Manhattan Magician’s Top 10 Favorite Magicians of All Time are the conjurers who were in the magic books he read from age 8 to 18 when he was a semi-pro magician himself. From top to bottom – top row: #1. Harry Houdini. Second row, left to right: #2. Howard Thurston, #3. Adelaide Herrmann, #4. Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. Third row, left to right: #5. Harry Keller, #6. Talma, #7. Harry Blackstone Sr. Fourth row, left to right: #8. Alexander Herrmann, #9. William Ellsworth, #10. David Devant.
It’s probably a bit too ambitious on my part to attempt to put together a list of my top 10 favorite magicians of all time given lack of time due to other work. But the folks listed here really formed who I am today. Most of them lived in the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s. I read books upon books upon books about them. 793.8 (if you’re a magician you’ll recognize that Dewey Decimal number) and the biography section were my destination at libraries across the country for ten years.
10. David Devant
David Devant is my 10th favorite magician of all time. The reason he is my last pick is because he popped up in my book reading less than the others. Though, I was quite taken with his collaborations which resulted in new magic tricks and stage illusions (magicians call big apparatus items “illusions”).
The information that I got on David Devant most recently was from Wikipedia which described him as an English magician, shadowgraphist and film exhibitor. They talk about how he was born David Wighton in Holloway, London. He is regarded by magicians as a consummate exponent of suave and witty presentation of stage illusions. According to American designer of magical illusions and theatrical special effects, Jim Steinmeyer, Devant was “England’s greatest magician — arguably the greatest magician of the 20th Century”.
9. William Ellsworth
Now here’s a guy who has quite an interesting story. I actually read a book about him very recently. He presented himself as Chung Ling Soo, a Chinese conjurer. When reading the biography about him I was struck by his passion (maybe even obsession) that those in the illusion arts often share. In short, Mr. Ellsworth spoke almost exclusively about magic in his interactions with other people. And of course what makes him most memorable today is that he did the bullet catching in mouth trick. As Chung Ling Soo he never spoke on stage. But on one – and the final – occasion that he performed the bullet catch in teeth feat. The bullet killed him. He called out in his own voice: “Oh my God. Something’s happened. Lower the curtain.” A the curtain was lowered, those were the last words of William Ellsworth.
Britannica had some information on Ellsworth which talks of him beginning his career as a performer in the United States using the stage name William E. (“Billy”) Robinson. While in England in 1900, he modeled himself after Ching Ling Foo, an authentic Chinese conjurer who had recently made a successful American tour. Accused by Ching in 1904 of being an imposter, Chung admitted to the masquerade, but his public admired him even more for his clever impersonation. Campbell was still playing Chung Ling Soo in 1918, when he was accidentally shot to death while doing a bullet-catching trick.
8. Alexander Herrmann
My interest in Alexander Herrmann had a lot to do with my intrigue regarding his wife, Adelaide Herrmann, who after Mr. Herrmann’s death went on to have her own successful career as a magician.
My research on Alexander Herrmann was mostly done at Wikipedia which spoke of his first setting eyes on Adelaide who of course became his wife. The scene was set in 1874 upon Alexander’s return to America by boat. On the boat, he saw the young dancer Mademoiselle Scarcez that he had met in London. The titian-haired, bilingual Adelaide had been planning to marry an American actor. Before the ship docked, she changed her mind.
“In Manhattan on March 27, 1875, the Mayor of New York performed the ceremony marrying Alexander and Adelaide. Herrmann was known to do spontaneous tricks. Even on his wedding day he could not resist; he produced a roll of bills from the mayor’s beard.”
7. Harry Blackstone Sr.
Those of us of a certain age remember Harry Blackstone Jr. the son of Harry Blackstone Sr. His son became known for doing commercials involving magic for Jiff Pop Popcorn. I tended to be partial to Senior over Junior because he popped up a lot more in my readings described as a compelling performer.
According to Wikipedia, Blackstone was born Harry Bouton in Chicago, Illinois. He began his career as a magician in his teens and was popular through World War II as a USO entertainer. He was often billed as The Great Blackstone. As mentioned his son Harry Blackstone Jr. also became a famous magician. Blackstone Sr. was aided by his younger brother (2 years younger) Pete Bouton who was the stage manager in all his shows. Blackstone Sr. was married three times. Blackstone Jr. was his son by his second wife.
Talma was the name used by Mary Ann Ford when she performed as a conjurer. Wikipedia says of Talma that when doing magic she worked with her husband Servais Le Roy in the act “Le Roy, Talma & Bosco”.
Wikipedia discusses that as a performer, Mary Ann Ford adopted the name Mercedes Talma but was generally known just as Talma. Talma was taught magic by Le Roy and although being an assistant she was known for her own coin tricks including the “Out of the ear” trick and “Talma’s travelling coin.” Eventually she was known as “The Queen Of Coins.” She formed a long-running stage partnership with her husband and their colleague Leon Bosco. They named their act “The Comedians de Mephisto Co” but they were much better known as Le Roy, Talma & Bosco.
5. Harry Kellar
Harry Keller was another of the magicians that would show up in biographies I was reading of other magicians. He had a great impact on legerdemain. An interesting fact about Keller is that his successor was Thurston, who will be highlighted coming up. Genii Magazine, which I used to read as a kid magician, describes the passing of the torch:
“The Mantle of Magic is an honor which started on May 16, 1908 when Harry Kellar bid farewell to the stage with Howard Thurston at his side. With his retirement, Kellar began the tradition of what has become to be known now as the “Royal Dynasty of Magic” This Royal Dynasty is often given as Kellar, Thurston, Dante, Lee Grabel and currently Lance Burton.”
There’s a mention of Lance Burton in the Genii quote. Lance is is great contemporary magician with whom I, several years ago, was fortunate enough to have a several hour conversation with while in Vegas. Lance and I spoke at great length on the art of magic as well as where magic was going in the future. If I was doing a modern day list I would definitely have picked him. Interesting that he is in a way connected to Kellar.
Magician.org talked about Harry Kellar, being known as the “Dean of American Magicians.” They went on further to note that Keller enjoyed both public recognition and financial success. His was the largest and most elaborate stage illusion show touring during the late 1800s and early 1900s. He is best known for his spectacular version of the Levitation, in which a woman mysteriously rises up from a couch, floats across the stage to the audience, then disappears into thin air. Upon his retirement in 1908, Kellar chose to spend his remaining years in Los Angeles.
4. Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin
My interest in Houdin had much to do with the fact that Houdini gave himself the name “Houdini” by taking the name “Houdin” and adding a letter “i” at the end. Hence the name went from “Houdin” to “Houdini.” And from what I recall, Houdini’s name, because of the “i” at the end, took on the meaning “Like Houdin.” Houdini idolized Houdin while growing up.
As long as we’re on the topic of Houdini, another Houdini story is that while in France he tried to visit Houdin’ widow but she rejected him. So as revenge Houdini wrote a negative account of Houdin entitled “The Unmasking of Robert Houdin.”
The thing that fascinated me about Houdin was that he was also a clock maker. So he was able to create magic using his knowledge as such.
Biography.com details the account that while living in Paris, Robert-Houdin began to fuse his interests. He sought the company of other magicians and visited magic shops to learn the latest tricks and gadgets, while also employing his mechanical expertise to build new inventions, some of which he would later incorporate in his performances. One of his creations was a writing automaton that was ultimately purchased by American showman P. T. Barnum.
3. Adelaide Herrmann
While Alexander Herrmann is my #8 pick, my #3 choice is his wife Adelaide Herrmann who was mentioned in Alexander Herrmann’s piece earlier. Adelaide worked for quite a while as an assistant to her husband and then after his death went on to do a traveling magic show of her own.
Genii Magazine describes the situation as being that during her marriage to Alexander she was the chief assistant for him. She continued his show after his death with his nephew Leon Herrmann. She later created and starred in her own act. Adelaide died in 1932 in the Community Hospital, 8 St. Nicholas PL, New York City, of pneumonia. She was a “Manhattan Magician” herself!
2. Howard Thurston
Thurston is another favorite of mine. A read a book about him recently and learned more about his life than I knew as a kid magician. Thurston was living on the edge for quite a while before his breakthrough as a conjurer.
Britannica describes Thurston as originally being a card manipulator who toured the world (1904–07) with a full-evening show. He returned to the United States to become successor to Harry Kellar, the leading American magician. For more than 20 years he toured with a three-hour show and became best-known for his large stage illusions, such as the “floating lady.” In 1931 he shortened his program to appear as the stage attraction at motion-picture theatres.
1. Harry Houdini
Okay, this is where you’re going to have to curb my enthusiasm. Houdini was my idol as a kid and teen magician and still is today. I think what I admired him most for – as well as what I learned from reading many-many biographies about him – was his amazing insight into marketing and publicity. I wrote an article about Houdini in May for this, the blog you are reading right now. I saw him as being the ultimate “ArtisticPreneur.”
Houdini’s career was remarkable and took him through many incarnations of himself. First he was a card manipulator then an escape artist followed by being a spiritual medium exposer and even a filmmaker. I made the transition from being a magician to a filmmaker (briefly) because I was inspired by Houdini.
The Great Harry Houdini describes that in Houdini’s later years he took his talent to the film arena, where he both acted and started his own film laboratory called The Film Development Corporation. Years later, Harry would receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
So those were “Manhattan Magician’s Top 10 Favorite Magicians of All Time.” There actually were several other magicians who I wanted to include, including magicians from today. But the magicians who have made the biggest impact on my life were the ones that I read about as a kid and teen magician from age 8 to 18. Thank you for reading. This is Manhattan Magician vanishing in a puff of smoke.