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Tuesday, March 19, 2024

March 19, 2024: American Magic: Thurston and Kellar

[This coming weekend marks Harry Houdini’s 150th birthday! So this week on the blog I’ll perform some AmericanStudying magic of my own, leading up to a special post on that legendary prestidigitator.]

On a pair of magicians who help us think about both competition and collaboration.

I’m one of those film buffs who think that Christopher Nolan has gotten a little overexposed in recent years, but I’ll stand by many of his early films as truly groundbreaking and great in equal measure. That’s especially true of Memento (2000), which as I wrote in that post occupies a spot very high on my list. But not too far below it is The Prestige (2006), a very intricate and clever historical drama that also happens to be for my money the best film about magic ever made (as well as very much a magic trick in its own right, and if you haven’t seen it I won’t spoil the trick!). And while The Prestige is about many things within and around the world of 19th century magic (including electricity as its own magic trick, courtesy of David Bowie’s performance as Nikola Tesla [some SPOILERS in those clips]), at its heart it is a story of a lifelong conflict and competition between two equally talented magicians and showman and equally bitter rivals, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale).

Late 19th century America was home to its own famous pair of rival magicians, Howard Thurston (1869-1936) and Harry Kellar (1849-1922). As I highlighted in yesterday’s post, both Thurston and Kellar claimed to be the true heir to the origin point for 19th century American magic, the Fakir of Ava; Kellar literally worked for years as the Fakir’s apprentice starting at the age of 12, so he might well have the better claim, but as with all things magic the question is at least a bit shrouded in mystery, natch. And in any case, the competition between the two men went beyond their relationship to this professional progenitor, with both for example claiming to be the true master of a very famous specific illusion known as the “Levitation of Princess Karnac” (neither man seems to have originated the trick, as that honor apparently goes to English magician and inventor John Nevil Maskelyne). As Nolan’s film nicely explores, the world of magic is often defined by these questions over what performer truly “owns” a particular illusion, both in the literal sense of proprietary concerns but even more in terms of mastery, and Thurston and Kellar embodied that competitive conflict in spades.

Or was it all just an act? (Not in Nolan’s film, to be clear—again, no spoilers, but those two characters really, really don’t like each other.) After all, Kellar was a generation older than Thurston, served in at least some ways as another mentor to the younger performer, and the two men toured together for many years with their Thurston-Kellar Show (which as that advertisement reflects billed the act as “Thurston, Kellar’s Successor). While any performer faces genuine questions about their legacies after they’re gone, questions which would certainly be connected to who “owns” a famous illusion, every performer also and perhaps especially wants an audience while they’re alive. Both of these magicians unquestionably learned from the Fakir about how to generate publicity, not only in one moment but across a long career, and presenting themselves as rivals (even, if not particularly, when they shared a stage) was quite possibly an elaborate way to do just that. As with any great magic trick, we’ll never know the answer for sure!

Next MagicStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Magicians or magic histories or contexts you’d highlight?

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