Stars of Vaudeville #199: Thurston
Originally posted in 2010
Harry Kellar’s official successor was a man who billed himself simply as “Thurston” (his first name was actually Howard). Like Kellar, he made the leap from religious devotion to the itinerant life of a performer cheerfully and in a heartbeat. At age 20, after having been a missionary in upstate New York for several years, he chanced one day to see Herrman the Great perform in Albany. He was so impressed that he actually stalked Herrman a bit, following him onto a train and spying on him all the way to Syracuse, where he watched him perform yet again. The die was cast: Thurston would be a magician.
After several months of practice, he made his debut at Sells Bros Circus in Nelsonville, Ohio. His early act centered around various manipulations of playing cards: making them appear and disappear, hurling them with great accuracy to members of the audience, and even causing them to float round his head in seeming defiance of the laws of physics. This latter illusion drew his hero Herrman, who paid him the ultimate compliment by not being able to figure it out. Starting in 1899, this act brought Thurston all over the big time, opening at Tony Pastor’s 14th Street, then the Keith-Orpheum circuit and the Palace in London, where he was held over for six months and played to the Prince of Wales, Prince Franz Joseph and the kings of Denmark, Greece and Belgium.
In 1903 he enlarged upon his act, adding scenery and new lighting effects. He introduced levitation to the act in 1904, and proceeded to tour the Far East.
Upon his return in 1907 he was anointed by Harry Kellar as his successor. He immediately worked the symbolism of that bestowal into his act, opening with an enormous book containing life-sized pictures of Robert-Houdin, Philippe, Herrman the Great, and Kellar. When the last picture flipped, there stood Thurston, who modestly stepped from the book to begin his act. He now presented large scale illusions, such as the fully furnished room that appeared on a formerly empty platform. In another bit, a girl was replaced by a lion. Such “big magic” was his stock in trade for over twenty years, until the 1929 stock market crash made it financially impossible to continue them any further.
In 1929, he presented something else quite new, a mystery play called The Demon, written by himself and featuring all manner fofgreat stage illusions, all worked into the plot somehow. (apparently it wasn’t just comedians and singers who aspired to “go legit”) His last full evening of magic was April 20, 1932 at the Tremont Theatre, Boston. 1932. He passed away in 1936.
To find out more about 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.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc