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Charmed Life

They're With Dummy

Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 8/8/2001

Are those your clown shoes?" Spencer Horsman is asked.

"No," he replies. "They're my mother's."

Horsman did not follow in his ex-Ringling Bros. clown parents' oversized footsteps. By age 8, he had decided to forgo the face paint and baggy pants to pursue the art of ventriloquism. Now a teenager, he's honed an act that has become of the central axis of the show-biz family that operates out of the Ken-Zo's Yogi Magic Mart.

Clown, ventriloquist, magician--all might seem perilous professions in this age of high-speed, big-gun, computer-generated entertainment. But the Horsman family has stayed true to the old-world circus life. Ken and Bernadette Horsman's Federal Hill magic shop is in its 13th year, and while they're no longer on the road with Ringling Bros. (where they met in the '70s), they still do freelance clowning. But the family focus these days is on Spencer and his wooden sidekick, Dexter, who have already hit a big time that lies far beyond the big top.

At 15, Spencer has already appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman, The Jerry Springer Show, and CNN and performed with David Copperfield in Las Vegas--to say nothing of countless newspaper and radio features. It hasn't hurt to have a show-biz dad with a Barnum-esque promotional flair. Two years ago, when Spencer's custom-made dummy got lost in the mail, Ken Horsman turned the manhunt into a media sensation, landing a story in The Washington Post that generated national coverage. When Dexter was found, the E! cable-TV network reunited the boy and his dummy on its Talk Soup show, complete with a serenade by KC and the Sunshine Band ("Shake, shake, shake/ Spencer Horsman/ Shake your dummy").

The family has kept the PR momentum going, but the real secret to Spencer's success, Ken Horsman says, is his son's style, which combines traditional Charlie McCarthy-style ventriloquism with magic and stand-up comedy in a ready-for-television package. "You got to stay sharp, you got to stay, what's the word?" Ken muses. "Fresh. Yeah, fresh. You're only as good as your last show, right? . . . Especially when you want to do the pro shows, the good shows like Spencer's doing."

At the end of the business day, Ken-Zo's has the cool, spooky feel of an old deserted theater, where one's imagination brings the mannequins to life. The shop itself is thick with magic paraphernalia; a large canvas circa-'40s circus sign hides the back room full of circus memorabilia, ranging from a Barnum & Bailey billboard to a tiny clown bike.

Sitting at a table in Ken-Zo's, the boyish-faced Ken is in constant brainstorming mode, dreaming up new skits for Spencer and Dexter, thinking up new angles for getting ink and airtime, rattling off a list of his son's latest conquests: performances on Steve Forbes' yacht; a Spencer Horsman-brand magic kit the family is working on with Scholastic Inc., a national company that specializes in educational aids; an appearance on Lance Burton's Young Magician's Showcase on the Fox Family network. As Ken spiels nonstop, Bernadette blurts out, in her clown-perfect sing-song voice, "He's wacko," while Spencer, the ever-present calm in this family storm, works on card tricks and flashy one-handed cuts.

"Me, I like to be nice and laid back," Spencer says. "And they are always bouncing off the walls."

While being marketed as a ventriloquist prodigy could heap loads of pressure on a kid trying to concentrate on his studies at the Park School, Spencer seems to enjoy his theatrical heritage. Many of his peers struggle with adolescent identity crises, but his act gives him an instant image. Or series of images; last year he swapped the tux that went with his past billing as the world's youngest ventriloquist for a slick, swinging incarnation featuring two-tone shoes, slacks, and skinny ties. He shows off his herringbone jacket. "A Kasper," he says.

Talking to a reporter, Spencer's all (show) business: His handshake is firm, his stories about meeting the likes of Letterman and Copperfield short and to the point, his voice confident as he says things like, "I was spoiled from the start with a big audience." The professional demeanor only cracks, slightly, when he's asked if the card tricks help breaks the ice with girls. A smile slides across his face as he notes that on a recent Spanish-class trip to Spain, the girls outnumbered the guys 30 to six.

Suddenly Ken looks less like a savvy promoter than the concerned father of a teenager--his popping eyeballs are giving Dexter a run for his money. Bernadette picks up on the tension. "He went to the O's game last night," she chimes in, devilishly.

"An 18-year-old," Spencer adds.

"Her parents were there," Bernadette quickly notes, by way of a reality check.

Such banter is fodder for Spencer's new act, in which he wants to introduce a teenage puppet. In contrast to preadolescent Dexter, the new character will be "16, 17 years old," Spencer says. "Wilder, a ladies' man."

Committed as he is to his act, Spencer is hedging his future bets; he plans to go to college and study forensics as a fallback in case his show-biz efforts stall. But he and his parents see only a rising road ahead. This fall he is slated to appear in a Levi's commercial. And he continues to work on his craft--for example, attending a magicians-conference seminar on picking pockets, a necessary skill for a sleight-of-hand artist.

And the Horsmans couldn't be happier with their son's choice of career, even though he won't be filling their big shoes. At one point, Ken asks his son to demonstrate a particular card trick, the "Four Aces." They've probably watched Spencer do the trick hundreds of times, but the parents are clearly enthralled.

"I never get bored watching it," Ken says. "He's so talented. It's a natural talent."

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