One final disappearing act for a Baltimore institution

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One final disappearing act for a Baltimore institution

January 24, 2003|By Dan Rodricks

I HAD TO see it to believe it. I did, and I do. Lou Walston, the almost-octogenarian magician, can make a Kennedy half-dollar disappear. I swear to God, it's magic. I was standing right there, at the front counter of Lou's Funhouse Magic Shop on Eastern Avenue, in a seen-better-days shopping strip just over the city line, and Lou engaged in the best sleight of hand I have ever seen.

Except that it wasn't sleight of hand. It was magic.

Believe, Baltimore.

The shiny half-dollar went into Lou's right hand and never came out. I stood 18 inches away, staring dead-on at Mr. Lou's every move. I could see the wrinkles and spots on his fingers. The coin never came out of his hands, and he showed me his palms!

Then, Mr. Lou reached up and plucked the coin from behind his left ear!

It was magic. And I swear on the heads of my children, who, had they been with me yesterday, would have declared Mr. Lou totally cool.

"Can you believe these hands are 79 years old?" Lou asked the two clowns standing next to me -- Arnie (Daryl Coleman) The Clown and Annie (Diana Fowlkes) The Clown. We were all impressed. Very impressed. There was a feeling of being in the presence of genius. I can't be sure, but for a moment I think I felt the spirit of the duende (or maybe it was just the sandwich I ate hurriedly at lunch).

Anyway, what we have here is another fine, old Baltimore institution about to go out of business, I'm sad to report. As soon as Mr. Lou sells the last self-inflating whoopee cushion in stock -- Can you believe it? Self-inflating! -- he'll call it a career and close his shop.

For now, it was Thursday afternoon in the Funhouse, and Arnie and Annie had come by for their weekend clown supplies: 200 balloons for balloon sculptures -- Annie can do a fantastic full-body Pink Panther -- and a new red nose for Arnie. Plus, Annie needed face paint -- "Ringling Bros. Red" -- because she's about to do a show at the Sweet Potato Kids Museum in Randallstown.

Annie, who works full time as a clown and balloonatic, comes by Lou's Funhouse all the time, to see what's new there.

"I've got annual customers," she says. "I can't go back there every year with the same old tricks."

Mr. Lou, a tall man who bears a striking resemblance to Bud Abbott of Abbott & Costello, always seems to have something Annie hasn't seen before. Yesterday, the discovery was a large red flower -- hold it up so that the unsuspecting customer can smell it, give the bladder hidden in its feathery green leaves a gentle squeeze, and it collapses.

Annie and Arnie also liked something called the Fantastic Box, a white, plastic gadget about the size of a pack of cigarettes, with a small sliding compartment.

"I'm going to put magic seeds inside," Mr. Lou said, pinching thin air and pretending to drop invisible seeds into the empty compartment. "Close the box, and see what grows."

Mr. Lou snapped the compartment shut. Then, when he reopened it, a small bouquet of colorful paper flowers appeared.

"Awesome," Annie The Clown declared. "How much for one of those?"

"Nine dollars," said Mr. Lou.

"Give me one."

Annie also showed interest in how-to-do-it balloon sculpture videos. Mr. Lou had a large assortment for sale, including one produced by Ron Covington, a local balloonatic who specializes in balloon hats.

Fake canine vomit, cans of peanut brittle that house spring-loaded cloth snakes, decks of trick playing cards, plastic vampire teeth, a calculator that zaps anyone who uses it with a mild electric shock -- Did I mention the self-inflating whoopee cushion? -- you can find all your joke, prank, gag, magic and clown needs at Mr. Lou's.

But for a limited time only.

Mr. Lou even has a pair of leather clown shoes for sale, tennis-racket-size things with laces made by the late, great clown-shoe cobbler Ray Griffin in New York City. Used, $75.

Mr. Lou has been in the magical funny business for 40 years, having started with a small shop in East Baltimore, where he grew up. He moved to Belair Road for a while, then moved the Funhouse to the present location on Eastern Avenue.

The walls of the back of the shop are covered with framed photographs of many of the magicians and clowns Mr. Lou called customers and colleagues at one time, including Earl Canapp, the Senile Sorcerer, and Freddie Smelz, who taught Mr. Lou the craft of magic. "My mother, Bertha, played piano for Freddie when he went around doing his magic show," Mr. Lou said. "That's how I learned."

As he showed me out of the shop yesterday, Mr. Lou suddenly stuck one of his long fingers in his right ear, as if to itch it. Then he jerked his finger sharply downward, as a mechanic might a ratchet, and emitted a mouse squeak with each movement. Lou Walston, the almost-octogenarian magician, had pulled another sleight of hand (apparently with a concealed, squeaky toy), this time to make me laugh. It was free, too, truly a gift.

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