7:57am

Sat February 12, 2011
Arts & Life

The Most Famous Magician You've Never Heard Of

Mention the name Howard Thurston these days and you're likely to get a blank stare. But 90 years ago, Thurston was the greatest stage magician in the country, and one of the biggest names in show business.

"It was a name that was known like Ziegfeld, like Ringling Brothers, like George M. Cohan," says author and magician Jim Steinmeyer. He tells All Things Considered weekend host Guy Raz that Thurston toured the East Coast and the Midwest constantly during the first decades of the 20th century, bringing bigger and fancier stage shows every year.

'I Wouldn't Deceive You For The World'

"In 1926, '27, he was making a horse disappear onstage. Lines of showgirls. His great feature was always the levitation illusion that was included in every show. Later, he added a vanishing automobile to his show, the Indian rope trick, anything that could be turned into a poster that would attract audiences back again," Steinmeyer says.

Steinmeyer is the author of a new book on Thurston, called The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston Versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards. He says Thurston's stage manner kept the audiences captivated.

"He used to say to people, 'I wouldn't deceive you for the world,' which was a strange thing for a magician to say," Steinmeyer says, "but there was a kind of honesty, there was a kind of really wonderful mysterious charm to him that the audience respected."

More Famous Than Houdini

Thurston's great rival — and occasional friend — was the escape artist Harry Houdini. The two men had met as struggling sideshow performers at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and for the next 30 years they fought each other for the spotlight.

When Houdini died in 1926, he was actually slightly less famous than Thurston. But today, Houdini is the name everyone remembers.

"As a writer told me who knew both men, he said, you know, all of Thurston's publicity was about getting you into the theater," Steinmeyer says. "All of Houdini's publicity was about creating a legend. And they both of course got exactly what they wanted." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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