Showing posts with label Robert Heller. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Heller. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Notes on Episode 11 The Great Maro

Here is the cartoon that appeared in the Sphinx Magazine on Maro. I believe the reason he left the 'devilish imps' off his posters was due to his Christian faith. Maro was no evangelist, nor did he include Christian references in his show, but like many people of the time, he was being respectful of his faith by leaving off that particular imagery.

If you look closer at this particular poster, you'll see in place of the 'imps' Maro has garden gnomes. 

If you're curious about the Houdini-Maro Illusion I mentioned during the podcast, you can read about it and see the picture here. 

In regards to the Astarte Levitation. Below is the video of Doug Henning presenting Astarte on one of his specials. It was an unusual and very different illusion when I saw Doug do it, but not particularly a big mystery. The version that was presented at the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History is a much longer piece and the costuming and choreography are much better. That version you can see if you are a Genii Magazine subscriber. It's in the January 2014 issue on page 72. It's called The Maid of the Moon, which is the name that Herrmann used when he presented the illusion.

And now you can listen to the entire Episode 11 below, IF you haven't already done so. And please remember to LIKE-SHARE-and Subscribe to the podcast, PLEASE :)

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Continued Clean-up of Robert Heller's Grave

I just received a note from Tony Selletti about a young man, Ken Biddle, from Philadelaphia who, along with his wife, have begun some additional clean-up of Robert Heller's grave. This has been a long project. I first started a push a few years back to help clean-up the grave. Thankfully, the Friends of Mt. Moriah who have been periodically cleaning up this abandoned graveyard, eventually found their way to Heller's grave and uncovered it. Let's take a look back at some of these images from Heller's site.

This first image was one was what we were up against. Underneath this brush and mix of twisted vines was Heller's grave. It sure appears to be a daunting task from the looks of it.

Next we have the first image of the grave in the 21st Century. I was told it was laying down flat on the ground when they discovered it.  This image comes from Ed Snyder.

Since the initial rediscovery of the grave, someone cleaned up the gravestone itself. Then we come to the photos I received from Tony Selletti taken by Ken Biddle. And finally, Ken standing next to Heller's grave. I'm guessing this last shot was taken before they started their work on the site as the photo above shows the area more open.

In 1878 Robert Heller died unexpectedly in Philadelphia. He was buried a few days later in Machpelah Cemetary in Philadelphia. But a few years after he was buried, all the graves in that graveyard were dug up and relocated to other locations. Thus, the search was on to find the grave of one of the great 19th Century magicians. Houdini located the grave in 1910 and the photo at the top of the page is Houdini standing near the grave.

Thankfully through the hard work of volunteers like the Friends of Mount Moriah and others, the grave of Heller and the entire cemetery is getting a gradual make-over. If you would like to contribute to the cause or be part of a future clean-up, you can click the Friends of Mount Moriah link and you can find out more information on how to help.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Magic Detective SHOW New Episode

Well, after a VERY long absence, the Magic Detective Show is back. If you're new to this, the show is a 5+ minute video blog on magic history. This week's episode features a very unusual item from Robert Heller.  Enjoy.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Robert Heller's Magnifecent Peacock

Robert Heller and his Peacock Automaton

As fascinated as I am by Heller, I must now admit, I also have an odd fascination for the so-called Peacock Automaton. I had seen one in the collection of Ken Klosterman (Salon de Magie) and assumed it was Robert-Houdin's Peacock. In his book 'The Memoirs of Robet-Houdin', the author mentions seeing the 'magic peacock' in a show presented by Phillipe. Researching this unusual creature I found that according to Harry Houdini, Robert-Houdin claimed to have created it. But Houdini, in his book 'The UnMasking of Robert-Houdin' makes the claim that Houdin did not create it but rather ripped it off.

Actually, it appears that though there were Automaton Peacocks prior to the Houdin version, his was different in operation and mechanics, so Houdini got that one wrong. I actually assumed, like Houdini, that all these birds were the same. But their appearance is deceiving. They do share a few attributes, one being the realistic look of a peacock and the ability to take the tail feathers and raise them and spread the giant plumage for display. But that is where the similarities stop.

from 1815
There is a playbill from 'The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin' that belongs to Mr. Louis's Royal, Mechanical, and Optical Exhibition. The bird figures prominently on the playbill with the following description. "A Superb Mechanical Peacock-As Large as Life, In it's Natural Plumage! Which imitates, so closely, the Cries, Actions, and Attitudes of that stately and beautiful Bird, that it is not infrequently supposed to be an absolute Animal properly trained to act as an Amusing Deception."The playbill dates to 1815, certainly before Robert-Houdin was born, as Houdini points out.

An even earlier playbill from 1803, belonging to a performer named de Philipsthal, also from 'The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin' reads as follows, "The MECHANICAL PEACOCK, which exactly imitates the Actions of that flately Bird, that is has frequently been thought Alive. It eats, drinks & at command, unfold its Tail in a brilliant circle, and in every respect seems endowed with an intuitive Power of attending to the Thoughts of the Company." Frankly, that sounds pretty amazing to me.

I believe the Robert-Houdin bird was different from the above automatons and I base this on the illustration used by Heller and a similar illustration used by another Robert-Houdin imitator. Let me point out that Robert Heller began his career by doing an act which was essentially a duplication or imitation of Robert-Houdin.

Heller obtained his props from a mechanic named LeGrand who worked for Robert-Houdin. This is the same man who sold props to John Henry Anderson as well. This duplication of props was going on behind the back of Robert-Houdin, and when he found out he called the authorities and LeGrand faced prison time because of his theft. But the damage had already been done and untold props from the Houdin show were now out and being used by his competitors. These included: The Ethereal Suspension, The Fantastic Orange Tree, the Peacock, and numerous other automaton.

Other performers of the time had Automaton Peacocks in their shows which can be seen in their advertisements. I think some of these were like the automatons listed above, true actual automatons, clock-work mechanical devices that could imitate a few actions of the bird. But the Robert-Houdin automaton appears to not be a true automaton, but rather what is referred to as a false automaton. This means it was partly mechanical but also relied upon human aid to perform it's functions. If the Heller illustration is any indication, the bird sat upon a raised platform and was able to grab selected playing cards with it's beak. It probably also moved it's head and raised it's plumage, but the action of grabbing a selected card may have been the work of a hidden assistant. That doesn't lesson the impact of the effect and to my way of thinking, is just as much a mechanical marvel as the others. Houdin was known to use both true automaton and false automaton in his show, so it makes possible that the Peacock was a false automaton. And Heller, who had purchased duplicate props of Houdin, was using The Harlequin as well as the Peacock, and the Harlequin was also a false automaton.

While doing research online for this article I came across a photo for an item listed as The
Magnificent Peacock. I found this same image on several sites, including Pinterest. The first place I found it was All of the pages are unsure of it's origins and they only speculate as to the date of manufacture. One website in particular has a different photo but it's very blurry. It shows that the red base in the photo is actually on an ornate raised wooden or medal pedestal. What is amazing to me is, this looks exactly like an image I saw on one of the Robert-Houdin imitator's posters. So this image to the right could actually be a piece out of a magic show.

For those who might be curious, in the late 1800s, a company called Roulette & Decamps out of Paris France was producing the Peacock Automaton for the general public. They made three versions of the Peacock, a small, a medium and a larger version with a music box inside. All three of their Peacocks had the ability to walk, moves its head and raise it's plumage. One of the Roulette & Decamps Automatons can be seen in the video below. By the way, the Peacock in the Klosterman collection is one of these Roulette & Decamps Automatons. It is identical to the bird in the video, so my initial assumption that it was Robert-Houdin's was incorrect.

*I don't have access to all of the Robert-Houdin books on magic, so I'm unsure if his Peacock and it's workings were listed in a book I missed. If anyone knows and can enlighten me, please do. I make an assumption that Houdin's automaton was a false one, which I also found similar statements online. But with Houdin's knowledge of clockworks, it's just as possible the bird was 100% mechanical. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Heller, Houdini and more

Photo taken during Houdini's visit to the grave in 1910

My fascination with Robert Heller began with Houdini. Specifically, the image of Houdini next to Heller's grave. Houdini referred to Heller in his Conjurer's Monthly Magazine, as "the most versatile magician who ever lived." Had it not been for Houdini, the whereabouts of Heller's grave would be likely be lost forever because it was Houdini who had rediscovered the grave.

When I began to research Heller back in 2011, I had no idea I would become so fascinated by the man. He is certainly an interesting character. I had done a ton of research on him and thought I had uncovered about all there was to uncover, but it turns out I was very wrong. I came across a wealth of new material this weekend on Heller, including playbills and posters and some images and illustrations that I'm not sure have seen the light of day for a very long time. So I will be delving back into the life of William Henry Palmer aka Robert Heller, to see what new mysteries and insight can be uncovered. In the mean time, I hope you enjoy the new photo of the Heller grave, taken in 1910, very possibly by Houdini. And enjoy the poster below, it's a beauty. All three images come from a Houdini scrapbook.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Robert Heller RETURNS

I just heard from the folks at the Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia and they sent me the above photo! The grave of Robert Heller/William Henry Palmer has been found and is now standing. This is from The Haunt at Mt. Moriah, their FB page is

The grave was first discovered by Harry Houdini, who is seen in the photo on the left. And various others have uncovered the grave since that time. But neglect and abandonment of the cemetery caused the entire grounds to become overgrown and some areas impossible to reach. The Heller grave area was one of those.

Imagine my surprise to get the photo at the top of the page sent to me. I thanked them and sent a message asking for permission to use the photo here, but I didn't hear back and then it occurred to me that many they don't answer messages due to sheer volume. So I'm using the photo and given them full credit and my hats off to all the folks who have worked so hard at this cemetery and than you for uncovering Robert Heller's Grave!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Robert Heller Memorabila

If you spend some time looking over my blog, it becomes apparent fairly quickly who my favorite performers are. You'll see the most articles on this blog are about HOUDINI with over 170 articles. Next is Harry Kellar with 32, Le Grand David with 27 and they will soon pass by Kellar. And then the next one is Robert Heller. I've actually probably spent more time in hard research over Heller than anyone. He is such an intriguing character in the history of magic.

Occasionally, Robert Heller items show up on ebay and this time we've got something really cool. It's a unused ticket from Heller's performance at Horticultural Hall, October 13, 1877. I know he was in Boston in September of 1877, so I'm going to assume this ticket is from the Boston Horticultural Hall.
If you are interested in bidding on it, it comes with a pretty steep starting price of $475.00. Too rich for my blood. The auction is here

Next up is a really cool picture of a Heller Poster from the Harry Ransom Collection. I don't recall seeing this poster before, and if I have, I have never seen it in color. It's a beautiful piece. An interesting piece on the poster, underneath his name it reads "From the United States". This is funny because Heller was actually from England. To add to that, when he first came to the U.S. he pretended to be from France!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Robert Heller's Flying Cage

Readers to this blog will be aware of my interest in Robert Heller. I would go so far to say that I am the biggest Robert Heller fan of the 21st Century! I have done quite a bit of research on Heller to date and recently came across a full description of a routine in his show. I'll give you a bit of back story first.

The Flying Cage was the invention of DeKolta and found it's way into the main stream of the magic world through an unscrupulous cousin of DeKoltas. Harry Kellar purchased a cage from this cousin and brought it to America. He sold the secret of the cage in exchange for props to rebuild his show and this then is how the Flying Cage found it's way to America. In Europe, the magic dealer Charles DeVere was building cages as well and probably got the secret from the same source as Keller.

Robert Heller purchased his cage from Charles DeVere only a short time after Harry Keller had brought the trick to America. The Flying Cage, or what we know today as The Vanishing Birdcage, was a controversial trick because magicians were using live canaries and apparently killing them accidently and quite frequently. Kellar was even arrested at one time for the crime of cruelty to animals. But he was able to prove that his birds survived and thrived.

Robert Heller did not go this same route and in fact had a very clever routine. He began by producing feathered bouquets out of a foulard. These bouquets were also darts which he would then toss down and stick into the stage floor. A canary was produced from among the feathers of one of the darts and an assistant held onto it while Heller went to retrieve the cage.

As Heller walked on stage with the cage the assistant who had been holding the bird in their cupped hands, opened their hand to show the bird was gone! Heller then said "Well if there is no bird, we won't need the cage" and in that instant made the metal cage vanish at his finger tips.

A very different presentation than what most of the other magicians had been using, and a great way to avoid the controversy over killing a bird. By the way, the illustration at the top is of Heller, but he is NOT presenting the Flying Cage in this routine, but rather some sort of automaton which I hope to have more news on at another date.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Hat of Robert Heller

A short time ago I had been contacted by an auction house who had acquired a top hat said to belong to a once famous magician. They contacted me because of my many articles about this magician on my blog. The hat belonged to Robert Heller.

It had remained in his family all these many years, but for whatever reason the family felt it was time for the hat to have a new home. I will tell you, the hat sold for more than I expected, but having said that in my honest opinion the hat is priceless. There are precious few artifacts from Heller's life that remain and this item, though not part of his performing act, is still a wonderful piece.

Heller deserves a much more prominent place in the minds of magicians, but today is mostly forgotten. I have tried as best I could to get the word out about him. In fact, I will continue to write stories and articles about Heller in the future.

I don't know who won the hat, but I hope you cherish it for the rare piece of history that it is.

For those who missed my previous articles, please check out this link to the many stories I wrote about William Henry Palmer, known professionally as Robert Heller.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Incredible Walnut Street Theatre

I love old theatres, and in America there is none older than The Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. It has been around for 204 years and thankfully is still in operation. The Walnut Street Theatre has some unique ties to the magic world which I thought I'd share with you, but first a little history on the theatre itself.

Built in 1809 in Philadelphia, The Walnut was the first theatre in America to have gas footlights, it was also the first theatre to have air conditioning. In 1863, the Walnut was purchased by famed actor Edwin Booth, who was also the brother of John Wilkes Booth.

A few famous names to grace the stage of the Walnut Street Theatre include: Henry Fonda, Ethel Barrymore, Jack Lemmon, Robert Redford, George M. Cohan, The Marx Brothers, Edward G. Robinson, Helen Hayes, Katherine Hepburn and many others.

But it's the magicians I'm most interested in. Since the theatre opened in 1809, it's hard to say who the first magician was to perform at the Walnut, but according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Herr Alexander played the Walnut in August of 1849. And I know that on July 4th 1853, Robert Heller opened at the Walnut Street Theatre for a three week run. Prior to his appearances at the Walnut, Heller had been performing with a fake French Accent and a wig. He dropped those accessories and the first place he performed as himself, was in Philadelphia! Oddly, on Nov 28th, 1878 (134 years ago today!) Heller would die of pneumonia in Philadelphia.

I thought Harry Kellar performed there, but I can't find a record. He did perform at the Walnut Street Theatre in Cincinnati Ohio however. And he played almost every theatre in Philadelphia, so I'd be surprised if he never made it to the Walnut St. Theatre.

I don't have any proof of it, but I'm going to guess that Signor Antonio Blitz might have performed there back in the mid 1800's, as he lived in Philadelphia for a time. And I'm thinking it's very possible the Alexander Herrmann may have also performed there which could be why I didn't see Harry Kellar's name listed because the two were competitors.

According to the website for the theatre, Harry Houdini performed at the Walnut, but I don't know when. A little digging shows Houdini at the Chestnut Street Theatre and also at Keith's Theatre in Philadelphia. Houdini had a number of ties to the city. On one visit he discovered the grave of Robert Heller, which had been lost to time. Heller was originally in Macepelah Cemetery in Phili and then later moved to Mt Moriah. At another time he introduced Remigius Weiss, a spiritualist debunker whose claim to fame had been exposing the slate writing of Dr. Henry Slade.

In October 1947, the Blackstone Show was at the Walnut Street Theatre and they were in need of a replacement girl. Word was sent out to some of the theatrical agencies in town and a young dancer named Adele Friel applied for the job. She met Blackstone backstage at the theatre and he gave her an idea of what was required for the position. She met the other girls in the show and just like that, she was hired! But that wasn't all. This was the afternoon, and there was a show in the evening and Adele had no idea she'd be IN the show that night!

Sure enough, she performed her first show with the Blackstone troupe that night and stayed with them for several years touring across the country in the process. One great blessing for the magic world is that Adele loves to visit with magicians and attend conventions on occasion. If you ever get a chance to meet her, please take the time to say hello and listen to some of her wonderful stories.

In the modern era, Penn & Teller have appeared at the Walnut Street Theatre as well. By the way, Teller, the quieter half of the duo, was actually born in Philadelphia!

To me the most exciting thing is that this old beauty of a theatre is still running and has continued to do so for over 200 years! The theatre is located at 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106
If you are aware of the number of theatres that have been razed, destroyed or closed down in the past 100 years, you'll realize just how special the Walnut Street Theatre is.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Robert Heller's Nephew, Maybe

Imagine my surprise to discover a performer who claimed to be the nephew of Robert Heller. I found  him quite by accident. I was looking for posters belonging to Robert Heller and came across the one to the left thinking it was an unusual Robert Heller poster. But the picture didn't quite look like Robert and upon closer examination, I saw the name Geo W. Heller in the upper left hand corner. Who was this guy?

His name was George Waldo Heller, not be be confused with George Washington Heller, who was one of the early members of the S.A.M. and served as Vice President under Houdini. No, George Waldo Heller was very different indeed and is a bit of an enigma. He was apparently born in New York in 1860 and claimed to be the nephew of Robert Heller. Is this possible? Well, Robert Heller had two siblings, Angelo C. Palmer and a sister Fannie Palmer. According to ship records, when Robert Heller came to America the first time in 1852, be brought along a brother 'Ernest Heller' who likely was actually his brother Angelo. So perhaps George Waldo Heller was the son of Angelo/Ernest. Or it could be that there is no relation and he made it up for publicity reasons. It's impossible to tell.

One thing I do know is George left the U.S. to go to Australia in 1889 as part of Hiscock's Pavilion Company. He stayed in Australia and continued to perform until 1927. Heller helped Will Alma get his start. And when Heller had his own touring company he hired Harry Cameron, known as The Great Carmo to be one of "Heller's Entertainers".

But it's Will Alma who gives us some insight into who George Heller was. Alma say's that Heller would go overseas to do business with Conradi and Willmann, the magic dealers. I also know that he had Stanyon build apparatus for him because I found records of this in Stanyon's Magic Magazine. His act consisted of illusions and small apparatus routines. The illusions included 'The Bridal Chamber', 'Gone', 'Cannon and Boxes', and 'Black Art.' He also presented a Second Sight act and a Spirit Cabinet, both routines featured by Robert Heller. Among his smaller prop routines he used Stanyon's Billiard Ball Pedestal, Confetti Doves & Flowers, The Drum That Cannot be Beaten, And a host of Telescoping Flagstaffs which can be seen in the poster at the top of the page.

Alma mentions that George Heller toured India as well as Australia and I was able to find a record of Heller in New Zealand in 1909 also, where his entertainment was described as first class. During a tour of North Queensland, floods ravaged the area and the Heller company was forced to travel by boat. In 1927, Will Alma formed a partnership with Heller called "Alma-Heller's Wonders," but they only presented three shows. George Heller became ill and the tour was cancelled. He died of cancer 1932 and was survived by his wife Maudeena. They apparently had no children.

Heller had a number of very beautiful full color posters, but his appearances within magic literature are quite small. In fact, if it were not for Will Alma, we would know precious little about George Waldo Heller.

Of the various magic sources that mention George Heller I did find some facts to be questionable. A couple sources say that Heller in his later days became a businessman. But I can find no record of what business he went into. He did provide touring entertainment and hired other magicians as well, so he very well may have gone into producing or acting as an agent. His final tour, which lasted three shows, he only showed movies with an Edison projector. So it's also possible the 'business' that is referred to was showing movies rather than performing. Also, several sources say that Heller performed in 1930 and 1931, but according the Will Alma, Heller never recovered from his ailment in 1927.

I'd like to add one more thing about the possibility that he was related to Angelo Palmer, the brother of Robert Heller. I cannot say for sure if this is true, however, I did find that Angelo lived and died in Australia. He did not however have anything to do with the magic business, Angelo was a lawyer. The one jarring thing is that Angelo went to Australia in 1853. So he likely only stayed in the US for a year before coming to Australia. If he traveled back and forth, I have yet to find the record. He did return to England when his father died, but eventually went back to Australia. Angelo C. Palmer died August 10th, 1912 at the age of 80. It is always possible that George Waldo Heller was actually born in Australia  and later traveled to NY, rather than being born in NY. There are a lot of questions and sadly, not a lot of answers.

Well, George Waldo Heller was NOT related to Robert Heller. It took me a while to find the proof, but I found it. Angelo Palmer who was Robert Heller's real brother denied that George was related to the family. And another performer who had worked with George prior to his name change gave the REAL NAME as Robert Wezner. Thanks to an issue of MUM from 1923 the mystery was solved!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Episode 2 Magic Detective Show

Here is Episode 2 now online. Once you watch the episode, head over to the blog article which gives more information about Episode 2. Enjoy!

Episode 2 Additional Information

For the record, I love searching out the graves of dead magicians. Mainly because it's so darn hard to find the graves of living ones. On Episode 2, I showed three photos of graves of magic related people. The first was the grave of Anna Eva Fay Pingree. Anna Eva Fay was a phenomenon in her day. She was born Ann Eliza Heathman in 1851, just at the time that the Fox Sisters and the Davenport Brothers were making news as spiritual mediums. She apparently showed signs of having 'the gift' and was encouraged to move in this direction. Ann met a man who would become her manager and he taught her the actual gifts (the methods used by fake mediums).  They created an act where she would present 'Light and Dark Seances' on-stage for audiences. Among her interesting creations during the 'light seance' was the effect we know today as The Dancing Handkerchief.  Her 'dark seance' sequence was similar to the Davenport Brothers act, she would be tied to a chair inside a cloth cabinet and bells would ring, tambourines would play and other manifestation would occur.

Over the years she would move away from the seance aspect of the show and move more towards mentalism effects, all with a 'spirit' kind of theme to them. She retired from show business in 1924 and settled in Melrose Mass.

The next grave belonged to Mina Stinson Crandon, better known as Margery the Medium. She was the medium who The Scientific American Magazine was going to acknowledge to the world as being  a genuine medium and could really speak to the dead. Well, that is until Houdini got wind of this and he stepped in. Actually, he more than stepped in, he took over the investigation and an all out war ensued! Houdini had a special wooden box built to house Margery and prevent her from causing the manifestations to happen by her own hand. Her spirit guide 'Walter', who was her deceased brother, still spoke however and could be quite the salty tongued spirit.

Houdini successfully prevented the Scientific American Committee from awarding Margery with any sort of authenticity certificate.

She lived on Lime St in Boston and is buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery. The photo was provided to me by escape artist and investigator Norman Bigelow. Norm is currently offering a lecture about Margery and Houdini and other mediums.

Last up is a fellow who I've done a LOT of research on, William Henry Palmer, who performed under the stage name of Robert Heller. He was quite the performer. His show included not only magic, but mind reading and music. You see, Robert Heller was an accomplished concert pianist. The Library of Congress even has several of his pieces of sheet music in their collection.

Heller traveled the world presenting his magic. He actually was from England but his career really blossomed in America. One of his most popular feats was his Second Sight routine. This was an early version of what we think of today as mentalism or mind reading. Heller used multiple methods to read the mind of Haidee Heller, a woman he called his sister but apparently she was not. Incidentally, there is a wonderful story I read that happened between Robert Heller and Haidee. After the musical section of the show one night, he and Haidee got into a quarrel behind the scenes. She refused to come out for the Second Sight routine. So Robert Heller walked out and announced "Ladies and Gentleman, this is the part of the program where Ms. Haidee Heller comes out, except tonight she refuses to do so. Let's wait and see." He then quietly took a seat on the couch and began to twirl his thumbs not speaking a word. A few moments a red hot Haidee came storming out. Heller said "Ah! I thought so" and they continued with the show.

Robert Heller died unexpectedly in November of 1878. He was on tour in Philedelphia and had performed at the Concert Hall on Nov 26th, but showed clear signs of being ill. It was pneumonia and he died the next day. His body was sent to Machepelah Cemetery in Philidelphia and was placed in a vault there. Sometime later it was moved to Mt. Moriah Cemetery where he remains to this day.

Incidentally, these three folks were all connected in two ways. First they all had a connection to Houdini. Anna Eva Fay and Houdini were friends. Margery and Houdini were friendly enemies. Houdini re-discovered the grave of Robert Heller. Second connection is they all presented seances!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Imitation Is The Sincerest Form of Flattery-Magic Style

In today's magic world we have enormous amounts of imitation, which is often more akin to theft and copying than imitation. One recent example was the fellow who stole Piff The Magic Dragon's act and presented it on TV as if it were his own. I've also seen a video on Youtube of a fellow performing Lance Burton's Dove Act copying every detail down to the costume and music. This stuff sadly has been going on forever and happens in other areas of entertainment as well. It's one thing to be inspired by another performer, it's another to steal their act. If the originator has passed on then it's a different issue. Though unless one is presenting a tribute act, it's probably best to still change the act somewhat. I thought I'd share some examples from a bygone era to show how far back this goes.

The Pastry Chef of the Palais Royal
We'll start with Robert Houdin the great french magician. Many performers ripped off the routines of Robert-Houdin. But if you read Harry Houdini's book "The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin" you'd think that everything Robert-Houdin did was stolen also. I find this book to have some interesting historical facts, but I don't always agree with Houdini's conclusions. There is a wonderful routine called The Pastry Chef of the Palais Royal which Robert-Houdin presented. In his routine, a miniature model of a bakery sits upon a table. It appears to be mechanical in nature, as Robert-Houdin must wind it up in the manner of a music box. Out comes a pastry chef holding a tray to take the order. The magician tells the chef what an audience member has selected off a menu of pastries, and the chef turns and goes back inside. The audience can see other mechanical men rolling the pastries and working in the kitchen. A few moments later the mechanical chef figure comes back out with the exact item the person from the audience requested. A marvel of the time. But was it original?

Ernest Basch
If we are to believe Houdini, no way was it original. In fact, Houdini does a fine job of proving that a routine of this nature existed before Robert-Houdin. In his book he says "the trick appears first, not as a confectioners shop with small figures at work, but as a fruitery, then again as a Dutch Coffee house, then as a Russian Inn, from which ten sorts of liquor were served. Finally in 1823, it is featured under the name that made it famous, The Confectioners Shop." So the effect did seem to exist prior to Robert-Houdin. But I tend to think Robert-Houdin was presenting his version of an already existing routine.

The image on the right is that of french magician Ernest Basch, and he is standing near what he claimed was Robert-Houdin's original Pastry Chef automaton. However, if you look at the picture above, you'll see it is clearly not the same. This black and white image was from Houdini's book. It does show that there were other automaton's of this nature out there and it also shows that Robert-Houdin's actual automaton was different. So I think this was more a case of imitation not theft.

Now let's look at William Henry Palmer. He first saw Robert-Houdin perform in London and became interested in magic. When he decided to perform magic himself he changed his name to Robert Heller. It's said that he chose the name 'Robert' from Robert-Houdin, the name Heller from pianist Stephan Heller. Ok, he was inspired by Robert-Houdin, but read on.

Robert Heller took his imitation a step further and even performed with a french accent initially.  There is no denying he copied Robert-Houdin's act. In the book 'The Annals of Conjuring' by Sidney W. Clarke, there is a list of 15 routines presented by Heller and the exact same 15 in the same order presented by Robert-Houdin. Heller did give the routines 'slightly' different names, as if that made a difference. Worse yet, he claimed to have created the magic in his show. This bit of bragging was common among many magicians.  Eventually Heller dropped the accent and found his own style.  He met with real success  when he stopped trying to be Houdin and instead performed as HELLER.

John Henry Anderson, The Great Wizard of the North, claimed to have invented a trick that he called "Suspension Chloroforeene" which was amazingly similar to Robert-Houdin's invention called "The Ethereal Suspension".  In the Houdin version, his son was placed between upright walking sticks and a bottle of ether was held below his nose briefly. Backstage, an assistant with a hand held fan made sure the smell of ether made it's way into the audience as well so as to increase the theatricality of the effect. The boy passed out from the ether and apparently became as light as a feather. To prove this, Robert-Houdin removed one of the walking sticks and lifted his son up and showed that he could actually rest easily upon the other. In the John Henry Anderson routine, Chloroform was used instead of ether, other than that the routine was exactly the same.

Anderson, also presented the Magic Scrapbook, known as the Artist's Portfolio in Houdin's act and the Second Sight routine, which went by the same name in Robert-Houdin's show.

Let's take a look at Harry Kellar.  Notice the side by side photos below. Robert Heller is on the left and a young Harry Kellar is on the right. They look very much alike. Today we most often think of Kellar as the older, clean shaven, balding gentleman, but in his younger days he sported a rather large mustache. As best I can tell, he shaved it off around 1894 because the first Kellar posters without the mustache appeared that year. I wondered if he wore this mustache to look more like Heller. However, I think it was more the fashion of the time.
Robert Heller (left) Harry Kellar (right)
Though the two gentleman do look very much alike, Kellar actually tried to distance himself from Robert Heller. Harry's last name was actually spelled KELLER, but he altered the spelling because it looked too much like HELLER.  His act was fairly different from that of Robert Heller with the exception of the spirit manifestations that many performers of the day were doing. Harry Kellar had worked for the Davenport Brothers, the creator of the Spirit Cabinet act and he left their employment somewhat disgruntled. Upon his exit he took with him another Davenport employee, William Fay. Kellar and Fay teamed up and began to present their version of the Spirit Cabinet.

Harry Kellar did get something from Robert Heller though, but it was after Heller had died. When Robert Heller presented his Second Sight Act it was always with his 'so-called' sister Ms. Haidee Heller. Well, now that Robert Heller had passed on, Haidee, who was no relation, was off presenting the act with a new partner. In 1880, Kellar met her while he was working in Scotland and hired her and her partner to present their act in his show. A few years later, Kellar and his wife Eva began presenting a Second Sight Act. I wonder where he learned that from?

Kellar's most frequent target was John Nevil Maskylene of Egyptian Hall Fame. In fact, it was at Egyptian Hall that Kellar saw Dekolta present his Vanishing Bird Cage Trick. Kellar purchased a copy of the cage from a relative of DeKolta's, though apparently DeKolta himself was unaware of this transaction. A somewhat shady deal.

Maskelyne & PSYCHO
A short time later Kellar hired a mechanic to make a copy of John Nevil Maskelyene's popular  automaton PSYCHO. Kellar even called his version PSYCHO as well, though when he played England, he changed the name temporarily to Arno. Kellar continued to go back to the 'Maskelyne Magic Well' and steal not just automaton but illusions as well. At one point he tried to get permission to do Maskelyne's new Floating Lady illusion. When Maskelyne turned him down, Kellar figured out another way of getting the illusion. He offered a job to Paul Valadon, who had been working at Egyptian Hall. Paul moved to America to become part of Kellar's show.  Together, Valadon and Kellar would build a version of the Maskelyne levitation. Theirs was actually an improvement over the original levitation because it was portable. Maskelyne's original was not made to travel.

It just goes to show, if you've got a popular trick, act or persona, there are people out there who will copy it. I mentioned at the start that this sort of thing happens in other forms of entertainment as well. Comedians are a great example. There are some performers who have no problem with stealing jokes and routines from other comedians. Carlos Mencia and Dane Cook have both been accused of stealing jokes and routines. I've noticed in the movie industry sometimes very similar  projects  come out from competing studios. An example would be the movie Tombstone and then Wyatt Earp. Same story basically, same characters, two different studios. When the movie Capote came out, it was followed quickly by a movie called Infamous, which was the same story about author Truman Capote. Very recently, the movie Battleship came out at the box office and an oddly similar movie which at first had the title American Battleships appeared on the Syfy Channel. The producers of Battleship sued the producers of the other movie over the title so the second movies title was changed to American Warships. So call it what you will, copying, imitation or whatever, it existed 100 years ago and is still going strong today.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Magic of HELLER Pt 3, Second Sight

One of the features of Robert Heller's act was his presentation of Second Sight. He claimed to have invented the illusion, though that is not exactly correct. Robert-Houdin had been performing it long before Heller, in fact the first time Robert Heller had seen it was when Houdin came to London to perform. And Chevalier Pinnetti was performing Second Sight long before Robert-Houdin. So Heller's claim to have invented the effect was more bragging for promotional purposes than truth. The above poster shows Heller performing Second Sight with his assistant, the image is in the top center section of the poster.

Robert Heller did contribute to the act in a significant way however. His assistant Haidee Heller, sat upon a sofa while Heller held up hidden objects and Haidee correctly divined what they were. Most of the performers of the time who presented this type of act used a similar method. Newspapers often printed exposures claiming an elaborate code words were used. But it was when there was no dialog that audiences and magicians alike were dumbfounded. Even though, they did not speak a word, still Haidee Heller knew the answers to various questions or revealed hidden objects and so forth.

The method that Heller used in the 1800s was the piece of furniture that his assistant was sitting on!  The sofa was filled with wires and a battery which ran off the stage to a hidden assistant. A secret assistant in the audience, had a electric button underneath his seat and could tap the button using a type of code to signal the person on the couch. It was diabolical for the time and is yet another example of how magicians often used the latest advances in science to create their illusions.

The reason we even know about this Sofa is because of Henry Ridgely Evans the author of The Old And The New Magic. He wrote about visiting Francis Martinka at his home in NYC and while waiting on Mr. Martinka sat upon this odd piece of furniture. Martinka revealed to him it was Heller's Magic Sofa which he acquired after Heller's death.

I should note here that Heller had originally requested his props and paraphernalia be destroyed upon his death, but upon his deathbed he changed his mind and requested they be sent to Hartz the Magic Dealer to be sold. There is some debate though on what happened following his death. The props were apparently held by creditors in a warehouse. They obviously made it out of that warehouse somehow, whether they were sold off privately or sent to Hartz Magic Shop I don't know. Francis Martinka wound up with several of Heller's props, but this is the only one I know of specifically. I wish I knew what the others were.

Martinka later sold this sofa to a budding young mentalist by the name of Joseph Dunninger. I can't help but wonder where it is today. I will say this, if you know, contact me because I'd like to purchase this piece of furniture. It may still be in the possession of the Dunninger family or it may have been sold off. I don't know but I'd like to find out where it is and again, I'm interested in acquiring it. If nothing else, I'd love to have a color photo of this wonderful piece of magic history.

UPDATE: I just read in Houdini's book "The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin" that he believes Heller's sofa was copied after Robert-Houdin's. But I don't think the Houdin sofa is still around today and I'm not sure if Houdin left details as to the methods he used for his Second Sight routine. If it is true, then the Heller Sofa was built in England originally.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Magic of Robert Heller Pt 2 - The Table of the Black Arts

When Robert Heller began his career in magic he basically ripped off the act of Robert-Houdin. He was not the only performer to do so. He changed course however and eventually came into his own. Not only did he create a unique and memorable act, but he also invented magical props. The one I'm about to discuss was the invention of Robert Heller and Professor DeVere. The prop in it's original form was far superior to the modern version which is rarely used.

The piece of apparatus that was invented by Heller and DeVere was a table, a very special table used in the 'black arts'. Take a look at the image above which comes from Later Magic by Prof. Hoffmann. You'll see two version of the same table. Magicians in the know will instantly understand the type of table and it's various uses. Professor Hoffmann says "the table is one of the most valuable accessories, if not the most valuable, which a conjurer can possess."

I love Victorian Magic. They spared no expense and great skill went into creating their devices. The ornate design on the top of the table fits the decorum and is not overwhelming. It's a simple design. Today's modern version of the table completely misses the point. The pattern on the table completely draws your attention and frankly raises suspicion. The principle in use is still invisible but hardly helped out by the poor construction. See picture below.

I can't help but think that Robert Heller would frown on the cheap version of his table. Interestingly, this table has almost totally fallen out of use in the 21st Century and yet it holds within it some really strong magic. The last time I can recall seeing a professional use this table was Richiardi when he presented his Lemon, Egg, Canary routine.

Sunday, May 27, 2012


In Jan of 2009, I put up a blog about Robert Heller at my old blog( which is now deceased). I added a little biographical information as well. But in my now voracious quest to learn everything there is to know about Victorian aged magic, I kept returning to Heller. In January 2011, I wrote a three part article on Heller for THIS blog. But I held back on covering the actual 'magic' he presented. I'd like to explore a little of his magic.

Heller & The Harlequin
This time it involves one of his automatons, The Harlequin. I should point out, it was not his invention. Robert Houdin also had The Harlequin in his show, and it was also not his invention. The Harlequin Automaton dates back to the 1700’s and was the creation of a dutch mechanic by the name of Opre. The effect was that the magician would bring out a small chest and set it on a table. He would then knock on the lid which would open and slowly a harlequin doll would poke its head out. It would eventually flip out of the box and sit on the edge of the chest. It could turn it’s head, take bows and even smoke a pipe!

Apparently the original Harlequins used in the 1800s were false automatons. This means they were  mechanical, but they were operated by a hidden assistant. True automatons were all mechanical and relied solely upon their inner clockworks to achieve their results.

I recently saw a picture of a Harlequin automaton in the collection of John Gaughan. I don’t know whose Harlequin it was, so it very well might have belonged to Heller. Pierre Mayer, a wonderful modern day automaton creator has built a miniature version out of wood. Pierre Mayer's version is a simplified rendition, but still quite intriguing. And for those interested, please enjoy this short video of Pierre Mayer’s modern Harlequin automaton.

If anyone has information on the location of any of Heller's equipment and props, please drop me an email as I would love to feature them here!

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Last Days of Robert Heller

Approximately 133 years ago this week, Robert Heller, the Victorian era magician, just finished up his final two week run at the Old National Theatre in Washington D.C which began on November 4th.. The newspapers announced this would be Robert Heller's final appearance in the Nations Capital. Earlier in the year, Heller had met up with his family in Paris and decided it was time to reunite the family once and for all. Once his tour of America was over, he would return to Europe for good and be the father to his children that he had not been for some time. This was the reason it was his final appearance in D.C..  The last thing he did before leaving D.C. was catch a cold. In fact, his performing partner Haidee Heller also came down with a cold.

On November 24th, Heller and his company arrived by train in Philadelphia. They checked into the Continental Hotel which was down the street from the Concert Hall where he was to perform. While walking from the hall back to the hotel with his business manager, Heller noticed a strange feeling in his arm. He had to stop several times during the walk to regain his strength. He assumed he was suffering the effects of a worsening cold. In truth, Robert Heller had a bad case of pneumonia.

On November 26th, 1878, Robert and Haidee open at the Concert Hall in Philadelphia. The first part of the show was made up of the various magic effects. Though he was able to get through this part of the show, the audience could tell something was wrong. At the conclusion of part 1, Heller lets the audience know he and his partner are both 'suffering from colds'. He is exhausted and says he needs a bit of rest before he can continue with the next portion of the show. Heller lies down for 30 minutes before he is strong enough to return.

When Heller returns to the stage he begins the musical portion of his act. Heller is a concert pianist and plays the piano like few in this world were able. Apparently on this night, his playing was so passionate that he overwhelmed the audience with his skill. The show ended with Heller and Haidee presenting their signature Second Sight routine which was the forerunner of modern day mind reading acts. At the conclusion of the act, Heller and Haidee returned to the Continental Hotel.

Robert Heller had every intention of performing the following night, Nov 27th, however during the day he was so sick a doctor was called in. The doctor said he had a slight congestion of the lungs. As the day went on Heller grew worse and had to cancel that evenings performance. Sometime during the night, Heller called Haidee to his side and requested that there be a change in his will. He must have realized that this illness was far worse than a little congestion. He told her to be sure that all his magic props are given to Hartz the magic dealer to be sold*if he should die. Originally, his will had stipulated that his props be destroyed upon his death.

Just after midnight, Robert Heller broke out into a fit of vomiting. When this was over he rose up in bed, took a sudden gasp and fell back upon his pillow. Robert Heller had died. The final U.S. tour ended in Philadelphia. There would be no reuniting with his family in Europe. Robert Heller, who was born, William Henry Palmer had a small funeral at the hotel and his bodied was taken to the Machepelah Cemetery in Philadelphia. This cemetery was already over crowded and his body was placed in a vault awaiting a decision on the final resting place. That final place would be Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia.
Houdini by Heller's grave
* I'm unsure what happened to Heller's props. According to an article by Tom Ewing, the props were stored at the Concert Hall while lawyers fought over unpaid bills and such. I do know where one prop ended up following Heller's death, and I'll share that with you in another blog.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Houdini's Grave & More

If you've been following my blog, you know about the October 8th Heller Project to clean up the grave of Robert Heller. Thankfully, there are others in the magic community with this same passion. The very first to do this was Harry Houdini and now his grave is in need of some work. The Houdini Museum in Scranton has been working to make repairs and has restored the bust of Houdini. John Cox does a nice job of covering their efforts and in the link below.

WILD ABOUT HARRY: Houdini Bust Magically Reappears at his Grave Site...

In addition to this, the October 8th date for Hellers grave is right around the corner. It's going to be extremely difficult and will take more than one outing. It probably won't get finished this year. But we need to start it. Below is copy of the email I sent out to those folks who have volunteered to help with the clean up. If you are in the Philidelphia area and would like to help out, please contact me.
AND also, keep in mind, in the case of RAIN or inclement weather the event will be postponed.

 October 8th Clean-up of Robert Heller's grave

Time: from 8am - 1 pm
Date: Saturday Oct 8, 2011
Where: Mt. Moriah Cemetery,  6201 Kingsessing Ave Philadelphia, PA, 19142

What we need: Lots of garden, lawn tools. lawn and hedge clippers and trimmers, saws, shovels, racks, and pretty much anything you think might help get the job done. PLEASE be sure to bring gloves with you and come dressed for this kind of work. IF someone has a first aid kit, that might be a good idea to have handy for cuts and scraps.

Attached is a map of the cemetery and  the location of the Heller gravesite*. Hellers grave is in Section 135 plot 189. We will be working in an area away from most of the other volunteers. The Heller site is greatly overgrown so it's going to be a huge task to get it cleared. How much we can do in a single day is unknown, but at least we will be knocking a dent into it.

Inclement Weather:
The last two clean-up days at Mt. Moriah were called on account of weather. So IF it is raining on October 8th, this event will be cancelled. And in the event of cancellation, I'll let you know when it is rescheduled and hope you are able to make it.

Thanks for your help with this project.

*email me at for a copy of the map of the Cemetery or if you have any other questions.

Monday, September 12, 2011

October 8 Heller Project Update

I just received some photos from the grave area where Robert Heller's tombstone sits. These pictures clearly show the neglect and lack of care this cemetery has received. I'm not even sure where the grave itself IS in these photos. One thing is for sure, it's going to be a daunting task. And not a one weekend task either, but it would be nice to at least get started on it.
 To give you an idea of what it once looked like, below is a photo of Houdini standing next to the grave. Apparently, the metal pole/fencing is gone from this area.

If you're unfamiliar with the October 8 Heller Project, basically, we are looking for volunteers to help clean up the grave site on October 8 in Philadelphia. The grave is at the Mt. Moriah Cemetery. We need able bodied individuals and also we need folks with yard/lawn equipment: rakes, mowers, garden sheers, and much more. Frankly, we probably need a tractor and bushhog, but it's too early to tell.

If you can volunteer your time, please contact me at