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Gilded Age Magic: Rare theatrical posters of Harry Kellar on view at the Hudson River Museum
Kellar and his perplexing cabinet mysteries. Strobridge Litho. Co., Cincinnati & New York, ©1894. Chromolithograph poster. Collection of Bjorn Hanson.

YONKERS, NY.- “Annihilation of Space,” “Projection of the Astral Body,”and “Maid of the Moon” are the stuff of scary space phenomena but 1890s newspaper ads declared these feats the “Ne plus ultra of the Magic Art.” At the turn of the 20th century, magicians added their own luster to the booming culture of the American Gilded Age. Performing 10-minute vaudeville line-ups and one-man stage shows, they traveled from city to city laden with the equipment and entourage of a circus, their arrivals heralded with colorful posters and dramatic claims ─ “Thurston the great magician, the wonder show of the universe!” Paying audiences were hooked and magicians elevated from street entertainers to international celebrities.

Gilded Age Magic, organized by the Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, features rare theatrical posters of Harry Kellar (1849-1922), the “Greatest of Wonder Workers,” his “successor” Howard Thurston (1869-1936), and Chung Ling Soo, the American William Ellsworth Robinson (1861–1918) best remembered for his tragic death when his “bullet catch” trick malfunctioned. The exhibition also includes programs; magicians’ costumes as well as the spangled outfits of their assistants; rare promotional photographs of Thurston’s performances; and how-to books for amateurs. Gilded Age Magic explores the evolution of the modern magic performance and its promotion through 20th century-advances in printmaking and advertising. The spirit cabinet (“Cabinet of Mysteries,”) seen in the exhibition, is an apparatus with a routine that Kellar devised from European magic. The antique cabinet, reproduced by Howard Thurston when Kellar’s first cabinet wore out, at times was shown empty to the audience but, when shut, occurrences inside began ─ knocking sounds or the playing of tambourines, often combined with floating "ghosts," who moved in and out of the cabinet. Often Kellar or Howard Thurston opened the cabinet door to reveal a floating silver orb that emerged under their control, then to disappear into the cabinet shown empty again. Background sound design by artist John Morton includes vintage clips of magic shows, comedic performances, strange sounds effects, and popular songs, created to enhance the visitor’s sensory experience of the show.

What makes a show spectacular? What makes a trick never to be forgotten? We look to the master of showmanship, Harry Kellar, who performed grandly titled illusions, such as “The Levitation of Princess Karnak,” around the country, but he called Yonkers home. He founded a “royal dynasty” of American magicians that included his most famous friend Harry Houdini (1874-1926). These showmen built their acts on an ever-widening disassociation from magic’s age-old traditions of sorcery and witchcraft and the slights of hand and escape tricks practiced by trickster criminals. Seeking a new route to their audiences, they moved from magic’s occult and supernatural origins to magic as entertainment pure, simple, and hopefully credible.

The objects in Gilded Age Magic are drawn from The Rory Feldman Collection and The Bjorn Hanson Collection. The exhibition is organized by the Hudson River Museum and inspired by the research of Benjamin Levy on Harry Kellar’s connection to Yonkers.

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