The Vanishing Elephant
On January 7th, 1918 Houdini performed his “Vanishing Elephant” illusion at New York’s Hippodrome Theater. The Hippodrome featured the world’s largest stage as well as a troupe of trained elephants. The illusion called for only a huge cabinet, an elephant, and a team of twelve, strong men. Houdini began with a cabinet, he described as “about eight feet square, twenty six inches off the floor.” All parts of the cabinets where shown to the audience and the elephant was walked inside. Once inside the cabinet, the doors and curtains were closed. Once reopened, the cabinet was empty, the elephant vanished.
The Hippodrome’s size made it easy for Houdini to underestimate the size of his cabinet. What he described as “about 8 feet high” could not possibly have housed the 5-ton, 8 foot tall elephant. The size of the theater made the cabinet appear much smaller than its actual size. Also, theater’s shape made it difficult for most people to look through the Elephant Cabinet. The downstairs spectators formed a semicircle, balcony patrons had their view of the top of the cabinet cut off, and patrons sitting in front saw a slightly oblong cabinet which was set toward the audience, so that its curtained front end was toward one wing of the stage and the back, was toward the other wing.
When Houdini spread the "front" curtains and opened the "back" doors they were "faced" toward opposite wings. Jennie then strolled on stage, had her sugar with Houdini by the footlights and was moved from there to the front of the cabinet, which she entered. The curtains were then drawn shut at Houdini's order, and the two doors were closed at the back. After this, the front was then slowly but steadily turned straight toward the audience. Filled with 5 tons of elephant, the illusion required twelve men to turn the cabinet, which took up seven or eight minutes. During this time, all Houdini did was open the front curtains. He didn't have to open the back doors. Each half of the back door had an oval cutout in the edge, so that when closed, they showed a circular opening in the center. The audience saw through the cabinet and out the hole in the back. Apparently the elephant had vanished; otherwise there would have been no unobstructed view.
Where did the elephant go? It never left the cabinet. Houdini was simply working in a hugely oversized cabinet on the world’s largest stage. While the cabinet was being slowly swung frontward by the stage crew, the trainer, who had gone into the cabinet with the elephant, was moving the elephant to one side. There, a black interior curtain was pulled into place, matching the inside of the cabinet and hiding the elephant. When the front end curtains were drawn apart, the audience saw an empty cabinet; nothing could be seen except the circular opening at the back of the cabinet. The light coming in from the opening in the back gave the interior a perspective that minimized the darkness. The front curtain was widely bunched at the side where the elephant was hidden.