For one of his first tricks during a September show, magician Spencer Horsman revealed his girlfriend, Caroline Gayle, huddled in the bottom of a box on the stage. She emerged, dazed and barefoot, starting to cry when she saw a mosaic of more than 500 boxes of Oreo cookies, stacked up on the stage to spell out “WILL YOU MARRY ME?”
It was the tenth proposal to take place during one of Horsman’s shows at Illusions Theatre & Bar in Federal Hill, albeit the only time that Horsman was the one doing the asking. The location seemed only natural.
“This is what I live and breathe and do,” he said. The Oreos were an inside joke, a love the couple shared in their early days of friendship.
And so begins a new chapter for the 32-year-old Baltimore magician, known for his daring, Houdini-like escapes performed on “America’s Got Talent” in 2012 and later in Las Vegas alongside such magic superstars as David Copperfield.
Two years ago, his father, manager and business partner, Ken Horsman, died of cancer at 58 — and Spencer wasn’t sure he’d be able to run the place on his own. The elder Horsman, a former Ringling Bros. clown, had helped him build the theater. Loaded with his belongings — the headdress of an elephant he’d ridden in the circus, a plaid suit he wore as Ken-Zo the Clown — the theater, Spencer said, “felt more like a mausoleum” in the months after he died. They’d had his wake upstairs.
Today, Gayle fills a role once occupied by Horsman’s father: greeting guests at the door, locking her now-fiance into a cube full of water before his Houdini-style escape at the end of the show. But she’s putting her own spin on things, too: holding theatrical seances in an adjacent room, and offering tarot card readings after shows.
“There’s always a sense of pressure because I always hear stories about Ken,” Gayle said.
Ken Horsman had been a fixture in South Baltimore since the 1980s, where he settled down with Spencer’s mother — also a clown — and opened a party supply and magic store in the space that is now Illusions. (Spencer learned his first tricks there at age 4.)
During those years, Ken Horsman worked as a freelance clown under the name Ken-Zo. He also was Ronald McDonald, performing more than 300 shows a year at McDonald’s restaurants throughout the region, often bringing Spencer along as his assistant on weekend gigs.
“I saw him in his clown face almost as much as his normal face,” Spencer Horsman remembers. As a kid, he loved to watch his dad put his face on, carefully setting it with baby powder to keep it from melting off with sweat. Sometimes, exhausted after a long day of performing, he’d fall asleep with his makeup on.
Spencer stayed in Baltimore with his dad after his parents divorced. In 2007, they transformed the old magic shop into the bar. Outside, Ken Horsman would tend to the sidewalk and recruit new audiences for his son’s show.
“Kenny always had a broom and he would go out and sweep, but sweep meant talk,” said Beth Hawks, who owned a business nearby. “You never walked down South Charles Street without seeing Kenny outside.”
The magic show was a family affair, with his dad greeting guests at the door and ushering them to their seats, sizing them up to see who in the audience would be good candidates to bring onstage. He’d give feedback on Spencer’s performance, and encourage his perfectionist instincts.
“His goal was just to get Spencer better than he was ever,” Hawks said.
Ken died in May 2016, while watching an episode of “The Three Stooges.” Cancer had spread through his brain and lymphatic system. Hawks remember him joking with his oncologists, the eternal entertainer, starting his own running gags in the hospital.
“He never was off. He was always on,” Spencer Horsman said.
At one point, doctors gave him just a few weeks to live. “Go back and do the show tonight,” Horsman remembers his father telling him at the hospital. “Do that to keep your mind off it.”
For months afterward, Horsman could hardly enter the theater. For the first time in his career, he would schedule performances, only to cancel at the last minute, overcome with panic.
On a recent afternoon, Horsman sat at a table in the bar, his hair dyed candy-red and his left arm wrapped in tattoos. A closer look reveals they’re the faces of the patron saints of early comedy: Charlie Chaplin, the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello. On his bicep is Ken Horsman, dressed in his clown costume. Making them permanent, Horsman says, took 60 hours spent in a chair in Las Vegas.
“It just kind of became therapeutic,” Horsman said.
Slowly, he got back to work, finding that, like his father, he was happiest when he was working. “I’m happiest when I’m creating and I’m entertaining people,” he said. “Ultimately it’s about making people happy.”
Horsman’s passion for magic is shared by his fiancee, whom he’ll marry next October at the former Jim Henson studios in Los Angeles, a property built by Charlie Chaplin.
“In magic you have this experience that you’re creating with your audience,” Gayle said. “That’s an incredibly powerful form of entertainment.”
Though she hears about Ken Horsman often, she feels reassured when guests come up to compliment her performance.
“She’s an extremely natural fit, which means a lot to me,” Spencer Horsman said. Perhaps more important, their dynamic works well when they’re not performing, too. Offstage, Horsman acknowledges, he can be a “mass of chaos.”
“Most people can’t put up with that. She was able to do it without even trying.”
On stage, Horsman’s persona is hyper and self-deprecating. He refers to the show as “the little weird magic show in Federal Hill” and jokes that he has the complexion of a tube sock. He teases audience members for not laughing harder at his jokes, for looking silly when they come on stage to perform certain stunts.
Yet underlying the sarcasm is a nearly evangelical belief in the power of live entertainment to bring together a range of people from disparate backgrounds to enjoy a shared experience. Young and old, people of all races, politics and religions come to his shows.
“The purpose of magic,” Horsman told the crowd gathered at his show on Saturday night, “is to create a moment of astonishment.”
And that’s when he got down on one knee.
Gayle said yes, of course. “Had you said ‘no,’ the rest of the show would have been a bummer,” he quipped, as much to the audience as to his fiancee. Newly engaged, the couple kissed, then hurried off to prepare their next act.