To learn magic in England, travel to King’s Cross Station, step through a brick wall to the landing at Platform 9 3/4, and board the 11 a.m. Hogsmeade train to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to begin your training. In the U.S. of A., take I-695 to Exit 35B, Pulaski Highway, hang a left on Rossville Boulevard then a right behind the Toys ‘R’ Us on the hill, and follow the Yellow Brick Road (yes, really) deep into an industrial park to Denny and Lee Magic Studio. Follow the magical instructions scrawled on the glass door—pull hard, door sticks—and enter a fading world of mysterious men and arcane illusion unknown to most Maryland Muggles. Thankfully, the path is not guarded by a dragon, though there is a pig.
She stands as tall as a German Shepherd but half again as long and twice as wide, with coarse black hair forming a wiry Mohawk that runs halfway to her twisted tail. Her black eyes and ribcage-rattling grunts make her an intimidating guardian. Luckily, other than poking her head out to take in new customers, she spends most of her time in her room rearranging her bed and watching television. She likes Jeopardy.
“That’s Baby,” says Dennis Haney, the owner and proprietor of Denny and Lee Magic Studio and its sister store in Las Vegas. “She’s a sweetheart.”
Denny and Lee Magic Studio is to magic shops what Kentucky is to Bourbon, what Nathan’s is to hot dogs, what Belgium is to waffles. There is no rival. David Blaine*, the Amazing Johnathan*, and Penn Jillette* (of Penn and Teller) have shopped at Denny and Lee. Teller makes a point of stopping in to hang out when he’s in the area. “I was there when David Copperfield called to wish [Haney] a happy birthday,” says Michael Cantor, a magician and prop builder who frequents the shop.
Entering Denny and Lee’s is like entering the cluttered mind of a madman. A rack of daggers and swords stands at the front door. Hardbound tomes are stacked floor to ceiling, and crumbling magical manifestos spill from their racks. A long glass case holds a laundry list of tricks: The Invisible Stranger, the $100 Mark Mason Miracle Chip, Pedro’s Green Card, the Wizard Blizzard Snowstorm. In the middle of the store a pair of men in their 60s, having arrived early for the Old Farts Magic Club’s weekly meeting, sit on battered chairs talking grandkids and arguing the pros and cons of gaffed tennis balls and foam bananas over a box of Dunkin’ Donuts.
Haney steps from behind the counter, dressed all in black with a pair of checkered Vans. His wispy white hair is halfway through its own disappearing act, but his trim form radiates a puckish energy and his powerful magical aura has apparently kept the Maryland smoking ban at bay. Ashtrays are sprinkled throughout the store and a never-ending stream of cigarettes glows at his lips.
Haney’s collection of magician posters, all original, some well over a century old, hang on the walls. There’s Chung Ling Soo, the Cantonese Conjurer; the legendary Thurston and his consort of Devils; the piercing gaze of Alexander, the Man Who Knows; and, of course, an autographed picture of the great Harry Houdini. “Young magicians come in here and say, ‘Did you ever see him perform?’” Haney says. “He died in 1926! How old do you think I am?
“Of course I love the Kalanag,” he adds, pointing to a poster of a buxom blonde riding a devil-horned centaur through a starry sky. “This was done in the ’40s and ’50s and it shows her nipples, and it’s like, ‘Whoa!’ That was racy back then. And Kalanag was a great magician, but he was a Nazi. He was Hitler’s favorite magician, and he brought his show over to the United States, but ‘Hitler’s favorite magician’ doesn’t make it on a marquee.”
The cramped showroom up front gives way to an immense warehouse with a maze of industrial shelves stacked 20 feet high—a vast horde of arcane implements. Hidden behind a curtain is Haney’s extensive personal library. Carved from the center of the labyrinth is a stage set with more than 100 folding chairs where magicians perform for, and lecture to, other magicians.
To Haney, this is a service, making good on a debt to the magicians that taught him, a continuation of the local magic fraternity that nurtured his own career. “Baltimore has a deep historic value when it comes to magic,” Haney says. “The big guys, the Houdinis, the Copperfields. The original was Alexander Herrmann [better known as Herrmann the Great]. When Herrmann retired, he passed his wand over to [Harry] Kellar. When Kellar retired, he passed it to [Howard] Thurston, and he did it right here in Baltimore at Ford’s Theater, and we had a secret [magic] society, the Society of Osiris. Only seven members were allowed. That was in the ’30s, but it still exists.” When asked if he’s a member, Haney quickly changes the subject.
Haney saw his first magic trick in 1951, when he was 5 years old. “My older sister sent these cereal-box tops away and got a little thing called a ball vase”—a device that makes a ball seem to disappear—“and I was like, ‘My God,’” he says. “Well, when I was 10, I was walking through Woolworth’s Five and Dime and they had a little rack, and I was spinning it around and they had that ball vase! I still remembered. It was 50 cents and I bought it. . . . Then I started going to the public library and getting books and making some stuff out of cardboard. I’d do magic shows for the kids in the neighborhood for a nickel, and that was it.”
Haney devoted himself to the craft, seeking advice anywhere he could get it. “Anyone that was working was an inspiration,” he says. “I always looked at it this way: If they’re working, they must be doing it right.” In 1962, at the age of 17, he performed in New York for the Society of American Magicians. Soon after, the legendary Harry Blackstone Jr. took Haney under his wing, helping him land a national tour of the famous Playboy Clubs. The tour was derailed before it began, however, when Haney received his draft notification. Haney volunteered instead and entered an Army language school in the hopes of avoiding Vietnam. When it came time for assignments, he recalls, “The guy next to me drew ‘SV’ for South Vietnam and I felt so bad for the guy. Then I drew ‘NV.’”
Magic can often be found in the darkest places, however, and Haney’s career would take an unexpected turn at a show in the jungles of Vietnam. “One day a man came through with a tent, up in Pleiku* village on the Cambodian border,” Haney says. “His name was Johnny Aladdin. He was a magician, and I saw this man absolutely destroy this crowd. You know, we were all young punks out in the jungle, fighting, and we were thinking, ‘Oh, here comes a magician, we’ll eat him alive!’ Well, he ate us alive . . . . He called his act Simon Jitsu, the ancient act of mind over matter: ‘I don’t mind and you don’t matter.’ He’d grab a guy’s thumb and stick it up his own nose, and the guy couldn’t get it out. Then he’d grab another guy’s hand and put it on the floor and the guy couldn’t move. And he’d pick another guy and clap his hands and his legs would fall right out from under him, then all three guys are just falling back and forth. Then he’d say, ‘Gentlemen, take your seats,’ and when they’re walking back he’d whistle and bam! Bam! Bam! All three of them would fall right on their ass. Those guys came in from the field still smelling of gunpowder, and after the show, they didn’t want to get near him. They were scared!”
But Haney wasn’t, and Aladdin offered him a job. Haney came home after three tours of combat duty and took the first flight back to Vietnam, where he honed his craft under Aladdin, performing for the troops. He eventually brought his act back to the States, and, while never a household name, Haney became a wild success through the ’70s and ’80s. He opened for the likes of Dolly Parton, Joan Rivers, and the Rhinestone Cowboy himself, Glen Campbell, before taking part in a variety show at the Showboat Casino in Atlantic City.
In 2011, 49 years after his first New York City performance, the Society of American Magicians presented Haney with the prestigious Milbourne Christopher Masters Award. Though retired, he is still very much in demand. He travels a few times a year to Las Vegas or Los Angeles’ Magic Castle. Recently he was flown to England to perform one trick, the egg bag, for an entire week. For this classic trick, a magician makes eggs appear from and disappear into an empty velvet bag. But according to Michael Cantor, Haney makes it special. “He’s an old-school craftsperson,” Cantor says. “He has those millions of little nuances you can only get by doing it. He’s an absolutely tremendous resource, and it’s a real gift to have him here. But he’s not a back-slapper. He’s not there to just tell you how wonderful you are, ’cause if you’re not, he’s going to tell you you’re not.”
Haney has little respect for dilettantes. “I said to one guy once, ‘You don’t care if you’re good at it or not?’” Haney says, “and he said, ‘No, I just want to do it for my friends,’ and I said, ‘Did you ever have another hobby?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I used to collect stamps,’ and I said, ‘Did you just collect the bad ones?’”
Though he doesn’t need the money, Haney’s dedication to the craft keeps him in his shop long hours, running a niche retail business in a struggling economy and the age of the internet. “America has been Walmartized,” he laments. “I’m competing with some internet shop that gives a huge discount on knockoff crap. But do you want to be a performer? Here, magicians socialize. They watch each other, they learn. People think they can learn anything on the internet, but they can’t learn to be a performer.
“We’ve turned out so many professionals from this shop that started out here as young kids,” Haney adds. “Now they’re on the road, they’re pros! Scott Alexander was just on America’s Got Talent. He started out in my shop, and he learned stagecraft here. . . . The younger magicians don’t believe they need this. ‘I can get everything I need online.’ No you can’t. . . . You have to experience it. You have to feel it. It’s got to be bigger than life! You have to get onstage and die. You have to die a thousand deaths in 45 minutes!”
By now, the two Old Farts have become a dozen and Baby has been lured out by the promise of junk food crumbs. She makes her way across the shop, settles in at Haney’s side, and begins the intricate process of scratching her snout on the underside of the display counter. These not quite amazing Kreskins gather around, a pack of old dogs vying to show Haney their new tricks. He smiles and nods. The Old Farts pass around a cheap plastic wand that makes magical sounds ripped straight from Bewitched. The men point it at one another and swing it about like a club. One of them asks Haney, “What’s it for? Why are you selling it?”
“I don’t know, man,” he says, taking the wand between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. Baby grunts her approval as the wand dips low, nearly to the carpet, and sweeps up again in a broad arc, lifting Haney to the tips of his toes. He seems to grow bigger, taller than the room, as an impish smile spreads across his face. Through his cigarette, he adds, “Make magic with it.”
Correction: In the initial version of the story, we mispelled the names of David Blaine (as David Blane), the Amazing Johnathan (as the Amazing Jonathan), Penn Jillette (as Penn Gilette), and the village of Pleiku (as Play Cu). City Paper regrets the errors.