Emily chats with Spencer Horsman and Nicole Bailey, owners of Illusions Bar & Theater and creators of an intimate magic experience that was ranked #2 in Arts & Entertainment on Yelp + Entrepreneur Media’s first-ever America’s Favorite 150 Mom & Pop Shops list. Discover their captivating journey, engaging tricks on and off the stage, and how a personal touch creates memorable experiences. Plus, delve into the role of reviews in shaping their success and what clients like Derick Y. think of the show.
On the Yelp Blog: Three questions to ask yourself as you think about expanding your business.
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Behind the Review features conversations with business owners and customers who wrote one of their Yelp reviews. In our discussions, we talk about lessons they’ve learned that can be used by other small businesses to improve their own reviews…and their bottom line.
This week I’m excited to feature Illusions Bar and Theater in Baltimore. I discovered this business through a really fun project with Entrepreneur Media to identify the Top 150 Mom & Pop Shops in America. It’s a tough task to rank say a plumber against a taco stand, or beauty salon. So we decided to find the top 15 businesses across 10 distinct categories. We also capped each category at 1 business per state, so there’s tons of diversity allowing you to visit a Top Mom & Pop Shop near you, or maybe even on your next vacation.
Illusions Bar and Theater was ranked #2 in Arts & Entertainment, and I’m so glad that reviewer Derick Y. went to Illusions with his girlfriend, and had such a great time that he wrote a review about it and then wanted to talk to me. I also sat down with Spencer Horsman and Nicole Bailey of course – the dynamic duo behind the business. Lets give our conversation a listen, and hear about this incredible independently owned business.
DERICK: It really just has this old school kind of circus look and feel to it. Right when we walked in, we were actually greeted by Spencer, who is the owner.
He was the first one to meet with us. We were actually the first people to show up that night. He takes down all your information, he walks you directly to a chair. So you do sit down at a table. Everybody’s spaced out a little bit and, gives you the menu, tells you a little bit about the show at first. “Hey, this is an interactive magic show. Primarily gonna be using cards,” he goes, get ready to volunteer or I will volunteer you. But he has such a great vibe to him. So much energy right out the gate. So it was great to have that. And then Nicole, she’s basically his assistant and the bartender there as well.
So right when you get in, you can go up, order drinks right away. We did ask Nicole for her recommendations, which she liked. And they both had these huge smiles on their faces and everything like that. Really happy that you’re there. Right when you walk in, you feel like you’re in for a good time.
EMILY: The words “interactive magic show” can strike fear in the hearts of even the most bold among us, and might have some people heading for the door, which is why Spencer is up front about the nature of the show from the beginning, and why Derick and many other reviewers mentioned it in theirs.
DERICK: I had a great time here. Spencer and Nicole are the ultimate team together. They make this event so fun with their charm, their smiles, and altogether laughs. Spencer is the magician and Nicole is the head bartender. This show is interactive, so be prepared to be called on. Trust me, they won’t get up and embarrass you in any way or throw knives at you.
All the tricks and illusions are centered around cards. I can’t remember the exact number of people that each show holds, but it might be around 30. Plenty of space around you. You’ll be seated at a table actually facing the stage and bar. They do make their own drinks and during the show, Nicole will come around and get drinks orders, so you don’t have to get up in front of everyone. I absolutely would do this again. I mean, their energy brings a show together and it’s a lot of fun. I mean, who doesn’t wanna drink and be a part of card tricks?
EMILY: A great magic show is thrilling and exciting and full of wonder. A bad magic show can be excruciating.
That’s definitely not the case with Spencer’s show at Illusions. He’s been performing professionally since he was just a child, taking to the road first with his parents and then doing his own show before he could even drive.
SPENCER: I grew up in an entertainment family. Both my parents were former Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus Clowns. They’d met in the circus and traveled around the country for a number of years. Then settled in Baltimore, where I was born and raised a few years later and around a year of age a couple of things occurred.
My father was hired by McDonald’s and he became Ron McDonald for their company for over 22 years by the time he retired. And then from there they opened up a magic supply store. So thus starting my, I guess, magic education at four. And I started traveling and performing alongside my parents and their shows when I was six.
Started doing my own shows out and about nationwide by the time I was eight. After I graduated high school, I was performing, touring overseas, and my father and I decided to partner up in the business together to design, develop, and build the Illusions Bar and Theater. Most of the performances that I did up into that point, or always private events, I would either travel again to out to a function or either a wedding, a corporate event, a convention, a trade show, et cetera, et cetera.
So we decided to actually make our home base, so people would come to us. And now over 16 years and we run year round on every Friday and Saturday at nine o’clock. We specialize in strictly magic shows, and also specifically the unique brand of magic that I have created and honed over my study and over my career.
EMILY: Spencer’s business partner Nicole didn’t really think about the magic business prior to meeting him. They’re life partners first, but Nicole’s corporate background and marketing experience have helped grow Illusions. Plus, she’s a killer mixologist who keeps the audience happy and engaged. Don’t expect to see her on stage any time soon, but you better believe she’s keeping things humming along during every performance.
NICOLE: Magic in its purest form is cool and all, but it’s not really my bag.
The reason that I was drawn to this and wanted to become involved was that it’s more of an experience. He’s really funny. And my favorite part, and this is a post COVID development, is that the more intimate crowd, everyone feels like they know one another by the end of the evening. And they become friends. I watch total strangers become friends and hang out after the show, making new acquaintances, because they feel involved in this thing together. So they start out a little awkward and kind of shy. And then by the end of the night, everybody knows everybody.
They’re like cheering for each other by name, that kind of thing. And it’s all like a big group experience versus two people sitting together in the dark, in the back of a theater somewhere. And that is just really special to me. There’s not a whole lot of theatrical sort of pomp and circumstance than his performances.
He’s much more vaudevillian, more quick and sharp humor.
EMILY: One of the secrets to the success of Illusions is the intimate nature of the performance space. That’s entirely by design, and allows both Spencer and Nicole a chance to get to know the audience — and for the audience members to get to know each other.
SPENCER: When you come, it is to experience the entire venue itself. We are not just a random magic show in a random venue. We’re not just a random magic show in a random bar or hotel, and we’re not just a random venue that hosts a random different performance of some sort. For us, we look at Illusions as a full experience. Because of the history of the space, because of the history of my family, the history that just encompasses the entire building, and then also the intimate nature of our venue and the fact that it is just a two-person operation, it feels much more intimate, it feels more personalized.
We’re not just random employees running this for whoever, and then sending an offsite owner a check. When you come into the door, you’re greeted by myself. I check you in, I get you your seats. I give you kind of a rough overview as to the experience of the show, meaning I never reveal what I’m gonna be doing, but I do let everybody know – no bad seat in the house, but it is an interactive experience. It doesn’t matter where you sit, you will be involved. And that is all that I say. I’ll be checking IDs. Your drink ticket includes your first two drinks, which they go up to the bar and Nicole takes over from there, for the hour before we open up.
So she is a master bartender and drinks slinger, who pumps out drinks for all 40 guests prior to the show. And once the show begins, it runs about two hours, including a 15 minute intermission. Within the show is a wide mix of different styles of magic. There will be examples of sleight of hands, some card tricks, there’s usage of the audience members in mind reading and mentalism. And then because of my specialty over the years of studying Houdini and other extreme styles of magic, I then incorporate dangerous presentations into my show. So we did a little something for everybody and on top of that, just being a magic show, not just a magic show.
It’s also very comical when people come in there. We’re getting a lot of dates, we’re getting a lot of anniversaries, birthdays, parents visiting from out of town. Graduation season right now is a big time, obviously as well. So because of the nature mixed with the alcohol, the feeling and the energy in the room is more around that of a comedy club as opposed to a strict magic show or theater show where everybody is just seated quietly, politely clapping at the right times when they’re supposed to.
Since we only seat 40 people in the venue, and as I mentioned, everybody gets involved, we keep the lights up the entire time so everybody can see everybody at all times. I can see everybody at all times. Nicole can see everybody at all times. Which one, allows her to do her job as well as she does, is because she can immediately see if somebody has an empty drink and she refills it. Nobody’s ever waiting for anything.
And then, I play off of the audience heavily. So any little moment that occurs, I improvise and make a joke about. And again, all in good fun, I make most of the fun of myself, of course, but the humor is very playful, it’s very spontaneous, so nobody really gets a moment to let their guard down.
They never know what’s gonna happen. This is not a normal magic show by any chance.
EMILY: Attending a performance and participating in a performance are two very different things, and not everyone dreams of being in the spotlight. Somehow, Spencer and Nicole make it work. The combination of their outgoing personalities and the craft cocktails can loosen up even the most reluctant of audience members.
SPENCER: Everybody gets involved, but there’s certain levels of involvement. Some people, you get to just sit right there at your chair and yell something out at me. Other folks, I make you stand up and do something. Other folks, you come front and center. But that is something on my end that it’s, that’s a science of who to pick.
You don’t want to pick that person that is terrified. The fact that their date put them in the front row center and they’re like, oh my God, I don’t wanna help and I know that person. I’ll go, Hey, make ’em feel welcome. I go, here’s like the smallest job you can do. And it still makes him be like, okay. He took into account the fact that I’m shy, I’m socially awkward. I don’t wanna do this. I just wanted to watch a show but okay, this was okay. I feel good.
And then you have the other people that are too outgoing and you also don’t select them from the get go either because they can veer, they can direct your show in a direction you didn’t wanna go. So it is, it’s a balancing act, but it keeps it fresh for us each night.
It’s always a nice compliment when people go, it always feels fun for you. And I’m like, yes. That genuinely is like I play off the audience just as much, if anything than what I already have in my head. I have a structure to the show. But like she improvises this stuff behind the bar too.
She’s not a performer but her natural like sense of humor and timing. It’s killer. And there’s moments that we generally make each other laugh during the show because of things that have happened.
NICOLE: And you can tell that I like to heckle him from behind the bar.
SPENCER: Yes, yes.
NICOLE: Oh, it worked.
SPENCER: It pans out well.
NICOLE: They come in and initially they are a little bit apprehensive about helping out or whatever. But as the night moves on and he sort of caters to that, so in the beginning of the evening, it’s maybe not as much asked of the audience.
And as they go on and they’re more comfortable with one another and they’ve had a drink or two, it expands and you have people doing things. And they’ve even said it to us that they would never imagined they would do when they walked in the door. You know? So they walk in and they go, no way. I’m so scared I’m sitting in the back.
And by the end they’re doing all kinds of stuff. Because they feel like these people are safe. They’re in a safe space. Everybody is having a good time and so they feel okay to do that and it’s sort of bonding for everybody and it is the coolest thing to watch from behind the bar.
I can tell you that right now ‘cause I can see the audience the whole time. So I get to watch all this stuff happen. I have a front row seat for that and it’s very, very cool.
EMILY: Illusions has limited operating hours and performance days, but it does offer private events on non-performance days, and even sometimes travels to the client to perform. The theater is also limited in capacity, and does not serve food, but people are allowed to bring in their own meals if they want to. Full bar service is available throughout the show.
This allows Spencer and Nicole to keep things small and compact, in terms of staffing. It’s actually just the two of them operating the business. Everything from greeting at the front of house to marketing and bartending and even cleaning up after the show.
SPENCER: People tend to forget, they come into this place and it looks beautiful, clean and organized and a well oiled machine.
People forget that it is, or even don’t realize, it’s just the two of us. We are not a corporate entity. Like I said, we’re not some offsite owner that just comes in and collects a check every month, every week, whatever. We are there every moment. We are the cleaning crew, she’s the art designer, she’s the menu designer. She’s the bartender. I gotta tell people, she does literally everything. And I just do tricks and I clean the bathrooms and that’s about it.
So she actually keeps everything really the well oiled machine that it is. But I think in today’s day and age, people tend to forget what that means.
Since we’re open to the public Fridays and Saturdays, we do a lot of private parties that are there the rest of the week too. That is also a big part of our bread and butter as well. We do a lot of team building events, corporate events, birthdays, weddings, etc, etc. Or then if they’re just looking for my entertainment and they have more guests than we can fit in our space, then I’ll obviously come to your function. And two Saturdays ago, we had a double birthday party in Alexandria, Virginia.
So we drove an hour and a half to Alexandria, Virginia, performed there for two hours, hour and a half, drove back, fed the dogs, drove down to the bar, set up, and then opened up for their nighttime show. So we do a lot of that sort of jumping back and forth as well. And so people sometimes need to be reminded that, Hey, look we’re doing the best we can. It’s just the two of us, right? We don’t have any backers. We don’t have investors. We don’t have some big company email, corporate entity behind us, and we’re just copying and pasting this. No, it’s just us. So everything that happens is in real time.
NICOLE: If you get an email response at 2:00 AM, it’s one of us. It’s not anyone like there’s, it’s literally, cuz that’s the other part is that it is all the backend that we’re doing as well. So the running to the store to get supplies.
EMILY: A lot of the time, the barometer for success in a small business is getting bigger, adding products or hours or locations. Even just growing the number of employees. Spencer and Nicole, however, see things differently after experimenting with that bigger-is-better mentality.
SPENCER: There is something to be said about ‘less is more.’ We have different performance spaces within our space in our building that we’ve used over the years that seat either 40 people or 90 people.
And we have discovered that, how we’re doing the shows right now is how we used to operate the first four years we were open. And then we were getting a following, so of course, naturally the belief is, well, you expand, right? You make it bigger. So we did that and we made a bigger show, but that became a more traditional style show.
Darkened theater, lights were down, 80 people, big stage, some lights and video and all that stuff. It was great. It was still fun. Reviews were still solid, but there wasn’t that consistent level of…
NICOLE: The reviews. They weren’t as personal—the personal connection.
SPENCER: COVID happened. Ultimately the upside of Covid was it allowed us to step back and reevaluate and go, okay, what sort of experience do we want to create for people? Uh, cuz it also meant people were stuck at home for a year and a half. So people actually want live experiences. They don’t just want passive experience now, on TV or at the movies or whatever.
So we have found that having that intimate experience has actually been hands down better. We’ve had, again, long-term customers that have been to both shows, all three shows actually. Big show, zoom show, intimate show. And across the board they have said, ‘Hey, we prefer the smaller shows.’
NICOLE: Well, what it allows more of, and this has always been the case even with the larger shows. But, with a smaller audience, it allows us to convey more appropriately how important each of those people is to us. So every single person that walks through our door, whether they give us a bag review or not, matters to us.
Every single one of those people matters to us, and we are able to show them that. When there’s 90 people, it’s a little bit harder to spread the love. You know what I mean? So every person – I want them to feel seen and cared for. And we are more capable of doing that with a smaller crowd.
So we try to keep it in that manageable realm, where we can keep that personal touch because there is a line at which points you start to lose that. So I think we’re in a very happy place right now with that. But that’s important to me. I mean, I know it’s important to you too.
SPENCER: Well, and ditto. It’s easier to gauge as a magician, even creating, right? It’s easier to gauge what people like, cuz I can look everybody in the face, right? I’m not just relying on audio, right? And that using the dark, I can also now see people’s faces. I can see when people are starting to wander or not. If they’re focused, if they’re actually laughing, if there’s grinning, if they’re doing the things I request ’em to do, close their eyes or whatever.
I can see all that, right? So I can change my act in real time, I can change my scripting. I can change the magic that I do. It’s part of the reason I have the intermission is because I use the first half the gauge and go, all right, what material did they like there? And then I can shift the second half.
As I mentioned, at the beginning of the show, we’ll start off with something to get people warmed up. Cuz again, a lot of people have never been to a live magic show. So you have to almost coax them into appreciate it. And so I have a very specific philosophy about how I perform my magic, and I start off my show by explaining that.
So that way it already puts people in the right mind frame, but you do that with things that they know, some card tricks, slide a hand, but then everything else from there, is all anything but what people have ever seen before. Anything in anything that I use. So, thoughts from people’s childhoods, danger elements, staplers, all sorts of things.
It’s interesting, again, within this smaller setting to be able to shift and change in the moment. To address things and to fix things literally and figuratively be it either with a show or somebody goes, Hey, bathroom’s clogged. Guess who’s going back? You’re gonna fix it. It’s not a joke.
Not a joke.
EMILY: Sometimes, keeping your business small means, you’re the one who has to do the little things. Like unclog the toilet —even if it’s at intermission during the show, where you’re also the star.
Spencer definitely emphasizes that it is a business, not just standing on stage telling jokes, performing card tricks and having fun with the audience. He and Nicole work hard to keep it fun for everyone, even when it’s less fun for them. When you’re the main employee for your business, sometimes it’s hard to get separation between work and your personal life.
SPENCER: It’s both the entertainment aspect and also the business aspect of it.
And there’s a belief that my dad had, which was a very overly simplified version, but it actually gets straight to the point. So there’s a term, show business. It’s two words. There’s more letters in business. And that’s in any sort of show performer background where you have plenty of experiences that are very big and flashy, but it lacks any sort of emotional connection.
And vice versa, you have somebody that you have an amazing emotional connection with and like a tiny little 10 person performance in somebody’s backyard. It doesn’t have all the pizzazz, and so we try to take that into account of all these little things. It’s everything from the intro and the information you get at the door, we basically pick up our phones 24-7, which we try not to do, but we do because we’re just like boundaries. It’s just boundaries. We don’t know them. No.
So we are always trying to help people with the ticketing issues or any of their questions and we try to lay all that out on our FAQ page and people don’t read it, they just kind of jump ahead and call and they wanna ask other questions and that’s fine and we’re happy to help them.
The cocktails in the bar, the hour that you come in to relax, everything has a purpose and feels like it meshes together again, for the lack of a better example with that gentleman pointing out the old, outdated footage on the tv.
Well, yeah, that’s from the 1920s. It kind of fits our motif of being in the 1920s.
NICOLE: That was the point of the whole design of the bar.
SPENCER: It’d be kind of weird if we had a football game playing. Within our atmosphere. Like it’d be kinda weird. No. That, that, that really doesn’t work.
EMILY: Spencer and Nicole are referring to a review they received about the atmosphere in their establishment, and particularly the “stale old footage” on the television playing before the show.
That “stale old footage” was actually video of the legendary comedian Buster Keaton, a staple of the 1920s, which was a purposeful choice for both the physical comedy and the 1920s atmosphere of the theater.
NICOLE: I had so much fun responding to that review. I loved it. The thing is, they didn’t really have anything bad to say about the service or the experience. So I opted for the Kill ‘Em with Kindness approach. I sat down in my notebook and I wrote this response because I was sort of furious to be honest, and also I love Buster Keaton, so don’t talk about Buster Keaton.
So I went in and I wrote this very ridiculously kind response. And it was great fun. We never got a response back, but I felt better having gotten that off my chest.
EMILY: A downside of being the owner and sole or duo set of employees is that reviews can seem even more personal and perhaps sting a little more. For some, that might make it tempting to respond with something slick, even though it’s not the best way to handle critical reviews.
In spite of the occasional criticism, they both say they like reviews, and understand how critical they can be to the success of a business like theirs.
NICOLE: We are very tapped into it. We encourage reviews—at every show we talk about it. We personalize it to people and how important that is for us. Because we do advertise, but it is very, very hard to convey through conventional advertisement what it is exactly. It’s very hard to convey, so we encourage people to use their own words of their own experience to share that with people.
That conveys a lot more to someone who’s curious about what we do than even going to our website. To be honest, like you go to the website, you still aren’t entirely sure how you’re gonna feel when you walk out of this place. So it’s something we encourage a lot of our clients and we are so appreciative that they do follow through and do that for us.
‘Cause we are a very small business and we have limited resources. So word of mouth has always been the number one mode of foot traffic for us, above anything else. So we do encourage it greatly. We have a little card that has a QR code that takes you to our website.
Here’s how you follow us on social media. That kind of thing.
EMILY: Illusions certainly left an impression on Derick, who in addition to his review has become an active advocate for Spencer and Nicole and is participating in the most coveted of all marketing tools: word of mouth marketing.
DERICK: We’ve recommended this to so many of our friends and we’re just like, it’s such a fun interactive date night.
This is such a good idea. Even if you’re not super big into magic, it’s the illusion part. It’s like, how did this happen? I was just mind blown. and I kept thinking about it for days and weeks of the certain tricks. I don’t understand how he did this. It will leave a lasting impression on you for the best. And, 100% would definitely go back.