Magician Michael Cantor picks up the tools of the trade

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Magician and entrepreneur Michael Cantor is using a set of tools his father left him to create everything from wands to complicated stage props, like this table at right.

Magician Michael Cantor's studio is a cheerful, open space, on the top floor of a clean white building not far from Television Hill in Woodberry.

It's not some sorcerer's cave or spooky, spider-webbed warehouse, but a bright, airy workman's office, with sprightly melodies streaming in from a classical music station and an array of nuts and bolts organized and ready, like brushes for an artist.

This is where Cantor makes his magic, whether he's practicing routines or creating props and tricks with wood and metal. Cantor's love of illusion has never stopped growing since he staged his first magic show when he was 13. But only recently has he pulled all his childhood dreams together, as an artificer and an entertainer.

Now, at 49, Cantor is a full-time magician on a mission. He wants to restore luster to the craft of conjuring, and he can do that only as a triple threat: performer, craftsman and pop philosopher.

Cantor taught himself magic as a child in Silver Spring, with the help of his father's woodworking tools and a fabulous old compendium of conjuring arts. But he detoured into a more conventional life as a civil engineer. About 15 years ago, he had a revelation.

"I wanted magic to be full time, with the onset of growing older and not wanting to look back with 'woulda, coulda, shoulda' remorse," he said. "I knew that I really couldn't reach the levels that I wanted within the art without such a commitment."

Cantor also knew it would be impossible to make ends meet when he was starting out as a performer. So he founded Salamander Books to back up his true calling.

This past spring, he began to establish himself as an artisan of magical devices — from props as simple and traditional as a wand to tricks as complicated as a table that sprouts cartoonish female legs. Just last week he put out a book called "The Magician's New Hat: On Art or Illusion," a collection of classic-to-contemporary aphorisms and his own thoughts on the illusionist's art.

"It's really addressed to magicians," he said, "or to those magicians who want to practice magic as an art." It begins with a quote from Voltaire: "Illusion is the first of the pleasures."

Looking around an office geared to mechanics as well as performance, Cantor said his obsession with magic didn't start "as a vehicle for entertaining." When he was growing up in the suburbs just over the D.C. line, he was fascinated by his father's workshop.

"I loved building things, and I thought it would be even more fun to build cool things that had secret panels and buttons," he said.

Many a magician, like all-around comic genius Steve Martin, received a box of toy-store magic tricks as a kid and (as Martin wrote in "Born Standing Up") "felt a glow of specialness as the sole possessor — at least locally — of its secrets."

Cantor, by contrast, wanted to build his tricks from the sawdust up.

His dad was not a magician. Arnold B. Cantor, who died late last year, was the chief economist for the AFL/CIO. He was, Cantor said, the kind of liberal devoted to serving "the New York cabbie who would wake up every morning and read The New York Times." (It was Arnold who advised Sen. Walter Mondale, during his 1984 presidential run, to say, "Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did" — an honest and idealistic declaration that probably cost Mondale many votes.) In his youth, Arnold Cantor had apprenticed with a relative who was a cabinetmaker. Working with wood remained a beloved hobby.

As a boy, Cantor developed his own love for it. He stumbled on a resplendent volume titled "Dunninger's Encyclopedia of Magic." He read it "from end to end — many times — and I still have it, though it's in tatters." Cantor tried to recreate its stunning array of devices, transforming his dad's workshop into a boy magician's lab. He learned how to create the effect called "Pepper's Ghost," which involves angling and lighting panes of glass so that one figure transmutes into another — in Cantor's case, "a beautiful woman turning into a gorilla."

Decades later, he inherited his dad's superbly maintained equipment, including a table saw, a drill press, a band saw and a lathe. He thought about his roots in magic and the tradition he'd built up for himself as a "close-up," "classic" illusionist who renews the fun and glamour of "parlor magic" — including card and coin tricks and cup-and-ball routines — for audiences as different as Johns Hopkins students and contestants for "America's Next Top Model."

With his veteran-magician friend Dennis Haney, who owns the Denny and Lee magic shop in Rosedale, Cantor discussed setting up his own magic-works. He hoped to supply established magicians with intricate props that would stand up to constant use. He wanted to enable city-corner magicians to purchase a "street table" that they could fold up easily and sling over their shoulders.

According to Haney, "Today, in the field of magic, younger magicians are losing. They're not learning about good classic magic. Magic props are being knocked off, made cheap, made poorly, and that's part of the quality of performance going down."

Haney talked to Cantor about "things I tried to get made right but never could," like the trick table with the shapely gams.

"I had used it in my act for 40 years, and I wanted to pass it down to other magicians," Haney said. "I had a guy in Las Vegas working on it, and some other guys, too, but everyone was doing it the wrong way."

Cantor gave it a try.

"He brought in a prototype; I was impressed," Haney recalled. "I said I'd like to change this, change that, but the next thing I knew there was a beautiful piece that any magician would be proud to use on stage. "

What Cantor calls the "Comedy Legs Table" now goes for $950 plus shipping and handling. Also available for order on his website is a box trick called the "Fraidy Cat Rabbit." The illusion starts when the flat image of a black rabbit in a frame turns white with fear when the audience yells "Boo!" The business has only just begun, but Cantor has already taken several commissions.

Though Cantor avoids words like "retro" and disdains "nostalgia," he hews to old-fashioned qualities. He's a traditionalist who's also an original. Spectacle alone does not impress him. He admires magicians of all kinds — including David Copperfield and Siegfried, of Siegfried and Roy — who forge connections with their audience because they've mastered "the basics."

For Cantor, "certain skill sets define what a magician is: fundamentals like being able to manipulate objects — cards, coins, balls." He never appears to be at rest. He is always rolling coins around his hands like a concert virtuoso, his knuckles and palm as dexterous as a fiddler's fingers, or flipping and shuffling cards with the showmanship of a fan-dancer.

"It's like doing scales," he said. (Cantor also quotes Bruce Lee: "I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.")

The preparation pays off in performance: He's so casual and offhand in his skill that he can maintain an intimate and surprising relationship to his audience.

"It's like juggling mixed with theater," he said. "You reach out to the audience, then use your manipulative skills to deceive them."

Cantor talks about "psychology" the way a master salesman would. A genuine illusionist "understands the connection between mind and body — is able to read the subtle signs in someone's face or posture that say you've got him, or that he's on to you." He also guides and controls an audience's mental reflexes. Cantor learned early on, for example, that if he waves his hand back and forth a few times across a table, people won't notice when he pulls his hand farther back to drop a coin into his lap.

Cantor didn't immediately plunge into professional magic. He earned a degree in civil engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park, then went to work in environmental firms. He said he became disillusioned at the process of "corporations hiring environmental consultants to find loopholes/oversights with EPA guidelines so the firms could do as they wish." As he told The Baltimore Sun in 1998, he was also "bored to tears." To support his magic, he started the used-book store Salamander Books. Once he was self-employed, he set out to become an artist.

He tailors his act for every crowd. For the high-IQ society Mensa, for example, he did a card trick geared to make the smarty-pants audience think it was cleverer than he is. But for Cantor, even when magic is at its most cerebral, it's also tactile. He knows magicians like to tip their wands with brass — it helps them to "misdirect" a crowd's attention. Yet he's thinking of making his wands with a circle of brass beneath the tip, not on it, so when street magicians are doing cups-and-balls routines, neither the cups nor the wand will get banged up.

He and his wife, Cindy Vejar, who teaches in the family studies and community development department at Towson University, have two 8-month-old twins, Samuel and Mia. (From his first marriage, Cantor also has a 19-year-old daughter, Naomi, an art student.)

With the death of his father and the birth of twins, he feels that fate is telling him that it's time to come into his own as a performer, a creator, and a proponent of magic as art. He's not doubling down — he's tripling down.

"It's back-to-the-wall-time," he said.