Going Fine Since 1889 | Ellen E. Armstrong | Magician and Cartoonist Extraordinary | In Her Modern, Marvelous, Matchless Merrymaking March through Mysterland.
(n. p.): (n. d.), circa 1940. 28 x 22 inches. Broadside. Heavy cardstock letterpress printed in mint green, black and red, with large b&w photographic illustration of Armstrong. Edgeworn, with bumping to upper corner, bump to lower edge, and short tear to upper edge; horizontal crease across entire poster, more visible on the verso than the recto; toning to edges. Good.
A rare broadside promoting a performance by magician Ellen E. Armstrong at an as-yet-to-be-determined location. Armstrong was the first African American woman in the U.S. to headline her own magic show.
Born in 1914 in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Ellen E. Armstrong was the daughter of famed African American magician John Hartford and Lille Belle Armstrong. John Armstrong began performing in 1889 (hence the slogan, "Going Fine Since 1889"), and soon became known as the "King of Colored Conjurers", doing shows for Black audiences up and down the Atlantic Seaboard.
Ellen joined her father's show at the age of six years old. Her act was to walk around the audience and pretend to read people's minds: "The gag was that she would touch someone on the head and then say what they were thinking about the person next to them. The audience member would stammer, embarrassed, and the room would erupt in laughter" (Abdurraqib 63). Later, she added a drawing routine called Chalk Talk, in which she would tell stories using only a piece of chalk and a chalkboard. The chalk, supposedly magical, allowed her to change the image with just a few strokes, creating a kind of live-action stop-animation cartoon.
In 1939, after he'd just completed his 45th consecutive annual tour, John Armstrong died suddenly. Ellen, only 25 at the time, decided to continue the show in his stead; we speculate that this broadside dates from this period, as she would've needed to revamp the show's promotional material. For the next 31 years, Ellen Armstrong performed magic throughout the East Coast, primarily for all-Black audiences in small venues as her father had done. Her repertoire expanded to include sand frame illusions, in which a photograph of a Black icon like Joe Louis would manifest from sand, and the Miser's Dream, in which she would make coins appear seemingly from thin air and drop them into a metal bucket.
She retired to South Carolina in 1970, after a long and successful career that brought magic to Black audiences often dismissed, demeaned or segregated by white magicians. As Hanif Abdurraqib writes in A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, "Magic relies on what a viewer is willing to see, and what a viewer is willing to see relies on what the world has afforded them to be witness to. Ellen Armstrong was performing for some people who had seen both too much and not enough. She made a life out of this. Drawing cartoons of people and telling their secrets and sometimes releasing some white birds into the freedom of a black night swirled with stars."
OCLC locates two holdings, at the University of South Carolina and the University of Florida.