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Biography of Harry Kellar, Dean of American Magicians

Kellar: Levitation

Harry Kellar (July 11, 1849 – March 10, 1922) was an American magician who presented large stage shows during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Harry Kellar  was the predecessor of  Harry Houdini  and the successor of Robert Heller. He was often referred to as the ”Dean of American Magicians” and performed extensively on five continents. One of his most memorable stage illusions was the levitation of a girl advertised as the ”Levitation of Princess Karnack” (invented by John Nevil Maskelyne).

He was a longtime customer of the famous Martinka Magic Company, which built many illusions and sets for him, including the “Blue Room”.

Early life of Harry Kellar

Like most magicians, there is little of Harry Kellar’s early life that can be confirmed. His real name was Heinrich Keller and was born to German immigrants in Erie, Pennsylvania. He was sometimes called Henry, but later changed it to Harry. As a child, Harry Kellar loved to play dangerous games and was known to play chicken with passing trains.

Harry Kellar apprenticed under a druggist and was constantly experimenting with different chemical mixtures. On one occasion, Harry Kellar reportedly blew a hole in the floor of his employer’s drugstore. Rather than confront the wrath of his parents, Harry Kellar stowed away on a train and became a vagabond. He was only ten years old at the time.

Harry Kellar was befriended by a British-born minister of religion from upstate New York. He offered to adopt Harry Kellar and pay for his education if he would study to also become a minister. One evening Harry Kellar saw the performance of a traveling magician,  The Fakir of Ava  (the stage name of Isiaiah Harris Hughes), and, after the show, Harry Kellar “immediately got the urge to go on the stage.” He later told Houdini that, “I became very restless, bought books on magic and finally left my friend and benefactor.” While working on a farm in Buffalo, New York, Harry Kellar answered an ad in the newspaper that was placed by Hughes, who was looking for an assistant. Harry Kellar was hired and, at the age of sixteen, gave his first solo performance in Dunkirk, Michigan. It was a disaster and Harry Kellar went back to work with Hughes. Two years later, Keller tried again with better results, but, as he was always broke, often had to leave town during the intermission to avoid creditors.

Career of Harry Kellar

Kellar Drinks with the Devil

In 1869, Harry Kellar took a job with ”The Davenport Brothers and Fay”. “The Davenport Brothers and Fay” was a group of stage spiritualists made up of Ira Erastus Davenport, William Henry Davenport and William Fay—pretending to contact departed spirits using magicians’ tricks, who were later debunked by Harry Houdini. Harry Kellar spent several years working with them, until 1873, when he left the Davenports accompanied with Fay. They started on a “world tour” through Central and South America.

In Mexico, they were able to make $10,000 ($193 thousand in today’s figures). In 1875, the tour ended in Rio de Janeiro and with an appearance before Emperor Dom Pedro II. On their way to a tour in England, the ship Kellar and Fay were sailing on, the Boyne, sank in the Bay of Biscay. Lost in the wreckage was Kellar’s show, clothes, as well as the ship’s cargo of gold, silver and uncut diamonds. After the shipwreck, Keller was left with only the clothes on his back and a diamond ring he was wearing. Even worse, his bankers in New York cabled him telling him that his bank had failed. Desperate for money, Harry Kellar sold his ring, while Fay left to rejoin the Davenports.

After visiting John Nevil Maskelyne’s and George Alfred Cooke’s theatre, called Egyptian Hall, Keller was inspired and liked the idea of performing in one spot. He loved the illusions Maskelyne and Cook performed and spent his remaining money to buy the trick from them. Harry Kellar borrowed $500 from Junius Spencer Morgan (father of J.P. Morgan) and returned to the United States to try and retrieve his funds from bank transaction from when he was in Brazil. Knowing that mail from Brazil was slow, he was able to recover all of the $3,500. With the money, Harry Kellar started a “troupe” based on Masekylne’s and Cooke’s in England, even go so far as  naming his theater Egyptian Hall.

In 1878, Harry Kellar returned to England and invested $12,000 in new equipment, one of them being a version  Maskelyne’s whist-playing automaton “Psycho”. After a disappointing tour in South America, Harry Kellar cancelled his remaining shows and returned to New York. Shortly before arriving, Harry Kellar was told of the death of magician Robert Heller. The New York Sun accused Harry Kellar of pirating Heller’s name, saying that “Heller is scarcely dead before we read of ‘Kellar the Wizard’.” The article goes on to say, “Of course ‘Kellar’ aims to profit by the reputation that Heller left, by adopting a close imitation of Heller’s name. This is not an uncommon practice.” Harry Kellar attempted to prove that his name was always Keller with an “e” and had changed it years ago, so as to not be confused with Heller. He also pointed out that Heller had changed his name from William Henry Palmer. The public was still unreceptive to him, causing Harry Kellar to eventually cancel his upcoming shows in the United States and head back to Brazil.

After making another world tour in 1882, Harry Kellar was performing again in Melbourne, Australia and  met a fan, Eva Lydia Medley, who came backstage to get his autograph. Harry Kellar promised to send postcards and letters on the road. They exchanged letters for the next five years.

Harry Kellar started his version of Egyptian Hall in December 1884, after renting out an old Masonic temple on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After 264 performances, Harry Kellar closed the theater on June 24, 1885. The theater was renamed Temple Theatre and burned down shortly after Kellar left.

While Harry Kellar was performing in America, Medley arrived a few weeks before his next appearance in Erie. She played the cornet in the show and started to learn about the magic business. Harry  Kellar and Medley were married on November 1, 1887 at a church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She played an important role in Harry Kellar’s shows in the coming years. Not only did she play part in many of his upcoming illusions, but she also provided the music.

Harry Kellar returned to Philadelphia in October 1891 and opened his second Egyptian Hall at Concert Hall, located also on Chestnut Street. On April 30, 1892, Harry Kellar ended a successful seven month run at his second Egyptian Hall. Harry Kellar decided to return to the road.

During the times Harry Kellar was abroad, another magician,  Alexander Herrmann, had become famous and came into competition with Kellar  when Kellar returned to the United States. Herrmann often criticized Harry Kellar’s lack of sleight of hand and claimed he preferred to use mechanical tricks instead. While he lacked sleight of hand, Harry Kellar was so good in using misdirection, that he said a “…brass band playing at full blast can march openly across the stage behind me, followed by a herd of elephants, yet no one will realize that they went by.” Alexander Herrmann died on December 17, 1896.

Later life of Harry Kellar

Kellar: Self-Decapitation

Harry Kellar retired in 1908, and allowed Howard Thurston to be his successor. Harry Kellar had met Thurston, who was doing card tricks, while on vacation in Paris, France. Harry Kellar did his final show at Ford’s Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland. Harry Kellar eventually moved to his house in Los Angeles, California. Kellar’s wife died two years later.

Harry Kellar was often visited by other magicians, most notably was Harry Houdini. On November 11, 1917, Houdini put together a show for the Society of American Magicians, to benefit the families of the first American casualties of World War I, from the sinking of the USS Antilles by a German U-boat.  Houdini got Harry Kellar to come out of retirement to perform one more show.

The show took place on the largest stage at the time, the Hippodrome. After Harry Kellar’s performance, Kellar started to leave, but Houdini stopped him, saying that “America’s greatest magician should be carried off in triumph after his final public performance.” The members of the Society of American Magicians helped Harry Kellar into the seat of a sedan chair, and lifted it up. The 125-piece Hippodrome orchestra played “Auld Lang Syne” while Harry Kellar was slowly taken away.

Harry Kellar lived in retirement, until he died on March 3, 1922 from a pulmonary hemorrhage brought on by influenza. He was interred in Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Notable illusions of Harry Kellar

“The Levitation of Princess Karnac”

Kellar: Levitation

Harry Kellar supposedly developed this trick by walking on stage during a show by Maskelyne, saw what he wanted, then left. Unable to duplicate it, Harry Kellar hired another magician to help build another, but eventually designed a new trick with the help of the Otis Elevator Company. Another version built by Kellar was purchased by Harry Blackstone, Sr., who used the trick for many years. The Buffalo writer John Northern Hilliard wrote that the levitation was a marvel of the twentieth century and “the crowning achievement of Mr. Kellar’s long and brilliant career.”

“The Nested Boxes”

Harry Kellar borrows six finger rings from members of audience. He loads them into the barrel of a pistol, aims and fires the pistol at a chest that is hanging on the side of the stage. The chest is opened and inside is another, smaller chest. Inside that, are six boxes nested in each other. As each is opened, they are stacked on top of each other and inside the smallest one are the five rings each tied with ribbon to flowers. The five rings are returned to their owners. The owner of the sixth ring wonders what happened to hers, with Harry Kellar pretending not to notice. He continues with his next trick, which a variation of Robert-Houdin’s “Inexhaustible Bottle”. Audience members call out different beverages like wine, whiskey, lemonade, or just water. Each one is poured from the same bottle and the audience acknowledges that they are indeed receiving their requested drinks. Once bottle is empty, Kellar takes it and breaks it open. Inside is a guinea pig with a sash around its neck which has the sixth ring attached to it. The ring is eventually handed back to its owner.

A variation of the trick was performed in front of  United States President Theodore Roosevelt and his children, Ethel, Archie, Quentin and Kermit. Ethel was the owner of the sixth ring and after Kellar had returned her ring, he asked if she would also like to have the guinea pig as a pet. Then Kellar wrapped the guinea pig in paper and handed it back to Ethel. When it was opened, inside was a bouquet of pink roses.

“The Vanishing Lamp”

A lamp is seen set on top of a glass table. Still lit, Harry Kellar covers the lamp with a thin cloth. Kellar told the audience that each evening, the lamp would be returned to its purported, original owner in India at a specific time. As a bell sounded out the current time of day, Kellar loaded a pistol and aimed it towards the lamp. At the last chime, Kellar fired the pistol. The lamp seemed to melt away, with the cloth falling to the stage. Harry Kellar was known to have a short temper and after an incident where the “Vanishing Lamp” failed to vanish, an assistant had set it up on the stage to try and repair it. Harry Kellar saw the lamp and decided to take an ax to it. Harry Kellar eventually built another one that would continually work and, long after his retirement, the lamp he built still worked perfectly.

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