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.
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|The Levitation of Princess Karnac|
|Kellar's famous decapitation and floating head conjuration|
He was a longtime customer of the Martinka Magic Company, which built many of his illusions and sets, including the "Blue Room".
- The Levitation of Princess Karnac
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
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
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.
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.