Dorothy Young, the last surviving stage assistant of illusionist Harry Houdini and an accomplished dancer, has died. She was 103.
Young joined Houdini’s company as a 17-year-old after attending an open casting call during a family trip to New York. She initially sat in the back because she was too shy to step forward, but Houdini and his manager soon noticed her and asked her to dance the Charleston. They signed her to a contract, and she eventually persuaded her parents to let her join the stage show.
During her year with the “World-Famous Self-Liberator”, she played the role of the scantily-clad “Radio Girl of 1950”, a 1920s impression of what radio would be like several decades later.
In the autumn of 1925, in what turned out to be his last American tour (he died a year later), Houdini would start his act with a large mock wireless set which he opened front, back and top, exposing the internal mechanism to show that there was nothing there before closing it again. A voice would then announce: “Miss Dorothy Young doing the Charleston” — which was her cue to pop one foot out of the radio followed by the other one.
Houdini’s finale was his famous Chinese Water Torture Cell, which he had performed in England to great acclaim. Clad in bathing trunks, his feet padlocked into mahogany stocks, he would be lowered upside-down into a glass-fronted tank filled with water. A curtain would then be drawn across the tank. Although Dorothy Young knew how he escaped, she never revealed his secret.
Dorothy Young was born on May 3 1907 at Otisville, New York, the daughter of a Methodist minister. While studying at Beaver College, Pennsylvania, she saw Anna Pavlova perform and determined to become a ballet dancer.
But while visiting New York with her parents aged 17 she saw an advertisement in the stage paper Variety for a vaudeville dancer to join a Broadway show, followed by a tour of the United States. When she arrived for the audition, she sat at the back, too shy to step forward.
But she was spotted by Houdini and his manager, who asked her to dance the Charleston; she signed a year’s contract and was sworn to secrecy about the mysteries of Houdini’s act. She then had to persuade her parents that joining the great illusionist was a suitable career move.
Houdini’s wife, Bess, fitted her for a silk stage costume. In the show the two women performed a stately minuet before the great man made his entrance and introduced the “Radio Girl”. In another illusion, The Slave Girl, Houdini would tie Dorothy Young from throat to ankles to a pole, before causing a curtain to fall to the floor. She would then emerge in a beautiful butterfly costume en pointe and dance a ballet number. When Houdini first introduced the “Radio Girl” illusion at Hartford, Connecticut, in September 1925, Dorothy Young remembered meeting the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, who patted her approvingly on the head. The show transferred to Broadway before touring several major cities.
During the Second World War, having trained as an engineer and in personnel management, Dorothy Young was assigned to a factory making shock absorbers for the US military.
After Gilbert Kiamie became her second husband and inherited a fortune, Dorothy Young was a generous benefactor to Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, endowing it with a $13 million arts centre.
She had a son with her first husband, Robert Perkins, who died 13 years after their marriage. Gilbert Kiamie died in 1992.
During her year with Houdini in the mid-1920s, she gained recognition for playing the role of Radio Girl of 1950, emerging from a large mock-up of a radio and performing a dance routine. She also performed other roles during the tour, which proved to be Houdini’s last in the United States before he died in October 1926, two months after she had left the show .
Young then formed a dance act with Gilbert Kiamie, a New York businessman and the son of a wealthy silk lingerie magnate, and they gained international prominence for a Latin dance they created known as the rumbalero. They later married and remained together until Kiamie died in 1992.
Young went on to perform in several movies and also published a novel inspired by her career. She later became a benefactor of Drew University, endowing it with a $13 million arts center that bears her name. Several of her paintings hang in buildings on its campus in Madison.
She also attended numerous events at the school over the years. One of her last appearances there was in October 2008 for a commemoration of the 82nd anniversary of Houdini’s death that featured an inner circle of Houdini enthusiasts and historians.
Young had a son with her first husband, Robert Perkins, who died after 13 years of marriage.