I SPENT the first day of spring in a magic shop on South Charles Street in Federal Hill, watching a 15-year-old ventriloquist and magician named Spencer Horsman and thinking: I would kill for this kid's future.
A few nights earlier, Spencer had appeared on "Lance Burton's Young Magician's Showcase" on the Fox Family channel, performing a wild trick in which he stuffed his dummy Dexter into a music box and - presto! - Dexter emerged flatter than Wile E. Coyote after a steamroller runs over him.
Now he was doing card tricks, pulling aces out of mid-air and doing complicated shuffles with the patter and poise of someone decades older.
When I was 15, it took all my emotional energy and concentration to get a forkful of lasagna to my mouth. This kid is so smooth and talented, it's like watching a young David Copperfield, only without the plunging jumpsuits and pre-melanoma tan.
"He's just having so much fun now," Spencer's dad, Ken Horsman, whispers as the kid launches into another trick. "This is his passion. But he's so young. We're leaving all his options open."
If you haven't yet heard of Spencer Horsman, the problem may be at your end, because it's not like the kid's been underexposed.
Since he first started dabbling in ventriloquism at age 8, he's appeared on stage at Caesars Palace with David Copperfield, on TV with David Letterman, Jerry Springer and the Statler Brothers, among others, in People magazine and on Steve Forbes' mega-yacht, where he entertained a group of big-shot magazine advertisers.
When he's not performing, he's a ninth-grader at the Park School who says he wants to go on to college and study forensic science. In some ways, though, you could say Spencer was born to entertain.
His parents, Ken and Bernadette Horsman, are former circus clowns who own Ken-zo's Yogi Magic Mart on South Charles and perform magic shows for kids.
Bernie Horsman, a compact woman with an easy smile, was also an acrobat who used to jump over elephants in her act. So it's not like the two of them were putting Spencer to sleep at the dinner table every night with stories that began: "The office copier was out of ink again ..."
But Ken Horsman says they never pushed magic on their only child. "We waited for him to show interest." When he was 5, Spencer started fooling around with rudimentary tricks, such as making cups and balls disappear in a magic drawer.
At 10, he saw a ventriloquist named Jeff Dunham on TV and became fascinated with the art.
A kid wanting to be a ventriloquist these days, that's like a kid wanting to be a shepherd, isn't it? It seems sort of retro, even quaint, in this day of Eminem and Britney Spears, the WWF and the XFL.
But watching Dunham, Spencer thought: "Wow, this is really different!" He asked his dad to pull down Paul Winchell's videotape "Learn Ventriloquism for Fun and Profit" from a shelf in his shop.
"Three hours later," Ken Horsman recalled, "he came up and said: `Hey, Dad, I can do this!' His lip control was phenomenal."
"It was a totally new field," Spencer recalls. "[But] I was able to get ahold of it right away."
Six months later, he was in Las Vegas with his dad, who was attending an entertainers convention. One night, the two bought tickets for David Copperfield's show at Caesar's Palace.
They were sitting up front, and Copperfield noticed the cute blond-haired kid with his little dummy. ("Spencer carried it everywhere," Ken Horsman said.)
Copperfield brought Spencer up on stage. The kid did 5 minutes of impromptu ventriloquism. The crowd loved it. So did a beaming Copperfield, who then told the audience: "This is how I got started, too."
Back home, Spencer began working on a real act that would combine magic and ventriloquism. This is harder than it sounds. For all intents and purposes, it's one-handed magic, since one of the ventriloquist's hands is occupied with the dummy. Not long after that, he placed second in the kids' competition at the International Ventriloquists Convention in Kentucky.
"I was totally shocked," he recalled. "From then on we were thinking: `What can we do with this?' "
Ken Horsman, who is not exactly the shy, retiring type, sent a tape of Spencer's act to "The Late Show with David Letterman." The Letterman people called back right away.
Three days later, Spencer and Dexter were interviewed for five minutes on Letterman, sandwiched between an appearance by actor David Hyde Pierce and rocker Peter Gabriel.
Letterman loved him. So did the audience. "That jump-started everything," Spencer said. Soon he was performing with Dexter - both in their little tuxedos - at birthday parties, magic shows and magic conventions, where he was wowing even the pros.
Two years later, though, tragedy struck. Sort of.
The Horsmans had sent Dexter to California for a makeover. On the return trip home, he got lost in the mail. Spencer was inconsolable.