Fred Pittella has been an upstanding member in the Magic community since he was a teenager. A member of the Society of American Magicians, The Long Island Mystics,The International Brotherhood of Magicians and the Inner Circle for the Sid Radner’s Houdini Séance for over twelve years, he is also on the Board of The Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA, and one of the co-founders of Escape Masters. His work has given him the opportunity to travel all over the country viewing endless magic collections, helping to identity, authenticate, and appraise many pieces in these collections.
Along with consulting, his research and collection has appeared in numerous projects and publications over the years on the subject of Houdini, handcuffs, and escapes. Some of these include:
Houdini The Key by Pat Culliton
The Houdini Code by William V. Rauscher
Houdini: The American Super Hero by Larry Sloman and William Kalush
The Encyclopedia of Escapes Volume 2 by Bill McLaury
The History Of British Handcuffs by Joe Lauher
Gimmicked Handcuffs and Restraints by Ian McColl
Fred’s passion and love for the History and Art of Escapes has led him on his lifelong journey to accumulate a varied collection of Houdini memorabilia, rare handcuffs, and Escape apparatus. He has had the honor of meeting some of the most knowledgeable and well-respected members of the Magic community who were kind enough to share their time, experience, and collections.
And now Fred would like to share his knowledge and collection with this website...
A Visit with Fred Pittella
I recently had the pleasure of visiting Fred Pittella and received a grand tour of his tremendous collection of restraints, Houdiniana and escapology equipment. Fred's collection is not only extraordinarily impressive on its own; it is displayed in an absolutely first class museum quality manner.
February - 2004
Some the highlights of the Fred Pittella collection include an Elias Richards, a pair of McKenzie mitts, and some rare German cuffs.
This is quite a handcuff collection Fred. How did you get started?
It started with my interest in magic. I have been interested in magic since I was about twelve years old. Then after reading Gresham's bio on Houdini I was hooked on Houdini and escapes. So handcuffs where a natural. After reading the few books that I found that were written on escapes. They suggested that you should own your own handcuffs and key sets, so that's what I set out to do.
As I got older I spent my Saturday afternoons at Al Flosso's and Lou Tannen's magic shops. Taking in whatever secrets I could. I was able to get a job working in the backroom of Tannen's for a while and was also performing escapes. There I meet people like The Amazing Randi, Amedeo, Milbourne Christopher and others who fueled my interest in escapes and Houdini with their GREAT stories. In the early seventies at a Tannens Jubilee a magic dealer named Jack Chanin had his booth filled with old escape tricks and handcuffs. My eyes popped right out of my head. There on the tables was the stuff I only read about.
I had begged Irv Tannen at the time to lend me some money so I could buy some of these treasures. His reply," what do you want that old junk for kid". Being the person that he was Irv felt my excitement and reached into his pocket and opened up a whole new world for me COLLECTING….. One of those items where a pair of Bean Giants for twenty- five dollars. Boy I thought that was a lot of money to pay for a pair of handcuffs but I bought them and I'm happy to say there still part of my collection today.
After that I was hooked! It was flea markets and antique shops from then on. That was before eBay. There were a couple of other folks that where a big help along the way; Larry Weeks, Mario Gonzales, Prynce Wheeler, Joe & Pam Tanner, Raymond McKee, Mario Carrandi, Norman Bigelow . Without there help and advice and most importantly their FRIENDSHIP!! It wouldn't have been so much fun!!
A selection of Palmer handcuffs and leg iron, John Lovell cuffs, Bean and Hiatt neck collars.
With so many fantastic items to choose from, what do you consider the highlights of your restraint collection? Do you have some particular favorites?
I think you mentioned most of the highlights in the photos. They're maybe a couple of more but I think you covered them rather well. If I were to choose my favorite one I guess I would have to say the Bean Giants just because that's the first vintage cuff I started with and it has the whole Houdini history behind it.
Several classic American cuffs plus a selection of plug cuffs. An unusual plug 8, marked M & C 1875, is shown at the middle bottom.
I am very impressed with the quality of your display. It looks like a museum. The cabinets are particularly nice. How do you manage it all?
Thank you!! I like to think of it as my museum of NEAT SH*T. When I first started to collect, I decided that I would keep my stuff out and well displayed, so I would be able to enjoy it with others. I felt what is the sense of collecting if you can't always get to your collection when it's put away? Collecting has also been my escape I like to get lost in my stuff so I take my time working on setting it up and persevering it.
The showcases are my own design and I had designed them with that in mind my stuff is out in the open for me and others to always enjoy. I am very fortunate to have a dad who is a master woodworker and has turned my ideas into a reality and built the cabinets, bookcases and display fixtures for my collection. I also believe in framing things and filling the walls with the stuff I like. It does take some time and effort but that's one of the things I enjoy most.
A selection of tricked handcuffs
I have never seen so many tricked handcuffs. Where do you find them? Do you have a favorite?
It hasn't been easy finding them. But magic is one of one those things that just stayed with me. I always enjoyed being around it. So I would go to magic conventions and magic shops. I would meet and talk to other magician and collectors and try to buy or trade with them, again before eBay. Here to I meet some great friends.
I was always looking for vintage escape items and handcuffs and I am still actively looking today. Every once in a while very rarely you have to remember I have been collecting on and off for more years then I care to remember I would find something that is a great piece to me. That's something about collecting. What's a great piece to me may not be to someone else. My favorite pieces sometimes are not because they're rare or valuably but how I got them or the story behind that particular piece.
I would say it's a toss up which trick pair is my favorite. It is between J H Trudel's gaffed Hamburg 8's or the pair or Tower leg irons that Dick Norman gaffed himself. In my opinion these two men are giants in the escape and handcuff world. I also still collect any of there stuff.
Fred, your Houdini collection has to be one of the best in the world. What are some of the highlights?
Thank you Joe, But there are some incredible Houdini collections out there! With much more unique and rare pieces, that I have had the privilege of meeting their owners and getting to see some of there amazing stuff.
Being one of the best, not right now, maybe at one time or sometime in the future. Some of my unusual pieces are a pair of Houdini King Breaker cuffs and a few other restraints that Houdini owned all with provenance. That's the hard part getting the documents that state that they did belong to Houdini. I also have one of the original newspapers from the Mirror cuff challenge that I like. But it is not the objects in my collection that are my personal highlights; it is the people who I got to hang around with because of my interest in collecting. Dr. Morris Young, Sid Radner, Joe Fox, John Bushey, Pat Culliton, Ian McColl, just to name few. And being part of Sid Radner's Official Houdini Séance for the last few years has been a real thrill.
And more again. Where does he get this stuff?
What advice do you have for new collectors?
My experience has been to buy what I like. When I see it I try to buy it!
If something comes a long and the condition is questionable if the price is right I will buy it and then try to replace it later when a better piece comes along. I always have a set price in my head what I think its worth to me and I try not to go over that price. That's the hard part.
I buy with my heart not my head most of the time. Because if I think about it to long I will usually talk myself out of that piece. If your in it for the long haul which I have been it kind of balances out sometimes you pay more then you like to then there are times when you run across something that you pay next to nothing so it kind of works out.
I guess there is no real good advice for collectors it becomes a passion and sometimes reason goes out the window. Do a little research and ask questions. There are some great people in this circle of collecting where in who are always willing to help and then again there are not so great people. So be careful and just have fun with it!!!
Any final words for the visitors to Handcuffs.Org?
This is a GREAT site for research uses it!!! Joe does a fantastic job with it and there are some real knowledgeable people on the forum use it!! Ask questions All the answer may not always be right But there are no wrong questions! Ask for advice but follow you're heart. But always ask! Have a good time collecting and enjoy yourself with it.
ALL THE BEST AND HAPPY COLLECTING!!!
Thanks Fred. Thanks for an incredible visit. Joe
You can contact Fred at: firstname.lastname@example.org
(Taken from http://www.handcuffs.org/pittella/)
Fred Pittella at the official Houdini séance, featured in a 2011 Boston Globe. CLICK HERE to read the article.