Kellar's Wonders

Discuss the historical aspects of magic, including memories, or favorite stories.

Postby Jim Riser » 11/23/03 12:37 AM

If you really love magic history and want to more fully understand what it took to become the leading magician in the late 1800's and early 1900's, then be certain to pick up a copy of Kellar's Wonders (Mike Caveney and Bill Miesel).

So many "magicians" today seem to think they can buy a 3-Fly or do a "pass" and instantly become a great magician. This text, like the Carter book before it, provides the reader with a glimpse of what it was really like to internationally travel with a magic show and what it took to "make it".

We magicians have been treated to a wonderful selection of books related to magic over the past few years and this new text deserves to be included in every serious magic lover's library. Mike Caveney has outdone himself with this book.

My advice is to buy it while you can.
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Postby Dale Shrimpton » 11/24/03 10:07 AM

Hi Jim.
Sounds wonderfull, i do hope that its over here soon. I have all the other Pro file books, and just have to keep the set going.
Some of the info given away in Hiding the elephant , which i am more than half way through at the moment was most interesting. I have a particular fondness for anything regarding the Valadon incident. For some reason, i have a feeling that there is a great deal more to that underhand it of buiseness than meets the eye.
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Postby Pete Biro » 11/25/03 11:31 AM

I don't have the Kellar book yet, but have one "coming."

However, one thing that was so apparent about Kellar that Caveney discussed at the recent Conference on Magical History was that Kellar was ROTTON THIEF .... He stole material, ideas, people, tricks, etc.

In light of that, I find it OK to study him historically, but also feel he should NOT BE IDOLIZED... but thought of as he really was... a CROOK.

:eek:
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Postby Guest » 11/25/03 11:29 PM

Pete my friend, did we hear the same talk on Kellar? I thought Caveney made a point of showing what Kellar would NOT do, such as dispelling the story of him walking up on stage to see the levitation at Egyptian Hall. "Rotten thief" may be a little harsh...compared to others of his level, grading on a curve, may put him in a nicer perspective than that. I have not yet, but intend to get the new book on Kellar, and see what larger picture Caveney and Miesel reveal.
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 11/26/03 09:21 AM

Well, when you hire away Paul Valadon from Egyptian Hall so you can steal the secret of the Maskylene's fan of wires levitation, I would say that makes Kellar a thief, since that's what he did.
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Postby Robert Allen » 11/26/03 10:48 AM

I don't have the book anymore, but there was a book published in the 1970's about Houdini (by Doug Henning maybe??) which I believe mentioned how Houdini was involved in a breakin and theft vs. some other famous magician (i.e. I think they allegedly stole from each other). Was that Keller, or someone else?
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Postby Guest » 11/26/03 12:18 PM

It may have been the Blackstone story of a trunk/box, that was "found missing" and was supposed to have eventully been discovered among Houdini's belongings. Blackstone claimed that he had performed the overboard packing crate escape first...don't know/think they went to court over this, but they did make noise in THE BILLBOARD , over it. Thinking about how Houdini went after his "imitators", makes Tonya Harding look good in comparison. I understand it is not exactly good Calvinist doctrine to grade on a curve...but Houdini stories like that, can put Kellar in a nicer view.
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Postby Michael Edwards » 11/26/03 12:19 PM

By that token, Diego, compared to your Amazing Mr. Q, Harry Kellar was a saint. ;)

The suggestion that Harry Kellar used underhanded means to obtain the secret to an illusion is not new nor should it be terribly startling. Here's what Will Goldston wrote some seventy-five years ago: "But, strange as it may seem, Kellar departed from all the accepted rules of honesty and fair play when it came to choosing tricks for his programme. If he saw an illusion which appealed to him, he would get it, if not by fair means, then by foul. I will do him justice by saying that he always first attempted to strike an honest bargain over such deals. If his preliminary overture failed, he would find out, either by bribery or close observation, how the rick was performed. Then, when a suitable period had elapsed, he would incorporate in his own programme." (see Goldston's aptly named Sensational Tales of Mystery Men, Will Goldston Ltd., London, 1929) Interestingly, Goldston's example was not the Levitation of Princess Karnac but The Blue Room Mystery.

And while the story of the Maskelyne levitation makes fascinating reading, it is only one small part of a truly remarkable story. Mike Caveney and Bill Miesel have assembled a glorious book...not only in terms of the tale it tells but also in its look and feel. Wonderfully written and beautifully produced, this is one book that definitely should be on your holiday reading list.
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Postby Guest » 11/26/03 01:16 PM

Michael,
2 years ago at the last Conference, I told David Charvet that I thought Dr. Ralph Richards took the prize,(for criminality) but his Claude "Alexander" Conlon, has the title! After my talk at The Conference last month, Charvet came up and said, "You're right, Mr. Q makes Alexander, look like a choir boy!"
Kellar is still up and above, Richards, Alexander, and Mr. Q, without question.
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Postby John Smetana » 11/26/03 01:35 PM

Diego, are you planning to publish anything about Mr Q for those of us who didn't/ couldn't attend the conference? I sure would like to know more than has been posted here. Seems like the older I get the more fascinating the history of this bizarre business becomes. I can't seem to get enough of it. The Genii Forum is the only place I can read about the on going Erdnase research, the Vernon/Georgio Center Deal contraversey. Mr Q and whatever.
Thanks in advance Diego, and as always,

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Postby Richard Kaufman » 11/26/03 03:00 PM

Yes. Diego is planning to publish his Mr. Q story, but for reasons that elude me he is trying to have a real-world magazine publish it ... can't imagine why. So what if he actually gets paid and thousands more read it! I think Genii would be a much nicer home! :)
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Postby Guest » 11/26/03 03:40 PM

John,
As Richard said, I am trying to have a non-magic magazine publish the Mr. Q, story, but if that happens, can still see either having it reprinted or rewritten for a magic magazine. I'm sure there will be some mentions of it in articles on The Conference. One editor, suggested an article about how the research was done, how I came across the story, searching in court/police/newspaper files, getting court orders from judges to open files, finding relatives of the players involved.
But the story may not have any interest, as it only involves booze, drugs, sex, violence, rape, prison, guns, and killing.
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Postby Jim Riser » 11/26/03 04:03 PM

Originally posted by Diego Domingo:
John,
<snip> But the story may not have any interest, as it only involves booze, drugs, sex, violence, rape, prison, guns, and killing.
Diego;
Skip the magazine and go straight to movie!
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Postby Guest » 11/26/03 07:53 PM

Jim,
I'm ready to see it made into a film. That is why I registered it with the Writer's Guild.(W.G.A.)
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Postby Pete Biro » 11/27/03 05:12 PM

I know a hot screen writer. He has done films for George Clooney (Ocean's 11) and Matchstick Men. Send me an outline.
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Postby Guest » 11/28/03 10:29 PM

Pete,
I wish to go on record, to dispell any rumors that "Mr. Q", was based on your life.
You have lived,(as Mr. Q would say) a "correct life."
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Postby Guest » 11/29/03 07:52 PM

A "correct life"?
How boring.
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Postby Michael Edwards » 11/29/03 09:09 PM

Not if he's lived it like Mr. Q. :D

I do think -- for the record -- it may be of value to get back to Pete's original posting. Harry Kellar was a remarkable personality, a gifted mechanic, and a tireless worker. He certainly dominated the American magic scene from the passing of Alexander Herrmann until he handed over his wand to Howard Thurston in May of 1908. Even then he remained the beloved Dean of American Magicians...at first informally and later formally. What Harry Kellar was not was an orginator of magic. Each and every illusion in his show was the creation of someone else. In most instances, Kellar paid a more than fair price for the illusion. As Goldston's quote above suggests, when he was unable to make a deal he sometimes resorted to other means. He bought unauthorized copies. He used his knowledge of magic and mechanics to recreate the effect. And he may well have hired others to impart secrets to him.

However, I don't believe it's fair to suggest that he "stole" Paul Valadon from Maskelyne...or that he obtained his services just to find the workings behind the Maskelyne levitation. When Kellar hired Valadon, he (Kellar) was already giving thought to retirement. Valadon, a gifted and accomplished performer, would by every indication make a worthy successor. Certainly that was the thought of even the most knowledgable of critics at the time including Selbit's The Wizard. Valadon had no commitment to remain with Maskelyne and, in truth, his prospects with J.N. were very uncertain at best. During Valadon's last season at Egyptian Hall, Maskeyne -- then 64 years old -- announced that the Hall would be demolished. Maskelyne's financial situation was precarious. The future was very much in doubt. The construction of St. George's Hall was much delayed. And when Maskelyne's new home of mystery did finally open in January 1905, Maskelyne was presenting his magical drama, The Coming Race, rather than the traditional bill of conjuring entertainments. Moreover, touring the provinces must not have seemed a particularly promising venture inasmuch as David Devant was then enjoying enomous success doing the same. Given the circumstances, coming to America, sharing billing with that country's premier magician, and being groomed to take over the most successful magic show on this side of the Atlantic must have seemed like an offer that couldn't be refused. At the same time, it is hard to imagine Kellar (the conservative businessman that he was) striking such a bargain -- and taking such enormous personal, professional, and financial risk -- to gain a just bit more understanding of a trick, however magnificent the illusion.

I have also always found it curious that there appear to be no contemporaneous accounts charging Kellar with the theft of the levitation. As Professor Dawes notes, "Maskelyne's enthusiasm for conjuring was almost matched by his fervour for challenges and litigation." And while Maskelyne did complain about Kellar's introduction of the illusion known as`"Well I'm..." into his show (an illusion that Valadon certainly had some rights to inasmuch as he had a more than equal hand in its creation), he was strangely silent about the levi. Indeed, not only was Kellar's incorporation of the levitation uncontested, Maskelyne later sold him his Specter of the Sanctum illusion. Perhaps Kellar's obtaining of what would become known as "The Levitation of Princess Karnac" was a bit more complex than most modern accounts suggest.

All this is not to say that Kellar was without faults. He certainly did not invent his levitation. And it has been charged that he may well have appropriated other magicians' effects and approaches just as he had his routines and even staff appropriated by others. Yet he was revered by his contemporaries as a model of a man who led the "correct" life! ;)

Which takes us back to Jim's original post. Harry Kellar played an enormously important part in the history of American magic. His story is fascinating...and Mike Caveney and Bill Miesel have done a masterful job in telling and illustrating large parts of that tale. There's a temptation with books as encompassing and sumptuous as this to buy them, display them on a coffee table, or put them away on a library shelf. Do yourself a favor. Read this book!
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Postby Jim Riser » 11/30/03 10:44 AM

Following Michael's post above...

Calling Harry Kellar a thief has apparently become a current fad. Jim Steinmeyer's latest interesting book Hiding The Elephant devotes a complete chapter to calling Kellar a thief. He repeats all of the old rumors such as Kellar walking up onto the stage to obtain the levitation secret. I do not believe this ever happened, yet the unfounded (as far as I know) rumor shows up in current texts. It has long been my opinion that if Kellar had done so, he would have been found floating in the river the next morning. This same "thief mesage" is constantly in the background in Kellar's Wonders .

This is a matter for concern for anyone interested in accurate historic information. Also, I feel that this is why the book ( Kellar's Wonders ) will be covered in controversy for years (alone making it worth owning). There is no doubt in my mind that Kellar struck deals for much of his material while others were "appropriated". Take the oft repeated levitation story regarding Valadon's role...my guess (based upon my experiences in how real people interact) is that Kellar either bought the secret/rights to the levitation from Maskelyne or worked a swap for something else. Maskelyne's version could not travel and he had no plans/need to travel with it - certainly not in the US. He most likely figured that Kellar would have a devil of a time trying to travel with the apparatus as it was first developed and whatever he received from Kellar was a good deal. IMHO the original apparatus was probably very similar to that shown in Goldston's locked books , Dr. Q Book , Owen's Keep the Wheels Turning , and others. This original equipment would have been impossible to troupe. I feel that Kellar saw the potential and found a way to make it portable. The pictures of the finished version as used by Kellar and Thurston ( Howard Thurston's Workbook #1 ) shows how Kellar adapted the illusion to his needs. This is a very different piece of equipment than what Maskelyne's permanently installed version would have looked like. Jarrett makes this observation also.

This illusion has always been of special intererst to me. I have even made my own "Streamlined Kellar" levitation as a personal fun project. The thinking behind the final apparatus is very deep. I'd really like to know all of the improvements Kellar made to his final version as used by Harry Blackstone Sr. Does anyone have accurate info on this?

I feel that it is important to remember that there was much trading of material and illusions in those days. All of the performers were in the same boat and needed new items for their repeat audiences. Trading/selling to each other was the only way to survive. My guess is that these guys were all more or less friends and there was no need to steal from each other. Many such stories are based upon guesses rather than facts, the reality of the times, and how people interact. And, yes, these stealing stories are in all of the books - based upon what? Do some of you collectors have original letters from Maskelyne complaining to a friend about Kellar's behavior to document such accusations?

The reviews in the book ( Kellar's Wonders ) indicate that Kellar was using the original script for Will, the Witch, and the Watch. We know that he did not get the script from a back issue of The Linking Ring! He certainly did not pick this up while sitting through one or two shows in England. A deal was struck with someone/somewhere! Was not Kellar's team coached by a member of Maskelyne's company? Would you help someone who stole from you?

I do not think that Harry Kellar was the evil thief that some seem to want to paint him as being.

To me, none of this detracts from the quality and wealth of material in the Kellar's Wonders book. It merely makes me want to know more about Kellar.
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Postby Pete Biro » 11/30/03 11:39 AM

I assume you are talking about the "fan of wires" method. One such was in storage at the Magic Cellar in San Francisco, Carter's equipment. It was built to troupe.

Johnny Gaughan displayed that in restored condition a few History Conferences ago, and you couldn't see anything even at close distance.

He then completely redesigned it and using new space-age materials built the Flying for Copperfield.
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Postby Jim Riser » 11/30/03 12:56 PM

Pete;
Yes, fan of wires; but not wires. There are much better alternatives available today. Tuning the fan is no longer as critical as it was with wires. In my streamlined version I did away with the counter weight entirely.

You are right about everything being invisible - even fairly close up.

Now, Carter's levi was a theft situation.
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Postby Michael Edwards » 11/30/03 01:14 PM

Pete: The Carter levitation was, I believe, a complete Kellar levitation. Charles Carter did make an addition to the apparatus: an electric motor and rheostat that controlled the speed of the floating lady's ascent and descent. It was this levi, restored by John Gaughan, that was presented at the 2nd Los Angeles Conference on Magic History. As Jim suggests, an interesting and perhaps ironic sidelight is that the way Carter initially acquired the levitation was through his hiring of two of Kellar's most trusted associates, Fritz and Carl Bucha. ;)

Jim: That the story about Kellar mounting the Egyptian Hall stage in the middle of a performance in order to see the levitation's workings continues to be repeated remains a mystery to me. Not only is there no positive evidence of it; it simply doesn't make sense. As Mike Caveney himself wrote almost a decade ago, "th(is) apocryphal story of Kellar walking up onto the Egyptian Hall stage...is ridiculous. First of all, Harry Kellar was too much a gentleman to resort to such a crass act to obtain what he desired. And secondly, any man who could glance up into the darkened flies of a theater and learn enough to successfully recreate Maskelyne's levitation could undoubtedly peek inside a pocket watch and then construct a duplicate timepiece."

I have the greatest admiration for Jim Steinmeyer, but must confess that I found his chapter Stealing Secrets in Hiding the Elephant most frustrating. The acknowledgment and notes for this section give no direct indication of the sources for his most fundamental of charges, including the abovementioned story. In fact, some of the sources provide evidence to the contrary. Take David Devant's My Magic Life, which is a primary source for Jim's information about Valadon's departure from Egyptian Hall. Yet Devant never even mentions the levitation in connection with Valadon. As for thievery, Devant makes no such charge...though he does sum up Kellar's career with: "Year by year Kellar presented in America the novelties of Bautier de Kolta, Maskelyne and myself, Morritt, and other European performers. Like Herrmann, he improved on some of the effects he utilized. He was a good showman, and had a gift for artistic presentation, but his claims to have invented most of the things he exhibited were unfounded." Hardly the outrage one would expect from the partner of the man from whom Kellar supposedly stole so blatantly. By the way, Devant's language is virtually identical to that in S.W. Clarke's The Annals of Conjuring. But it's not just Devant's language that suggests a lack of animosity toward Kellar. It's his actions. Within months of Kellar introducing the levitation into his act, he and Devant were working collaborately on an effect.

I must confess there are two items in Jim's notes with which I am not familiar and which might shed further light on this history. The first is a letter written in the 1960's by one of Valadon's former assistants, Will Stone. I'm assuming this is different than the letter Stone wrote The Linking Ring in 1956, where he notes that "Kellar obtained many of his best effects from J.N. Maskelyne" and notes that prior to joining the Kellar troupe with Valadon, he used to see Kellar at Egyptian Hall with a pair of opera glasses -- presumably to "get at" the levitation and other illusions. The other is a letter from Houdini to Kellar that apparently explains that Devant had told Houdini about a member of the cast who Maskelyne had set up to give Kellar false information about the levitation. Yet despite the provocation, Kellar never even tried to pry the information out of him...hardly an indication of Kellar's leanings toward larceny. It's hard to imagine either source so complete and credible that one would base so provocative and enduring a tale upon them.

Not that Jim's account isn't engaging. Take the sidenote that, according to Steinmeyer, while Maskelyne may have insisted that Kellar's levitation was only a poor copy of his own, he was also mystified by Kellar's success with what had been a very tempermental piece of apparatus. In fact, Steinmeyer suggests that Maskelyne hired someone to sneak backstage at a Kellar performance to take a picture of Kellar's equipment in the hope of seeing what improvements the American magician had made. :p

Having said this, I should stress that Hiding the Elephant is an enlightening and intriguing book...and it too, with its telling of "secrets," will continue to generate its share of controversy in the weeks and months to come. It, like all of Jim Steinmeyer's work, is worth a read.

Back to the levi...as for the "invisibility" of the wires, I think that is a bit of an overstatement. We certainly have reports that at the point when Thurston began inviting spectators onstage during the illusion, the wires were visible to these laymen.

Jim's post also raises an important point often overlooked by those who think that all Kellar presented was the Maskelyne levitation under a new name. Harry Kellar spent much of his professional career...and even after...searching for the perfect levitation. He spent a substantial amount of time and money refining the illusion...and he continued to improve its mechanics even after he retired. His initial improvements, as John discussed at the LA Confereence several years ago, were in the tool that made the eyelits and in constructing felt-covered rollers -- both of which dramatically increased the durability and reliability of the mechanism. Other improvements made the illusion transportable and eliminated the need for a trap in the stage...substantial advancements in a world of touring magicians and magic shows.
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Postby Guest » 11/30/03 04:28 PM

Yes, Kellar was a gentleman in comparison to Houdini and others.(grading on a curve again)
At The Conference, Gary Hunt's talk on Brindamour, showed him as the more possible originator of the handcuff dive and jail escape for publicity, but Houdini appropiated them for himself, certainly not crediting anyone, and worse, spent a lot of time going after Brindamour, as one of his "imitators", who in fact, had created what Houdini was getting rich on. You can hear the best and worst said about Houdini by those who knew him...there seems to be more good things remembered about Kellar though.
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Postby Guest » 11/30/03 05:36 PM

I wish I had known about the two books on Kellar as I would have loved to have included the original drawings IN DETAIL of Kellar's levitation that I own. They were drawn up by C. Foster Fenner of Rhode Island. BTW, there were actually two fans of piano wires used!!

So it goes...
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Postby Jim Riser » 11/30/03 07:09 PM

Doug;
I'm jealous :eek:

How are we going to count the fans? I tend to think of them as two per attachment bar - making 6 fans total (4 up and 2 down).

Do you know the date of the drawings and which version of Kellar's levitation they depict?

I'm still jealous :eek:
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Postby Guest » 11/30/03 07:34 PM

Jim-
There are two fans of 30 wires each going up on the lift frame with 60 teeth. There is another fan of 60 wires going down attached to a balance weight frame beneath the stage floor. There's a grid at the very top with three pulleys for the cables. These cable wires/ropes are attached to a coupler that goes through a worm gear winch.
It has the "s" bar replete with head rest. The diagrams say "The Kellar Levitation." These were done by Fenner July of 1934.
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Postby Jim Riser » 11/30/03 07:41 PM

Doug;
Thanks for the info. That matches the pictures of the equipment in Thurston's Workbook #1 . BTW - in use, apparently not all of the potential wires were used. perhaps they were considered overkill, perhaps this was done to save setup time, we'll most likely never know.
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Postby Michael Edwards » 11/30/03 08:46 PM

Originally posted by Jim Riser:
The reviews in the book ( [b]Kellar's Wonders ) indicate that Kellar was using the original script for Will, the Witch, and the Watch. We know that he did not get the script from a back issue of The Linking Ring! He certainly did not pick this up while sitting through one or two shows in England. A deal was struck! Was not Kellar's team coached by a member of Maskelyne's company? Would you help someone who stole from you?[/b]
Indeed, many accounts suggest that Kellar purchased the rights to perform Will, the Witch, and the Watchman, although Kellar's Wonders notes that there is no evidence that any sort of agreement was made with the play's creator, J.N. Maskelyne. If that's the case, it is particularly surprising inasmuch as Kellar was able to hire Ernest Wighton to assist in his production. Wighton was, of course, David Devant's brother! And that was the very year that the joint partnership of Maskelyne & Devant was formed.
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Postby Guest » 12/04/03 06:31 PM

Michael,

A few quick points.

The "Kellar marching up on stage" story was one that was repeated over the years and I found was told by Kellar's brother after Kellar's death. I think Mike Caveney is perfectly right in doubting it, and I'm perfectly right in putting it in "Hiding the Elephant." The fact that Kellar's brother told the story says a bit about Kellar's personality. And it's obvious from the history of the trick that, IF he tried this, it DIDN'T work--my point in "Elephant"--as is evidenced from his work with Valadon.

There's something to be said about a secret that can actually be that secretive. Whether it happened or not can be debated.

I was the one who gave the talk at the Conference on the levitation and the felt rollers and the eyelet-making device. I do believe these were the important improvements which allowed the trick to be toured. That was definitely Kellar's contribution.

And I talked to Mike about the conclusions regarding Kellar and "Will, the Witch..." I did some digging on this when we did "Will, the Witch..." for the Conference some years ago. I believe it's clear that he didn't purchase it, as when he finally DID purchace something from Maskelyne, the credit was prominently displayed in the program (Spectres of the Sanctum, at the end of Kellar's career). Certainly, the script came from Valadon, who performed it for years and would have known it enough to provide a transcript.

Finally, regarding Kellar's relationship with Devant, one of the points I make in "Elephant" is that it was a complex one and was never so simple as, "You stole something from me and my boss, so I won't deal with you." Devant continued to talk to Kellar and consult with Kellar, and more than likely, this is how his brother came to work with him. One point I make is that Devant was much more sociable and political than Maskelyne, and he was having his own problems with Maskelyne at this time, which made him foster relationships with other magicians. Also...it's helpful to keep in mind that Kellar's habit of pinching tricks was nothing to be proud of, but it also wasn't unheard of at the time. Maskelyne refused to sell him the levitation but, according to Will Stone, Maskelyne invited Kellar to buy tickets, come and see it and try to steal it. There was a lot of similar activity among professionals. (Today less of this among professionals, but plenty among amateurs.) So Devant may not have seen him as the scourge that he had been to Maskelyne.
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Postby Arthur Martello » 12/15/03 05:15 PM

I just wanted to thank you all for this incredible discussion. Having recently read Mr. Steinmeyer's book "Hiding the Elephant" I have become totally enraptured with magic history and have already sunk a great deal of $$$ buying books touching upon relevant topics. I turned 60 today and have been involved with magic for the past 40 years but never took a deep interest in this area. Having this forum to broaden my knowledge is truly a great thing. Thanks again to all.
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