jeff frowned as he read the first couple of lines on the screen. “Son, have you read any of this?”

“Not really,” the boy said, holding out his hand. “Can I have a free token?”

Jeff stuffed his right hand into his pants pocket and pulled out a fistful of tokens. He shoved them in the kid’s direction, spilling a few in his eager palm and the rest on the floor. Feeling as though he had won the lottery, the boy quickly dropped to the floor and scooped up the coins. He then made a beeline for Mortal Kombat II.

Jeff continued reading the message on the video screen.

Who is in charge?
Why do your people kill?
Who has the power?
Who do you cheat and steal?
Why do some of your people get fat while others starve?
Who is your leader?
Why do innocents die?
Who holds the key?
Why do you wage war against those like yourselves?
Who makes the law?
Why do you insult and strike one another?
Who is your king?
Why do you abuse your own bodies?
Who rules over you?

Jeff arched back and looked around to make sure no one was watching or needed any help. Satisfied he was alone with this…communication or whatever it was, he leaned in and continued reading.

Meet us on the roof of the tallest structure in your city.
We are there now. Tell no one of your contact with us. Be prepared to tell us everything we need to know.

Do not bring weapons; you will cease to exist if you do.
Put six of your tokens in this machine and the transmission will end.
If you do not do as ordered, you will cease to exist.
Come at once. We await.

Computer hackers, Jeff thought. Those bastards. Almost had me going. He shook his head and smiled as he pulled six tokens out of the front pocket of his red vest and dropped them, one by one, into the little slot on the front of the machine. He was curious what would happen next. Sure enough, as soon as the sixth token disappeared into the slot, the game went back to normal just like it said it would.

“Hey, dude, is there a pisser in this place?”

Jeff turned around to put a face with the rude voice. “My name’s not dude, and the restrooms are at the other end of the mall by the food court. Why don’t you just go home to use the can? The mall’s about to close.”

At 8:59, Jeff flipped the master switch in his office, shutting down all the arcade games in The Land of Oz. Ignoring the moans and groans of the few remaining customers, Jeff kicked them out and began his usual closing procedures: pull down and lock the two gates, empty the money changers, count the cash, fill out the bank deposit.

Bundling up against the winter weather, Jeff set the alarm and headed for the exit at the back of the office.

The night was dark, lonely and bitterly cold. Low temperatures kept home all but the restless young. The moon was hidden, but a few brave stars sprinkled light from the heavens, piercing the smog, their faint light absorbed into the snow-covered streets.

Jeff stepped outside, slamming the heavy, fireproof door behind him. He walked carefully onto the icy sidewalk, bracing himself for the hike to his apartment, which was seven blocks away.

Jeff squinted as strong, cold winds pelted his unprotected face, turning it bright red. The navel-pierced blonde from earlier in the evening was temporarily forgotten, stored in a file marked DANGER, JAILBAIT INSIDE: OPEN ONLY WHEN IN NEED OF MASTURBATORY FANTASY.

But he couldn’t forget those odd, strangely disconcerting messages on Immoral Killings: “Why do your people kill each other? Who is your king?"

What a load of crap, Jeff thought, trying to shrug off the unease he was starting to feel. He couldn’t believe he was nervous about a few lines of inane text on a damned arcade game. It was probably just some wiseass programmer who had planted the messages into the machine as an Easter egg. And the kid had just stumbled across it by hitting the right combination of buttons.

Regardless, Jeff was hungry and looking forward to getting home, even though the closest thing to company waiting for him there was a frozen pizza and a stale, half-empty, two-liter bottle of Pepsi.

Jeff was almost to his high-rise apartment building when he remembered that the videogame had actually threatened his life. The message had said to meet at the tallest structure in the city. That would be the McLuhan Media Communications Tower over on Fourth, just a couple of blocks over.

What the heck, Jeff thought, it’s not like I have a date tonight or anything. Maybe it’s some kind of computer-nerd game and they’ve left some clues or something. Maybe they’ll direct me to a website or another spot in the city. Might be kind of fun—a real-life text adventure. Or maybe they’ll be waiting for me when I get there so they can mug me and steal my wallet. Or kill me. Yeah, right.

Jeff stood before the front door of the McLuhan building, feeling more than a little foolish. The structure was pitch dark—closed for the night, locked up, shut down, see-you-tomorrow. He pushed on the opener bar and was only half-surprised that the door opened. He took a deep breath, and he could feel his heart beating beneath his sweater and oversized coat. He glanced around to see if anyone was looking. The streets were largely empty. He went inside, letting the door slowly shut behind him.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Bob Katzman’s Magazine Museum

Skokie, IL—Walk into most any used bookshop, and you’re likely to find a small selection of back issue magazines—maybe some recent copies of Time, Entertainment Weekly, Game Informer, and People. But that’s usually about it. These types of stores simply lack the space and/or desire to carry out-of-date magazines. A decent selection of old newspapers is even harder to find on a retail level.

Luckily, there’s a store—actually, a “museum where you can buy the exhibits,” boasts owner Bob Katzman—that caters specifically to folks looking for vintage periodicals. A few of the older, rarer items, such as a newspaper from 1681, are for display purposes only, but most of the store’s inventory is for sale.

From important historical newspapers, such as those published when John Dillinger broke out of jail or when John Wayne died, to long runs of Playboy, Mad, Life, and Ebony (black history is important to Katzman), the store stocks more than 100,000 items, the bulk of which are from 1940s through the 1970s.

Katzman caters to a wide variety of customers, including collectors, curiosity seekers, nostalgia buffs, history teachers, researchers, and, perhaps most prominently, gift-givers looking to purchase a magazine or newspaper that corresponds with a friend or family member’s birth date, anniversary, or other important occasion.

An entrepreneur from an early age, Katzman began collecting periodicals on November 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was shot. Katzman was only 13 years old. He left home at 14 and opened his newsstand at 15 in order to support himself. From those humble beginnings sprung Bob Katzman’s Magazine Museum, one of the only stores of its type in the country.


Saturday, April 7, 2012

Classic Home Video Games 1972-1984 - NOW IN PAPERBACK!

The softcover edition of my first book is now available through Amazon. It covers the Atari 2600, Atari 5200, ColecoVision, Intellivision and all the other great (and not so great) systems that came out before the Nintendo NES.

You can read excerpts here, here, here, and here.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Evil Queens in Film

My article on evil queens is in today's Fort Worth Star-Telegram. You can read it HERE.