Albert J. Dennis, 78, political aide, newspaper reporter and magician

December 06, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Albert J. Dennis, a one-time newspaper reporter and political aide whose true love was performing magic, died Thursday at Charlotte Hall Veterans Home in St. Mary's County of complications from Parkinson's disease. He was 78.

Born and raised in East Baltimore, Mr. Dennis quit high school to devote himself to magic. He became acquainted with the art when a magician visited his grandfather, who for many years had been a circus performer. The magician taught the young Mr. Dennis several tricks and piqued his interest in magic.

"I did my first public show at a church for free," he told a reporter for the monthly Port of Baltimore Bulletin in 1966. "I was 13, and after the show they gave me $5. It was one of the biggest thrills of my life."

By the time he was 18, he had developed a two-hour show with three assistants and was performing in nightclubs and carnivals along the East Coast. His stage name was Scorpion.

"He was wonderful with sleight of hand," said his sister, Frances Ryan of Fallston.

In December 1944, Mr. Dennis was drafted into the Army and sent to Okinawa as an infantryman. By the time he reached the island, it had been secured by U.S. troops. After Japan surrendered, Mr. Dennis was shipped to Korea and was transferred to Special Services so he could perform for his fellow soldiers.

By the time Mr. Dennis, known as "Al," was discharged in November 1946 and returned to Baltimore, the days of vaudeville were over, and he realized he wasn't going to have a career as an illusionist.

He completed high school and graduated from what was then Baltimore Junior College. He went on to the State Teachers College at Towson, now Towson University, but left after one semester.

Mr. Dennis held a series of jobs. He worked as a seaman, drove cabs, worked in the steel mills and shipyards, taught dancing and had a job in a distillery. All the while, he wrote fiction.

He tried a different kind of writing in 1960 with a position at the Arbutus Times. About the same time, he took courses at the University of Maryland.

In 1962, he got a job as a reporter covering the maritime industry for The Sun. In 1966, he went to work as a staff investigator and press liaison for Rep. Edward A. Garmatz, a Baltimore Democrat who was chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. When Mr. Garmatz retired from the House, Mr. Dennis took a job with the Federal Maritime Commission.

In 1985, he went to work for Rep. Helen Delich Bentley as her chief of staff. He had worked for Mrs. Bentley previously - at The Sun, where she was his editor, and at the maritime commission, where she was chairwoman.

"He was a hard worker," Mrs. Bentley said. "He was very devoted to me and to what he was doing. ... Al was an entertainer to the end. He loved performing and keeping people guessing."

A funeral service is scheduled for 10 a.m. today at Leonard J. Ruck Funeral Home, 5303 Harford Road.

In addition to his sister, Mr. Dennis is survived by his wife, the former Thelma Roppelt Hartman, whom he married in 1974.

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