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Magic Castle's Houdini Seance Chamber conjures up chills, thrills

Things were starting to go bump in the night in the Houdini Seance Chamber at the Magic Castle, the private club in Hollywood that is the headquarters of the Academy of Magical Arts.

Medium Misty Lee, who also appears at the castle as an illusionist, was attempting to contact the legendary escape artist and master magician Harry Houdini, who died on Halloween in 1926 at age 52 of peritonitis, the result of a ruptured appendix.

"Harry, we have waited all night to see your face," she proclaimed as creepy, piped-in music got louder in the intimate room.

"Will you manifest yourself tonight?" she asked.

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The "voice" of his late wife, Bess Houdini, cried out in the darkness: "It's not Houdini coming through! It's a fraud."

"This is highly unusual," Lee said nervously to the 10 guests who were holding tight to one another's wrists in a "psychic" circle around the table.

"Please keep your hands in the circle and on the table," Lee said as the music hit a fever pitch. "I will do my best to protect you."

But before you could say abracadabra, the table began to levitate.

The Houdini Seance, which is sort of a cross between Disney's Haunted Mansion and Victorian melodrama, has been one of the most popular attractions at the Magic Castle since 1969. The castle was founded by writer-magician Milt Larsen and his late brother, TV producer Bill Larsen, 50 years ago.

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The castle is open for all but nine days a year and hosts an average of 18 shows on four stages a night. The seance, which has to be pre-booked, takes place throughout the year.

Located in a small room outside the main dining area, the Houdini Seance Chamber is decorated in Victorian style and features such priceless Houdini memorabilia as one of the magician's straitjackets, his trunk and a pair of handcuffs the noted "Handcuff King" was unable to open.

Larsen's father, William Larsen Sr., was a magician and an attorney — in fact, he was Bess Houdini's attorney. Among the photos on the wall is one of a young Milt performing for Houdini's widow.

There's also a bit of a ghoul factor in the chamber. Rollin B. Lane, who built the mansion more than 100 years ago, died in that room.

Private groups of 10 to 12 guests participate in the seance, which lasts about an hour. There's a four-course dinner served in the chamber before the seance, though guests must leave the room after dinner so it can be cleaned and prepared for Houdini's beckoning.

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There's also a non-dining seance option. Lee sometimes does up to four non-dining seances an evening. And after the seance, visitors can attend a magic show.

On other nights, the seances may be led by Leo Kostka, who has been the Magic Castle's primary medium for some 30 years, or magician Rob Zabrecky, who also frequently performs at the castle.

"Leo is spectacular and generous," said Lee, who, with her tight curls and corset, resembles a Victorian Miss Kitty from "Gunsmoke." "Leo's show is a little more history. Rob's show is a little more comedy and mine is a little more dramatic and intense."

Before his death, Houdini had become obsessed with investigating psychic phenomena and debunking mediums and psychics. Still, he promised his wife that he would try to find a way to reach her after his death.

For the first decade after his demise, Bess Houdini, friends and family would go to the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood, where Edward Saint would conduct seances in an effort to contact the late magician. William Larsen was one of the guests in attendance at Bess' final seance.

Though Bess stopped doing them in 1936, Houdini seances have continued at various places around the country every Halloween since (with no documented success stories). This year's "official" Houdini seance will take place at Citadel Hill in Halifax, Canada.

The castle's seance is divided into two parts, light and dark. The lights in the chamber remain on during the first section, while most of the lights go out for the second, the actual seance.

All three mediums are allowed to create their own light section. Lee, who has been running seances there for the past two years, talks about Houdini and the history of the seance, then makes sure the room's energy is in balance before she "introduces" her guests to people who previously lived and worked at the mansion.

"It's not just magicians who haunt these hallowed halls," Lee said one recent night to her guests, whom she refers to as "sitters," as she opened a tome of photographs. "Before you came in, I lit candles and did a sweep for what we call our 'frequent callers."'

The callers that evening included a young boy named Timmy and an elderly woman named Alice who died a particularly gnarly death when the mansion was an old-age home. Lee also performed a few of her own magic tricks, including one head-scratcher involving quartz stones.

The dark part is the same for all three mediums: a dramatization of the original Houdini seance. That is when the "voice" of Edward Saint suddenly comes over the radio, the table elevates and, without giving too much away, a few other items in the room begin to have a life of their own.

Though Lee is quick to say at the end of the seance that "this is just our way of saying 'boo,'" she said she has had a few unexplainable things happen that weren't part of the script.

For example? "I had a very specific, very visible figure in a black cloak with red satin standing over one of our sitters," she said.

But when the lights came up, the figure had vanished.

"I thought it was my tech guy," said Lee. "I thought he had come in to creep somebody out. But I talked to one of my sitters and he said, 'Was it a black-cloaked figure?' He said, 'That thing has been following me around my whole life.'"

susan.king@latimes.com

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