Harry Kellar (1849-1922)
Harry Kellar's Real Name
"The Wonderful Kellar"
"Dean of American Magicians"
Place of Birth
Erie, Pennsylvania, USA
Approx. 5' 10"
Harry Kellar possessed the ability superior showmanship and misdirection skills. His signature illusions were the "Levitation of Princess Karnack," and his famous decapitation and floating head conjuration.
In 1911, Kellar legally changed the spelling of his name to Kellar because there was another popular magician named (Robert) Heller and wanted to avoid any possible confusion.
Harry Kellar was born Heinrich Keller on July 11, 1849 in Erie, Pennsylvania.
The son of German immigrants, his father, Francis P. Keller, had been a soldier under Napoleon. At the age of ten, Harry was put to work and found employment at Carter’s pharmacy on North Park Row.
As a child, Kellar loved to play dangerous games and was known to play chicken with passing trains.
Kellar apprenticed under a druggist and was constantly experimenting with different chemical mixtures. On one occasion, Kellar reportedly blew a hole in the floor of his employer's drugstore.
Rather than confront the wrath of his parents, 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 Kellar and pay for his education if he would study to also become a minister.
One evening Kellar saw the performance of a traveling magician, The Fakir of Ava and, after the show, 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, Kellar answered an ad in the newspaper that was placed by Hughes, who was looking for an assistant. Kellar was hired and, at the age of sixteen, gave his first solo performance in Dunkirk, Michigan.
It was a disaster and 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.
In 1869, Kellar took a job with "The Davenport Brothers and Fay". "The Davenport Brothers and Fay" was a group of stage spirtualists made up of Ira Erastus Davenport, William Henry Davenport and William Fay.
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 Keller'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, 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, 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, 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, Kellar cancelled his remaining shows and returned to New York.
Shortly before arriving, Kellar was told of the death of magician Robert Heller. The New York Sun accused 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." 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 Kellar to eventually cancel his upcoming shows in the United States and head back to Brazil.
After making another world tour in 1882, Kellar was performing again in Melbourne, Australia and met a fan, Eva Lydia Medley, who came backstage to get his autograph. 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, Kellar closed the theater on June 24, 1885. The theater was renamed Temple Theatre and burned down shortly after Kellar left.
While 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 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.
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, Kellar ended a successful seven month run at his second Egyptian Hall. Kellar decided to return to the road.
During the times 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 Kellar's lack of sleight of hand and claimed he preferred to use mechanical tricks instead.
While he lacked sleight of hand, 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." Herrmann died on December 17, 1896.
Harry Kellar retired in 1908, and allowed Howard Thurston to be his successor. Kellar had met Thurston, who was doing card tricks, while on vacation in Paris, 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, 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 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.
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.
Information courtesy of Wikipedia
Photos courtesy of State Library of Victoria
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