The Amazing Harry Kellar by Gail Jarrow
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Lynn: Few people have heard of Harry Kellar yet he was idolized by Harry Houdini, was immensely popular and had a career that lasted for decades. In The Amazing Harry Kellar: Great American Magician (Calkin Creek 2012) author Gail Jarrow asserts that Kellar was even a more talented magician than Houdini whose fame lives on. So why is Kellar obscure today? Jarrow does her best to remedy that in this gorgeous and interesting biography.
Jarrow opens with a great story about Kellar performing for President Theodore Roosevelt and four of his children where he caused 12-year-old Ethel’s gold ring to vanish and later reappear – much to her brother’s disappointment – he was hoping for a guinea pig. Kellar performed for Presidents and Queens but his beginnings were humble and it took him years of hard work to achieve his fame. Jarrow traces his evolution from Heinrich Keller, born to German immigrants in 1849 to a true worldwide celebrity and inspiration for Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz. Along the way he advanced the popularity of stage magic and encouraged other magicians, most notably Harry Houdini. It wasn’t easy and Kellar spent many years traveling the world and struggling to perfect his skills.
His story is fascinating all by itself but it’s also an intriguing way to look at the events, culture and people of the time. But what really steals the show are the visual elements of the book. First, Jarrow has included a wonderful collection of period photographs that open a window on Kellar’s world. The photographs are wonderfully reproduced and mesh exactly with the text but they are almost overshadowed by the gorgeous full color, full page renditions of Kellar’s period advertising posters. And there aren’t just one or two – there’s one on almost every two-page spread! Bold and bright, the posters turn this book into a performance almost as spectacular as one of Kellar’s best tricks. This is a biography that will disappear from the shelves like a rabbit from a hat!
Cindy: Magic books of all kinds circulate well in my middle school, thanks in part to a teacher who is a very capable magician. His students can find 793.8 (yes, my library still adheres to Dewey) and some of them get quite skilled in performing magic tricks. I’ve found that even the famed Houdini is not so famous anymore among my students, but once I booktalk his biographies, they circulate. They are amazed by the escapes he was able to pull off. I read Houdini biography after Houdini biography as a kid, and still gobble up the ones that have been published recently, like Escape! by Sid Fleischman. I was under the illusion that I knew my magicians. But if Kellar is mentioned in those books (as I assume he must be), I don’t remember it I booktalked biographies all last week so none of my Houdini books are on the shelf to check as I write this. So, I came to Jarrow’s book with excitement at learning about one of Houdini’s mentors. I was not disappointed.
Young Kellar started his life of traveling at a very young age (Jarrow says 11, this Erie Hall of Fame video of Kellar’s life says he was 13) after he mixed chemicals and caused an explosion that damaged the store where he worked for a druggist. Kellar hopped a train to Cleveland to find a job and his life on the road was born. Perhaps his worst travel story is when he sailed from South America to Europe after a very successful tour that earned him and his partner a fortune…all of which was lost when the ship sunk and all of the props, costumes, and a fortune in gold coins was lost. And his performances in countries around the world complicated his act…magicians use patter as an important means to distract the audience’s attention from the tricks and illusions. His efforts to compensate for his lack of the local language are explored.
Lynn is right about the advertising posters. They are stunning. Many of them are dark with high contrasting red splashes either in Kellar’s costumes or in the devils and imps that decorate many of the scenes. He used the superstitions that people held about magic being aligned with the devil or powered by spirits to fuel the mystery of his performances. These posters could not have been cheap to print and plaster about each town where he performed, just as it surely was pricey to include so many of them in this biography. In both cases, it seems worth the expense.
In addition to the biography of Kellar, the book includes sidebars that highlight other famous magicians, the history of magic, and period information, all of which will help young readers understand the time in which Kellar was performing.
Common Core Connection:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
Distribute copies of pages 31-33 to the students to read carefully. Have the students individually highlight explicit references to the problems Harry had with travel and then share them in small groups and then with the whole class. Follow up by asking students to make inferences about Harry’s enjoyment or frustration with running a traveling show.