Philip Theodore Thomas, a highly respected prestidigitator, magic historian and former owner of the Yogi Magic Mart on North Charles Street, died Thursday of heart failure at the Life Care nursing home in Cleveland, Tenn. He was 86 and a former Hillendale resident.
For more than 70 years, Mr. Thomas, who retired in 1995, made a career of fooling people.
With his hair slicked back, dressed in white tie, tails and top hat, or a dinner jacket topped off with a fez, Mr. Thomas was the epitome of what a magician should look like.
To the musical accompaniment of "Limehouse Blues," "Chinatown," "It's Magic" or "Penny a Kiss or Penny a Hug," and keeping up a spirited repartee, his hands would perform the most amazing illusions, including his signature rope-linking act.
With a wave of his hands, while intoning the words, "Yogi, Yogi," the ropes would magically link back together. Audiences were dumbfounded and at a loss for explaining what they had just witnessed.
"He was really a first-rate magician, who always emphasized the mystery of magic, and was still wowing them when he was in his 80s," said the Rev. McCarl Roberts of Hunt Valley, a retired United Methodist minister, magician and friend for 44 years.
"He had such skill and could take the old standards and give them new life, and for over 50 years was the guiding light of magic in Baltimore," Mr. Roberts said.
Even when he wasn't performing on stage, Mr. Thomas would pull tricks from his pocket to amuse bystanders.
"He was clever and always on. He loved children and every Christmas Eve would give a show for children at Johns Hopkins Hospital," Mr. Roberts said.
Born and raised in East Baltimore, he developed an interest in magic as a youngster after his minister showed him how to float a needle in a glass of water.
In grade school, he attended a performance by the legendary magician Howard Thurston at Ford's Theater and went backstage after the show.
"With the audacity of the young, I went backstage after a performance and knocked on the magician's dressing room door. He let me in. When he realized the sincereity of my interest, he talked to me for some time with his hand on my shoulder," Mr. Thomas wrote in The Sunday Sun Magazine in 1971. "When I left, he gave me a pat on the back. If I had the slightest doubt earlier, that dissolved it. Thereafter, I never wanted to be anything but a magician."
Whenever he appeared at Ford's, Mr. Thurston would hire him to do odd jobs and once presented him with an autographed picture signed: "Always keep them doubting, Thomas."
Mr. Thomas gave performances in the basement of his home with neighborhood friend Milbourne Christopher, who later became a world-famed magician. They teamed up as "Phil and Mil" and performed in churches and at Carlin's Park, an amusement park. Later, they added Hen Fetsch and billed themselves as "The Unholy Trio" or "The Little Demons."
After graduating from Polytechnic Institute, Mr. Thomas worked briefly as a window decorator while performing his own tricks -- the cut-and-restore rope, linking rings and removing yards and yards of silk from a coat collar -- at parties for children and adults.
In 1938, he opened his first magic shop at 215 N. Charles St., offering feints and other tricks to amateur and professional conjurers. The shop later moved to 310 N. Charles after a disastrous 1978 fire.
Known as the "Mecca for Magicians," the business grew into one of the world's largest magic shops with mail-order customers in more than a dozen countries. It wasn't uncommon to see such magicians as Harry Blackstone stopping by the store to purchase a new trick or give a brief demonstration of the prestidigitator's art to amazed customers.
The store housed Mr. Thomas' extensive collection of magic memorabilia, including a large library devoted to the subject. He also collected material on Harry Houdini and was considered an expert on the escapist.
A set of chains and handcuffs that once belonged to Houdini, who was billed as "The Greatest Necromancer of the Age -- Perhaps of All Times," had a prominent place in his collection.
In 1945, Mr. Thomas created the Yogi Magic Club, which encouraged young boys and girls to pursue magic as a hobby and often served as a showcase for young performers.
As a student and teacher of illusions, Mr. Thomas once explained that the art dated back some 5,000 years to Egyptian fakirs and Roman sorcerers, who popularized magic. He also discounted the beliefs that magic had anything to do with the supernatural and was something that was learned.
However, true to the magician's code, he wouldn't reveal the intricacies of a trick to an audience but only to another magician.
"He was the guy who got me interested in reading about magic," Dennis Haney, a magician who owns Denny & Lee Magic Studio in Essex, said of Mr. Thomas. "'You must read the books, dear boy,' he'd say. It took me three years but I finally caught on. "
"Every famous magician in the world knew who Phil Thomas was," Mr. Haney said.
Although Mr. Thomas was adept at sophisticated and complicated tricks, like sawing a person in half, he said that the rabbit-in-the-hat trick remained popular among audiences as did cups and balls, or the Three Shell Game.
After he retired in 1995, he moved to Port St. Lucie, Fla., and then to Cleveland.
His wife and partner in magic for many years, the former Ley Lehmann, died in 1973.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday at Towson United Methodist Church, 501 Hampton Lane.
He is survived by his wife of 24 years, the former Ann Logan Gentry; a daughter, Anne Claire Garrett of Phoenix; a stepson, Gary Gentry of Nashville, Tenn.; a granddaughter; and two step-grandchildren.
Pub Date: 7/07/98