Kellar's Egyptian Hall

05 coverWith the arrival of the S.A.M. national convention this July, Philadelphia becomes the center of the magic universe. This is nothing new for the City of Brotherly Love; it has hosted the convention on three other occasions: 1931, 1968, and 1972. It is also a city with a rich magical history that dates to colonial times.

In the mid 1700s, Philadelphian Jacob Meyer began performing magic; Meyer eventually adopted the stage name Philadelphus Philadelphia and rose to fame both here and abroad. He traveled extensively throughout Europe and performed before the Empress Catherine and Sultan Mustafa III at Constantinople. In the late 1800s, Alexander Herrmann had a theater in Philadelphia for many years. Thurston created some of his early illusions at nearby Willow Grove Park; his life story was published by Dorrance Publishing in the city. Walter Gibson, ghostwriter for Thurston, Houdini, and Blackstone, was born in Philly and lived here. Frederick Eugene Powell, second Dean of the S.A.M., lived and worked here. Philadelphia also boasts five S.A.M. national presidents: James Wobensmith, Richard Gustafson, Bradley Jacobs, Roy Snyder, and Mike Miller. And, of course we have Assembly 4, one of the organization’s earliest.

This only touches on some of the city’s rich magical history; the topic of this article features another famous magician whom many almost consider a Philadelphia boy – Harry Kellar – who owned and operated his own magic theater that helped establish him as America’s favorite magician. In fact, he had two magic theaters in the city.

Years ago, the late Robert Lund, owner of the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan, gave a lecture at the Magic Collector’s Association Weekend on “The World’s Greatest Magician.” He asked fellow collectors by what standards should this title be judged? Should it be the amount of money the performer made? Should it be the publicity he or she generated? How about the number of famous people the magician knew? He contended it was these and many other factors.

In the case of Harry Kellar, America’s most beloved magician of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it started with a small black dog. By chance or fate, the dog, which belonged to the Fakir of Ava (Isaiah Harris Hughes), took a liking to young Kellar when, as a boy, he responded to a newspaper advertisement for the position of “magician’s assistant.” Many other boys had applied, but until young Kellar stepped through the gate, the Fakir’s dog had not taken a liking to any of them. Kellar was greeted warmly and his path toward magic stardom was sealed with a lick. 

Magic history books relate that Kellar travelled with the Fakir for several years, struck out on his own a few times (unsuccessfully), and then joined up with the Davenport Brothers. Eventually, he parted company with them and took William Fay, another Davenport assistant, with him. Thus began a series of worldwide travels from England to India, and from South America to Australia. He was beset by bandits in Mexico, shipwrecked off the coast of France, and lost his entire life savings in a bank failure. Yet, the experience he gained was invaluable.

One thing that he longed to do was to open his own permanent theater along the lines of Maskelyne and Cooke’s Egyptian Hall in London. He eventually accomplished this when he opened his own “Egyptian Hall” in Philadelphia. The dates of its operation are mentioned in magic history books and Kellar’s success there documented. However, these were only fragmentary references and little was known about the theater itself, the magic that was performed there, or how it helped position Kellar to assume the mantle of “America’s favorite magician.” Click here to Join the S.A.M.

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