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Issue: Issue Winter 2006/2007

The Magic of Hollywood


The Magic Castle is the private clubhouse for an organization dedicated to the advancement of the ancient art of magic, as well as a strong desire to preserve its history as an art form, entertainment medium, and hobby.  They began with a charter membership of 150, and now have a worldwide fraternity of nearly 5,000 and a unique and priceless library committed to the magical arts.

The Magic Castle began its life as a private home built in 1908 by banker and real estate magnate Rollin B. Lane, who owned much of what is now Hollywood.  His dream to turn the land into orange groves and farms was ended by a severe drought, and after the family moved away in the 1940s, the fate of the mansion was soon hanging in the balance until the day Milt Larsen met the owner.

Milt's late father had been a renowned magician, and often spoke of building and elegant private club for magicians, so in September 1961, Milt and a crew of friends and volunteers began the huge task of restoring the dilapitated building to its former Victorian elegance.  On January 2, 1963, The Magic Castle opened her doors.

From the outside, The Magic Castle looks like a Disney fairytale palace, and access is strictly for Members-Only.  Potential magician members have to audition, and you have to be "of good moral character and financially responsible" to be a member.  Even an associate member has to benominated by a member "in good standing".  It's strictly over-21's, except for that most Californian thing, Sunday Brunch - and dress codes are imposed: business attire for men and eveningwear for women.

Stepping inside the front door is like going back in time and far, far away from the bustling Hollywood Boulevard below.  There is that reassuring musty smell, and the stained glass windows and chandeliers give the sense of going somewhere very different - and just a little illicit.

It's no surprise that is has been a regular hangout for celbrities since the early days, and members past and present have included "Karnac The Magnificent"/Johnny Carson, Liberace, Orson Welles, Mae West, Drew barrymore, Nicholas Cage, Merv Griffin, Teri Hatcher, Tippi Hedren, Lucy Liu and Steve Martin, to name but a few.  Cary Grant was even on the Board of Directors at one time.

After paying an entrance charge of $15, you say "Open Sesame" to the wooden owl with shining red eyes, and a moment later, the bookcase nearby slides apart like a Mystery Theatre prop, and you see a red carpet waiting to lead you inside.

The building is very much dedicated to history, and is a virtual museum of magic: every wall is plastered in posters, playbills and props for what seems to be the "golden age" of magic, when tricks were "the like of which you've never seen", and had posters using images of the devil, monsters and the "other side".

The Magic Castle is split into three floors and a basement, and it's almost like a haunted house at the fairground - corridors and stairs lead to other small rooms that you could swear weren't there before.

"Handcuff King" Harry Houdini has his own room on the second floor, with silver pairs he actually used in his feats of escapology on the walls - including the only pair he couldn't escape from.  You can even hear his voice on a wax cylinder recording.

Also in Houdini's room is a green-baize table that is used for séances, following Houdini's promise to his wife that he would try and contact her from ten years after his death.  He never did speak from the netherworld, although on a "Demons" night, it can be hired for your own spiritual adventures.

Unsurprisingly, spirits are big in the Magic Castle; and old family friend called Irma returned from the grave and returned to "Irma's Room" on the second floor, where she now plays piano for visitors - her repertoire can be amazingly contemporary at times.  There is also another ghost; apparently a magician once died while actually performing, and is still seen in the same theatre he last performed in.

Spirits can also be found at any one of the five bars: the Grand Salon, decorated with colorized slides from the old Los Angeles Hippodrome Vaudeville, the Palace of Mystery bar, which was originally a 17th Century London pub, the WC Fields, which has his trick pool table, and English "old world" Hat & Hare bar.  Finally, there is the tiny Owl Bar, where the walls and shelves are covered with owls of every kind - stuffed, jewelry and novelty - to commemorate the Academy logo, which brings to mind Hedwig from the Harry Potter movies.

After spirit hunting, you make your way to the Victorian dining room.  Very olde worlde, it sits right under a huge Tiffany chandelier, and the windows are the ancient etched stained glass from the Imperial Restaurant in Scotland.

The menu is simple but elegant, but people are really here for the spectacle and the shows, which take place in the Close-Up Gallery - a tiny theatre that seats around 25 people, the Parlour of Prestidigitation, that has seats originally from the original Santa Monica Opera House and a red-curtained stage, and the large Palace of Mystery for the highlight of the night - grand illusions.

The Academy also has a strong commitment to the future, and holds auditions twice a year for 13-21 year olds to join their Junior Society, which is now in it's 33rd year.  Previous graduates include recent World's Best Magician, Jason Latimer, and Darren Romeo, the one and only protégé of legendary Magicians of the Century, Siegfried & Roy, was also discovered at the Magic Castle.

On September 15th the Larsens will get their star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, and there can be no greater honor to prove that both a museum and as a temple to the magic arts, The Magic Castle is utterly unique and fully deserves its place in Hollywood history.

The Magic Castle, 7001 Franklin Avenue

Hollywood, California 90028, (323)851-3313

www.magiccastle.com