Stars of Vaudeville #31: Harry Kellar
Harry Kellar is still remembered fondly as the Dean of American Magicians, and he is also the first in a long line of Harrys. Born Heinrich Kellar in 1849, Kellar was a rambunctious child, the sort who liked to dance on train tracks just to play head games with the engineers of oncoming locomotives. As an apprentice pharmacist, one of his experiments caused an unfortunate explosion. Unable to take the pressure of small town life, he hopped a freight train and ran away to New York City where he found employment as a newsboy. He was taken upstate and enrolled in school by a minister who’d recognized his worth, with the understanding that upon graduating, he too would become a man in the cloth.
Jesus may have been able to walk on the water and feed a multitude with a few loaves and fishes, but apparently he couldn’t hold a candle to one Penn Yan, the Fakir of Ava, as far as Kellar was concerned. After seeing Penn perform, he applied for a job as his assistant and was hired.
Of course, Penn Yan was really Isaiah Harris Hughes of Essex, England. He was the second individual to perform under that particular name, succeeding the act’s former owner. After serving an apprenticeship with Penn, Keller went solo. It was a tough racket. After a few dates, he was robbed by his first manager, and reduced to hoboing. In Waukeegan, Illinois he showed his true mettle as a conjurer by materializing an entire engagement with nothing more than the shirt on his back. Using charm, stealth and maybe his own patheticness, he managed to bum a coat, the use of a hall for two nights, handbills and props. The profit from the two nights’ performance enabled him to pay everything off, to buy proper new props and tour for a few weeks. After a few weeks he was broke again and had to make his escape from an audience full of creditors by climbing out a rear window during intermission. Talk about a disappearing act!
A truly formative experience was his stint as assistant to the Davenport Brothers, the most famous spiritualists of their day. These were the same Davenport Bros. who invented the so-called “spirit cabinet”, wherein a restrained subject would be placed alongside a lot of bells and chalkboards and similar objects. When the lights were put out, the bells would ring, the chalkboard would be written on, etc. The secret – duh – is that the subject would slip out of the restraints in the dark, ring the bell, write on the chalkboard and so forth. It was in imitation of the Davenports that Houdini first developed his escapology, and it was in rejection of the Davenports that he later mounted his anti-spiritualism campaign. Note: the Davenports were NOT magicians. They did not claim to be skilled illusionists performing feats of dexterity. They claimed to be spiritualists, conjuring actual spirits. Therefore, though Kellar was their assistant, he was not made privy to their secret, or even told that there was one. He figured it out on his own anyway. By performing several experiments on his own, he was able to replicate the Davenports’ effects. He then partnered up with the Davenport’s announcer William Melville Fay and they began to tour their own show, hitting Canada and South America in the years 1873-75. A shipwreck on the return trip destroyed all of the props for the act and a fortune in gems and coins the men had collected during their travels. Fay returned to the Davenports.
Kellar continued to tour with his illusions. During a tour of the Far East in the late 1870s, he studied Indian fakirs, and was disappointed in what they had to offer. Keller continued to perform his escapes, and to conduct private seances. He was an expert at sleight of hand despite a somewhat awkward body, and was highly praised for his levitations. In keeping with the quasi-mystical approach he took to the art, Kellar never joked during the act, but was always deadly serious. After all, it was “magic”. In 1884, inspired by London’s magic theatre Egyptian Hall, Kellar built his own version of same in Philadelphia. He officially retired in 1908, but could occasionally be coaxed out to perform, as when he played the Hippodrome in 1917. In later years, he became a sort of mentor to Houdini, divulging to him the Davenports’s secrets, and convincing him (for the love of God!) not to do the bullet trick that had killed Ching Ling Foo. Kellar joined the Davenport Brothers “on the other side” in 1922.
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.