Showing posts with label Harry Kellar. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Harry Kellar. Show all posts

Sunday, May 15, 2011

103rd Anniversary of the Mantle of Magic

Today marks the 103rd Anniversary of the Passing of the Mantle of Magic from Harry Kellar to Howard Thurston at the Fords Theatre in Baltimore MD. The reality of the situation was that there was no real Mantle, nor was there a wand or anything else passed over. It was basically a business transaction in which Thurston agreed to purchase the Kellar show and it's properties for a certain sum and then continue to pay Kellar a fee for the show. Not quite as romantic as the idea of passing on this theatrical legacy from one king to his successor.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Man Who Knows

You've probably seen the posters before. The man with the unusual gaze wearing a turban. Who was he? Did he really know?

His real name was Claude Alexander Conlin (1880-1954) and he was one of the premier mind readers of all time. He was called a crystal gazer by some, a con artist by others and he admitted to killing at least four men in his lifetime.  He began his career in show business around 1902 by doing a magic act. Not just any magic act though. Part of his act was an escape act basically copied from Houdini. There were many performers ripping off Houdini at this time and work for no named escape artists was pretty thin.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Spirit Cabinet - A History

This article is about the Spirit Cabinet illusion. However, there would be no spirit cabinet without The Fox Sisters. Margaret and Kate Fox were two young girls living in Hydesville NY with their parents. In 1848, the two sisters demonstrated that they could communicate with ghostly spirits by having strange rapping sounds manifest in their presence. Their abilities gave birth to a phenomenon/movement that would be known as Spiritualism. Later in life the sisters admitted they were frauds (but they even recanted that eventually).
Living not far from Hydesville, NY were two brothers, Ira and William Davenport. In 1854, the brothers started making claims similar to that of the Fox Sisters. To prove their abilities they created The Spirit Cabinet and took their show on the road. The Spirit Cabinet was a large rectangular wooden cabinet that rested upon two saw horses. This allowed the audience to view the cabinet from underneath. There was room inside for each brother to sit at opposite ends of the cabinet. I believe there was also room in between them as well for a spectator to sit if the routine called for that.  The basic effect was that the two brothers would be tied to the seats within the cabinet by members of the audience. A number of instruments, like bells and tambourines were placed in between them. The doors of the cabinet were closed to allow 'spirit darkness' and the manifestations would begin, the bells would ring, rapping could be heard and the tambourines would play.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Kellar's Last Mystery

Something is terribly wrong in magicland. This concerns the first Dean of Magicians Harry Kellar. Today, March 10th, marks the 89th Anniversary of his passing. He was cremated and his remains are in Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles CA. All of that is accurate. What follows is the mystery.

As you may or may not know, I collect photos of the graves of magicians who have passed on. I think we should pay homage to those who have done so much for the profession and have now gone into eternity. I had posted the image below from the Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery on one of my blogs in the past. This is the headstone for Harry Kellar's grave. It can be found near the road under a small tree in Section L, directly to the right of the front of the mausoleum.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Homes of Mystery 1

Please keep in mind that all of these homes are private residences today. They were ONCE owned by famous magicians, but no longer. Enjoy them here, but don't go knocking on doors!


First up, Carter Manor. This was the home of illusionist Charles Carter. It's located in San Francisco and at one time overlooked San Fransisco Bay. There are lots of other homes in the area now. Though I don't know for sure if you can see the Bay or the Ocean from the house itself, possibly you still can. The property was purchased in 1929 and the house was built the following year. Not long after, Carter tried to sell it for $90,000, but had no takers. According to the Carter Book by Mike Caveney, the house contained: "A Magic Theatre w 150 seats, vanishing bars, moving pictures (on the wall), hidden chambers, closets, passages, and the dinning room table came up from the floor below via a trap door". What it's like now on the inside is anyone's guess. This might be the most amazing house owned by a magician.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Who was William Fay?

Houdini and William Fay in Australia

His name was William Marion Fay, born in 1840. He was a resident of Buffalo, NY who had an early interest in magic. Various magic histories show his name as William Melville Fay, but his tombstone clearly has his middle name as Marion. He was not related at all to Anna Eva Fay though they share the same last name. I found a reference to the fact that William Fay was doing a 'Second Sight Act' similar to that of Robert Heller's, but I don't know when. My guess is it was prior to going to work for the Davenports.

In 1864 he was hired by the Davenport Brothers to be their Tour Manager as they sailed to England, replacing the Davenport's father. Fay would also be a back-up performer for William Henry Davenport at times when he was too ill to perform. Given that he was interested in 'magic' it's safe to say that the Davenport's taught their rope technique to William Fay. That alone should dispell any belief that the Davenport brothers were creating legitimate spirit manifestations(as if anyone still believes that to be so).

In 1869, a young man by the name of Harry Kellar joined the troupe. It appears that he took over the managing job that William Fay had. Fay was still with the company and surely filled in whenever he was needed. In 1873, Kellar had a falling out with William Henry Davenport and abruptly quit. But he didn't go alone, as William Fay left the employment of the Davenports and went with Harry Kellar.

The two performers joined forces in the Spring of 1873 and began to tour the United States. Calling themselves Fay & Kellar, probably because William Fay was older than Harry and it was a case of age before beauty. Harry Kellar would do the act that he learned while working with the Fakir of Ava and then the conclusion of the show would be a recreation of The Davenport Cabinet, or what is known today as The Spirit Cabinet. The act apparently was not an immediate success as lack of money left them occasionally stranded.

Their luck would change however. Kellar secured some dates for them in Cuba. At the Albisu Theatre in Havana it was said they made over $3000 during their first night on stage. Success continued for them on their tour of Cuba. From there the two went to Mexico and again met with great success. To cut down on their travel expenses they hit upon the novel idea of leaving the Spirit Cabinet behind in each city they played and simply had a new one built when they got to their next destination. Back in this time, the Spirit Cabinet was just that, a very large wooden cabinet. There was nothing faked or gimmicked about it so having the locals build a new one was easy.

Royal Mail Steamship Boyne
From Mexico they sailed on to South America and toured all over the country. The tour of South America was successful with the exception of a couple weeks in December 1874. By July 1875, the South American tour was complete and Fay and Kellar got on board a steamship called the BOYNE and set sail for Portugal.

On August 18, 1875, the BOYNE hit ground near Ushant Island and sank in the Bay of Biscay. This Ushant Island is just off the coast of France. This area of the Bay of Biscay has claimed numerous ships over the years. The Boyne was not the first ship to go down and would not be the last. Fay and Kellar survived the shipwreck but they lost all of their belongings and show props and money.  This marks the end of the Fay & Kellar partnership. They both returned to England but headed their separate ways. Kellar was determined to rebuild his act. While Fay lucked out and rejoined the Davenport Brothers who had just arrived back in England.

The Davenport Brothers were back in England at the same time that William Fay arrived in the country. He rejoined their company and traveled with them to Australia. In 1877, William Henry Davenport who had suffered from poor health for years, died in Sydney. His brother Ira Davenport returned to the United States and William Fay remained behind and settled down in Melbourne Australia. He married Eliza Lydia and together they had one son Franklin.

Whenever Harry Kellar was on tour in Australia he would make a point to visit his old friend and partner William Fay. One year he spent the Christmas holidays with the Fays.

In 1895, Ira Erastus Davenport had the brilliant idea of starting up the act again and he contacted William Fay in Australia to get his opinion. Fay decided to sail to America to join Ira Davenport.  Either the performances were below the standards of their youth, or just behind the times. Whatever the case, they threw in the towel after only three days. Ira retired to Mayville, NY. William Fay went back to Australia.

photo courtesy of Kent Blackmore
Fay died in Australia on July 16th, 1921 at the ripe old age of 81. He was buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery along with the rest of his family.

In the near future I will have a blog article on the Davenport Brothers and their Incredible Cabinet. But I thought you might enjoy learning a little bit about this lesser known part of the company who also worked with Harry Kellar.

If you'd like to learn a bit more about William Henry Davenport, one half of the Davenport Brothers, Kent Blackmore has written an incredible article on him. He has also graciously allowed me to use this grave photo to the left.

The location of the grave at the Melbourne General Cemetery can be found  here:

Monday, February 14, 2011


 "I knew, as everyone knows, that the easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place some one is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death."

"You can never arrive at the perfection of art until your handling of the illusion produces a thrill of genuine surprise in all who behold it"

"The end of all magic is to feed with mystery the human mind, which dearly loves mystery. So leave every mystery forever unexplained!"

"I do tricks nobody can explain."

"My professional life has been a constant record of disillusion, and many things that seem wonderful to most men are the every-day commonplaces of my business. "

"As long as the human mind delights in mysteries, so long it will love magic and be entertained by magicians."

First Encounter
When Houdini started out with his brother Dash, there were two prominent magicians in America, Herrmann the Great and Harry Kellar. In August 1896, after struggling in the tough world of show business and getting no where, Houdini wrote to both of the great magicians looking for work as assistants in their shows. No reply came from Herrmann who would pass away by December of 1896. Kellar did reply but he told Houdini he had no room in his show at that time.

Kellar's Retirement
1908 Atlantic City
In May of 1908, Harry Kellar left the stage to retire. Just a few weeks later he would spend sometime with the Houdini's in Atlantic City, even Cecelia Weiss was present during this visit. According to the Ken Silverman Bio this is basically where their friendship starts. For a while Kellar lived in NY with his wife Eva, and Houdini and Kellar saw each other from time to time. But only a year later Kellar purchased a home in Los Angeles and he and his wife moved to the west coast.  Kellar still made trips to the east and whenever he was in NY he would usually attend the magic club meetings and see Houdini. Kellar and Houdini stayed in touch writing letters throughout the rest of their lives.

I found a very interesting note in the Kellar's Wonders book by Mike Caveney and Bill Miesel. In 1916, Houdini and Kellar were at a meeting of the Society of American Magicians. It was at this meeting that the decision was made to start local chapters throughout the country, called 'assemblies'. Houdini and Kellar both stepped up and agreed to spread the word and it's no doubt through their efforts that today the S.A.M. has assemblies all over the U.S. and even other parts of the world.

Another interesting S.A.M. item took place when Houdini was President of the organization. He nominated Harry Kellar to be Dean of Magicians. He was unanimously voted in.

Kellar's Second Retirement
On Nov 11, 1917, Houdini coaxed Kellar into coming out of retirement for one evening. This was so that he could be part of an all star cast at the Hippodrome in NYC. The event was to raise money for the victims and family members of the S.S. Antilles, an American Transport ship that had been torpedoed by a German submarine.

On the evening of the 11th, Houdini acted as host and M.C. for the first half of the show. He even presented his Water Torture Cell. But the real thrill that night came from Harry Kellar who treated the audience to his amazing Floating Table routine and he followed this with his Spirit Cabinet. After his performance Houdini stepped on stage with roses for the Grand Master. Then he brought on a sedan chair and members of the show picked up Kellar sitting in the Sedan Chair and marched him across the stage as the entire audience got up and sang 'Auld Lang Syne'. It was a night to remember and Kellar was to taken with the gesture that it was difficult for him to express himself.

A few days later he wrote a heart felt letter to Houdini in which he said "you gave me the proudest and happiest evening in all my life and a farewell that can never be surpassed." Houdini followed this with a letter to Kellar in which he basically said it was an honor to be able to give back to such a beloved man and magician.

When Harry Kellar sold his show to Howard Thurston, only two things made it into the Thurston show, the Levitation and Kellar's Spirit Cabinet. The other items were sold off and Charles Carter purchased several of them.

One in particular was Kellar's automaton Psycho, which was a knock off of J.N. Maskelyne's automaton of the same name. Psycho had been with Kellar since he purchased it in England in 1878. Kellar referred to him as 'my little companion and friend'. He was also an important part of Harry Kellar's show. He sold it to Howard Thurston in May 1908 and now he was about to come face to face with his old friend.

While Carter was performing in Los Angeles, Kellar convinced Charles Carter to sell Pyscho back to him. Then in May 1919, Harry Houdini received a letter and package from Kellar. It was Psycho and Kellar was giving his old friend to Houdini as a gift.

This was not the only gift Houdini received from his friend Kellar. According to Edward Saint, Houdini had a jeweled Question Mark pin that he received as a gift from Kellar. This pin has been lost to time. Kellar also gave Houdini his Spirit Cabinet that was used in the final Farewell performance of Harry Kellar. I'm curious if the Spirit Cabinet survives today.

On the set of The Grim Game
Houdini had started the Film Development Corporation and Kellar became one of the investors. Unfortunately, this was not the high point of their relationship. The FDC struggled to make money and Kellar often spoke to Houdini about getting rid of his shares of stock. Kellar's concern it turns out wasn't about loosing money, but instead about being responsible to creditors for future money. Kellar encouraged Houdini to get out as well. He felt it would be a terrible shame for Houdini to loose all the money he had worked so hard for during his career on a bad business venture.  Houdini's concern was less over money and more over loosing his friendship with Kellar over this deal.

One plus to the movie business was that it put Houdini in California and the studio where he was making movies was only a few miles from Harry Kellar's house. Kellar had suffered a stroke and wasn't as mobile as he had been before. Houdini visited him often and made arrangement for flowers to be sent to his home every week. During at least one visit, Houdini was able to capture Kellar on film thus preserving his image for posterity. Imagine how thrilling it would have been to sit in a room while these two spoke of things mysterious and magical.

Kellar thought of Houdini as a son and it was obvious that Kellar was a father figure to Houdini. He was also probably the only living magician that Houdini looked up to. However, though their friendship was filled with mutual admiration they did not agree on everything. For example, Houdini let people know that all his effects were presented by purely natural means, his "My Mind is the Key That Sets Me Free" quote expresses this perfectly. But read what Kellar thought..."Make your work artistic by clothing each illusion with all the glamor and shadows of fairyland, and the suggestions of incantations and supernatural powers in order to prepare the observer's mind for a mystery though there be no mystery." Kellar filled his promotional materials with demons and other supernatural beings. Houdini on the other hand was totally against the suggestion of supernatural powers in his performance.

However it's safe to say that they agreed in most areas. Kellar believed that tricks performed by the masters who came before him would no longer fool even children and it was the modern magicians job to constantly update and improve the effects and the methods. Houdini took older tricks and made them new, like the Needle Trick or repackaged them to fit him, like the Sub Trunk, or created brand new effects, like the Water Torture Cell. They both debunked Spiritualist phenomenon in their shows. Interestingly, Kellar is probably best known for his rope tie. Houdini of course was a master of rope ties and rope escapes.

After Chung Ling Soo died on stage doing the Bullet Catch trick, Houdini made plans to add the dangerous Bullet Catching routine to his show. When this news reached Harry Kellar he sent a fast and firm reply to Houdini.  I believe his words were "Don't do the damned Bullet Catch, we cannot afford to loose Houdini!" or something to that affect. Houdini heeded the advice of his old friend and chose to not present the Bullet Catch, ever! Harry Kellar was probably the only person who could scold Houdini and get away with it. But the letter over the Bullet Catch was sent more out of concern and caring for his friend than as a rebuke.

Harry Kellar passed away on March 10, 1922. He had been suffering from a bad bout of pneumonia and had been coughing up blood. The build up of blood in his lungs killed him. He was 73 years old. Houdini was not able to attend the funeral, so he made arrangements for it to be filmed. He actually did the same thing when his friend The Great Lafayette died, he had that funeral filmed as well. But to my knowledge neither of these films have survived.

Before Kellar died Houdini got his permission to write his biography. Houdini would use his 100s of letters (Houdini claimed thousands) and also his many meetings with Kellar as the foundation for the book. He only got as far as 100 pages. This became one of the projects that Houdini never finished because in 1926, only four years after Kellar, Houdini died. In the book Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer he says the manuscript resides in the Mullholland Library, which today is part of the David Copperfield Magic Collection.

Houdini referred to Kellar as  'the greatest magician the world ever saw.'

In a letter to Houdini, Kellar referred to him as 'our greatest showman-Harry Houdini.'
I think that pretty well sums it up.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Vanishing Bird Cage - History

La Cage Volente, La Cage Eclipse, The Flying Cage or as we know it today, The Vanishing Birdcage was the invention of one man Joseph Buatier. In 1873 French magician Buatier (who would later add deKolta to his name and become Buatier DeKolta) created the first hand held cage that could vanish. The first model, possibly a prototype was made of highly polished wood. The bars were possibly string or elastic. It appears the original shape of the cage was square or rectangular but at some point he created a longer cylindrical cage with a round top and bottom.

The Vanishing Birdcage was a sensation and was also quickly ripped off. In the Summer of 1875 Harry Kellar is said to have purchased a cage from DeKolta's cousin for $750. Of course this was unauthorized because Buatier never sold cages to anyone.  This cage was probably the very first one outside of DeKolta's act, but it wouldn't be the last. In fact, Harry Kellar can probably be credited for the deluge of Vanishing Birdcages in America because he sold the secret to a magic dealer in exchange for props. In Europe a letter from Robert Heller to Charles DeVere the french magic dealer shows that the cages were already for sale in December 1875.

Harry Kellar stirred up a bit of controversy while in Australia over his presentation of "The Flying Cage" as he called it. Harry Kellar's routine was simple and direct, he counted to three and the cage with a live canary inside would vanish! A rumor circulated that Kellar was killing a canary every time he presented the effect. An inquiry took place and Kellar proved that was not the case. He showed that he had one bird and one bird only that he had been using for a long while. But this same controversy would come to haunt other magicians across the globe. In fact, this controversy was used as a minor plot point in the movie "The Prestige" in which they give a rather fictitious explanation on how the cage works.

Magicians worldwide began using the Vanishing Birdcage. A few included; Carl Hertz, Harry Blackstone, FuManchu, Fred Keating, Arnold DeBiere, Servais LeRoy, John Booth, Frakson and many more. In recent times the Vanishing Birdcage could be found in the acts of Walter 'Zaney' Blaney, Harry Blackstone Jr, Lance Burton, Billy McComb, Jonathan Pendragon, Tommy Wonder and James Dimmare.

A description of the DeKolta's routine says that he made the cage vanish with a tossing motion. Then he would remove his jacket so that the audience could examine it. After putting the jacket back on DeKolta would make the cage reappear once again.

Harry Blackstone Sr and Jr. used the idea of repeating the effect successfully. After making the cage vanish once, Blackstone would walk offstage to get a second cage and this time invite children up to place their hands on the cage. While attempting to cover the cage with their hands the vanish would occur and their hands would all collapse together.

John Booth had an interesting twist. His cage is what we call a Blackstone cage, meaning it had red ribbon around the outer edges of the cage. He had a second cage with green ribbon so that when he would repeat the trick, it was clear that he wasn't using the same cage but instead a different one.

But my favorite routine comes from Servais LeRoy. He had been doing the cage vanish for years and according to the book "The Elusive Canary" by Mystic Craig,  Servais LeRoy was the first to do the 'repeat' of the vanish with a member of the audience putting their hands upon the cage.  After the cage vanished LeRoy would have the spectators check to see if the cage was on his body. So Blackstone's routine seems to have been inspired by Servais LeRoy.

In 1933 the Camel Cigarette Company 'exposed' the trick in a marketing campaign they called "It's Fun To Be Fooled". Not to be outdone, Servais LeRoy altered his routine. He would stand on a raised platform and had two spectators on stage with him. He would make the cage vanish and then immediately began to disrobe. He took of all of his clothes except for his under garments! He stood on stage in his underwear while the audience checked out his clothes for any sign of the cage. What a sight that must have been, amazing and hysterical.

It's still a wonderful effect today just as it was back in 1873 when Joseph Buatier invented it.
Now just as a treat, I have one more video, but you'll need to move up to 16:30 on the video to see the Vanishing Cage routine. This is the late Billy McComb who does a comedy version and does it in slow motion. Enjoy!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Kellar's Demon Globe Trick

This is an exploration into a historical trick. The effect is known as the Golliwog Ball and is credited to David Devant. I knew Harry Kellar used it also and I assumed (and wrongly) that he took it from Devant.

Actually, it began as the invention of Harry Kellar. The effect is that a large ball is placed upon a board that is leaning at an angle upon a chair. By placing the ball at the top of the board it rolls down. But the magician, Kellar, could cause the ball to stop half way and go back up the board and obey his commands to start and stop and roll down and roll back upwards. I very rarely do this but I'm even going to divulge how Harry Kellar did the trick. He had electro-magnets in the board and metal pieces placed within the ball. The control of the ball was done backstage by turning the electromagnets off and on it caused the ball to roll down, stop or seemingly roll back upwards.

Kellar claimed the inspiration for the effect came from seeing a large ball roll around a stage at a circus. At the end of the routine the ball burst open and a clown came out. In magic history there was a previous trick called "The Obediant Ball" which was a ball with a hole in it that was placed upon a rod. The ball would rise or lower on the rod at the magicians command. Kellar's trick was called "The Demon Globe" and as you can see he took the idea of the "The Obediant Ball" and made it into a stage sized trick. There is another smaller trick also called 'The Obedient Ball' which was a ball with a string running through it. The ball was threaded on the string and held at the top and dropped and would stop whenever the magician commanded. But it could not go back up as in the other versions.

There was one problem with Kellar's version. This thing was a monster to set up and take down. It apparently had tons of wires and was just very difficult to operate. It also cost Kellar a lot to build which was why he was keeping it in his show. The effect in operation looked mechanical which was another drawback.
One day David Devant was visiting the United States and he saw Kellar's show. He particularly liked Kellar's Demon Globe trick but thought it was much too complicated. He spoke with Kellar about it and asked him if he could go back to England and come up with something less complicated. If he was able to do this he would give it to Kellar with the agreement that he would have Kellar's permission to use it in England. Sure enough a short time later Devant returned to the states and showed Kellar the new version (which I will not tell you how it's done).  Kellar loved the new version and it stayed in his show. David Devant called his version "The Wolligog-Golliwog Ball". 

Devant borrowed a piece from Kellar's presentation. During his introduction of the trick he mentioned the clown inside the ball from the circus. This he said was his inspiration for the trick and he added, “there is no clown inside the ball, the only clown here is outside the ball”. 

The final bit of research was the name. I figured it was probably just a made up name that Devant created. To my surprise and shock, the name has a history. Apparently the name Golliwog was a character in a 19th century children's book and it referred to a rag doll. The rag doll was very dark skinned and basically looked like a minstrel character. The term 'golliwog' which later became 'wog' turned into a racist insult. There is nothing about Devant's routine that would suggest anything racist. Devant performed for families and had routines targeted for kids like the Eggs From the Hat. His slogan was “All Done By Kindness.” More than likely the term had a very innocent connotation when Devant adopted it for his routine and over time developed into the negative term it became.

The name has been used for other things including the original name for the band Creedance Clearwater Revival, a commercially sold biscuit in Australia and is the name of an all female band from Slovenia. Outside of the trick, I personally never heard the term used or said. Frankly if I had heard it I would associate it instantly with this particular trick. I had no idea that the name 'golliwog' had a controversial history attached to it or that it even existed outside of this trick. I thought it was a made up name but checked it anyway and was very surprised by what I found.

For the record, I included this in the story of the ball trick to give a broader historical context and in no way intended to insult the memory of Devant, Kellar or offend anyone.

I think this was a very interesting effect for the time. An animated object seemingly under the spell of the performer. There is a wonderful poster that Kellar used to promote the trick which can be seen on this link. I was actually thinking about it and came up with a much different method which could create the same effect today. But I'm not sure how it would play for modern audiences who see remote control cars and planes and such. Still, it must have been amazing to see back in it's day.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ford's Theatre & The Mantle of Magic

John T Ford
The name Ford's Theatre instantly conjures up images of April 14, 1865 the night President Lincoln was shot while watching a play. However, I want to direct your attention to the OTHER Ford's Theatre, the one in Baltimore. Both were built by John T. Ford, who in my humble appearance looks strikingly like Jerry Seinfeld.

The Baltimore Ford's Theatre was known as The Grand Opera House and was built in 1871. It was located on 320 West Fayette Street in Baltimore. It lasted until the mid 1960s when it was torn down to put a (wait for it...) parking garage in it's place. Readers of my blog will now the frustration I have over many of these historic theatres being demolished and turned into parking garages.

The reason Ford's Grand Opera House holds significance for magicians is that this is the location of the show where Harry Kellar passed the Mantle of Magic over to Howard Thurston. This established a long line of magic royalty that lasts until today (at least for publicity purposes).

Harry Kellar
Let's start with how it all came about. First it's the 1900's Herrmann the Great has passed away leaving it wide open for Harry Kellar to take over as the leading Illusionist in America. He's been following in Herrmann's shadow for quite a while and is ready to take over. Kellar is a unique character, older, less hair, but tremendously loved by audiences across the nation. He successfully fills the place left by Herrmann and becomes the leading magical performer in the U.S.. In 1906 he begins to announce his plans to retire. His successor will be Adolf Weber. WHAT? Yes, Adolf Weber was slated to be Kellar's Successor. OH wait, you might know him as Paul Valadon.

Paul Valadon was a magician who had been working at Maskelynes Theatre in England. He suddenly appears in America working with Harry Kellar and that also was the same year that Kellar mysteriously figured out how the Maskelyne Levitation worked and added it to his show. He might have gotten a little help from Paul Valadon. In 1906 Kellar proclaims that Valadon will be his successor when he retires. But that doesn't happen.

The first person to publicly say otherwise was Henry Ridgley Evans who saw Kellar's final D.C. appearance at the Columbia Theatre. Following this Evans writes a little note to Stanyon's Magic which says he predicts the successor will be Howard Thurston.  It's actually unclear when Kellar made this decision to go with Thurston over Valadon. Apparently, Paul Valadon had a drinking problem and Mrs. Kellar was not particularly fond of either Paul or his wife. So Paul is out as successor and is no longer working with Kellar. By 1913, Paul Valadon, one time possible successor to the Great Kellar is dead. The last few years of his life were not good, his wife either left him or she died. He had a son, but when Paul Valadon died, he had not one dime to leave his young namesake.

Howard Thurston
Thurston it seems may have been in the running all along. In 1907, Kellar and Thurston met for dinner to iron out the agreement. Thurston agreed to buy the entire Kellar show for $5000.00. Howard Thurston had made a name as a Card Manipulator. But he knew in order to gain a bigger piece of the showbiz pie he'd have to expand his repertoire. So he began to expand his act and he took it on an overseas tour. By the time he returned to the states in 1907 he was ready for bigger things. It's interesting to note that Houdini was not in the running for the prize of Mantle of Magic. No doubt Houdini couldn't be happy about this. But Houdini presented a specialty act of escapes only at this time. Later he would begin to add features like Vanishing an Elephant and Walking Through a Brick Wall. Perhaps if he had done this sooner or if Kellar had waited to retire then Houdini could have been considered. Houdini's friendship with Kellar doesn't really begin until after Kellar retires, so that his another reason why he was not in the running. No, this prize went to Thurston and he would make the most of it.

The two magicians had toured the country together in the 1907-08 season. The passing of the Mantle of Magic took place on May 16, 1908 at the Ford's Theatre in Baltimore Maryland.

To quote Howard Thurston the night of the final performance, "Before the final curtain had fallen Kellar led me to the foot- lights and in a most touching speech briefly mentioned his own career of forty-five years as a public entertainer, and finished with a generous and affectionate prediction of my future. Kellar had played Ford's Opera House for many years. He handed
his arm around my shoulders, while the orchestra played 'Auld Lang Syne'. As the ushers carried many floral offerings to the stage, the audience sang with the music. Finally, the musicians stood, then the entire audience was on its feet repeating the refrain. Leaning heavily on my shoulder as the curtain dropped for the last time, Kellar cried—so did I."

History shows however that Kellar was not completely happy with Thurston's use of his old show. Thurston basically dropped everything except for the Floating Lady and the Spirit Cabinet. Thurston's presentation of the Floating Lady enraged Kellar. Thurston would invite audience members to come up on stage to see the lady in mid-air. This would reveal the method of course and that drove Kellar crazy.

Kellar soon began work on another floating lady that I believe ended up with Blackstone, but not until after Kellar had passed away.

Thurston continued holding the crown until his untimely death in 1936. But before that he did make an announcement as to his successor would be. In 1929 on stage in McConnelsville, Ohio, Thurston announced that McDonald Birch would be his successor. But the Great Depression made theatre performances harder and harder and the proposed final tour with Birch never happened nor did the passing of the mantle.

Magic lore would also have you believe that the mantle was then passed over to Harry Jansen (DANTE). But Dante was overseas touring when Thurston died. The truth is, the mantle of magic set up by Kellar died with Howard Thurston. Magic groups in America wanted Dante to come home and claim the the mantle that Thurston left behind, but that is hardly the same as having the mantle bestowed upon you by the KING.

The romanticized version sounds so much better doesn't it? I like the idea that the Mantle of Magic went to Dante, then to Lee Grabel and finally to Lance Burton. But, it's not the Kellar/Thurston Mantle, it's a different one. 

One final note about Ford's Theatre. Some smart magician took wood from the stage floor of Ford's Theatre either before or as it was being torn down. The wood was turned into a magic wand with a profile of Kellar on one end and Thurston on the other. If you hold it up to a light source it casts the profile shadow of the two magicians. For the record two of these were made and one resides at Egyptian Hall West, the Mike Caveney Collection.

The parking garage that replaced the iconic Ford's Theatre in Baltimore Maryland.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Go To Hellers Part 3

In September 1878, Heller opens at the Broad Street Theatre in Philadelphia. He is there for four weeks and then he moves to Baltimore for the month of October.

On November 4, 1878 Heller opens at the National Theatre in Washington D.C.. He plays to packed houses because the newspapers are announcing this as Heller's final appearance in Washington.

One of the things Heller does in this final tour is change the show often. It's as if he is giving the American people one last chance to see all his offerings before he moves back to England. 

Heller had a huge fan base in Washington. He had been a resident there for ten years and mingled in high society social circles. He also had a habit following his performances to accept invitations to various friends homes and continue impromptu entertainment into the early hours of the morning. When Heller finishes his run in Washington D.C. at the National Theatre he heads to New York to rest for a week.

An article appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer a few days before Heller arrived in D.C.. The article mentioned an unnamed person from D.C. who made the claim that Heller had abandoned his wife and children and she died of a broken heart. Other papers across the nation picked up the article and it found it's way to Washington.

The National Republican Newspaper held an interview with Heller's father in law, Mr. Kieckhoefer.  He is glad to have a chance to speak out. Mr. Kieckhoefer is outraged that his son-in-law and daughters personal life is slandered by an anonymous person in the press. He says that Heller's wife is not dead but in fact living quite well in Paris supported by her husband.

Mr. Kieckhoefer relates how he did not initially understand Heller's desire to go back to magic, but he eventually came to see the light. He says that a man with Heller's passion had to follow his heart. To further prove that he had no hard feelings with his son in law, he points out that he and Heller were having dinner that very day in Washington D.C.. The controversy dies a quick death following this and Heller plays to huge crowds as mentioned above.

The Continental Hotel Where Robert Heller Died
Heller arrived in Philadelphia on Saturday
Nov 24th. While walking with his business manager to the theatre, Heller felt a twitching in his arm. Several times on the short journey from the hotel to the theatre Heller had to stop due to illness. He is suffering from a cold he picked up in Washington and it is showing signs of being serious.

On November 26th, 1878 Robert Heller along with Haidee Heller open at Concert Hall in Philadelphia. His cold is worse now and it is noticeable to the audience. He presents the first part of the show, the section with varied magic effects with no problems. But he is so ill now that he lays down for thirty minutes before continuing.  He mentions to the audience that both he and Ms. Heller are both sick with colds. I found two differing accounts of how the show ended. One newspaper account says Heller wraps up the show early with a piano performance of "The Last Rose of Summer". He played the piece with such passion it was as if he had never played it before.  The other account comes from a gentlemen named Kit Clark who saw Heller hours before he died. He said that Heller and Haidee finished the show with the Second Sight routine. Either way, it would be Robert Heller's final performance number. When Heller finished playing he dismissed the audience and both he and Haidee Heller went straight to the Continental Hotel.

He finally agreed to see a Doctor on Tuesday morning. The doctor said he had a slight congestion of the lungs but the truth was much worse. Heller actually intended to perform on Tuesday evening but as the day progressed he admitted he was in no condition to do so. Heller's illness got worse as the evening dragged on. A quote from Kit Clarke says "Just after twelve o'clock, midnight. he had a severe attack of vomiting lasting but a few moments and when it ceased he raised himself up, gave one gasp, and falling back upon the pillow Robert Heller was dead."

On November 28th the Public Ledger newspaper made the announcement that Robert Heller had died. There would be no return engagement. At the time Doctors said he died from "organic exhaustion". We now believe Heller had died from a case of double pneumonia. Heller's death was such a shock to Washington D.C. that his obituary appeared on the front page of the Nov. 30, 1878 edition of the National Republican

Worse yet, across the Atlantic Ocean his wife and three children were making preparations for him to return so that they could all be together once again as a family. He was buried by the time the news of his death reached them.

Houdini at Heller's Grave
The funeral for William Henry Palmer/Robert Heller took place at St. Stephen's Protestant Episcopal Church in Philadelphia on November 29, 1878. It was a small affair, a few show business people attended, along with his brother in law, Haidee and Heller's electrician and secret confederate who had been with him for years E.J. Dale.

William Henry Palmer/Robert Heller was buried in Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia. He is in plot 189 section 135. Even on Heller's grave there is no date given for the actual year of his birth.

It's said that Robert Heller's estate was worth over $350,000. This is the value of his estate in 1878, the price today would have to be in the millions.

In his will, he makes arrangements for his wife to receive money for the rest of her life. He leaves money for his children's education, support and maintenance. He leaves money and some jewelry and property for Haidee Heller, who was his assistant during the longest stretch of success in his career. He leaves his brother a trustfund and his gold watch. To Fannie, his sister, who he names the executrix of the will, he leaves 'one clock of her choosing'. That struck me as odd.

Originally his will stipulated that ALL his props and magic equipment be destroyed upon his death. However, he had a death-bed change of heart on that one, and decided to have it sent to Hartz The Magic Dealer for him to sell. Are we to assume that was the 49 TONS of paraphernalia that  he had just brought over from England in 1877? I'm thinking there might not have been quite 49 tons worth.

What affect did Heller have on the world? For one, according to drama and theatrical people of the time, it was Heller that put conjuring in a new light for American audiences. In the way that Robert Houdin modernized magic for his period by changing his costume and bringing magic indoors, Heller did a similar thing in America by adding other elements such as comedy and music. I'm sure his affect was felt all over the globe when he performed.

Heller was hardly gone before others would rush to fill his spot. Frederick Eugene Powell, known professionally as The Great Powell began a series of performances along with his brother Edwin in which they perform the 'Second Sight' routine. Powell is apparently the only performer presenting the routine at this point, but that would change soon enough.

Harry Kellar too capitalizes on Heller's name. In the early days, Kellar chose to change the spelling of his name from Keller to Kellar so he wouldn't be confused with Robert Heller. Now he turns the tables on the spelling thing and adds a twist of his own.
"For many a day,
We have heard people say
That a wondrous magician was Heller;
Change the H into K
And the E into A
And you have his superior in Kellar!"

Finally, in 1878 the year that Robert Heller leaves this world, a young man named Erich Weiss and his family are moving to Appleton Wisconsin to begin life in America. One can only guess where that might lead...

William Henry Palmer/Robert Heller Died Nov 28, 1878

I want to thank Joseph Pecore for his incredible help with the research and for working tirelessly on the music so that we could share some of Heller's music with the readers. I also want to thank the folks at Ask Alexander and The Conjuring Arts Research Center for their invaluable database and records. Thank you to all those magic writers and newspaper writers from the 1850's to today who wrote about Heller. Thanks also to the Library of Congress for putting up newspaper archives online! Finally, I have to say that I'm very grateful for the INTERNET.  You just would not believe what tiny little detail you might find out there floating around that will bring everything together. Most of my blogs are not as hard as this one, but it was really a lot of fun. 
OH, AND there is one more Heller Blog to go, but that one I'm holding for later in the year!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Fakir of Ava

Ever wonder how some of the greats in magic got their start? We know Houdini was inspired by both Dr. Lynn and the book The Memoirs of Robert-Houdin. And Robert Houdin had seen street conjurers in his youth which began his fascination with magic. What about Harry Kellar? Well, it seems young Harry Kellar could have gone a number of directions. As a  boy he was apprenticed to a druggist, but that didn't work out and Harry went to NY. In New York, he met a Reverend who wanted to adopt Harry and put him to school to become a minister. This seems like the course his life would take until one day the Reverend took Harry to see a magician named The Fakir of Ava. Well, after that singular performance Harry decided he too wanted to become a magician. A short while later he moved not far from where the Fakir lived and one day answered an ad in the newspaper for an assistant for  the Fakir of Ava. The Fakir told young Harry that many boys had been by to apply for the job but none was selected. He said he let his dog do the choosing. Well it turns out the dog took an immediate liking to Harry and he got the job!

The Fakir of Ava was really Isaiah Harris Hughes and was born in Essex England on December 25, 1810. He moved to America and took the name of a previous employer and became The Fakir of Ava. Hughes traveled across the US during the Civil War and did quite well. He developed a type of show called 'The Gift Show' where he would give out basically inexpensive door prizes to audience members. This scheme really helped his business and he was able to retire with a good deal of money.

During his time as a traveling magician he performed many standard tricks of the time. A playbill from his show lists the following tricks as part of his evening of entertainment:
  • The Enchanted Canopy
  • The Aeriel Bank or Mysterious Treasury in the Air
  • Hindoo Cup Trick
  • The Mephistophole’s Hat
  • The Card Printer
  • The Fairy Star
  • The Great Orange Trick
  • The Chinese Plate Illusion
  • How to Cook an Omelet, and Produce Game and Ring
  • The Bank Note and Enchanted Candle
  • The Flying Watches
  • The Enchanted Fishery
  • The Express Laundry
  • The Wonderful Hat
  • The Witches Pole or the obedient Mysterious Blood Writing on the Arm
  • Vanishing Cage, Balls and Game
  • Laughable Ribbon and Paper Trick
  • The Great African Box and Sack Feat (Mysterious Appearance and Disappearance)
  • The Sealed Packet Or Wonders of Supernatural Vision
  • Angel’s Flight through Mid-Air!

As an avid fan of magic history I can decipher some of the routines from the show. The Aeriel Bank would have been a production of money from the air, like a Misers Dream or perhaps a version of Houdin's Crystal Casket. The Mephistopholes Hat OR The Wonderful Hat was probably some sort of Hat production, where items would appear from a hat. The Witches Pole is interesting as this effect is done today, but not with blood, instead a word appears on the arm from burnt ashes. Vanishing Cage is likely the vanishing birdcage created by DeKolta and copied and performed by most magicians of the time. I can't help but think the Great African Box and Sack Feat is probably some version of the Maskelyne Trunk trick.

Harry Kellar stayed with the Fakir of Ava and worked has his assistant for a number of years. When The Fakir felt that Harry was ready to go out on his own as a magician, he gave his blessing and off Harry went.

The Fakir of Ava died on May 24th, 1891 and was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo New York. Along with the Fakir of Ava, President Millard Filmore is also buried in Forest Lawn. Here is the New York Times Obituary for the Fakir of Ava.

The website for the cemetery is
By the way, the first time I saw a picture of this grave was a photo that Houdini took of it (at least I'm pretty sure of that). I can't for the life of me track down where that photo is located. I checked a bunch of the biographies and other magic history books but I can't seem to locate it anywhere. Any suggestions?
photo by Dave Pape

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Unusual Gifts for the Magic Fan

Here is a list of gift ideas for the Magician or fan of Magic from those of you that are none magicians.

Conjuring Lights is an interesting site. Inside their gift shop you'll find a number of unique Magic related Greeting Cards.

This is an ornament. I collect magic related figurines and they aren't always easy to find. This one is an ideal one to start a collection or add to an existing one.

What magician doesn't need a magic wand?

This might be the ultimate in Geeked out magic wand stuff! A remote Control Magic Wand

Magic Poster Reproductions. These are not cheapo versions, these are high quality versions of many classic magic posters.

This might be the ultimate gift for the magician or fan of magic, a bust of a famous magician. There are several in the line; Kellar, Thurston, Chung Ling Soo, Houdini and Robert Houdin.

T-shirts with a magic slant to them.

This was one of my personal favorite gifts, the book MAGIC. WARNING: It's gigantic! It weighs 20 lbs and is 20x12x3 in size. But it's super cool

I'm not sure this next one is for sale, but it's a wonderfully quirky concept. It's a portable closet designed after a magic illusion.

Another cool Magic Book gift would be the new Jim Steinmeyer book on Howard Thurston. One problem, it doesn't come out till February. But you can order it now!

Here's one, a one of a kind personalized piece of artwork. That's right, you can get a commissioned piece of artwork by none other than ME. It's not cheap, I only take a couple commissions so it's first come first serve. You can email me at for more info.

Can't afford a customized painting. Why not try one of my artwork tshirts. There is only one right now, the Dante. On one side is a picture of Dante, the other side has his slogan 'Sim Sala Bim'.

IF you really want to give a magician a gift, consider a photo shoot. Often overlooked by magicians, but a good quality photo can do wonders for your career. Finding a good photographer for a magician is another thing. I'm going to give you several selections depending upon your part of the world. These are not the only photographers around but check them out, do your own homework and see if they'll work for you.

In England...

In France...


Finally, this set of books should be in every magicians library. The Tarbell Course. Get them from my friend Denny.

Disclaimer: Other than my two products, the only products here I can actually endorse are the photography of Beckett Studios because that's where I had my photos done, and The Tarbell Course from Denny's Magic Shop. Denny is a straight up magic dealer and you can't go wrong buying from him.

I'm not saying there is anything wrong with anything else, but you should check them out yourself and see if the product or service meets your needs.