Conjuring a supply of illusion

Shop: For 18 years, Ken-Zo's Yogi Magic Mart has thrived, as others stores performed disappearing acts.

February 28, 2005|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

The polka-dot giraffe in the window leaves Josh Gelfand cold. No laugh.

Ditto for the happy elephant, the Clown Alley wigs, the goofy Steve Forbes photo or any of the other knickknacks packed into Ken-Zo's Yogi Magic Mart.

But then the glum artist from California meets the man in the sky-blue clown suit. And Ken-Zo has an ace up his sleeve - so to speak.

"You guys want to see a couple of tricks?" Ken-Zo asks Gelfand and his friend.

Why not?

"What do you guys like? Cards? Coins?" Ken-Zo asks.

Ken-Zo pulls out a deck of blank cards. He shuffles once and - voilM-` - the faces appear. He shuffles again, and the ornate backs appear. He shuffles again and - alikazam! - they're blank again.

Ken-Zo's son, Spencer, a ventriloquist and magician, is standing nearby, having just performed that trick for an earlier visitor.

How did he do it? the Californians demand. Ken-Zo points to a sign on the display case: "The secret is told when the magic is sold."

That does it. Gelfand, who dragged himself in, depressed after a lousy day selling little at an art show, leaves with a smile - and a $9.95 set of ghoul teeth to go with it.

"Thanks for the magic," he says, shaking hands with the clown.

For Ken-Zo - aka Kenneth Horsman - the trick to staying in business for 18 years is more about making people smile than getting them to part with a few bucks.

That the Charles Street shop has endured when the half-dozen other magic marts once common along Baltimore boulevards have closed is no small feat.

What makes it amazing is that it thrives in Federal Hill, where most of the neighborhood's yogis are sitting half-lotus in local gyms and the best disappearing act going is watching rowhouses fly off the market at once-unfathomable prices.

Real estate agents have wandered in to Ken-Zo's expansive building, hinting that the place might make a great restaurant, a bar - even apartments.

The clown is not selling.

"When people come in, it's a happy feeling, a great feeling - like, what's behind that door?" he says. "This is a very giving business. The reward of it is to make other people laugh. How many people can say they do that?"

You get the sense that Ken-Zo's childlike cheer would be infectious even if he weren't wearing a red nose. At forty-something, he has the smooth face of a man in his 30s. Nineteen-year-old Spencer might dress the part of grown-up hipster - black retro sweater, classy wool pants - but he can still buy suits for his ventriloquist act in the children's department.

It could just be good genes - Spencer's mother is an acrobat, and his parents met more than two decades ago when both worked for the circus.

But more likely, it's being around that magic. Who could grow old in a place where a sign on the way back from the bathroom says: "Thank you - and may all your days be circus days"?

The people who drop by are a mix of professionals and hobbyists, neighborhood friends and local luminaries.

On a recent visit, a man who works in a nearby furniture store bought a new card trick for his 12-year-old son. A woman called looking for a white dove. An insurance agent who hadn't visited since his college-age son was a boy stopped by to see whether the shop was still there.

Filmmaker John Waters has wandered in. ("He is always looking for weird stuff," Ken-Zo says.) So have the swing musicians in Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, who sometimes play nearby.

Everyone gets a little Baltimore magic courtesy of the illusionists. But then the two get the inevitable interrogation:

Question 1: "How do you do that?"

Spencer: "Very carefully." Or, when he's feeling sarcastic, "Very well, thank you."

Question 2: "Can you make my wife disappear?" (Sometimes asked in front of said wife; not as common as question 1.)

Spencer: "I'm not that good."

Spencer boasts his own legion of fans. He has appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman and other TV shows with his dummy, Dexter. He became world-famous at 10 when Dexter, who had gone to California for a makeover, lost his way in the mail. People magazine covered the story, and local media waited breathlessly until the postmaster returned Dexter three weeks later.

Spencer has entertained aboard Steve Forbes' yacht - hence the autographed photo, inscribed: "To Spencer, if I had your magic, I'd be president."

He recently entranced Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie for a segment of The Simple Life. A graduate of the Park School, he's taking a year off before college, performing around the country when he's not working in the store.

Spencer and Ken-Zo have a theory about where all the magic shops have gone: In today's instant-gratification culture teens are more interested in playing fast-moving video games than taking the time to master the sleight of hand.

And so two of the last standing magic proprietors in the city know they are more than a novelty act. They are really selling themselves. That, and a good time.

"If you can't have fun in a store like this," Ken-Zo says, "then you're not going to find any fun anywhere."

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