Denny Haney: Collected Wisdom - Review by Michael Close
Let me preface this review with a bit of backstory.
In the spring of 2012, while I was editor of M-U-M, I asked Scott Alexander to write a cover story on Denny Haney, who at that time was best known as the owner and proprietor of the Denny & Lee Magic Studio in Baltimore, Maryland. I felt it was important magicians understood Denny was much more than a magic dealer. Scott took the assignment, and the cover story appeared in the August 2012 issue.
As Scott explained in his article, Denny had a decades-long career as a gigging magician before he opened his magic shop. He worked extensively in the Asian market, and was the king of corporate shows in the 1980s and ‘90s. Denny had shared the details of his core repertoire with Scott, Puck, and Alain Nu, who all assisted Denny in his act, but this information had not been widely disseminated. I felt it was vital this information be recorded for the benefit of future generations, and suggested to Scott he do a year’s worth of columns on Denny’s act.
Scott wrote the columns, which were excellent; they appeared monthly in M-U-M in 2013.
As Denny and Scott reviewed the material chronicled in the M-U-M columns, they decided a more robust and permanent “resting place” was needed – more than just the pages of a magazine. And so, they began working on a book, a big book, a book about Denny’s life, his repertoire, and his philosophy of magic.
Happily, that book is now available.
Denny Haney: Collected Wisdom is a big book – more than five hundred pages filled with (as the book’s subtitle states) “The Life, Lessons, and Legacy of Denny Haney and the Denny & Lee show.” There are great stories, sound advice, and terrific routines for the stage, platform, or close-up performer.
In the opening paragraph of his M-U-M article on Denny, Scott Alexander wrote this:
“The distinctive clink of his Zippo lighter cuts through the silence as a cigarette begins to blaze at his lips. ‘People tell me all the time that I shouldn’t smoke. I guess these things are bad for you,’ Denny admits. But don’t tell Denny Haney what he can’t do, or he will make it his mission to find a way to do it. ‘People have been telling me I can’t do things all my life. It makes me crazy.’ If there is a way, even against all odds, he will take his best shot. This has made his life in magic interesting, to say the least.”
The first 190+ pages of Denny Haney: Collected Wisdom are devoted to the life and times of a man whose stubbornness occasionally put his life in harm’s way. Denny was born on December 26, 1945, in Baltimore, Maryland. His first exposure to magic was a local TV show, Foodini and Pinhead. In a Five and Dime store, he discovered the shiny blister-packs of the Adams slum magic tricks. He eventually made his way to Phil Thomas’s Yogi Magic Mart, where he received the excellent suggestion to purchase the Tarbell Course.
Denny’s mom realized her son’s interest in magic was genuine; she purchased the Chavez mail-order course for him. A major boost occurred when Denny met Frank Thompson and Howard Schwarzman, two sleight-of-hand experts with profound knowledge in all areas of magic.
After high school, Denny attended college, but he eventually dropped out; he preferred to perform, rather than hit the books. He received a draft notice for Vietnam, but he failed the physical. However, nobody, not even the US Army was going to tell Denny what he could or couldn’t do. He figured out a way to game the test and was eventually deployed in Vietnam as a member of the Army Security Agency. His job was to translate enemy radio transmissions, in real time, on the battlefield. Denny served three terms of duty.
While in Vietnam, Denny met two important people: Johnny Aladdin (who taught Denny the “business” side of “show business”) and Doan Thi Trung Du (who used the name “Lee” when she worked as the cashier/bartender in the American enlisted men’s club and who would later become his wife and his partner in Denny’s magic show). After his discharge from the Army, Denny made Saigon his home base; he worked for Johnny Aladdin and performed his own shows.
This, of course, is just a small taste of the Denny Haney story. Scott writes in great detail about Denny’s trials and tribulations, his successes and failures. This information is accompanied by a wealth of great photographs, and provides the reader with insight into Denny Haney, the man.
The second large section of the book covers Denny’s repertoire and is divided into three parts. “Standing Up on Stage” includes Denny’s work on the Torn and Restored Newspaper, the Egg Bag, card manipulations, the Multiplying Bottles, the Razor Blade illusion, Bill in Lemon, the Michael Zens Cards Across, Sidewalk Shuffle, and Dick Stoner’s Grave Mistake. “Illusions” covers the Crystal Box, the Hindu Basket, the Sword Suspension, the Canvas-covered Box, and the Blade Box. In “Specialties” you’ll find Denny’s billiard ball routine, his finale for the Dancing Cane, a handling for the Lloyd Candles, the Serpent Silk, the Blood Trick, several card effects, and the Bullet Catch. Yes, almost all of these effects fall into the category of “classics” – classics that have been in the acts of professionals and amateurs for many years. But I happily bet that no matter how much you know about these effects, you’re going to find a suggestion from Denny that improves them in some way. This, my friends, is the real work on this material. If you already perform (or are thinking about performing) any of them, you need to take advantage of Denny’s experience and wisdom.
The final section, “Thoughts on Magic,” contains Denny’s essays on buying magic versus learning magic, openers, your working library, standing ovations, drinking the magic Kool-Aid, and a parting essay titled “Did I Ever Say Thank You?” Denny was a man of strong opinions – opinions backed by a lifetime of study and real-world experience. You made not agree with everything he wrote (and I don’t on a couple of things), but it is worthwhile to read and be challenged by his suggestions. The philosophy of magic expressed in these essays permeates all the magic explained earlier in the book.
Before we get to the bottom line, I want to congratulate Scott on something. Often, when a magician writes a book about the magic of another magician, that person’s voice gets lost. An example is Jon Racherbaumer’s book about Don Alan. Don wanted no part in the creation of that book; consequently, Jon had to work from the resources he had available, and Don’s voice never came through. This is not the case in Denny Haney: Collected Wisdom. Denny participated in this book right up till the end; his comments and opinions are everywhere. And let me warn you about these: Denny was not reserved when he expressed himself. This is how Denny was; to bowdlerize him would do him a disservice, and I am happy Scott did not. You have been warned.
So here’s the bottom line. Denny Haney: Collected Wisdom is a wonderful tribute to a great performer and a unique character, and is a vital resource if you do stage or stand-up magic. I highly recommend it. ↔
- Lisa Close