Select Secrets
Search By:
This lot is closed for bidding. Bidding ended on 12/9/2023

THURSTON, Howard (1869 – 1936). Thurston. Kellar’s Successor. Invested with the Mantle of Magic. Cincinnati: The Strobridge Litho. Co., 1908. Half-sheet stone lithograph depicts Thurston and Kellar side-by side, with Mephistopheles looking on at the historic scene on the stage of Ford’s Theatre in Baltimore, when Thurston was presented with Kellar’s “mantle” of magic. 30 x 20”. Minor restoration and over-coloring in borders and old folds; B/B+. A RARE POSTER and the first we have offered in this size.

It is a fantasy that there ever was a Mantle of Magic, a sort of royal honor that could be bestowed from one magician to the next. But the idea of this grand, enchanted succession captured the American public’s imagination in the early years of the 20th century. More than anything, the idea was a savvy creation of Harry Kellar, a fairy tale ceremony that disguised his hard-fought business transactions. It was also the work of visual artists who told the story in a series of Strobridge lithographs. The tale of the Mantle of Magic has been displayed, with high style and special insight, by these three important posters.

The fairy tale was formalized decades later, in 1946, when Bill Sachs provided a moral to the story in his Billboard column. He wrote, “America will accept but one magician at a time.” This was never strictly true, as Kellar himself must have recognized. During his tours across America, Kellar continually crossed paths, scrapped, and squabbled with Alexander Herrmann, who usually occupied the first-class theaters, leaving the rest for Kellar.

When Herrmann died unexpectedly in 1896, Kellar had the field to himself, but no royal robe signaled his change of status. He turned his attention to building a larger, more impressive show to earn his first-class respect. When Kellar plotted his retirement in 1904, he partnered with the German magician Paul Valadon, who had been working with John Nevil Maskelyne. Insiders recognized that this American tour was intended to introduce Valadon to the public. Kellar’s contract, selling his illusions, route, and advertising to Valadon, would take care of the rest.

Kellar and Valadon didn’t complete the arrangement. It’s said that they didn’t get along, or, perhaps, their wives didn’t get along. More than likely, it was about money. Valadon couldn’t afford to buy Kellar’s show, but he could gradually pay off the debt over several seasons of touring. Thurston had just been touring the far east and Australia with an elaborate illusion act. He had the money. He wired Kellar, asking about his plans for retirement, and then dashed back from London to meet with him in May, 1907.

The ultimate deal was a little too expeditious, a little too underhanded, to sound really enchanted. So, the truth benefited from some charming publicity. After Valadon’s protracted, squishy arrangements to acquire the show, Kellar was happy to announce Thurston’s definite succession. The tale was best told in poster images.

KELLAR AND THURSTON features a fairy tale portrait of Howard Thurston, in his costume of an Asian prince. It was a poster used for one season, when Kellar and Thurston toured together, sharing the stage. In fact, the costume dated from five years earlier, and Thurston wore it for only a short part of his performance with Kellar, but it gave him a particularly exotic look and it fit well with Kellar’s previous co-stars, offering elaborate, foreign magic. The American public had last seen Thurston in 1901 as a vaudeville star, dressed in tails and manipulating playing cards, so this beautiful, romantic image of the “new” magician became an important part of his billing.

THURSTON, KELLAR’S SUCCESSOR features the famous image of the Mantle of Magic. There was no mantle onstage during the show, simply handshakes, verses of “Auld Lang Syne,” and floral arrangements at their final show. But here Thurston is clearly portrayed as the proud next generation of wizard. This poster would have been used on the 1908-09 season, just after Kellar’s retirement. Notice their twinned portraits at the top of the sheet.

Thanks to Strobridge’s lithographers, there was plenty of artistic license. In this image Kellar, a wizened old man, reaches up to Thurston’s broad shoulders to bestow the robe. Actually, Thurston was small and slight, about 5’6” tall. Kellar was large and muscular, over six feet tall. There’s even more fantasy in Kellar’s well-known poster imps, and Thurston’s new wise men in their swallowtail coats. Finally, the poster includes Satan himself, who supervises, and apparently approves of Thurston’s imminent success.

The third poster, KELLAR’S SUCCESSOR, shows the result. This poster was given a special flag to change the billing so it could continue to be used after Kellar’s retirement. (The triangular paper flag pasted over the top changes the wording from the original printing, “Kellar and Thurston,” to “Kellar’s Successor, Thurston,” a signal that Kellar had left the show.) Here Thurston’s exotic costume hints at his exotic bona fides, even if he no longer wore this costume on stage.

Thurston certainly recognized the value of the mythical mantle. Late in his career, he toyed with the idea of introducing Dante, his associate Harry Jansen, as his successor. But the tour was never arranged and the magical title was never bestowed. With the death of Thurston, Dante felt that he had earned the honor and suggested that he would name a successor at the end of his career. Lee Grabel, a young illusionist, understood that Dante intended the honor for him, and decades later he graciously turned over the title to Lance Burton, about to open his Las Vegas show at the new Monte Carlo Hotel. Grabel’s 1994 ceremony was the first to actually use a mantle—an actual cloak that was placed upon Burton’s shoulders—to transfer power from one magician to another. It was a fitting climax to America’s magical succession story, a ritual which seems to have originated with crayons on the lithographic stones in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was then imprinted on the minds of audiences for nearly a century.

THURSTON, Howard (1869 – 1936). Thurston. Kellar’s Successor. Invested with the Mantle of Magic.
Current Bidding
Minimum Bid: $7,500.00
Final prices include buyers premium: $48,000.00
Estimate: $15,000.00 - $25,000.00
Number Bids:27
Email A Friend
Ask a Question
 I Have One To Sell