Magician Michael Cantor picks up the tools of the trade

New book, magic prop workshop help Baltimorean realize his childhood dream of being a master illusionist

  • Magician and entrepreneur Michael Cantor is using a set of tools his father left him to create everything from wands to complicated stage props, like this table at right.
Magician and entrepreneur Michael Cantor is using a set of tools… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
November 05, 2011|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Magician Michael Cantor's studio is a cheerful, open space, on the top floor of a clean white building not far from Television Hill in Woodberry.

It's not some sorcerer's cave or spooky, spider-webbed warehouse, but a bright, airy workman's office, with sprightly melodies streaming in from a classical music station and an array of nuts and bolts organized and ready, like brushes for an artist.

This is where Cantor makes his magic, whether he's practicing routines or creating props and tricks with wood and metal. Cantor's love of illusion has never stopped growing since he staged his first magic show when he was 13. But only recently has he pulled all his childhood dreams together, as an artificer and an entertainer.

Now, at 49, Cantor is a full-time magician on a mission. He wants to restore luster to the craft of conjuring, and he can do that only as a triple threat: performer, craftsman and pop philosopher.

Cantor taught himself magic as a child in Silver Spring, with the help of his father's woodworking tools and a fabulous old compendium of conjuring arts. But he detoured into a more conventional life as a civil engineer. About 15 years ago, he had a revelation.

"I wanted magic to be full time, with the onset of growing older and not wanting to look back with 'woulda, coulda, shoulda' remorse," he said. "I knew that I really couldn't reach the levels that I wanted within the art without such a commitment."

Cantor also knew it would be impossible to make ends meet when he was starting out as a performer. So he founded Salamander Books to back up his true calling.

This past spring, he began to establish himself as an artisan of magical devices — from props as simple and traditional as a wand to tricks as complicated as a table that sprouts cartoonish female legs. Just last week he put out a book called "The Magician's New Hat: On Art or Illusion," a collection of classic-to-contemporary aphorisms and his own thoughts on the illusionist's art.

"It's really addressed to magicians," he said, "or to those magicians who want to practice magic as an art." It begins with a quote from Voltaire: "Illusion is the first of the pleasures."

Looking around an office geared to mechanics as well as performance, Cantor said his obsession with magic didn't start "as a vehicle for entertaining." When he was growing up in the suburbs just over the D.C. line, he was fascinated by his father's workshop.

"I loved building things, and I thought it would be even more fun to build cool things that had secret panels and buttons," he said.

Many a magician, like all-around comic genius Steve Martin, received a box of toy-store magic tricks as a kid and (as Martin wrote in "Born Standing Up") "felt a glow of specialness as the sole possessor — at least locally — of its secrets."

Cantor, by contrast, wanted to build his tricks from the sawdust up.

His dad was not a magician. Arnold B. Cantor, who died late last year, was the chief economist for the AFL/CIO. He was, Cantor said, the kind of liberal devoted to serving "the New York cabbie who would wake up every morning and read The New York Times." (It was Arnold who advised Sen. Walter Mondale, during his 1984 presidential run, to say, "Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did" — an honest and idealistic declaration that probably cost Mondale many votes.) In his youth, Arnold Cantor had apprenticed with a relative who was a cabinetmaker. Working with wood remained a beloved hobby.

As a boy, Cantor developed his own love for it. He stumbled on a resplendent volume titled "Dunninger's Encyclopedia of Magic." He read it "from end to end — many times — and I still have it, though it's in tatters." Cantor tried to recreate its stunning array of devices, transforming his dad's workshop into a boy magician's lab. He learned how to create the effect called "Pepper's Ghost," which involves angling and lighting panes of glass so that one figure transmutes into another — in Cantor's case, "a beautiful woman turning into a gorilla."

Decades later, he inherited his dad's superbly maintained equipment, including a table saw, a drill press, a band saw and a lathe. He thought about his roots in magic and the tradition he'd built up for himself as a "close-up," "classic" illusionist who renews the fun and glamour of "parlor magic" — including card and coin tricks and cup-and-ball routines — for audiences as different as Johns Hopkins students and contestants for "America's Next Top Model."

With his veteran-magician friend Dennis Haney, who owns the Denny and Lee magic shop in Rosedale, Cantor discussed setting up his own magic-works. He hoped to supply established magicians with intricate props that would stand up to constant use. He wanted to enable city-corner magicians to purchase a "street table" that they could fold up easily and sling over their shoulders.

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