CYNTHIA VON BUHLER
Director, artist, performer, author – Cynthia has many strings to her bow. We delve into her world of mystery, intrigue and theatre
The performer, artist and author takes us inside her latest work, The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini
Can you tell us a bit about what drew you to the story or Houdini’s death? What was it about the shadowy nature of his passing that appealed to you?
Thanks to Hollywood, some people think Houdini drowned in his water torture chamber. Others believe Houdini was punched and that this led to appendicitis. I knew Houdini had been debunking spiritualists in the years leading up to his death, so I was particularly interested in the lesser- known fact that it was a spiritualist who had punched him. Bess’s almost deadly ‘ food poisoning’ at the start of his last tour, spiritualist predictions of his impending death, and the bizarre administration of an experimental serum after his appendix was removed fuelled my belief that he may have been murdered.
Your creative projects are steeped in theatricality. How did you first become interested in theatre?
My Italian immigrant grandparents owned two speakeasies in the Bronx during Prohibition. Shortly after Prohibition ended my grandfather was killed on the street in Manhattan. Nobody still living in my family knew why my grandfather was shot. When I began my search, nothing was known about the killer, his motive, or a trial. My grandmother took these secrets to her grave. Inspired by Frances Glessner Lee’s miniature crime scene sets from the 1940s, I decided to create the scenes from my grandfather’s death using my own handmade sets and dolls.
Utilising evidence from autopsy reports, police records, court documents and interviews, I built a dollhouse- sized speakeasy and other related sets. I also created lifelike dolls with moveable limbs to live in these sets.
Taking it to another level, I decided to use humans as my dolls in an elaborate theatrical set. Each show explored a different motive behind the murder, from jealousy over a suspected affair to a Mafia hit.
The Minky Woodcock graphic novel also has a stage adaptation. Can you tell us a little more about the project?
My publisher at Hard Case Crime came to my plays and asked me if I was working on any other stories. I told him I was writing a television series about a private investigator named Minky Woodcock, who was investigating Prohibition- era true crime murders and one of the episodes was about Harry Houdini. He liked this idea and signed me on for this book series. I am now currently shopping the series to television production companies.
The play will unfold in an actual Manhattan theatre, speakeasy and townhouse. Audience members will be assigned a character to follow and then experience events through that character’s point of view. They might find themselves assisting the magician’s rehearsal backstage in a theatre, sipping absinthe in a speakeasy, spying on an affair in a hotel room, witnessing an attempted murder, attending a séance, visiting Houdini in his hospital room, or viewing his body in the morgue.
The production offers up a meticulously detailed slice of Houdini history, and audiences are encouraged to come back again to follow other key players and see alternate facets of what actually led to Houdini’s fateful death. Evidence is revealed, but the truth is left up to the theatregoer to decide.
Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on next and where our
readers can find out more?
In 2015 I staged Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic, an immersive play about the mysterious 1920 poisoning death of silent film star and Ziegfeld girl Olive Thomas, and the subsequent destruction of her husband, movie star Jack Pickford. This story will be the next Minky Woodcock episode. Your readers can find out more about this investigation at Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic. com
Cynthia von Buhler’s The Girl
Who Handcuffed Houdini is published by Titan Comics
and is available now