Old-time magic

Every Friday night for the past three years, to the delight of an audience, magician Spencer Horsman has escaped from his straitjacket.

By his own estimate, he's done the trick 400 times. And until a recent Friday, he'd never made any missteps in a routine, invented by Harry Houdini 100 years ago, that is fraught with peril.

Near the end of the routine, while hanging from a crane, he had almost freed himself from the jacket.

But suddenly, with all the spinning, a bolt loosened, and the crane, the straitjacket and the 125-pound magician hanging from it all fell on the stage at Federal Hill's Illusions: Magic Bar and Lounge. One minute, the audience was clapping, bartender Ben Rosen recalled; and the next, there was "thud" and "a bunch of gasps."

Horsman later said, "I didn't realize how bad it was until I took my hand off my forehead and the blood gushed all over the stage."

The accident sent him to the emergency room, nearly fractured his skull and resulted in 16 stitches, but the next week he was back on stage. Why so soon? Why else? The show must go on.

"Entertainment isn't a 9-to-5 job," he said. "It's a lifestyle."

In 16 years of working professionally, Horsman has had highs — he's performed before David Letterman, Jerry Springer and David Copperfield — and lows — years of not working when he was in his teens, his parents' bitter divorce. But he's dealt with it all with that same attitude.

Now, at 24, he has entered a new phase of his career, opening a bar called Illusions that also doubles as a venue for his magic show and that recalls Baltimore's heyday as a hub for magicians.

"He's the only one around now doing this," said George Goebel, the Baltimore Houdini expert and magician who has been performing in the area since the 1950s. "He's opened up a different field that other people haven't. [Illusions] is not just a magic club, it's a bar and restaurant, and people come there to be entertained."

Horsman's career was all but predetermined. His father, Ken, and his mother, Mary Bernadette, were both clowns with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. As a child, he assisted in his father's shows.

"He's grown up in the business," Ken said. "We used to produce him out of boxes."

By the time he was 4, Horsman said, he was "demo'ing and selling magic to other kids and adults" at his father's magic shop on South Charles, Ken-zo's Yogi Magic Mart.

It was only a matter of time until he wanted to be on stage himself. "I was used to being around people and entertaining them," he said. "It always felt natural."

He did it when he was 8, after he created a routine for a puppet his father gave him named Dexter.

The act consisted of bits like this one: "How are your grades this year?" Horsman used to ask. "Underwater," Dexter replied."How do you mean?" "They're below C level."

Maybe it was seeing an 8-year-old holding a puppet no bigger than himself, and maybe he was just a natural ventriloquist. But Horsman was quickly in demand.

In 1994, he was booked on the "Late Show" with David Letterman, and not as a stupid human pet trick, as he points out. Also on the show? "Frasier's" David Hyde Pierce and Peter Gabriel.

"From there, it snowballed," he said.

He was booked on several television shows, such as Jerry Springer's, and was written about in national publications like The New York Times by the time he was 12.

"Between 8 and 15, there wasn't a weekend when I didn't work," he said.

But then his parents separated. Horsman doesn't like to dwell on it, but his parents' divorce kept him out of the spotlight. He still performed where he could. At the Park School of Baltimore, where he went to school, he stepped in before assemblies whenever the principal needed to stall.

It wasn't until he turned 21 that Horsman started performing in earnest again. He and his father transformed the old magic shop into a bar, its storage area into a full-blown stage and restaurant.

Goebel said the bar is taking up a tradition that used to be all the rage in Baltimore but that has languished in recent decades.

Up until the 1950s, Goebel said, the city used to be a major venue for magicians. In 1916, an audience of 50,000 watched Houdini escape from a straitjacket hanging upside down from the old Sun Building. The famed magician Harry Kellar even performed his last show at Baltimore's Ford's Theater.

Now the Society of Osiris, an exclusive magicians' club with only a few members, including Goebel, is just, in his own words, "a bunch of old guys."

He said the Internet and newer forms of entertainment, like reality TV, have upstaged the classic magic show.

"All those things are fading away. Society has other interests now," Goebel said. "In the old days, you had to go to a magic shop to see tricks performed. Now, you can see how the trick is done on a DVD."

But Horsman's act, Goebel said, is keeping an almost forgotten tradition alive and introducing it to new audiences.

At Illusions, he hasn't turned to the flashy technological techniques of today's magicians. The club is decorated like something out of a vaudeville theater, with posters advertising "Alexander: the man who knows" and "Germain the Wizard."

Horsman's on-stage persona is almost fussily old-school. His hair is brilliantined, like an old vaudevillian's. His performances aren't even on YouTube.

Goebel said there aren't many magicians, let alone any Horsman's age, doing 100-year-old Houdini tricks.

Before Horsman re-created it for his show, the only other person who'd performed the straitjacket routine in Baltimore was Goebel himself, who did it in 1963 in front of the newly opened Civic Center.

"I've been around for a long time. I've seen many young magicians. He's very, very good," Goebel said. "He doesn't just get sleight of hand, not to put that down. He has a rapport with the audience."

During most of the week, Horsman performs at private events, corporate gigs and conventions for things like all-natural fertilizer. That's his bread and butter, but the club, where he performs twice a week, is both a platform to perform an old style of entertainment and a safety net.

"When the economy was hit, a lot of other performers I know lost a lot of work," he said. "This is now a guaranteed job for me."

On the Friday after the accident, loath to miss a show, he was back on. "In 16 years, I've never canceled a show," he said. "That's a pretty good track record."

He wore what he always wears: a black vest over a red shirt and a slick pompadour, and hammed it up, doing bits in which you could practically hear the rimshot after every punchline. Though he couldn't do the Houdini routine, he seamlessly performed several card tricks with patrons on stage.

Through it all, he didn't mention the accident. The only trace of the mishap was above his left eyebrow, where an almost imperceptible bandage covered a 3-inch-long scar.

The house was, again, full.

Goebel said Horsman's quick return to the stage tells him the young performer has that extra gene all performers need: showmanship.

"The audience doesn't want to be see you fall out of the straitjacket, but if you do, they want to be there for it." Goebel said.

Get more information about Illusions: Magic Bar and Lounge