Charles Carter and The Golden Age of Magic
LiveAuctionTalk.com: by Rosemary McKittrick
Photo courtesy of Potter and Potter Auctions.
Using words to describe magic is like trying to light a fire without a spark. Something is missing. Something essential.
As a magician, Charles Carter was the spark behind the flame. He brought magic to life on stage and made his illusions seem ever so real.
You might find Carter sawing a woman in half, cheating the gallows by escaping from the hangman's noose, or performing the Lion's Bride, where he transformed a live lion into the magician and then made him reappear again in a cage.
As if watching Carter drop and vanish through a trap door in the gallows wasn’t enough, he had nurses standing by for dramatic effect as he sawed his women in half. Cards torn up and put together again, handkerchiefs flying from bottle to bottle, he skillfully weaved reality with fantasy.
Carter was working in the 1920s during the Golden Age of Magic. It was the Roaring Twenties and people were mesmerized with all things magic. Not just tricks.
Attitudes were changing. Old values were falling away. The younger generation slowly stopped living their lives according to Victorian uptight standards. They declared their own values. More importantly, they were open to being “amazed.”
Enter Carter the Great. He traveled the world at least seven times with 50 red trunks filled with tons of magic illusions and apparatus. Some say he was a better illusionist than Houdini.
Carter was a native of San Francisco who started out as a journalist and lawyer. Later he realized his real passion was magic. Competition was stiff in America so he opted to focus much of his career abroad where he was celebrated and called the Weird, Wonderful Wizard.
His wife, Corinne, performed on stage with him in an Oriental costume doing billiard ball manipulations. Later she performed a mentalist routine called The Psychic Marvel.
Carter also put shows on in the basement of his San Francisco home and you can still see occult references in the stained glass windows of the residence now used as a foreign consulate.
He died in 1936 from a heart attack and his son Larry took over the magic act.
Carter is well known for his publicity material, especially his lithographed posters which are collectible today. The large 1920s posters full of detail, color and drama were printed in multiple panels because of printing limitations of the time. Four separate sheets for a poster were not uncommon.
Nowadays, most collectors look for magic artifacts from the late-19th and early-20th century. Tricks, signed photos and letters once owned by magic greats like Houdini, Thurston, Carter and Blackstone are especially desirable.
Houdini is the name most people associate with early magicians. His tricks and memorabilia still rise to the top of the pecking order.
On Oct. 23, Potter & Potter Auctions in Chicago featured the magic collection of Herb Zarrow on the block. Zarrow founded an accounting firm in New Jersey and was also an amateur magician.
Featured in the auction were several Carter the Great posters. Here are some current values.
Carter the Great
Color Lithographed Poster; The Elongated Maiden; an Asian scene and Carter’s stretching a woman illusion; Otis Litho Co., Cleveland; three-sheet; 40 inches by 80 inches; $720.
Color Lithographed Poster; The World’s Weird, Wonderful Wizard; a turbaned Carter looking over a globe of earth surrounded by devils; Otis Litho Co., Cleveland; circa 1926; three-sheet; 40 inches by 80 inches; $1,680.
Color Lithographed Poster; Carter impersonating the great Chinese magicians; Carter’s performance of their feats; Otis Litho Co., Cleveland; circa 1926; three-sheet; 40 inches by 80 inches; $9,000.