July 08, 1996 12:00 PM

TROUBLE WAS, NOBODY EVER taught little Spencer Horsman the First Lesson of Showbiz: It can break your heart, kid. That was something that Horsman, a 10-year-old Baltimore ventriloquist, learned for himself last June 6 when his bosom pal and partner, a 30-inch dummy named Dexter, mysteriously vanished.

Spencer’s parents, ex-circus clowns Ken Horsman, 38, and his wife, Bernie, 36, had shipped the dummy for repairs to puppeteer Steve Meltzer in Venice, Calif. Meltzer sent Dexter home June 6 by Express Mail. But Dexter never made it, leaving Spencer, a fifth grader, in the lurch. “Dexter was a really good friend and a brother to me,” Spencer said sadly. “I’m an only child, you know. And Dexter’s not some toy, like some people think. You can’t work without your partner.”

The two first teamed up in 1994, when Ken Horsman bought Dexter for his son, along with a how-to video and book by veteran ventriloquist Paul Winchell. Spencer says he “practiced real hard” before making his solo debut with Dexter at a shopping mall. Soon the pair made it to local TV, and even did an August 1994 guest shot with David Letterman.

As the days without Dexter added up, hope began dwindling, and some suggested that Spencer simply replace his vacant-eyed partner. He wouldn’t hear of it. “It would be like having an interloper on his knee,” notes Winchell, 73, who still has his famous dummy, Jerry Mahoney, but no longer works with him. Adds Clinton Detweiler, president of the North American Association of Ventriloquists: “Imagine Laurel if he didn’t have Hardy. It’s almost like a death in the family.”

Then Spencer learned the Second Lesson of Showbiz: Loyalty is sometimes rewarded. On June 25, almost three weeks after his disappearance, Dexter was found. The Postal Service had mistakenly sent him parcel post instead of Express Mail, and he had been on the road home the whole time. “I was really so surprised,” said Spencer. “I just started crying, I was so happy.” Appropriately the two already have their next gig lined up: at a magician’s convention in Las Vegas.

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