Watch the hands. They start out away from the body, knuckles toward the viewer, fingers laced together. A slow turn, revolving with thumbs down, and gradually the empty palms face front. Fingers still intertwined, the palms turn back toward the magician, and then one more time, the wrists swivel. As the palms come back into view there is, in the formerly empty hands, a playing card. The card pops forward and flutters to the floor. One more revolution of the hands, and another card pops out. And again. And again. It is called “the interlock production,” and it is one of the hardest but most beautiful sleight-of-hand moves in card manipulation, requiring constant practice to learn and years to master. Jeff McBride, a magician who’s been featured on the annual day-before-Thanksgiving NBC show World’s Greatest Magic, uses it as a dramatic high point in his act and teaches it as part of a set of instructional videos on the art. In the credits he thanks the man who taught it to him-the man demonstrating it now, Dennis John Haney. Haney, 51, was born, raised, and now is semiretired in Essex. He spends most of his time running a magic studio nearby on Marlyn Avenue that used to be an old pharmacy. It’s open from 11 in the morning until 11 at night-and often later, depending on how many magicians are hanging around and how long the Coca-Cola or the occasional six-pack of beer in the little shop refrigerator holds out. Performers at all levels have been known to drop by the store to shop or to seek advice from Denny. Scott Grocki, a former Washington, D.C., resident who now has a horror-magic show at Caesar’s Magical Empire in Las Vegas, stops in to hobnob whenever he’s in the area. So does Jeff Hobson, who with magician Mark Kalin and Kalin’s wife Jinger performs in the show Before Your Very Eyes, which had a summer run in Atlantic City at Trump’s Marina. Hobson, whose stage persona is a flamboyant gay magician, does the Malini Egg Bag routine and credits Denny for the inspiration for the effect, which earned Hobson national exposure on one of the World’s Greatest Magic specials. Like nearly every magic shop in America, Haney’s store is a study in clutter. Glass counters are filled with coins, cards, cups, and balls. A small case on top of one of the counters displays items hand-turned in brass. Large traveling cases jammed into corner recesses hold stage illusions made to pack flat, following the mantra of the large-scale stage magician: “Packs small, plays big.” And everywhere there are books. Bookcases stretch across the shop’s front wall from beside the main counter to the door. Two white and yellow shelving units are swiveled to divide the office that holds Denny’s desk, fax machine, and fridge from the front of the store, and packed onto the shelving units are still more books. Books are the key to understanding how Denny got into magic and what he thinks about it-that is, if you manage to ever get a glimpse of the “serious” Denny Haney. It’s Sunday night, a week and a half before Halloween, and the pig jokes are hanging in the air of the store like old cigarette smoke. Which, of course, there is plenty of-Denny and a good number of his customers regularly puff away like old Bethlehem Steel smokestacks. It’s part of the old world of magic-cigarette and cigar smoke, vaudeville jokes, bathroom humor, puns, and sight gags-that you’ll find in any of the older, less refined magic stores in America. It’s primarily a man’s world, but women are invited as long as they get the jokes and aren’t easily offended. Alan Nguyen, Denny’s longtime assistant and a professional performer in his own right (with a show called The Mysteries of Alain Nu), calls Denny “the Archie Bunker of magic.” It’s an affectionate label, and Denny smirks with joy upon hearing of it. He has described his own act as “the most politically incorrect show in magic,” and he’s been known to rant for an hour or more on what the growing sensitivity over race, gender, and ethnicity has done to comedy. But back to the pig jokes. On the shelf behind the main glass counter is a small wooden box with an engraved brass plate on one side. On top of the box is a plastic pig that was once pink but has been carefully painted black. The box is an urn. Inside are the ashes of Baby, formerly a 150-pound Vietnamese potbellied pig and Denny’s closest friend for the last seven years. Baby died in June, and Denny was heartbroken. The pig had been his constant companion, guard animal, and even once, in Atlantic City, an onstage assistant, doing a card trick. (“That makes her a tax write-off,” Denny says.) Denny had Baby cremated, and he keeps the ashes behind the counter, where he spends most of his days and nights selling, teaching, and counseling magic. As the word spread of Baby’s death, condolence cards poured in. But Denny-a man who typically finds humor in almost any situation-no matter how morbid or absurd, was inconsolable. Finally Nguyen and his wife surprised Denny with a new pig, whom Denny has also christened “Baby.” Now the store is back to normal, with sick jokes about Baby (I and II) flying thick and fast. “Howie, were you here when Baby died?” Denny asks Howard Schwarzman, who has entered the shop with his wife, Laura. Howie listens again to the story of the old pig being replaced by the new one, as Baby II, awakened by the noise, trots around to see the latest intruders. “You know,” Schwarzman cracks, “I can envision that pig in between two slices of bread. Denny, why don’t you bring it around to my place, and I’ll introduce it to my boa constrictor.” Denny sets Howie up like a good straight man: “But you’re kosher, Howie-you don’t eat pork.” “The snake does.” Ba-da-boom. Nobody who intended to get rich ever opened a magic shop. Most such stores supplement their inventory of magic tricks with cheap gag items-plastic vomit, phony dog doo, rubber chickens. Sometimes there are costumes for sale during the lucrative Halloween season. For the most part you won’t find such merchandise in Denny’s store; he sticks to magic-related books and apparatus. The stuff he sells isn’t cheap, and magicians are notoriously stingy customers. So how does Denny stay in business? He proffers one of his elfin grins and says, “The1980s were very good to me.” And how. Lining the studio walls are signed publicity photos of some of the acts and artists Denny has opened for, met, or worked with. The brochure Denny’s agents use to hawk his show lists a who’s who of nightclub and stage entertainment that spans from the 1950s to the 1990s, from Frank Gorshin and Joey Bishop to Air Supply and the Pointer Sisters. Denny has worked Super Bowl hospitality parties and product roll-out exhibits for the likes of IBM, Pepsi, General Mills, and a host of other corporate giants. It started back in the early ’50s in his old neighborhood, not far from where his shop stands now. Magic was big on television then; many of the acts that played vaudeville discovered the new medium and moved their routines to TV, where the variety show was still a staple. The 8-year-old red-headed kid with the wall-to-wall grin loved watching the magicians, but he also had a hankering to play the trumpet. His mother (still living in Essex; she regularly brings him lunch at the shop) gave him a choice: She would pay for trumpet lessons or a magic set advertised on TV, but not both. He took the trumpet lessons. After two years of sweating while playing in a marching band in the hot sun, it dawned on Denny that magic might be not only more fun, but much less strenuous. He discovered catalogs that sold magic paraphernalia by mail, and soon he began practicing and then performing at church socials and birthday parties, plowing every cent he made back into the act. Later on he discovered Phil Thomas’ Yogi Magic Mart on Charles Street, where working professionals from all over the country hung out when their touring shows brought them to Baltimore. At age 15, Denny asked for money to enroll in the mail-order Chavez School of Magic. After the trumpet business, his mother wasn’t going to give in easily. She set two conditions: Denny had to finish what he started, and he had to show her everything he learned. Back then the Chavez course-which is still in operation, run by a man named Dale Salwak out of California-was a set of instructions sent mostly through the mail. They covered the classic skills of sleight-of-hand manipulation. For $11 a month you could learn how to make billiard balls, candles, cigarettes, and playing cards appear in and vanish from your bare hands. With the money the teenager made delivering the News-American and performing nickel-a-head magic shows in his basement and at church functions, he bought materials for his act. Denny became a top-flight young magician, winning prizes at local magic conventions and attracting the attention of Howard Schwarzman, who had just moved to Baltimore from New York City. Ask any of the best magicians in America to list the top 10 card magicians in the country and most will include Schwarzman. That might not mean much to the general public, but in the insular community of professional performing magicians, Howie Schwarzman is one of the few legends still numbered among the living-and those numbers grow smaller each year. Now Howie is a wizened 69-year-old Pikesville resident, a former salesman and commercial pilot with a shock of white hair, a white handlebar mustache, and a curling white goatee. But like Denny, he was once a red-headed prodigy. In his youth Howie was taken under the wing of New York orchestra leader Richard Himber-creator of the Linking Finger-Ring trick (currently part of David Copperfield’s stage repertoire) and another legend in the alternate universe that is magic. Himber liked the precocious young Howie and used him to play pranks on other magicians such as then-famous mentalist Joseph Dunninger. Himber taught the youngster Dunninger’s entire act, and then booked a theater in New York where people watched and laughed as the youngster re-created the show, complete with exaggerated renditions of the courtly Dunninger’s stage mannerisms. In grinning Denny Haney, Howie saw someone not unlike himself. In 1962 Schwarzman got Denny, then in high school, booked to perform in New York before the parent assembly of the Society of American Magicians, of which Harry Houdini was once a member. Haney remembers the moment as terrifying, but he pulled off his doves-and-billiard-ball-manipulation act without any glitches. “I didn’t drop anything,” he recalls with a laugh, although “my hands shook like crazy.” It was a Saturday night. Howie deposited Denny back at his hotel room at 11 o’clock sharp, leaving the boy, electrified with energy after his performance, alone while the city pulsed around him. (“The bastard,” Denny recalls jokingly.) At midnight there was a knock at the door, and there was Howie again, with some of the top names in the underground world of close-up magic behind him. Up to that point the arena of “close-up”-in which miracles are performed right under spectators’ noses (and, in many cases, in their hands)-had never held any allure for Denny. “Finger-flingers,” he’d heard stage magicians call the close-up artists back at Phil Thomas’ store in Baltimore. That changed that night. The New York magic legends stunned and amazed Denny until the sun rose; after breakfast they took him down to Greenwich Village to watch another master, the now-deceased Francis Carlyle, perform for restaurant patrons. By the time Denny got back to Baltimore he had resolved to master close-up magic, and to make himself a full, well-rounded magician. Howie Schwarzman was the first person to really push Denny Haney on a path toward becoming a professional magician; to keep him there, the occult hand of fate led the famous Harry Blackstone Jr. into that path. It was the mid-60s, and the tall, stentorian-voiced Blackstone was just starting to assume his father’s position as the nation’s preeminent touring magician, as the elder Blackstone had done after Harry Houdini’s death. Blackstone Jr. had signed on to do illusions for the Holiday on Ice touring show; during the Baltimore stop he dropped by the usual coffee klatsch of magicians hanging out at a local restaurant after the show. Denny was there, and he and Blackstone got into a discussion of where a birds-balls-and-cards magician could get work. Vaudeville was dead, and by this time there was little magic on television, short of the almost-unattainable height of the Ed Sullivan show. Denny recalls Blackstone suggesting he audition to work the new Playboy clubs, which had small stages that were perfect for manipulation acts such as Denny’s. Phil Thomas piped in with the name of the clubs’ Chicago-based booker. Armed with a recommendation from Blackstone, Denny believed he was on the verge of cracking the big time. “By then,” he says, deadpan, “I had gotten my Report for Physical [notice], when the Vietnam War was first getting popular.” The prospect of a budding magic career getting blown away in a rice paddy on the other side of the world filled Denny with dread, and the next night, after the Holiday on Ice show, he shared his fears with Blackstone, who had served in the Army during the Korean War as an interpreter specializing in Mandarin Chinese. Blackstone examined the young magician’s aptitude-test scores and told Denny that he qualified for the same kind of work. At one point, Denny recalls, Blackstone almost sounded like an Army recruiter, his pitch was so enticing. “He said, ‘And by joining this organization, you’ll be going into a noncombat unit, so you won’t go to Vietnam. After that,’ he said, ‘you get out, you write [to the Playboy Club booker], you go right from the Army, get your service out of the way, and go right into the Playboy clubs.’” Denny was sold. But the whole plan became moot when he failed his physical. The tests came back showing albumin in his urine; he was rejected from military service. Denny hated to be rejected for anything. He marched down to his doctor and asked if there was a way to decrease albumin levels in tested urine. The doctor might have questioned Denny’s sanity, but he told his patient to make sure only the last of his urine went into the sample cup. The next time around, Denny passed with flying colors. So off to the Army Denny went, secure in the knowledge that he wouldn’t go to Vietnam. He would be assigned a language, receive training, and enter a nine-month course at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. While among new students being assigned languages, “The guy next to me drew ‘SV,’ and I remember feeling bad for the poor guy when he found out it stood for ‘South Vietnamese,’” Denny recalls. “I drew ‘NV.’” Even so, he was convinced that, as Blackstone predicted, he would be a noncombatant, decoding North Vietnamese transmissions in some Pentagon basement. He remained convinced until he got a notice at the end of his schooling that he’d been transferred into a unit of the Signal Corps, which is allowed to go into combat zones. “And next thing I know, it was off to Vietnam.” Harry Blackstone Jr. died at age 61 on May 14 of this year in Redlands, Calif., after suffering from a bacterial infection and complications following an aneurysm. I interviewed him last year at Bally’s Grand Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, after a late show and before he was to do a special Chinese New Year show entirely in Mandarin. Even then he was not in the best of health, following back surgery and the onset of a flu bug that turned into his later fatal infection. His recollections of meeting Denny were somewhat hazy, but he clearly remembered counseling the younger man about his military options. Told that Denny didn’t hold ending up in Vietnam against Blackstone, the older magician was visibly relieved. “I never blamed him for it; I thanked him for it,” Denny says. “Any place where you can go and ply your trade, whether you’re gonna be a journeyman plumber or a journeyman magician or a spinal surgeon or whatever it may be, there’s something about that environment in the military [during wartime] where you can experiment.” Denny was stationed in Pleiku as an interpreter, questioning North Vietnamese prisoners; at night he did sleight-of-hand to entertain his fellow troops. Into town came a magician named Johnny Aladdin, who operated commercially outside of the USO tours that entertained throughout Asia. Denny impressed Aladdin with some manipulation moves the older man had never seen, and was in turn wowed by the way Aladdin could work an audience-a tough audience, made up of kids who were getting shot at in the jungles. Denny served three tours in Vietnam, almost two and a half years. Upon his discharge he was deposited in San Francisco. “Only three days later I was on a plane back to Vietnam, paying my own way back. It was $900 one way,” he says. “And if the [U.S.] government had found out . . .” If the government had found out he would have been in big trouble. U.S. intelligence personnel were forbidden by law to reenter combat zones after separating from the military, but Denny didn’t care. He had a job offer from Johnny Aladdin, and he was going to perform with the man who showed him how to work a crowd-a real crowd, not a group of magicians who care more for arcane technical moves than entertainment value. There was another incentive: Denny had fallen in love with Doan Thi Trung-Du, nicknamed Lee, a 16-year-old Vietnamese girl he met in Pleiku. Her family refused to allow them to get married before he separated from the Army-too many GIs were marrying and abandoning Vietnamese girls, leaving them as outcasts with half-caste children scattered all over the Far East. Lee’s father told Denny he must come back to Vietnam as a civilian and get a job if he wanted to talk marriage. Denny returned, true to his word, and asked for Lee’s hand in marriage. This time the obstacle was Lee’s brother, who objected to his sister marrying the American GI-turned-magician and came gunning for him with an M-16 rifle. Denny and Lee tied the knot in a hurried ceremony presided over by the mayor of Pleiku and were whisked out to Saigon by helicopter. Things got worse before they got better. After two months of working for Aladdin, Denny lost the materials for his entire act on a military flight from Pleiku to Saigon. (Aladdin’s company was allowed to use military aircraft on a standby basis, sometimes doing free performances in return.) Birds, boxes, balls, the works went down. With no act he had no job, and therefore no visa. So Aladdin made him the road manager for his company, teaching him the ropes of booking, managing, and running an entertainment enterprise that covered the entire theater of war. The first day on the job Denny, driving Aladdin’s van, sideswiped a Vietnamese truck. The second day he burned up the van’s engine. The polished magician and flawless interpreter had neglected to tell Aladdin he didn’t have a U.S. driver’s license, and had paid off a local to get a Vietnamese one. Within a week no one in the company would get into a vehicle Denny was driving. The ever-patient Aladdin moved Denny to another job, and eventually he was managing all of the company’s entertainers who were performing in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region, which was only accessible by helicopter-and Denny didn’t have to do the flying. By 1972 it was clear to Denny, if not to Richard Nixon, that the United States would get its ass whacked in Vietnam. “It looked to me, seeing all these changes, people protesting against the war, and the pullout . . . I said,Whoa-it’s not gonna be long before the Communists take over-which they did-and I think I’m gonna get out of here.” First he moved Lee and his newborn son to Manila, and from the Philippines ran an entertainment company he had jumped to after Johnny Aladdin sold his company and moved to Hong Kong. Then the family moved to Hawaii, where Denny set up offices in a penthouse suite at the Illikai Hotel. He had a television studio to tape acts, and his agents played tapes to bookers throughout Asia. But within a year he lost all of the money he made in Vietnam-a loss he blames on simple prejudice. “I was too white,” he says. Back then, if you weren’t Hawaiian or Japanese you couldn’t do business in that state, Denny says. Broke and disgusted, Denny and family moved to Baltimore, where Denny and Lee began work on an act he had thought up while they were still in Vietnam back in 1969. “Denny & Lee” performed a dove act, Denny’s playing-card-manipulation routine (at which Lee turned out to be a natural), and, as a closer, the “Canvas-Covered Box,” a trick that started out under Houdini as “Metamorphosis” (the performer switches places with a person inside a locked wooden trunk). In Denny’s illusion the trick is made to seem even more impossible by wrapping the trunk in a giant canvas bag laced shut in front of the audience and a committee of close-up spectators. It took three months of selling cars to make ends meet, but eventually the bookings started coming in. Denny and Lee crisscrossed the country by van, putting together the act with $500 borrowed from his father, and once again fortune struck. A frizzy-headed Canadian magician named Doug Henning was taking Broadway by storm with The Magic Show, and agents were looking for someone who could perform “the big stage stuff.” Denny and Lee wound up doing as many as 275 to 300 shows a year-all one-nighters. “I remember doing a show one night in New Jersey, and the next afternoon having a 2 P.M. rehearsal in Chicago-and we drove it.” It was so foggy on the Pennsylvania Turnpike that October night, he remembers, that he had to drive on the center line for four hours to stay on the road. All for a total of $350, and they had to pay their own expenses. The travel, the touring, and the stress finally took a toll on Denny and Lee’s marriage; in 1982 they divorced. Stuck with half an act, he took out a newspaper ad for an assistant. The 20-year-old woman who answered did so as a joke-the idea of being a magician’s assistant was hilarious, Minh-Duc Thi Dang says. She called Denny up “to see if it was cheesy.” Minh was born in My Tho, a suburb of Saigon. She figured Denny was looking for the usual leggy blond assistant. “You probably can’t use me because I’m Vietnamese,” she recalls telling him. No, he said, her predecessor was Vietnamese. “Well, you probably can’t use me because I’m only 5-foot-3,” she said. Nope, Lee was 5-foot-3. She was intrigued, but said he would have to talk to her parents, whom she helped run an ice-cream parlor in Cecil County. Just as he did back in Pleiku, Denny had to convince the parents of his future assistant that show business would work for their daughter. Now 35 and married, Minh Sheridan can’t stop giggling at the memories of the early years with Denny. “If we wanted to do a new routine, we just put it in-we wouldn’t rehearse it. If we got a laugh, we kept going.” If it worked, they used it, if it didn’t, they took it out, and they had a good laugh in the van on the way back home. Minh says she and Denny didn’t mind getting “goofy”-”If you’re doing something that’s fun, it’s a good thing.” It’s nearly midnight on this Sunday and Denny’s shop has a pretty good group of people noshing on pizza, even though closing time was an hour ago. Howie Schwarzman is concluding a story about how he has reached the level in magic where he needn’t perform anymore (“I just nod knowingly”), and the previous night’s guest lecturer, professional comedy magician Brian Staron, is perusing books in the corners of the shop. Over the past decade and a half Denny fell into one successful venture after another, as Denny and Minh went from being staples of the college circuit to high-priced trade-show performers. Denny recalls back in the early ’80s when a big New York company wanted the duo to “customize” a show for corporate banquets-make the top executive appear, work sales messages and corporate pitches into the act. He thought it would be more work then he wanted to put in, so he gave the company a price he thought was exorbitant-$9,500 per show-and figured the agent would refuse. Instead the agent said, “Let’s go.” Oh my god, Denny recalls thinking. What are we gonna do now? Whatever they did, it worked-a room full of corporate bigwigs gave Denny and Minh two standing ovations, and word got around among booking agents about the prestidigitational pair that could work trade-show magic for clients. Until four years ago they never slowed down; when they did it was by choice. Minh and her husband Greg now manage an office-supply business in Edgewood; as for Denny, he has the shop and his new life as a teacher and supplier to a new generation of magicians. With increased TV exposure, videotapes revolutionizing the teaching of sleight-of-hand, and Las Vegas becoming a mecca for the performing magician, magic is returning to the public consciousness-and Denny is giving back to the community that nurtured him, in the community that nurtured him. There’s no hard sell at Denny’s shop, no ramming products down customers’ throats. Instead the proprietor enthusiastically inquires about his students’ progress, pointing out books suitable for each one’s skill level and gently steering them away from tricks or theories they’re not yet ready for. One of his pupils, Leigh Anderson, recently just missed beating out a seasoned and respected magic author and performer for the top prize at the competition held at the annual World Magic Summit in Washington. Denny and Minh still do the occasional out-of-town gig; when he’s gone, an assistant, Steve Myers-also a performing magician-runs the shop. Denny’s also leaped into the computer age, with a Web site (www.dennymagic.com) up and running with the latest magic news and book and video releases. He reveals one regret: He rarely plays his hometown. Baltimore hasn’t been the most hospitable place to magic acts-the city saves its love for football and baseball. Ever since Denny saw Penn and Teller perform at Center Stage, it’s been his dream to play there, in front of friends and family; to show them what he’s achieved. He doesn’t blame Baltimore for not loving magic; his choicest criticism is for bad magicians he says fail to teach audiences that there’s a difference between fooling people and entertaining them. He’s spent his whole life turning the former into the latter, whether charging 5 cents a head for shows in his basement or earning five figures to perform for New York executives. “The public, who are not let into the secrets of it, think it’s just a trick,” Denny says. “They think if they knew the trick, they could do the same thing, like Copperfield or Blackstone or any of them do onstage. They don’t understand why Blackstone is good or Copperfield is good. They think the trick is the thing. The man is the thing. . . . “It’s not the art, it’s the man.”