Cyril A. Keller, 77, magician was `Fred Astaire with cards'

September 13, 2005|By John Fritze | John Fritze,SUN STAFF

Cyril A. Keller, a renowned sleight-of-hand man whose showmanship in magic set him apart during an apex of hocus-pocus in Baltimore, died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma Friday at a Philadelphia hospice center. He was 77.

A spade was never just a spade near Mr. Keller, who to the eye could wave his hand over a card to change its suit. With a clink, he could make seemingly seamless metal rings link. He could, of course, pull cards from behind his ears.

"He was a Fred Astaire with cards," said Ken Horsman, who owns Ken-Zo's Yogi Magic Mart on South Charles Street, where Mr. Keller sometimes performed. "He was very, very smooth."

Mr. Keller was born and raised in Baltimore, where he graduated from Loyola College in 1949. He worked for the Chicago-based Great Books Foundation for 12 years, starting in the mid-1960s, facilitating literature discussions along the East Coast.

He could quote Shakespeare. What's more, family members said, he could name the play - and sometimes the act - when someone else quoted Shakespeare. He also loved jazz, poetry and musicals.

"He had the most amazing mind," said his companion of 22 years, Bernice Bricklin of Philadelphia. "It was so enriching."

Magical beginnings

But it was in small Baltimore magic clubs during the 1960s where Mr. Keller flourished and refined an avocation he would continue long after retirement. With time, colleagues said, he became one of the nation's best close-up magicians.

Showmanship - the ability to keep an audience interested in trick after trick - is an important part of the craft, and it was Mr. Keller's specialty, fellow magicians said. Perhaps less glitzy than disappearing acts and saw-a-woman-in-two routines, Mr. Keller kept audiences spellbound using only his hands.

"It's hard to tell whether it's legend or reality, but the story about him is that one time he went to a party, took a borrowed deck of cards and did two hours of magic and never repeated a trick," said his son Richard Keller of Elkridge. "He had a sense of showmanship."

In one favorite trick, called a color change, Mr. Keller would display the first card of a deck. He would wave his hand in front of it, like a paintbrush, and the card, suddenly, was a different suit. He'd then display his spare palm, proving to the audience that he wasn't holding the original card.

He was an expert at the three-card monte, where three cards are laid out and a spectator picks one and tries to follows it through repeated moves. Sometimes Mr. Keller would even bend a corner of the key card as an aid. For the unsuspecting viewer, though, it was no use. The bent card, somehow, had been switched.

Reputation grows

Mr. Keller's reputation rose in the 1980s, during a resurgence of magic both nationally and in Baltimore. He performed at the acclaimed Magic Castle in Los Angeles. He invented dozens of tricks, family members said, including many described in magic books. When he wasn't wandering around the house practicing, he caught gigs at private gatherings and banquets.

For 14 years he held a day job at First National Bank in Baltimore, helping to computerize paper documents. The irony of a bank hiring someone who made things disappear was not lost on Mr. Keller, his family or, apparently, the bankers.

"He would always say, `They never let me near the money,'" Ms. Bricklin said.

After retiring in 1993, Mr. Keller moved to Philadelphia to be with Ms. Bricklin, whom he met while performing at a banquet.

"You could sit almost anywhere and watch him do things and he could still find a way to fool you," said Richard Keller, who said he learned only one card trick from his father.

"He was always working his magic," he said.

Services were held yesterday at Mishkan Shalom Synagogue in Philadelphia. Also surviving are two other sons, Donald Keller of New York City and Michael Keller of Glen Burnie; two daughters, Caroline Clare of Finksburg and Barbara Henriksen of Des Moines, Iowa; eight grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

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