Take Two #13: Denny Haney
Historically, the best local magic communities have more to do with good magic shops than magic clubs. Magic clubs tend to promote socializing more than quality magic, but the best magic shops make better magicians, as they also serve as centers for meeting and mentoring. Denny & Lee’s is owned and operated by the inimitable Denny Haney, who toured for some 35 years with a full evening stage show, and in the 1980s was the top big magic show on the college circuit. He’s been there, done that, and ate the tee-shirt. Then he retired from the road to open the best magic shop in America.
Denny’s not only a spectacularly experienced professional magician, but he’s also a collector and historian. His giant magic shop in Baltimore houses not only the world’s biggest retail magic space, with an enormous inventory of books, but also his personal collection of magic memorabilia and rare books that could fill a small museum of its own. Denny is a guy who has actually read the books he sells, and has deep knowledge of all aspects of magic, along with substantial sleight-of-hand chops when it comes to stage manipulation with cards, billiard balls, cigarettes and the like. He’s a hilariously entertaining and deeply charming stage performer, who on stage thoroughly conceals his deadly serious passions and approach to foundational principles of magic as an art.
Offstage is another matter altogether. He’s an ornery, cranky son-of-a-gun with a top hat brimming with opinions, and the genuine expertise to back them up. A wise and wisecracking sage, Denny has devoted himself to raising a couple of generations of accomplished magicians, including top shelf working pros like Puck, and Scott Alexander (who sometimes work together these days, and have each marketed terrific magic of their own creation).
I first met Denny when I moved to Washington DC in 1985 to become the Magic Bartender at Bob Sheets’ Inn of Magic in Wheaton (when it relocated from the Brook Farm in Chevy Chase). Denny and I hit it off the instant we met—I’m not sure which one of us has a greater passion for magic, a more controversial reputation, or longer personal lists of both protégés and critics. (Oscar Wilde said, “You can always judge a man by the quality of his enemies,” a sentiment Denny and I would probably agree on.) Since then I’ve lectured and held workshops at his store many times over the years, and it’s my favorite venue for such presentations, because his crowd is well informed, discerning and engaged—just like their fearless leader.
Denny’s is a welcoming place to beginning amateurs and veteran professionals, much like Louis Tannen’s was when I was a boy. A caring teacher, Denny is also a priceless resource to professionals. He doesn’t sell crap to kids, and he gives you the straight dope if you call for advice. He’s overnighted emergency props to me, loaned me stuff out of his personal collection, and offered invaluable advice and counsel. His email list is worth joining just for the occasions when he sends out a long essay about some artistic aspect of magic, or a fabulous list of used books that can be had for a bargain, along with his personal commentaries. He is a true mentor in every sense of the word, not merely selling magic, but as with every great magic shop, serving as host of an artistic center for magicians.
I’ve seen Denny perform many times. The magic is always perfectly rendered, the man behind the magic a quirky, funny, appealing eccentric who can and will thoroughly entertain any kind of audience. There’s not a lot of video up on the web of Denny’s performances, and from that very limited selection I’ve got two to show you today. (Magicians take note: On YouTube there’s also a series of nice short videos of Denny talking in the shop about many subjects of interest to any performer, from showmanship to determining fees.)
Both these videos feature Denny performing classic magic routines that play extremely well in his capable and expert hands. The first features his routine for the Egg Bag. Denny’s version of this sleight-of-hand classic dates back to Max Malini, and contains elements from Malini, to Malini’s protégé Charlie Miller, to Miller’s protégé (and my mentor) Johnny Thompson, and finally contains elements of Denny’s own distinct and personalized approach. It’s charming and amazing. Put down the smart phone, expand the browser, turn up the sound, and laugh and gasp at a modern master of magic…
This second video features an apparatus trick that is rarely seen today. It’s a fine example of the fact that “the method is not the trick” (as I often say and write), in that in order to put such magic across effectively, it requires skillful handling, personable and personalized performance, and as Denny incomparably demonstrates in this case, superb timing. Put everything else aside for ten minutes and soak up the delight of Denny Haney—magician and mentor.
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