Decades before JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books and the fictional Ministry of Magic, the original Harry Potter– a Michigan minister named Harold J Potter– performed magic for his congregation and with a sideshow. His repertoire included hypnotism, the bladebox and a premature burial illusion inspired by the tale by Edgar Allan Poe. These six banners painted for “Harold J Potter’s Comedy Magic Circus” in the late 1960s by master banner painter Fred Johnson will be up for bid in Mosby & Company’s November 10th Americana auction at their gallery in Frederick, Maryland. Bidding will also be available online beginning in late October.
Harold J Potter’s son says that his father was fascinated by Harry Houdini and Harry Blackstone as a boy and took up magic at an early age. The family consigned the Johnson banners, which are fresh to the market. In the banner shown below, a contortionist act is billed as Plasteena. The Bladebox is cleverly called “Six Section Sal” and there’s also a “Guillotine Gal.”
After getting out of the Army in World War II, Potter started practicing magic again on the side in Detroit, according to his son. A minister by profession, he would perform some magic tricks during services. We’re hoping that some of his sermons will turn up! On weekends, Potter did the sideshow performances for which he commissioned the banners. In the summertime, he and his family toured Michigan doing tent shows.
Banner artist Fred Johnson (1892-1990) was only 17 when he learned the secret of creating an eye-catching banner: color, not exaggeration. “We call it ‘flash.’” Johnson once said. During an illustrious 65-year career, the Chicagoan painted banners for all the big circuses, carnivals, and amusement parks, including the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
Fred Johnson worked for Driver Bros Tent Co. from 1921 until 1930, and in 1934 he came to the O. Henry Tent & Awning Co, where he remained for 40 years. He imbued his Houdini-esque escape artists, Amazon snake charmers and master magicians with a quirky and mysterious quality that drew customers into the sideshows and continues to make his work prized by collectors.
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November 16, 2009: Rare & Vintage: Coney Island Sideshow Banner by Dan Casola