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The beauty of self-decapitation and other marvels of vintage magic show posters

The beauty of self-decapitation and other marvels of vintage magic show posters published on No Comments on The beauty of self-decapitation and other marvels of vintage magic show posters

I am currently making a digital changing room for use at one of my favorite mini universe events to recreate in digital — a kink fest. First I thought it was going to be a vintage theater dressing room with a well-lit vanity and old playbills on the walls, but I didn’t feel like spending money on this set. Then I thought maybe old circus posters, but I couldn’t fit good ones with high resolution and unrestricted reproduction rights.

And then I discovered, which has a whole section of freely reproducible circus posters. Great! I’d hit the trove for all my circus poster needs! Then I noticed that, interspersed with the circus ephemera, were ads for magic shows. Obviously, methought, magical characters partaking in an event of illusion and performance should try on disguises in room decorated with signs of sleight of hand. I began to download….


Check out the Circus/Magic category on, and you too might be hooked. The vibrant lithographs promise sensuous delights by which modern advertising’s porno gloss loses luster in comparison. Kellar will [neatly, bloodlessly, and without disturbing the accuracy of the portrait rendition] perform “self-decapitation” in “his latest mystery!” Neff’s “Midnite Ghost Show” abounds in “speed, flash, thrills, color, surprise, beauty, action,”  presumably all embodied by the “beautiful girls with ‘hex’ appeal!” Thurston, “the great magician,” will leave crowds asking, “Do spirits come back?” [In an unintentionally amusing juxtapositional riposte, the archive also includes a poster for the actually truly great Harry Houdini, in which he performs “magic — illusions — escapes” and calls bullshit on “fraud mediums:” “Do spirits return? Houdini says no and proves it!” Harry Houdini, folks — skeptic, realist, and scientific realist extraordinaire!]

And, in my favorite of the bunch, the clairvoyant Alexander “sees your life from the cradle to the grave.” A lovely macabre illustration shows a skeletal hand holding a crystal ball that encompasses the sacraments of heteronormativity. There is no way the content of such a show could even begin to approach the awesomeness promised in that poster.


The tension between image and reality forms part of my fascination with these posters. Produced before rigorous standards of truth in advertising were developed, these ads make claims upon which they cannot possibly deliver, implying that the magic is real. Note, for example, that the Kellar levitation poster doesn’t even stipulate magic, just simple “levitation,” as if it’s a plain and simple fact that Kellar can shoot lightning out of his fingertips [?!] and raise someone off the ground. Note also that Alexander is billed as “the man who knows” in another poster, with no hint that he’s performing illusions based on cold reading for entertainment and diversion. In such instances, the ads raise audience expectations so high that any gaps between said expectations and the actual performances will be likely be glossed over. The audiences, hoping for spirit communications or levitation demos or whatever and conditioned by the posters to look for them, will convince themselves that they are seeing those things instead of illusions. In some way, the images perform the ultimate sleight of hand.

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