- R. Douglas Whitman
Kellar, Harry (11 July 1849–10 March 1922), magician, was born Heinrich Keller in Erie, Pennsylvania, the son of German immigrants. He had little formal schooling and worked at a young age to assist his family. At the age of ten he hopped a train and traveled about the country, eventually earning his living selling newspapers in Manhattan. Robert Harcourt, a British-born clergyman, took him under his wing, taking Kellar to Canandaigua, New York. He began his career after seeing a performance by I. H. Hughes, known as the Fakir of Ava. Soon afterward Kellar became Hughes’s assistant at the age of eleven. When he was sixteen, he attempted to succeed with his own show but failed, returning to Hughes after a short period of time.
Two years later Kellar took his own show on the road again; however, he lacked money and equipment. After one show with particularly poor attendance, he sneaked out a back window, leaving his meager props behind. He attempted a series of unsuccessful solo shows before, penniless, he talked his way into a loan to pay for a hall and advertisements. With borrowed cards, ropes, bottles, and a kitten to produce, he almost filled Phoenix Hall in Waukegan, Illinois. Successful for a number of weeks, he soon was broke again.
After a number of years of limited success, in 1869 Kellar was hired by the Davenport Brothers and Fay, who presented a spiritualist show specializing in ghostly happenings. This act took him to England and Europe for four years. He was promoted by the Davenports first to the position of advance agent, organizing shows in advance of the arrival of the troupe, and then to business manager.
In 1873 Kellar and Bill Fay, another of the Davenport assistants, set out with their own production. They successfully toured Canada, Mexico, and South America, presenting a combination of magic, escapes, and “spirit which manifestations.” Kellar’s signature illusion, originated by British magician John Nevil Maskelyne, was the “Levitation of Princess Karnac.” This effect, involving the flotation and subsequent disappearance of a woman above the stage, became a staple illusion for all future illusion shows. While on their way to England their steamship struck a rock in the Bay of Biscay. Two crewmen lost their lives, but the rest of the passengers made it to the Island of Moleno. But Kellar’s fortune and, more importantly, the show’s costumes and equipment were lost. Finding himself without resources, Kellar once again talked his way into a loan, rebuilt his show, and traveled to the West Indies as “The Royal Illusionist.”
In 1878 Kellar returned to the United States after traveling the world for five years. After one of his shows in Melbourne, Australia, Eva Medley, an enamored fan, approached Kellar for his autograph. He continued corresponding with her throughout his world tour. They were married in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1887. They had no children. After a disappointing year in the United States, he returned to South America and again traveled the world performing on five continents.
In 1884 Kellar returned to New York City and developed a spectacular show to rival that of Alexander Herrmann, who was then the leading magician in the United States. He continued to perfect and refine every effect and every line of his routine until it was flawless. For a time the two magicians competed directly with one another to present the most spectacular illusions. Upon Herrmann’s death in 1898, Kellar became the undisputed leading magician in the world. In the fall of 1907 he began his final U.S. tour, accompanied by Howard Thurston, whom he identified as his successor. After the final show he went to New York, where the Society of American Magicians made him their first dean. He then retired, relatively wealthy, to Los Angeles, California.
Kellar performed publicly one last time. In 1917 Harry Houdini convinced him to participate in a benefit performance of the Society of American Magicians for the families of the first American casualties of World War I. After his performance Houdini insisted that he return to the stage for a finale. Amid a profusion of flowers, twenty-four men and women, including the leading magicians in the world, carried him off stage in a sedan chair while the 6,000 spectators provided a standing ovation. Harry Houdini once said of him, “When Harry Kellar was on stage, he was not merely acting the part of a magician, he was a magician” (quoted in Vincent Gaddis, The Wide World of Magic , p. 105).
Kellar chronicled his life of magic around the world in A Magician’s Tour up and down and round about the Earth (1886). More detailed information on his life is also contained in Milbourne Christopher, The Illustrated History of Magic (1973), and John Mulholland, Quicker Than the Eye (1927).