Dorothy Young, Houdini’s stage partner, dies at 103

March 25, 2011

Dorothy Young, a petite dancer who was the last surviving person to share a stage with escape artist and magician Harry Houdini, died March 20 at 103 at her home in Tinton Falls, N.J. The cause of death was not reported.

By the time Ms. Young met Houdini in the mid-1920s, he was internationally known for his ability to wriggle out of impossible situations: buried alive, handcuffed underwater and encased in a life-size milk can that, in turn, was locked inside a wooden chest.

When Houdini took his act to Broadway in 1925, Ms. Young, the teenage daughter of a Methodist minister, answered an ad seeking a dancer to join the show. She was the last of 200 women to audition, and she dazzled Houdini. He immediately invited her to sign a contract.

Ms. Young appeared in several illusions during the two-hour program but was best known as the “Radio Girl of the 1950s,” a scantily clad personification of the future of broadcast.

Houdini’s assistants opened the act, delivering an oversize radio to the stage. The magician opened up the wireless set to show the audience that it was empty, save for a radio’s mechanical innards.

Then he fiddled with the dials until a voice crackled to life. “This is KDKA,” an announcer said. “Miss Dorothy Young doing the Charleston!”

On cue, she emerged one bare leg at a time. “I kicked my feet together and jumped up and did a curtsy,” she said in a PBS documentary about the magician. “And then Houdini would take me by the waist and lift me down, and I would go into a Charleston.”

She traveled with Houdini from New York to cities across the country, leaving the act when her contract expired in the fall of 1926. Houdini died that Halloween of peritonitis.

Ms. Young went on to a long and varied career. She had parts in several Broadway productions and appeared in dance scenes in “Flying Down to Rio,” a 1933 musical that first paired Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

In the 1930s, she and Gilbert Kiamie, her future husband, performed as a ballroom dance duo. The couple entertained at clubs along the Eastern Seaboard and in Cuba and the Caribbean.

They performed traditional numbers and invented their own Latin-inspired dance, the rumbalero. Ms. Young’s family said she turned her ballroom experience into an unpublished novel that inspired a 1940 Paramount movie, “Dancing on a Dime.”

She also painted oil seascapes, landscapes and portraits, and was a philanthropist who gave to various New Jersey institutions. She was a particularly generous donor to Drew University, where her brother and father had studied theology.

In 2002, she gave the university $12.5 million to finance a new arts center. Six years later, the Official Houdini Seance — the 82nd annual attempt to make contact with the escape artist’s spirit — was held at Drew University’s Dorothy Young Center for the Arts.

Ms. Young was in attendance. There was no sign of Houdini.

Dorothy Lena Young was born May 3, 1907, in Otisville, N.Y., where her father, a pastor, ran a tuberculosis sanitarium.

She enrolled in a Methodist school, Pennsylvania’s Beaver College, and while there saw a performance by the Russian ballerina Anna Pav­lova. Stage-struck, she resolved to study dance and enrolled in a New York ballet school the next summer.

The following year, she impressed Houdini and persuaded her parents to drop their objections to the show-business life.

During her year as the Radio Girl, Ms. Young was courted by an FBI agent named Richard E. Perkins. They married and had a son soon after Ms. Young left Houdini’s show.

Besides her son, Richard E. Perkins Jr. of Tinton Falls, survivors include three grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Ms. Young returned to Broadway in 1928 with a small part in “Jarnegan,” a raucous play about the Hollywood scene. At a post-production party, she met Kiamie, a fellow dancer, and they performed together until World War II put an end to dance tours.

After her first husband died, she wed Kiamie in the early 1940s. He died in 1992, having transformed his parent’s silk business into a lucrative lingerie company.

Ms. Young lived for many years in Ocean Grove, N.J., where she made a habit of starting each day with a five-minute solo dance routine. She was still dancing at her 100th birthday party, trim and stylish despite her avowed affinity for corned beef hash, fried potatoes and other such fare.

At the time of her death, she was Houdini’s last surviving stage assistant and perhaps the last person who knew the magician personally, said Houdini biographer Kenneth Silverman.

Dozens of years after the “Handcuff King” died, strangers, journalists and magic buffs still asked Ms. Young how he performed his famous stunts.

Night after night, she had watched him wow crowds with the so-called Chinese water torture chamber, in which he escaped from his shackles while suspended upside down in a glass cell filled with water.

She knew how Houdini did it. But her 1925 contract bound her to secrecy, and she never told.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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