The Amazing Harry Kellar, Great American Magician

Activities

This book is a biography of the magician Harry Kellar (1849-1922). Topics discussed include magic performances; the history of magic; Spiritualism; and entertainment and transportation in the U.S. and throughout the world during Kellar’s lifetime. The book contains a timeline, notes, bibliography, and a list of recommended books, places to visit, and websites.

The Amazing Harry Kellar can be used to meet the Common Core and State Standards through activities that encourage critical reading of informational material, opinion and explanatory writing, speaking, listening, and research. It has curriculum connections to language arts, social studies/history, science, math, and art. The suggested activities and questions below can be adjusted for grade level.

LANGUAGE ARTS

  • Make a list of personal traits that helped Harry Kellar become America’s favorite magician. Beside each trait, briefly explain how it helped him succeed.
  • What were Kellar’s faults that led to career setbacks? Make a list of these and identify how his career was affected by each.
  • Should Kellar have been criticized for using tricks and illusions that had been invented by other magicians? Or did he deserve praise for improving on the inventions of others? Pick a view and write an argument that supports it.
  • You have just watched an amazing magic trick. Would you prefer to know the secret behind it, or would you rather never learn how it was done? Write an essay arguing for your preference.
  • Today, most people enjoy watching a magician perform. But several hundred years ago, people were afraid of magic and thought that it was the work of witches and evil spirits. Write an essay or create a presentation that explains either 1) why magic is fun to watch OR 2) why magic frightens people.
  • Magicians use “patter” to enhance their tricks or illusions and to distract the audience from the secret. Learn to do a magic trick. Write your own patter to use with the trick. Perform it for an audience.
  • Pretend that Kellar is alive today and has hired you to create advertising to attract audiences to his shows. Choose one of these, or something else that would reach his fans: Write and record a radio spot. Make a video for TV or YouTube. Design Kellar’s Facebook page or Web site.

U.S. HISTORY
Period from post-Civil War through 1920s

  • Make a list of the different ways that Harry Kellar traveled throughout the U.S. and the world from his childhood years in the 1850s to his death in 1922. Find or draw pictures of these different modes of transportation.
  • How did the expansion of the railroad system after the Civil War help to change the way Americans were entertained?
  • If you had lived in Kellar’s time, what would have been the choices of entertainment in your town or city? Search old newspapers online to read news stories and advertisements about magicians and other traveling entertainers in your state or region.
  • As a child, Harry Kellar worked as a newsboy in New York City. Learn more about the “newsies” and how they lived. Find photographs of these children at the Library of Congress site (http://www.loc.gov/pictures [search “newsies” or “newsboys”]).
  • Why do you think so many people believed in ghosts, séances, and mediums during Kellar’s lifetime? How did Kellar and Harry Houdini debunk the claims of the Spiritualists?

WORLD HISTORY & GEOGRAPHY

  • Using a world map, trace the path of Harry Kellar’s travels as an international performer from 1873-1884. Mark the map where he was shipwrecked; the city where he collected many of his illusions; where he caught yellow fever; and where he met his wife.
  • On a world map, show the area that formed the British Empire during Kellar’s lifetime. How did Kellar’s travels match the places controlled by the British? Why did he choose to perform within the British Empire?

SCIENCE and MATH

The secrets of magic -- including Harry Kellar’s tricks and illusions--involve science, mathematics, and psychology.

  • Learn how to do a magic trick. Perform it for classmates. Teach a friend how to do it, too, by writing a step-by-step explanation or by creating a video of yourself demonstrating the secret of the trick.
  • Learn how to do a mind-reading or prediction trick that depends on arithmetic and number patterns. Amaze your family and friends!
  • Using resources listed on this site or in the book, research how Harry Kellar performed some of his tricks and illusions.

ART

  • Find out how Kellar’s colorful advertising posters were created using stone lithography.
  • View the Library of Congress’s collection of Magic Posters from 1879 to 1936 (at loc.gov/pictures [search “magic posters”]). What were the characteristics of these posters that convinced people to attend magic performances?
  • Compare today’s full-page magazine advertisements, movie posters, and billboards to the advertising posters of the 19th- and early 20th-centuries.
  • Create your own Kellar poster.

More to explore

YouTube

  • Search among the many videos of magicians performing.
     
  • Watch Kellar and Harry Houdini together in two short film clips: The famous rope trick and in a car.

How to Do Magic Tricks

Some of Kellar’s posters hinted
at a connection between magical
power and the supernatural.
In reality, his magic performances
were the result of hard work,
detailed preparation, and skill.

  • Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions Including Trick Photography, Edited by Albert A. Hopkins.

    bit.ly/KjLevw
    Read this book -- first published in 1897-- at Google Books to find out how Kellar and other magicians of his day pulled off some of their tricks and illusions. One chapter explains how automatons work.
     
  • Illusionioneering.
    www.illusioneering.org
    Magician-scientists demonstrate amazing magic tricks and explain the math and science behind them. Download instructions for each trick.
     
  • “Learn Magic” by Wayne Kawamoto. Magic & Illusion, About.com.
    magic.about.com/od/beginningmagic/u/learnmagic.htm
    Learn to do easy magic tricks by following simple instructions illustrated with photographs.

Magician Organizations

DVDs

  • Grand Illusions: The Story of Magic, Parts One and Two. Produced and directed by Wilson Coneybeare and Mitchell T. Ness. Paragon Productions, 1998.
    Find out about the history of magic and great magicians, including Harry Kellar, Alexander Herrmann, John Nevil Maskelyne, and Harry Houdini. The documentary includes interviews and footage of magic performances.
     
  • The Illusionist. Written and directed by Neil Burger. Bull’s Eye Entertainment, 2006. Rated PG-13.
    Watch an award-winning film about a fictional magician in Vienna, Austria, in the early 1900s. The film depicts theaters and stage magic from Kellar’s era and shows the popularity of spiritualism. It features sleight-of-hand tricks and stage illusions, many of which Kellar performed. Professional magicians assisted with the production.

Magic Posters

  • Kellar and other magicians advertised their shows with colorful posters like the ones shown here.
    See more at the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs site. www.loc.gov/pictures (Search “Magic Posters”)