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Illusions magic bar and Federal Hill neighbors at odds over entertainment license

Baltimore's Federal Hill neighborhood has 34 bars in a three-block radius, and on weekends those add up to one big party.

There's dancing, drinking, and, inevitably, fighting and clashes with police.

At the outskirts of this alcohol-infused blur is a magic bar. With chandeliers and leather seats, Illusions Bar & Lounge might seem an unlikely target for the ire of the local community association, when compared with the rowdy behavior of some of its neighbors.

Yet Monday, Illusions and the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association will be headed to Baltimore City Circuit Court as the association attempts to get the bar's entertainment license revoked.

"There's no personal vendetta here," Paul Robinson, the president of the association, says of Illusions' co-owner Ken Horsman. "This is to make sure what he's allowed to do there does not become a disruptive presence in the community."

Robinson is objecting to Illusions' recently approved entertainment license on technical grounds: He argues that Illusions' application was too vague and that owners Ken Horsman and son Spencer didn't specify the precise types of shows that would be held at the venue.

"Live entertainment should be strictly defined," Robinson says. "[They're] talking about variety, vaudeville, circus acts, juggling, basically anything under the sun." He says some neighbors' homes are within 50 feet of Illusions.

But the Horsmans and their backers say that's nonsense; they argue that the neighborhood association, which has no legal authority, has overstepped its bounds by trying to pressure area bars into signing more restrictive agreements.

"They wanted us to restrain and restrict our business," says Illusions co-owner Spencer Horsman, 24, a renowned Houdini-style escape artist who performs at the venue. "We refused and they got upset with us. They took that as a personal insult."

So what would happen if the community association wins in court?

Horsman grows quiet for a moment.

"We'd have to change to a sports bar," he says.

The issue of zoning live entertainment in Federal Hill is bigger than just the Horsmans, Robinson says. It's about setting precedent for future businesses.

"Ken and Spencer Horsman might be the most trustworthy people in the world," says Robinson, whose non-profit organization's stated goal is to make the neighborhood "family-friendly" and "safe" for the residents of its 2,800 homes. "But what about the next person they could sell the business to? We're not anti-alcohol. We're not anti-live entertainment. We need reasonable assurances."

Robinson says he tried to get the Horsmans to sign an agreement voluntarily limiting their business. It required the Horsmans to restrict their live entertainment to no more than four days a week and no later than 11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends. It also limited their performances to only magic and juggling and their number of performers to two. Additionally, it prohibited the Horsmans from using fliers to promote an event.

"Thus far. Mr. [Ken] Horsman has been less than cooperative in addressing some of the concerns," says Robinson, noting that seven other area businesses have been willing to sign agreements with the community group. "We've got agreements with some of the most famous venues."

The Federal Hill Neighborhood Association has some important backers: Baltimore police Southern District Commander Maj. Scott Bloodsworth, former state Sen. George Della and state Dels. Peter Hammen and Brian McHale, all of whom object to the magic bar's entertainment license.

"An increase in the number of customers drawn to venues in the area could bring an increase in nuisance crimes and common assaults," Bloodsworth wrote in a letter of opposition to the license, which was granted to the bar by the city zoning board last summer.

Ken Horsman, a former Ringling Bros. circus clown, says Bloodsworth's letter is misleading.

"We've proven that we're good neighbors," he says. "We've had no problems, no fights ? We don't run Illusions like a megabar. We run it like a theater. We have comedy, magic, ventriloquism and juggling. We're geared toward a different type of audience." Wild partying has been an issue for some time in Federal Hill, but the rowdiness gained attention last year when City Council President Jack Young proposed a bill ramping up punishment for "disorderly drinking."

In 2009, the City Council passed an economic development bill, championed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, which allowed for expanded live entertainment zoning. Illusions has been the only Federal Hill business to apply and win approval under the new law.

Only two other venues in Federal Hill have long held entertainment licenses: 8x10 and Mum's. Robinson says he has no problem with those businesses.

Preceded by Ken Horsman's magic shop for 25 years, Illusions opened as a bar with a liquor license in 2007 and has hosted two events in which Spencer Horsman attempted to escape -- 50 feet in the air -- from two straight jackets while being hung upside down.

Patrons worry about the future of the business if the neighborhood association wins. They don't want a magic show turned into yet-another venue for $1 beers.

"There's so much craziness going on at some bars," says Federal Hill resident Frank Choi, 35. "There are other problems that plague the neighborhood. The association should use its time trying to resolve those issues rather than worrying about whether one small place has an entertainment license."

Federal Hill resident and Illusions customer Julia Rosenstock, 32, says she's "very upset" with the situation.

"Illusions is so unique and such an experience," says Rosenstock. "That's the kind of thing that Baltimore should be about. Why would we shut that down? So we can get a T.G.I. Friday's to move in there?"

Ultimately, a judge will get the final say, Robinson says.

"They'll get to make their case and we'll get to make ours," he says. "Somebody will win and then we'll move on."

Luke Broadwater is managing editor at b. Contact him at luke@bthesite.com or follow him on Twitter, @lukebroadwater.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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