Greek-American Magicians: 1850 to 1906  

The National Herald Archive

Isadora Duncan. Photo: Wikipedia, Public Domain

By Steve Frangos

While entertainment forms may seem secondary (if even that) to the formation of American notions of persons and things said to Greek, they are in fact very often the only images the majority of average Americans have of persons, events and things Greek. Especially if we are examining early images. Greek magicians, as a topic, has several levels of meaning(s) for the average American. First, any American that went to school (or proved to be a regular reader) knew of Greeks during the Classical Era. As such persons identified as Greek magicians were already known to even the most isolated of audiences.

It is a sociological mistake not to pursue these kinds of studies because the American audience had been fed images and expectations of what a Greek magician was, had done, and was said to be capable of in the Classical past. It is these Classical accounts that laid the groundwork for these (then) existing cultural assumptions. Moreover, it is the body of expectations any and all Greek immigrants played upon with their arrival to America.

The individual Greeks of the 1880 to 1920 massive immigration waves very quickly learned that Greeks already had a wider historical presence in the United States –long before the arrival of the very first immigrant. In the vast majority of accounts written on Greeks in the United States, all such instances of prior understandings of persons and events recognized by Americans are missing from the public record because that is not the core thesis of “immigration studies.”

The very first Greek stage magicians experienced the same kind of American responses as did those who practiced the Greek dance Isadore Duncan American had recreated/introduced. These magicians were frequently compared to the Ancient seers and oracles of Classical times. And when these stage magicians failed to live up to the native-American journalist's understanding of such Greeks that too was noted in the public record.

The first of these self-identified Greek stage magicians was an individual known only as the “Greek Rhigas.” Among the first references and advertisements announcing the presence of Rhigas date from the first days of the 1850s, 11 years before the American Civil War (1861-1865). Typical of these early accounts is: “the attraction of the Greek Rhigas induced quite a crowd to attend at the Institute Hall. We, among the rest, were well pleased with the performances which certainly were astonishing, the tricks being all of them very cleverly performed, especially the Musket exercise and the Canary Bird Hunt. The performer himself is an experienced veteran, reminding us very much of the unfortunate Romano Samee, who killed himself by swallowing a sword—the Greek Rhigas often performs the same dangerous feat. He will appear again this evening, and we are pleased to see that a day performance is advertised for tomorrow at 3:30 PM. This will be a great treat for young Natchez (Natchez Daily Courier (Natchez MS) September 21, 1852).”

Nonetheless, not every experience Rhigas had in the United States can said to be positive. As we see in the news account: “A “trick of the trade” has just been shown off at our Armory Hall, rather funny, but being in the way of business, might be expected. Two conjurers were here last week, a Signor Carlo Something Adrian, and a Greek magician, Rhigas! Being asked for their rent, an evasive answer brought forth an indirect mention of the dinner hour of the “Sergeant Guard.” Not dreaming that this announcement could be made an “open sesame” of, the veteran returned from his feeding to find the two magicians, their infernal familiars, and all their tricky paraphernalia, had vanished with the hocus pocus peculiar to their vocation (Times-Picayune (New Orleans LA November 25, 1851).”

Alexander Canaris was another very successful Greek magician who toured the world throughout the 1880s, continuing to do so for the next 30 years. Canaris was a well- known, “Greek born magician who toured the United States in 1885 (as Count Canaris), Australia in 1887 (as Prof. Canaris) and South America in 1908 (as Alexander Canaris). His performance was a vaudeville blend of magic tricks and spiritism expose. During his 1887 tour of Australia, he shared the bill with magician Dexter (” In “Leaves from Conjurers' Scrap Books, Or, Modern Magicians and Their Works” by Hardin J. Burlingame (Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry, 1891) we can find Canaris in Chapter 2 which is entitled, “American Conjurers.”

Over the decades, Canaris offered a varied program of entertainment, “Alexander Canaris and his company, in a combination of comedy and magic, were easily the best at that sort of entertainment that the house has had in a long time. Canaris had feats of magic that defied detection and at the same time he had a run of comedy in his act that brought forth plenty of laughs form the audience (Trenton Evening Times NJ January 24, 1913).”

Individuals such as Rhigas and Canaris may not have been “individuals” at all but rather one performer assuming the name of an earlier performer. I say this because Rhigas appears in too many places too widely separated in time and space to be one individual. Canaris' career, such as I can reckon from newspaper accounts and published accounts on magicians performing in North America, spans nearly 40 years.

Once again, Canaris seems to be everywhere at once, and given the conditions of early vaudeville entertainment he may well have traveled so extensively but more research is clearly required.

By 1906, at the very latest, Kalhass the Greek Boy Magician burst on the performance scene. His reception was nothing less than a major success. Typical of what we hear in the press of this era is: “Kalhass the wonderful Greek magician assisted by Mme Vanteur. The Globe-Democrat, St. Louis, MO, pronounced him the mist refined and versatile magician who has appeared before the public for years (Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro NC).” Known far and wide as a “clever wizard” Kalhass frequently interacted with the Greek-American community: “Last week the local Macedonian Committee, consisting of N. Lorandos, G. Gallanis, J.C. Palamaris, D. Gallans, C. Menas and A.D. Papas, called on Kalhass, the young Greek magician , to thank him for the $323.58 which had been netted for the relief fund by his performance at the Garrick Theater Sunday afternoon. They expressed themselves pleasantly surprised at the skill of the boy prodigy in magic and urged him to fix a date for a benefit which both Greeks and Americans are anxious to tender Kalhass because of his generous contributions to charity. The young magician gave an entertainment for the orphans at the Academy of the Sacred Heart during the summer and donated his services for the benefit of the Children's Hospital on the occasion of the big garden party at Carrswold May 30, when he was the only professional present, and the lady managers cleared $2000 (St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO) October 21, 1906).”

These three individuals were most certainly not the only Greek magicians to perform upon American theater stages during this time period. Nor have we noted, in specific details, the varying manner in which the audiences of average Americans responded, from town to town, to these self-identified Greek magicians. But our survey of these individuals and their influences must begin somewhere if we are ever to come to terms with their period-specific impact on the American imagination.