Grave Spotlight

In a way, cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their life any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

After your tour of the virtual cemetery, don't forget to visit the official store (or the brand new downtown location) on your way out and pick up a souvenir or two. Thanks!

Harry Kellar

(July 11, 1849 - March 10, 1922)

Nov. 18, 2009 -- Magicians of today often point to Harry Houdini as their role model and professional influence. More than 80 years after his death, people around the world still know the name of Houdini. But who was Houdini's influence? Who was the magician Houdini idolized, calling him "America's greatest magician," even going so far as to write him a letter and ask to be his assistant (a request that was turned down)?

The answer is a name that today is almost unknown except among people familiar with the history of magic -- Harry Kellar.

Kellar was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, the son of German immigrants. At a young age, Kellar displayed a strong will, a curious mind, and a flare for the dramatic. When he was 10, Kellar was working as an apprentice in a drug store, and was constantly experimenting with different chemical mixtures. When one of his experiments blew a hole in the floor of the drug store, Kellar hopped aboard a passing freight train rather than face his stern parents. In upstate New York, Kellar was befriended by a British-born minister who offered to adopt Kellar and pay for his education if he would study to become a minister. But before he could begin his education, Kellar saw a performance by a traveling magician, and he was hooked.

Instead of religious training, Kellar bought and studied books on magic. While he was working on a farm in Buffalo, New York, Kellar saw a newspaper advertisement placed by the same traveling magician he had seen earlier, looking for an assistant. Kellar immediately applied and was hired. At the age of 16, Kellar decided that he was ready to strike out on his own, and he gave his first magic performance in Dunkirk, Michigan. The performance was a disaster, and Kellar went back to work as the magician's assistant. Two years later, Kellar tried again as a performer, with better results.

Kellar discovered that the life of a traveling magician wasn't too profitable, and he often snuck out of theaters where he was performing during the intermission and skipped town to avoid his creditors. In 1869, the 20-year-old Kellar took a job with the well-known "Davenport Brothers and Fay," a group of touring spiritualists and mediums. Their act consisted of them being tied to seats in a large wooden cabinet on stage, then marshaling unseen spiritual forces to strum guitars, ring bells and throw tambourines in the dark. Kellar left the act in 1873, striking out again on his own.

Kellar toured through Europe and Central and South America, expanding his magic act and polishing his skill. Though other magicians were known for their dexterity and slight of hand, Kellar's great strength was in his presentation and his innovative, lavish productions. In 1878, while on tour in England, Kellar spent $12,000 (the equivalent of $225,000 today) on new equipment and effects. That same year, when legendary magician Robert Heller died, Kellar inherited the mantle of "greatest American magician."

Among Kellar's best-known illusions were "The Levitation of Princess Karnac" and "The Nested Boxes." In "The Levitation of Princess Karnac," a woman dressed in a Hindu costume walks out on the stage toward Kellar. He holds out his hand as if to hypnotize her, and she stops. She is escorted to a couch in the middle of a fully lighted stage, where she reclines. Kellar waves his arm, and she begins to rise, and continues to rise until she is six feet above the couch. Two assistants enter and remove the couch, and bring out a step ladder and a large brass ring. Kellar passes the brass ring around her body to show that there are no wires or other means of support. The couch is brought back to the stage, Kellar waves his arm again, and the woman descends to the couch and awakens.

(As proof of Kellar's influence, it doesn't require supernatural powers to guess where Johnny Carson came up with the name for his "Carnac the Magnificent" character on "The Tonight Show." Carson was known to have a great interest in magic, was a talented amateur magician, and certainly must've known about Kellar.)

In "The Nested Boxes," Kellar borrows six rings from members of audience. He loads them all into the barrel of a pistol, aims and fires the pistol at a closed chest at the side of the stage. The chest is opened and inside is another, smaller chest. Inside the smaller chest are six boxes nested in each other. As each is opened, they are stacked on top of each other and inside the smallest one are five of the borrowed rings, which are returned to their owners. The owner of the sixth ring wonders what happened to hers, but Kellar pretends not to notice and goes on with his act. He continues with his next illusion, the "Inexhaustible Bottle." In this trick, audience members call out different beverages -- wine, whiskey, lemonade, or just water. Kellar holds a bottle and pours each audience member a drink from the bottle, and each audience member acknowledges that they are receiving their requested drink. Once bottle is empty, Kellar breaks it open. Inside is a guinea pig with a sash tied around its neck which has the sixth ring attached to it. The ring is eventually handed back to its owner.

Kellar performed a variation of the trick for President Theodore Roosevelt and his children, Ethel, Archie, Quentin and Kermit. Ethel was the owner of the sixth ring and after Kellar returned her ring, he asked if she would also like to have the guinea pig as a pet. Kellar then wrapped the guinea pig in paper and handed it back to Ethel. When she opened the package, inside was a bouquet of pink roses.

On May 16, 1908, Kellar officially retired from performing just before his 59th birthday. In a grand ceremony, Kellar removed his magician's cape and placed it on the shoulders of his chosen successor, Howard Thurston.

Although Kellar gave his cape to Thurston, his closest friend in magic was Houdini. The two magicians often exchanged letters, particularly when Houdini was on his campaign to expose fake spiritualists, and sought assistance from Kellar, based on his experiences with the "Davenport Brothers and Fay." After Kellar's retirement, Houdini was a frequent guest at Kellar's estate in Los Angeles. Much of the information known about Kellar comes from Houdini, who conducted interviews with Kellar as part of his effort to chronicle the history of magic.

Houdini was born Erich Weiss, and he took his stage name as a tribute to the French illusionist Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. His first name was likely an Americanized version of his childhood nickname, "Ehrie." In his later years, however, Houdini said he took his first name as a tribute to Kellar.

On Nov. 11, 1917, Houdini put together a show for the Society of American Magicians, to benefit the families of the first American casualties of World War I, from the sinking of the USS Antilles by a German U-boat. Houdini convinced Kellar to come out of retirement to perform one more time. The show took place on the largest stage at the time, the Hippodrome in New York City, in front of an audience of 6,000. After Kellar's performance, the magician started to leave the stage, but Houdini stopped him, saying that "America's greatest magician should be carried off in triumph after his final public performance." The members of the Society of American Magicians helped Kellar into the seat of a sedan chair, and lifted it up. The 125-piece Hippodrome orchestra played "Auld Lang Syne" while Kellar was slowly carried away to thunderous applause. A truly magical moment.

Kellar died on March 10, 1922, from a pulmonary hemorrhage brought on by influenza. He is buried at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles. His grave marker, located just outside of the mausoleum, was added in 2001 by the Academy of Magical Arts, the group that owns and runs the Magic Castle in Hollywood, in memory of the "Beloved Dean of Magic."

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