George L. Horn, 98, puppeteer, ventriloquist

January 17, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

George L. Horn, a puppeteer and ventriloquist who spent more than 60 years delighting children and adults with the exploits of his hand-held characters, died Monday of a urinary infection at Millennium Health and Rehabilitation Center of Ellicott City. He was 98.

"I saw him perform sometime around 1963 at Patterson Park, and to this day, I can still remember it," said Mark Walker, a Baltimore puppeteer and ventriloquist who spends his days as a planning analyst at Johns Hopkins Health Systems. "He gave thousands of people so much pleasure through the years.

"We hooked up in 1986 when my niece was having a birthday party and I saw a clip of George on TV doing a Punch and Judy show. So, I contacted him, and he did the party. The kids loved it, and I loved it."

"He was a gifted artist, and Punch and Judy was his forte," said the Rev. McCarl Roberts, a longtime friend who is also a magician and a retired United Methodist minister. "He always had lots of gags that kept the audience on edge. He was a great repeat act because it never wore thin and always seemed fresh."

Mr. Horn was born in Philadelphia, the son of Sam Horn, who pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics. After the elder Mr. Horn's baseball career ended, he moved his family to Lutherville and opened a painting business. His son dropped out of Baltimore County public schools to work with his father.

In the early 1920s, while sitting one day in Baltimore's Ford's Theater watching a performance by Howard Thurston, the noted prestidigitator known as "America's Greatest Illusionist," Mr. Horn decided he wanted to become a magician.

He became an assistant to Earle Heyl, a well-known Baltimore magician, who helped the enthusiastic and talented young man become the youngest member of the Demos' Club, a local magic club.

He also was influenced by Edward Ross, a well-known puppeteer whose stage name was Rossella. He had been performing his Royal London Punch and Judy Show, which had made its debut in 1897 at Pat Harris' Dime Museum on East Baltimore Street.

On Sundays, Mr. Horn would board a streetcar for Riverview Park to watch the elderly performer send the two fractious puppets Punch and Judy into battle.

"After Rossella died, George became a puppeteer just like his mentor," wrote Mr. Walker in Yankee Magic Collector.

Mr. Horn continually performed Punch and Judy as part of his act until 1989, when he retired and sold his show and memorabilia to Mr. Walker, who has continued the show under the banner of Horn's Punch & Judy Show.

Outside of working for several years in the painting business, which he later sold, and as a security guard during World War II at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Key Highway shipyard, Mr. Horn made his living as a full-time entertainer.

For most of the 1940s, Mr. Horn performed a novelty act seven nights a week at the original Club Charles at Charles and Preston streets.

"When the Club Charles opened up, they built a special bar with a one-way mirror. I did my show from behind it. No one ever saw me or met me. The bartenders helped me with the names of patrons who spoke to the puppets," Mr. Horn told The Sun in a 1995 interview.

While barflies slowly sipped drinks, Mr. Horn supplied a running commentary from his hidden lair which he interspersed with music played on a record player, also out of sight.

"He had a marvelous sense of humor," Mr. Roberts said. "He'd say to someone at the bar who was sitting with a woman, `Hey, Harry, that's not the woman I saw you with last night.' They'd talk back and forth like they were old buddies."

Mr. Horn was also able to work with two of his ventriloquist figures, Oscar and Henry, at once.

"He'd have one on each knee and did several voices at once as well as moving them. It was amazing to watch," Mr. Walker said.

"He always ended his shows with them singing a duet of `Sweet Adeline,'" said Mr. Horn's daughter, Susanne H. Krauch of Ellicott City.

Mr. Horn was married for 55 years to the former Mary E. Scott, who died in 1986.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Horn is survived by a son, George L. Horn Jr. of Crofton; eight grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

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