Any evening that requires a coat, tie, and whispering the words “open sesame” to a golden owl with blinking red eyes to open a secret passageway through a faux bookcase and into an ornately decorated Victorian mansion dedicated to card tricks, elaborate illusions, and improbable escapes is bound to be memorable. But by the end of my first visit to The Magic Castle last December, my eyes were opened not just to the strong state of modern magical arts — I was in constant awe from both the night’s theatrical shows and intimate poker table sessions (and it wasn’t just the many Manhattans I’d consumed) — but also to the Hollywood landmark’s fascinating history and its vibrant future as a home to magicians worldwide.
Those latter insights came from late-night, bourbon-fueled jabbering with a jovial, chardonnay-swilling man named Milt Larsen, the Pasadena-born, Hollywood-raised, and Santa Barbara–residing magic lover who founded the castle in January 1963. With his father, a criminal attorney–turned–magic magazine publisher/promoter, and mother, the first woman to ever do magic on television, Larsen and his older brother, Bill, grew up as part of a traveling family magic revue in the 1930s. Though the brothers worked in television for a time, they never stopped living lives of magic, even when their father suddenly died at age 48 in 1953, a year after founding the nonprofit magicians organization known as the Academy of the Magical Arts.
“Every year of my life, I’ve been surrounded by magicians,” Larsen explained to me a couple of weeks later while overlooking the Santa Barbara Harbor and beyond from the backyard of his TV hill home. “All of my dad’s friends were magicians, and some of the most famous magicians would come to our house and mingle.”
When Bill took over the publishing of Genii Magazine and the handling of the academy following their dad’s death, Milt kept putting on magic shows in Los Angeles and elsewhere — including the still-running series called It’s Magic!, which hits the Lobero Theatre this Sunday. Still, he dreamed of a permanent home for the trade. That’s when he noticed the old Victorian, Addams Family–esque mansion on Franklin Avenue from his upper-floor NBC office nearby and convinced the owner to lease it to him. That was more than 50 years ago; today The Magic Castle remains a popular semi-private hangout, as well as the headquarters for the 5,000 members of the Academy of Magical Arts.
“We never had any idea it would be what it is today,” said Larsen, who recently published an autobiography called My Magical Journey: The First 30,000 Days. He credits the castle’s continued success — including a rebirth from a devastating daytime fire on Halloween 2011 — with staying focused on the tricks. “It was all built on the love of magic,” said Larsen, who said that the membership has maintained a natural 50-50 split between practicing magicians and magic fans since it started. “We never went into it as a profit-making thing.”
While it’s technically a private club, those interested in checking it out can request a short-term membership through the website, or simply ask around to find a friend who’s already a member and can offer a guest pass. “It’s not super exclusive, but you can’t just walk in off the street,” said Larsen, explaining that they’ve strived to keep membership costs — less than $1,500 entry fee and about $350 a year — low rather than charging much more from fewer people, like other private clubs. “As clubs go, it’s pretty reasonable,” said Larsen, who works at the castle from Monday’s dinner through Friday’s lunch and knows many of the club members by name. “We’d just as soon as have more members and not gouge them for all that money.”
The experience, which usually starts with a classic midcentury American dinner, always entails wearing your best duds, and that substantially elevates the vibe and keeps would-be unruly folks mostly in check, even though the booze flows from the multiple bars quite readily. The dress code — which comes up for a vote by the academy members each year but proudly persists — was instilled from the beginning, as the Larsens tried to create the ambiance of an Old World magic club. “If you were going to a party in a billionaire’s Victorian mansion, they would expect you to wear a white tie and tails for dinners,” said Larsen, who believes the ladies love the chance to dress up most. “We’re not insisting on that, but you can’t come in your tank top and sweatpants.”
Such rules are ever more important in a dressed-down Hollywood, where torn jeans and scruffy T-shirts are the norm. But even famous actors heed the Magic Castle’s call when it comes to clothing, a good thing, since celebrities — from member Johnny Depp to current academy president Neil Patrick Harris — remain a steady presence. “Magicians like actors, and actors seem to like magic,” said Larsen. “That’s in part because an actor is in a fantasy world and magicians are in a fantasy world, so they’re all kind of meeting in Alice in Wonderland’s back room.”
The other takeaway from my Magic Castle experience is that, to my surprise, magicians don’t believe in magic. From the card-table tricksters to onstage performers to Larsen himself, they unanimously proclaimed that everything is a carefully planned illusion and that there are no black arts at play. Indeed, thanks to classes, a library, and a junior club for aspiring kids at The Magic Castle, it’s pretty easy for anyone to learn. “It’s not about everybody hiding,” said Larsen, who performs occasionally as a comedy-minded magician whose tricks all fail. “Magicians are very free with their secrets once they know you’re going to be one of them.”
As for The Magic Castle’s secrets, there is a Night at the Museum–like, family-friendly feature film in the works by director McG, and there are murmurs of a potential second location, but Larsen said it would have to be extra special in somewhere like London, Paris, or Hawai’i to get his okay. On a personal note, Larsen is happily married to Arlene, his wife of 22 years, and plans to stay active in the castle as long as life lets him. “I have no desire whatsoever to ever retire,” said Larsen, with a smile and gleam in his eye. “I’m only 81 now.”
Milt Larsen’s annual It’s Magic! revue — with top magicians, illusionists, comedians, and more — comes to the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Sunday, February 17 at 2 and 6:30 p.m. Call (805) 963-0761 or visit lobero.com for tickets. For information on The Magic Castle and Larsen’s book, visit magiccastle.com.