Howard Thurston (1869-1936)
“The World's Greatest Magician"
"King of Cards" and
"The man that fooled Herrmann"
Place of Birth
Columbus, Ohio, USA
Approx. 5' 10"
Thurston possessed the ability of masterful manipulation with playing cards. One of his signature effects was the "Rising Card." He was later recognized for his grand illusions, such as the appearing lion and the vanishing of a Willys-Overland automobile.
Thurston was a thirty-third degree mason, and his shows often contained words associated with Masonic ritual.
Howard Thurston was born on July 20, 1869, and was the son of a carriage maker in Columbus, Ohio.
Faced with an unhappy childhood at home, he ran away and joined a circus where he performed in a sideshow as did another famous magician whom Thurston eventually succeeded, Harry Kellar.
The first magician Thurston saw was Alexander Herrmann, the then reigning “King of Magic.”
Thurston resolved to match the style of his idol, but he briefly studied for the ministry before taking up a magician’s wand.
While still in his teens, he first toured the United States with a small act. Then a European vaudeville tour catapulted him on the road to international fame.
Thurston’s financial success in Europe allowed him to build an illusion show which he took around the world.
Thurston's show was the largest traveling magic show for the time, requiring more than eight entire train cars to transport his props across the country.
He was the most famous magician of his time, more famous even than his contemporary Harry Houdini.
He visited Australia, India, and the Orient, polishing his skills and developing a stage presence that served him well.
Thurston returned to the United States to succeed the then-reigning magician, Harry Kellar. Kellar had established his reputation by touring the United States for decades with a spectacular stage show.
On May 16, 1908, in Ford’s Theatre in Baltimore, after Thurston had performed with him on his farewell tour, Kellar passed his magician’s wand to Thurston.
A dynasty of magicians was started then that continues to today: Harry Kellar, Howard Thurston, Dante (Harry Jansen), Lee Grable, and Lance Burton. The Baltimore Assembly of the Society of American Magicians is known as Kellar–Thurston No. 6.
Thurston kept only a few of Kellar’s illusions while making full use of the fame that came from being Kellar’s successor.
He produced lavish shows, adding pretty women and humor where Kellar had more formal presentations. New effects were added every year as old ones took a rest.
While his original fame rested on card manipulations, Thurston’s later reputation was built with large stage illusions. One of his popular tricks was to make a Whippet automobile filled with beautiful ladies disappear.
He also was famous for floating an assistant above the stage and out over the footlights where she eventually vanished without a trace.
With the advent of motion pictures, and it's popularity overshadowing the magic circuit, Thurston performed his last great full evening show at Boston's Tremont Theater in April of 1931.
He decided to adapt to the new theatrical conditions of the film industry and perform his shows in movie houses.
He presented a scaled-down version of his famous show in conjunction with a feature film—a movie and a magic show for one price. It was quite a step down from a ten-boxcar show, but he kept on amazing his audiences.
He selected all of his best and most complex tricks and increased the duration of his show performing four shows a day as opposed to the ten performances a week of the old days.
His assistants urged him to cut back, to make the show easier on himself, but the persevering prestidigitator wouldn't budge. In 1935, Thurston suffered a cerebral hemorrhage during a performance in Charleston, West Virginia.
On March 20, 1936 Howard Thurston suffered a second stroke and later died on April 13 at his Oceanside apartment in Miami Beach, Florida. His death was attributed to pneumonia. He was 66 years old.
Photos: courtesy of State Library of Victoria.
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