UPDATE: April 2016
We were saddened to hear of the passing of Irene Larsen, Co-Founder of The Magic Castle. You couldn’t help but love Irene, whose warmth, kindness, charisma and sassy sense of humor made her the perfect ambassador for the Castle. She’ll be greatly missed, and we extend our heartfelt sympathy to the Larsen family.
The story behind Hollywood’s amazing private club.
To say that the Magic Castle is unique is an understatement. There are — and have been — thousands of magic organizations, but none in the history of the craft have had a clubhouse even remotely like the Magic Castle.
“The Castle”, as the members of the Academy of Magical Arts fondly call it, is open to them and their guests every night of the week, all year long (except for major holidays and the occasional private “buyout” event). It boasts a fine restaurant that serves dinner seven nights a week, lunch every Friday afternoon, and brunch on Saturday and Sunday. Three showrooms are each dedicated to a specific performance condition: The Close-Up Gallery, the Parlour of Prestidigitation, and its main stage, the Palace of Mystery. There are five bars — one of which is dedicated to “bar magic” performances four nights a week.
Two other performance rooms — the Museum and the Albert Peller Theater — are small but versatile spaces, and next to the Palace Bar is a close-up table that members may use, but only when resident magician Bill Joslin is not holding court. The Hat & Hare Pub (in the basement) has a close-up room adjacent to it, and this is a favorite area for members to perform for their guests or work out new material for anyone who might want to watch.
The member’s “Inner Circle” area serves as a meeting space, performance venue, dance floor, and anything else it might need to be on any given night. The William W. Larsen Memorial Library of Magic contains more than 25,000 books, lecture notes, and monographs. It has complete files of many past and current magic periodicals, and thousands of videos (ranging from new releases to rare film that has been preserved on video by the library volunteer staff, headed up by the Castle’s librarian, Bill Goodwin).
There is the aforementioned Museum where vintage apparatus is on display, and the Magic Castle even has a resident ghost who invisibly plays piano in a lounge next to the Main Bar. All of this, and more, is housed in a mansion over a century old, and the Magic Castle celebrated its Golden (50th) Anniversary on January 2, 2013.
“The Magic Castle is a dream that came true,” says Milt Larsen, Co-founder of the Castle along with his brother Bill. Their father, William Larsen, Sr., an attorney, magician, magic dealer (he purchased Thayer’s), and founding publisher of Genii, The Conjuror’s Magazine (which turned seventy-five years old last year), was the patriarch of a magic family dynasty that lives on today. He founded the Academy of Magical Arts (AMA) and subscribers to Genii automatically became members. He openly dreamt of a clubhouse where members could gather and socialize, but he would not live to see that dream realized. “Dad died when he was only forty-eight,” says Milt.
William (Bill) Jr. took over publishing Genii. Both brothers had careers in television, Bill with CBS and Milt at NBC. “I was writing for Truth or Consequences and from my office I could see this old house on the hill,” says Milt. “It was empty and becoming overgrown with weeds. At the time — 1961 — Charles Addams was popular, so I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to make that into a spooky kind of night club for magicians?’ So I met the owner, Thomas Glover.” Glover and Milt made a handshake deal for the lease of the old mansion. “Tom was a Texan,” says Milt. “To a Texan, a handshake deal is as strong as a twenty-page contract. He didn’t want to tear down the house, but he didn’t know what he was going to do with it. He became enthusiastic about my crazy idea, handed me the key, and let me do whatever I wanted.”
Built in 1909 for banker Rollin B. Lane, the French Chateau style home — designed and constructed by the architects Oliver Dennis and Lyman Farwell and their contactors — went through several owners and incarnations. It became an apartment house for the elderly at one point (that it was once a brothel is apocryphal).
“In the 1950s it was ‘modernized’ and walled up to make the separate rooms,” says Milt. “They took out most of the old fixtures and covered everything with salt and pepper colored Zolatone paint. For the next year-plus I went to Sears every Friday and bought two gallons of paint remover so I could strip all that paint off the beautiful wood. I used an icepick to clean out the engravings.” He also took out all the extra walls. “There was some beautiful stuff behind those walls,” he adds.
With Milt hammering away in the building, his brother Bill was handling the legalities of opening a club. “Bill was the consummate administrator,” says Milt. “He was always so organized. It would take me twenty-four hours to do what he could get done in twenty minutes.”
Bill, Jr. resurrected the AMA that would administer the private clubhouse which, at the time, still didn’t have a name. “We had about a dozen names for the place. ‘The Magic Mansion’ and the ‘Skeleton Key Club,’ things like that,” says Milt. “Most of them were really terrible. Tom Glover had a house he called the ‘Castle’ so he liked that. With the turrets, the place sort of looks like a castle and ‘The Magic Castle’ just sounded right.” At five o’clock on the evening of January 2, 1963, The Magic Castle officially opened its doors.
“The paint in the ladies room wasn’t dry yet,” recalls Milt, “so John Shrum put flowers in the urinals in the men’s room. It became the ladies room that night. I don’t recall what the guys did. We didn’t have that many trees on the property,” he jokes.
Shrum would become instrumental in shaping the look of the Castle over its first twenty years. “If there is anything that is of good taste in the Magic Castle, it was because of John, not me,” says Milt. Shrum was an Art Director at NBC who worked with Milt on Truth or Consequences. He would later become the Art Director for The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson when the show moved to Burbank.
“I was still working on the inside of the house,” recalls Milt, “and we did this thing on the show with Dan Rowan and Dick Martin that was set in a Victorian drawing room. John, with just paint, made this beautiful set. I asked him if he’d come look at this house I was working on. He walked in and said, in his gravelly voice, ‘You really need my help.’ He started working with me.” Their creative partnership would last until Shrum’s death in 1988. “He’d bring stuff over from the Carson show; stuff that would be thrown away. We put it in the Castle.”
The destruction of the quaint past of Los Angeles was a boon for the Magic Castle. Milt points out that, “ninety-nine percent of what’s in the Castle came from other houses and buildings. I was really lucky with the timing. The city was tearing down a bunch of old, beautiful mansions to make room for the freeway that now goes into downtown Los Angeles. I’d run around in my pickup truck during the workers’ lunch hour and, for the price of a six-pack of beer, pick up stained-glass windows, Tiffany chandeliers, antique fixtures, wall and ceiling paneling — all kinds of beautiful things they were just going to throw away. I like to say that the Castle is actually the museum of a wrecking company. And every piece has a story.”
Milt’s list of recovered fixtures includes the proscenium in the Peller Theater. “It was on the set of one of CBS’s specials with Judy Garland,” he says. There is a stamped tin ceiling from one of the first downtown Los Angeles firehouses, etched cabinet windows from a Hollywood drug store, and though it’s not usually noticed, mahogany doors from an old apartment building are used as wall paneling. “The bar top of the Palace Bar is the floor of the administrative offices of Hollywood High School. The building was built in 1901, that’s how old that wood is,” he adds.
With 151 members, the Castle opened with three rooms: the Main Lounge and its six-stool bar, the Close-Up Room (which today is Irma’s Room) and Invisible Irma’s Room (which today is the Close-Up Gallery). “We figured out pretty quick that the round room that we had Irma’s piano in would make a better room for close-up magic,” says Milt.
“Invisible Irma” is the Castle’s resident ghost who plays nightly on her Baldwin grand piano. And in case anyone thinks it’s just a player piano, she takes requests and has an enormous repertoire. She also can — through song — answer questions asked of her by members and guests. Her sidekick, a ghostly canary named Katy, sits perched in her cage next to the piano and occasionally tweets along with Irma. She always becomes quite excited when members and guests drop a few dollars into the cage as a tip for the pair. (Where and how Irma spends this money remains a mystery.)
Ten months after the Castle’s opening, the mansion’s original kitchen — not a commercial kitchen, it had not been constructed yet — opened for business. A steak dinner was $3 and was served in the upstairs “living room.”
There was no stage at the Castle during this period. The magic performed was all close-up and the majority was performed by the Magic Castle’s first host and resident magician, Jay Ose. “Jay lived in the Castle for quite some time,” says Milt. “Before it opened, he was sort of the guard of the place. His first room was what is now called the ‘Dante Room’ in the dining area. As we expanded the Castle, he moved to the third floor. When Dai Vernon first relocated to California, he and Jay shared rooms.”
Besides Bill Larsen’s consistent drumming up of interest in the Castle through the pages of Genii, Ose is largely credited with much of the early success of the club. “Everyone loved him,” says Milt. “Besides being a great magician, he was very personable, and his memory was amazing. He could remember someone who had visited a year earlier. But he wouldn’t just remember their name, he’d recall the names of their family and friends and other details. He made guests feel special. He was with us for about the first six or seven years of the Castle’s existence.” There were no scheduled shows in those early days; Ose would just start performing for the members and guests.
Ose, who worked as a consultant as well as doing “hand inserts” for movies, attracted Hollywood celebrities to the new and unusual nightclub. Among them was Cary Grant who would later serve on the AMA’s Board of Directors until his passing. “One night,” recalls Milt, “he was waiting for guests in the lobby and was greeting people. Many were saying, ‘that guy is a great look-alike of Cary Grant.’ Cary got a kick out of that.”
As space was needed, the Castle would expand. The second floor became the dining area and the basement — first a gathering area called “The Haunted Wine Cellar” — became the club’s first main stage. “At one time,” says Milt, “what is now the Museum was our biggest showroom. It had a tiny stage and forty-nine seats.” Among the many great magicians to grace that small stage were Marvyn “Mr. Electric” Roy, Shimada, Norm Nielsen, and Doug Henning.
Just months after its opening, the Magic Castle held its first lecture for members. Leo Behnke holds the distinction of being the first speaker. But the second is perhaps the best known and most important to the club. Bill Larsen, Jr. talked Dai Vernon into coming to Hollywood from New York for a “visit” and a lecture. The legendary magician stayed for the next thirty years. Like moths to a flame, magicians from around the country — indeed from around the world — relocated to Hollywood just to be around “The Professor.”
The popularity of the club and its resultant overcrowding (brought to Bill and Milt’s attention by the Los Angeles Fire Department) required a concerted and serious expansion. What was originally built as a parking garage behind the building was turned into two showrooms and a bar (later the Inner Circle Ballroom, W.C. Fields Bar, and the W.W. Larsen, Sr. Library would also occupy the bottom story of the former garage).
The Thomas A. Glover, Sr. Annex was opened in June of 1976. The Palace of Mystery is a proscenium stage theater with theatrical lighting, sound, curtains, and dressing rooms. The theater seats about 130 people. The Parlour of Prestidigitation is a more intimate space. With fifty-eight seats, it is designed to recall the days when magicians performed in the drawing rooms in the homes of wealthy patrons (though its raked seating allows for good viewing by the audience).
The Magic Castle is in a constant state of change. Milt Larsen notes that, “There has not been a year that we have not added, remodeled, or changed something.” Before moving down into the Glover Annex in the 1980s, the original W.W. Larsen, Sr. Library started on the third floor. Its access was via a very narrow flight of stairs just off the kitchen entrance. “Vernon, Charlie Miller, and Kuda Bux could usually be found playing cards up there,” says Milt. Today the administrative offices of the Castle and the AMA occupy the third floor.
What is now the “Terrace Dining Room” was an open balcony above the original front entrance of the mansion. It was enclosed and is now the most popular of the dining rooms because of its expansive view of Hollywood. “Rollin Lane owned just about all the property in that view,” states Milt. “It was all orange groves.” Drought ended Lane’s dream of an orange plantation in Hollywood, and with the new industry of moving pictures taking hold, Hollywood became an entertainment Mecca instead of an agricultural one. Several of the windows in the room date back to 1830 when they were originally installed in the Imperial Restaurant and Pub in Court Bridge, Scotland.
Just off the dining rooms is the Houdini Séance Room. It opened in February of 1969 and on any given night the Castle’s resident medium hosts an evening of fine dining for up to twelve guests (a gourmet meal is prepared tableside). A “dark séance” follows the meal where the spirit of the great escape artist is summoned from the Great Beyond. The table floats, a candle moves across the fireplace mantle, and many more spirit manifestations occur in the intimate room. E. Raymond Carlyle (Ed Fowler) was the first host medium, followed by Sandy Spillman who, for many years, served in that capacity. Today Leo Kostka commands the ghostly spectacle. The room is appointed with several original Houdini pieces that are of interest to the collector and historian.
Indeed the entire Magic Castle is a museum filled with many rare and unique items. Members and guests enjoy its collection of posters, apparatus, and ephemera on display throughout. There are original caricatures of the many magicians who have performed there over the last five decades (also on display in every nook and cranny). Celebrity caricatures have been a staple in Hollywood restaurants since the town first acquired its tinsel. The Magic Castle started its collection in the late 1960s courtesy of Ted Salter, a former music hall performer and one of the Castle’s charter members. He did them gratis until he retired in 1995. Today most are done by Joe Yakovetic. The only way a magician can have one of these mementos done is to perform in one of the Castle’s showrooms.
“Old-timers” of the Castle often lament the changes at the Castle, especially moving the library from its cozy and hidden confines on the third floor. But it’s safe to say that this decision probably saved the Magic Castle. Had it still been the library on the afternoon of October 31, 2011 it’s possible no one would have been around to see the smoke coming from inside the wall. Fortunately office staff members saw the smoke and immediately notified the Los Angeles Fire Department. Their swift and very aggressive action (over 100 firefighters converged on the building) prevented a fire that started in the attic (allegedly caused by roofing contractors) from spreading. The Castle still suffered major damage, mostly from water and smoke, and all but the Annex was closed for several months (and at the busiest time of year for the club).
Milt, Erika Larsen, West McDonough (a member of the Glover Family who still owns the property), countless volunteers, and contractors went to work putting the Magic Castle back together. What could have been a tragedy turned into an opportunity to upgrade and repair things that needed it. “We’d tear down a water-damaged wall and find something else that needed fixing,” says Milt. Today the old clubhouse looks and is better than ever. But don’t think that Milt Larsen will stop there. “I’m never going to retire,” he says. “This is my favorite toy, and I love to play with it.”
(Reprinted courtesy of Magicol, a journal of magic history and collectibles. Thanks to the staff of Magicol, and author Dustin Stinett. Excerpts of this article came from a filmed interview of Milt Larsen by Christopher Stinett. Images courtesy of the Academy of Magical Arts, Erika Larsen and Michael Albright.)