Discover more from Culture & Curiosities
The Magician Who Raised James Dean from the Dead
Kara Kum was one of the most exploitative magicians of the 1950s, relying in sex, celebrities, and scares to sell his minor-league spook show.
In one of the biographies/memoirs about James Dean, there was a passing reference to a stage show that purported to call up James Dean’s ghost. I found a 1957 advertisement for this show, and it is so much weirder and more Gothically bizarre than the brief reference deigned to indicate. Take a look at this:
Now that is an absolutely bonkers show full of dancing skeletons, horror-movie reenactments, and the standard spiritualist nonsense that so-called mediums continue to deploy today. But that advertisement! It’s like William Castle and TMZ had some unholy love child. The late 1950s saw dozens of so-called “Spook Shows” with names like “Dr. Macabre’s Frightmare of Movie Monsters,” “Dr. Evil,” “Dr. Satan,” and so on, but this is the only one that hailed James Dean as a paranormal entity on par with vampires, zombies, and space aliens, or advertised Dean alongside cannibalism, mutilation, and gore.
There is rather little published information about the show, which ran for several years and toured the United States several times, beginning (in its James Dean form) around 1957 and running until 1960. According to Billboard magazine’s coverage over the years, the “International Mystery Show and Magical Revue” began in Europe, toured America from 1947 to 1949, and returned permanently to the United States in 1955, where its Polish producer, Kara Kum (or Kara-Kum, real name Wladyslaw Michalvk, or Michalvuk—journalists gave different spellings) played movie theaters and auditoriums, mostly in the south, with a mixture of standard spiritualist stage magic (“supernatural illusions,” he called them) and horror movie evocations, usually matched with a second-run creature-feature movie. The show went by various names, most famously the “Crawling Thing of Planet 13” and “Cannibals of Curitiba.”
Kara Kum’s first U.S. tour in the 1940s found him pretending to be a “Hindu magician” leading a “troupe of Oriental wonder workers” (actually, three female assistants) in supernatural mysteries, according to a 1949 report. This included decapitating an audience member and sending living skeletons to join the audience—the same tricks he was still performing alongside his resurrection of James Dean a decade later. He sounded a bit desperate when taking out ads in Billboard offering to “perform outdoor or indoor, everywhere.” He mostly played venues like American Legion halls. When that didn’t work, he switched to an “Arabian Nights” theme and offered a musical revue with magic, but audiences didn’t buy it, either, and he decamped to Europe.
Although Kara Kum had been a magician since the 1930s under various guides, he finally hit on a profitable formula for the American market with his apparition of James Dean and other ghosts and spooks, which proved successful enough to keep the show booked for years, especially when paired with B-movie. When the show reached Tabor City, N.C. in 1957, a local named Bobby Rippy helped promote James Dean’s return from the dead at the Ritz by borrowing a dirty old casket from Ralph Inman, who had it in storage for twenty years, and Rippy set it up in the theater—“dust and all” according to the local newspaper—drawing quite the crowd. Kara Kum’s TV ads warned girls not to come along and to “bring your strong he-man to protect you.” Given the rowdy nature of late-night spook shows, attended by packs of teenage boys and drunken soldiers on leave, it was good advice.
Sadly, I can find no description of the resurrection of James Dean, so I don’t know whether it was simply an actor in a costume or a Pepper’s Ghost-style illusion with a cardboard cutout, or something else. In 1958, with Elvis Presley serving in the Army and stationed in Germany, Kara Kum claimed he could magically teleport Presley’s spirit to appear on stage. Again, I could find no description of the trick, which must have used he same mechanics.
In 1959, Kum moved to California and retooled the show for auditoriums—or so he said. He made the same claim in 1947, 1949, 1955 etc., promising a 30 minute to 2½ hour show. In 1959, a five-person team produced a stage show that could run between 55 minutes and 2½ hours, with its centerpieces being the appearance of James Dean and a woman riding a flying elephant. To make himself seem more important, Kara Kum claimed to work with Universal Studios and invited audiences to write to him there. According to some who wrote, the studio sent back letters saying they had no idea who he was.
It’s not quite clear what happened to Kara Kum when interest in James Dean faded as the 1950s ended. The last iteration of the show dropped James Dean for space aliens and a nude Lady Godiva. In September 1960, he advertised in the magic industry magazine Genii for “Experienced Magicians to take over Horror Show Units immediately.” The next year, the magazine received inquiries about his whereabouts, never answered.
There is apparently a chapter on Kara Kum in Mark Walker’s 1990s-era book Ghostmasters, but I think this about exhausts my interest in one of twentieth century Monster Culture’s most egregious practitioners. Calling up dead celebrities for entertainment as a feature attraction—that is to say, using their images for profit, without permission—couldn’t be done today. Ironically, that was also James Dean’s doing. His relatives sued Warner Bros. to establish who owns the rights to a dead celebrity, and the resulting case set a precedent that gave a celebrity’s heirs near-total control over the commercial use of their names and likenesses.
Thanks for reading Culture & Curiosities! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.