The Greatest Magician the World Has Ever Known
When asked to name a great magician,the first name to come to most people’s minds is Harry Houdini. His legacy has managed to last long after his death in 1926; there’s even a musical based on his life coming
But within the magic community lives the story of the true legend, Howard Thurston (1869-1936). Although Houdini emerged in his last years with only one attempt at a full evening show of
magic, exposé of mediums and escapes, he should be best remembered as an escape artist and a flamboyant showman. In contrast, Thurston was a performer so great, that a magic historian once summed up the distinction between Thurston and Houdini by saying, “Houdini has to go out and do all sorts of wild escapes, and stunts to hold a crowd; and Thurston can do it by just walking on stage.”
A closer look
Howard Thurston was the greatest magician and showman of his time. His Wonder Show of the Universe was a prestigious theater extravaganza that toured America – and was anticipated as much as Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth.
Thurston would amaze audience members right before their eyes, with a 30-member troupe of dancers and assistants. They traveled by an eight-car train filled with more than 40 tons of illusions, scenery, animals,costumes, and they stunned audiences with a two-hour performance twice a day overflowing with music, humor, color, and the stunning impact of a master magician.
Passing mantles of magic
Inspired by a performance of the great magician Alexander Herrmann (1844-1896), Thurston began performing sleight-of-hand acts in the street, which turned into a career, playing the biggest theaters all over the world. Then in 1908, Harry Kellar, the most famous magician of his time (1849-1922) passed “the mantle of magic” to Thurston when he retired. Soon after, posters for Thurston’s show read,
“Mr. Kellar says: Thurston is the greatest magician the world has ever known.” In fact, at one time in his career, Thurston’s catch phrase was “King of Entertainers, and the Entertainer of Kings.” He was known to have performed for Presidents Roosevelt and Coolidge, as well as Shahs and Czars from as far as Siam.
Some feats of prestidigitation in Thurston’s show included floating Princess Karnac in mid-air; making a horse disappear; sawing a woman in half, pulling cards, fish, and doves out of thin air; and vanishing a lady in a box after impaling her with 11 swords – eventually he made her reappear. He also had the uncanny ability to make an audience member’s selected card rise from the deck. Actor and director Orson Welles, who had seen Thurston perform in person, said of him, “He was the master… the finest magician I’ve ever seen.”
Influencing present-day magicians
As a young magician striving to develop my own act, the advice I received most often from older magicians was, “If you want to be the best, you have to learn about the best.” They all pointed me in the direction of Thurston, calling him the most accomplished and respected in his day.
In my search to learn about the man behind the magic, I became an accidental collector, starting with books about the magician and quickly learning that he was also a radio personality, an amateur movie star, an inventor, entrepreneur and author. His first book on card tricks, published first in 1900, reached a circulation of over 2,000,000.
And my collection of Thurston quickly expanded as I realized how much there was to learn. Today, at the age of 32, twenty-one years after I started to collect, I have amassed almost 40,000 pieces related to his life. One of my most prized items is Thurston’s Magic Box of Candy. This promotion was a huge success, selling a million numbered boxes in total, although today there is only 1 known to exist. The box came filled with a magic trick, chocolate taffy, and a coupon that could be redeemed for a more advanced magic trick. Thurston described his books and Magic Box of Candy as “two of the greatest educators of magic extant, with the exception of my show which has done more to popularize magic than anything in the world since the retirement of [predecessor magicians] Herrmann and Kellar.”
Many magicians during Thurston’s time were doing similar magic, but it was Thurston who truly stood out as the greatest. After all, the secret to his success wasn’t the magic being performed — Thurston himself was the magic.
About Rory Feldman:
Rory Feldman is the Founder and Executive Director of the Museum of Magic, a not-for-profit educational organization. He is an internationally acclaimed magician, magic
collector, and historian. He is the owner of the world’s largest collection on magician
Howard Thurston and in 2010 he produced a three-hour documentary titled “When Thurston Came To Town.” Feldman, along with items from his collection, has appeared in over 100 publications including The New York Times, and has been seen by millions on various television segments on such channels as PBS, A&E, and the History Channel. He is considered to be the authoritative voice on Thurston. For more information, check out.
www.thurstonmastermagician.com and www.museumofmagic.org