A Magical Night at the McAplin

Hotel McAlpin, a historic landmark at Broadway and 34th in New York City, once featured high ceilings, indoor balconies, and incredibly decorated dining rooms. While the space has since become condos, offices, and retail, Hotel McAlpine once welcomed world travelers and guests into its luxurious halls as being, at the time, the world’s largest hotel.

On May 24, 1933, the McAlpin hosted the Parent Assembly of Society of American Magicians’ (SAM) 29th annual dinner celebration. The organization formed nearly 120 years ago in 1902. Later, in 1917 Harry Houdini (Erik Weisz), world renowned Hungarian illusionist and escape-artist would serve as president until his demise in 1926. The end of the 19th century gave rise to the “Golden Age of Magic”. The Golden Age spotlights escapologist Houdini into the 20th century. Illusionist and performers “became a staple of broadway theatre, vaudeville, and music halls”.

Vaudeville shows are distinguished by variety performances, featuring celebrity acts at an affordable price; as performers traveled the country gaining notoriety, Americans enjoyed accessible entertainment from New York to San Francisco. At the turn of the decade, the Great Depression turned fateful for the theatre community. When the economy turned sour, Americans no longer flocked to the theatre as they once had, thus dulling the shine on magician performances and Vaudeville shows alike. 

As a performer, Houdini extensively trained in coin tricks, card tricks, knot tying and untying, and audacious escapes. In a reoccurring act, the celebrity escape artist appeared restrained in shackles and was lowered “into an oversize milk can filled with water and then hidden by a curtain”. While the artist typically freed himself in just three minutes, to build suspense he remained behind the curtain as an act of showmanship. Bess Houdini (Beatrice Raymond) performed alongside her beloved as a singer, dancer, and assistant.

At the arrival of Houdini’s untimely death, Bernard M.L. Ernst, Houdini’s personal attorney, succeed the famed magician and continued the legacy as organization President, litigating on behalf of members and constructing a code of ethics “preventing pirating of tricks”. Ernst, alongside an array of other notable magical entertainers, both amature and professional, made speeches and performed great acts on the late May evening in 1933.

Among the evening’s attendants were Richard Cardini (Richard Valentine Pitchford), famed magician and future organization president, Elmer P. Ransom, early SAM president and vaudeville regular, and finally Beatrice Houdini, widow to the late Harry Houdini. Cardini, born in 1895 as Richard Valentine Pitchford in Wales, fought for the British Army in the First World War; in the trenches, Cardini practiced sleight of hand tricks and upon being injured, continued practicing. The illusionist later found success in Australia and soon after New York City. Best known for his iconic lit cigarette, ‘’top hat, tailcoat, and cape, and appointed with cane and white gloves,” Cardini performed card manipulation so seamlessly, the cards appeared and disappeared before the audience’s very eyes. Along with the others in attendance, the evening at Hotel McAlpin was certainly one for the books. 

The dinner at Hotel McAlpin was held seven years after Houdini’s demise; at the same time, America was recovering from the Great Depression. It is likely the event honored the late magician, especially with Bess Houdini in attendance. The Hotel McAlpin would have served as the perfect venue for the group’s gathering. Split into three separate wings, the venue accommodated 2,500 guests. Upon entrance, guests were greeted by two story, indoor balconies. Continuing through the hotel, marble floors guided visitors to the Hotel McAlpin Banquet Hall. While it is unclear which space was used specifically for the dinner, the Banquet Hall likely accommodated the private group with nearly forty seats at the grand table. The ceiling hosted two large crystal chandeliers and hand painted bouquets at the ceiling’s crown. While intimate in size, the magicians and special guests alike would have certainly admired the meticulously crafted architecture. 

The menu featured a variety of hearty dishes including Petite Marmite, Henry IV, which is a beef stew like dish with vegetables and meat swimming in a brown stock. Other menu items included Filet of Sole, Broiled Spring Chicken, and Salad Nicoise; attendees also had four choices of desserts including: Buche McAlpin, Sauce Melba, Petit Fours, and Demi Tasse. The recipes and execution of most of these dishes are simple to find as they have all stood the test of time.

Overall the evening was great company and hearty food. While the organization Society of American Magicians continues to flourish and meet periodically, the Hotel McAlpin has since become just a memory in New York’s and America’s history. To reminisce on the past is to fall in love with decadence and extravagance. The Society of American Magicians and its members are a cornerstone of early 20th century Vaudeville and Theatre entertainment. The evening of May 24, 1933 is but a glimpse into the organization’s tantalizing history.

Written By: Lexy M. Horton 

Publishing Date: December 20th, 2021 || Last Updated: February 3rd, 2022

A part of Doc Studio’s History of Food in America Collection

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