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Harry Kellar’s Show Posters


Harry Kellar (1849–1922) was an American magician of the late 19th and early 20th century, famous for his large stage shows during which he’d perform tricks such as the “The Levitation of Princess Karnac” and “Self Decapitation”, in which his head seemed to float apart from his body. He was hugely popular in his time, inspiring the likes of Harry Houdini, and reportedly acting as a model for the bald-headed wizard in the The Wonderful Wizard of Oz published in 1900. To accompany his shows he produced a series of wonderful promotional posters, a selection of which are presented below.

Want one on your wall? We made one into a poster which you can buy in our online shop.

The Levitation of Princess Karnac

Kellar's famous decapitation and floating head conjuration

Kellar was a predecessor of Harry Houdini and a 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", which was similar to an illusion invented by John Nevil Maskelyne, from which Kellar copied by bribing one of Maskelyne's theater staff.

He was a longtime customer of the Martinka Magic Company, which built many of his illusions and sets, including the "Blue Room".

Presented large stage shows during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Notable illusions

  • The Levitation of Princess Karnac
Kellar supposedly developed this trick by abruptly walking onto the stage during a show by Maskelyne, seeing what he needed to know, and leaving. Unable to duplicate it, 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 trick was done by a disguised machine hidden from the audience's perspective. Kellar would claim the woman onstage, sleeping on a couch, was a Hindu princess, who he would levitate and then move a hoop back and forth through the woman's body to prove she was not being suspended. Inside the "princess"'s dress was a flat board she was resting on, which was connected to a metal bar going out the side into the backstage. The other end of the bar connected to a machine to raise and lower the woman, blocked from view by the curtain and her own body. To allow Kellar to "prove" with the hoop that she was floating, the bar was in a rough "S" shape, letting him move the hoop through the length of her body in any direction
  • The Nested Boxes
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 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. Kellar covers the glowing 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.

Kellar was known to have a short temper, and once, after an incident in which the "Vanishing Lamp" failed to vanish, he took an axe to the defective prop. Later Kellar built another one that would continue to work reliably long after his retirement.

Houdini and Kellar on YouTube

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

Kellar was often visited by other magicians, notably including Harry Houdini. On November 11, 1917, Houdini put together a show for the Society of American Magicians to benefit the families of those who died in the sinking of the USS Antilles by a German U-boat (who have been considered the first American casualties of World War I). Houdini got 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 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 Kellar into the seat of a sedan chair, and lifted it up. The 125-piece Hippodrome orchestra played "Auld Lang Syne" while Kellar was slowly taken away.

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.

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