Destination – Sanford Florida

The History of Harry Wise- Ghostmaster!?

There is a small frame house at 310 W. 6th Street in Sanford that looks like an ordinary house unless you know the secret. This was the domain of Wise the Wizard, a magician who could change rabbits into dogs or pull a block long string of scarves out of an empty box. But please don’t ask for the secret of how its done. The magician’s wand belongs to Harry Wise, a magician who entertained thousands across stages of the US and Canada.

The great Harry Wise is more than just a magician; he is also America’s last ghostmaster. What’s a ghostmaster, you ask? Well, first you need to know about the old ghost shows. These were live horror shows that were presented from the 1920s to the 1960s on movie-theater stages, usually in conjunction with midnight shows that featured a scary movie. These shows opened with a little bit of magic and featured varied illusions, pseudohypnotic acts, a cast of monsters roaming thru the audience; and in the middle of the show, a total blackout of the theater, leaving the audience squealing in the dark. Producers of these fright fests were called “ghostmasters.” Dosen’t that sound like fun!?

Among the most famous ghost shows was Doctor Jekyl’s Weird Show and the infamous Doctor Jekyl was none other than the Great Harry Wise, often referred to as the “master of horror.”  in 1959, he took his “weird show” on the road, up the West Coast, thru the mid-western states, Canada, and down the eastern seaboard and to almost every movie house in Florida.  The show featured two blackouts of the theater, and throwing snakes into the audience (um…rubber ones).  Old newspapers called it the show with 1001 horrors which, of course, was excellent press!  Wise played his last live ghost shows in the 1970s in Daytona and New Smyrna Beach making him the last in the nation to produce a true ghost show in the old style.

Harry Wise began his entertainment career at the age of 18, putting on a magic show for the local grammar school for which he as paid $25. The next night, he was on stage in Sanford’s historic Ritz Theater.  His big break came when he joined the famous Johnny Cate’s ghost show out of Houston, Texas. In this show he played the Frankenstein monster on stages all across the country.

Wise went beyond being a showman extraordinaire; he was also a dedicated humanitarian.  He once raised enough money to get operations for twenty-two crippled children at the Harry-Anna Crippled Children’s Home.  He also purchased the first tanker truck for the Forest City Volunteer Fire Department. When a volunteer fire department in Orange City needed a Jaws of Life, Wise put on a show that raised enough money to buy one. And when financial troubles were about to close a home for wayward girls in Brevard County, he raised funds thru his magic to save the home. Maybe he just was a real wizard.

In 1982, Wise fulfilled a lifetime dream, he joined the circus! During the 1980s, he toured as a ringmaster for a total of four different circuses before returning to the stage with his big two-hour magic show.

Oh that house on 6th Street. Don’t think of going there. Its closed to the public but if I’ve got your attention and you’re still reading and a mite curious, head to the City of Sanford Museum, 520 E. 1st Street, to view a permanent exhibit on our Harry and his life. The museum is open 11-4 on weekdays and 1-4 on Saturdays and is only closed on the day of New Years Eve.


Weird Florida by Charlie Carlson, Sterling NY, 2005

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