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The Magic Castle's Milt Larsen: Why humans need magic

Milt Larsen is a master of two kinds of magic. There's the abracadabra kind that his magician parents brought him up on, and the sort he began practicing with his late brother, Bill — the magic of preserving buildings, including the Variety Arts Theater downtown and the Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica. The capper is the Magic Castle. Here, 50 years ago, the Larsens — presto-changeo — turned a banker's home into a members-only clubhouse for grown-up magicians and their fans. Larsen has three cable radio shows (old comedy and even older music), but his passion for magic has made his Castle his home.

So the Magic Castle is going big-time with merchandise spinoffs and such?

We're doing a number of things — a feature motion picture based on the castle, and maybe another Magic Castle someplace. It's going to be a family action-type picture, a kind of "Night at the Museum" [with] people stuck in the Castle. Because of the picture, Creative Artists Agency wants to add more visibility so the world will know what the castle is, to see it in markets it's never been exposed to before.

When we first started 50 years ago, my attorney said, "Oh, you don't have to trademark it, nobody could copy it." Many years later, a few people started copying it, so now we have trademarks on anything you can think of.

Does this mean Magic Castle video games?

That's one of the possibilities.

Why didn't you do this before?

I work very slowly. Right now one of my pet projects is trying to pitch a reality show based on restoring two old theaters [he can't say which ones] in downtown Los Angeles.

Haven't CGI and the Internet killed magic?

If anything it's helped it, particularly seeing old magicians on YouTube. That's really good stuff.

Magic is always going to have a head start because it's always new, always different. All the technical things today — the digital effects are incredible. That's helped live magic.

There are so many casinos, so many cruise ships that have magicians; there's something about seeing a magician live.

How different is magic now?

Think of the materials. In the old traveling days they'd have to have boxcars carrying these really heavy wooden boxes and draperies. Now you have things you can pack in one box.

[As for kinds of magic], Criss Angel and that younger crowd, they can't really do what they do on television for an audience that's watching closely. There's ways you can position a camera; they do it very well and more power to them, but a magician who's out there in front of an audience of 1,000 people can't be doing something they can't see.

Of course we've got trap doors and mirrors and all that, but there's a difference between camera trickery and stage trickery.

There are some people who just can't stand magic.

There are people who hate magic because they don't know how it's done and they don't want to be fooled. And then there are people who love to be fooled, and then there are people who will watch it for the sheer artistry. Magic can be very beautiful.

One thing we're seeing in new generations that have been brought up on rock concerts and television — they think nothing of talking in the middle of the show or standing up and yelling. (Not here, because we'll toss 'em out on their butts!) I think the audiences are calming down a little bit now, they understand it's nice to just watch a performer perform without yelling at him.

The Magic Castle is about the only place left where you have to wear a coat and tie. That's because we always thought this would be like a party at the turn of the century, for a multigazillionaire magician and his friends. You'd never think of going to a party like that in sneakers! We have people who say, "I don't even own a tie," and we say, "Well, here's one you can buy." Every year at the board meeting they have a chance to change the rules, but everybody likes the rules.

The Magic Castle is a private club with about 5,000 members, half of them magicians and half not.

When we first opened, we said let's have a club for magicians, and we immediately figured, who's gonna pay for it? So we have associate members who don't have to be even amateur magicians, just people who like magic, like entertaining their guests [here]. Then we have magician members who have to qualify and be able to perform or at least prove an interest in magic.

Your father and mother were magicians; your mother was "the Magic Lady" on KTLA TV for years, but that was unusual. Are there more women in magic now?

The 1920s, 1930s, and before that, three were very few lady magicians. The stereotype was white tie and tails, a suave person in a top hat, and the [female] assistant could only hand him props or appear in boxes. Now there are wonderful lady magicians sawing the guy in half! The whole world has changed; it's just natural that magic is no different. Ladies say, I can do that. I don't have to carry the props for that guy — I'll let him carry the props for me.

The castle began more than 100 years ago as Chateau Holly. You saved it and restored it, but in 2011 there was a fire — on Halloween. Ghosts?

A [roofer's] torch accidentally got knocked over. We'd had a whole week of Halloween. We called it "Inferno" — we always call it something — and it's second only to New Year's Eve for us.

Here's the spooky thing: Houdini passed away in Detroit on Oct. 31, 1926. The fire department was able to pinpoint the time the fire started and it was almost exactly the time Houdini died.

The other thing that's spooky: The fire started in the attic; there was a lot of damage to the attic and third floor. The main damage, the water damage, was the Dante Room, named after Dante the magician, who was a rival of Houdini's.

That room was completely destroyed. On the other side of the building, the Houdini Room, wasn't touched.

People say you're nostalgic. You play 78s on the radio; you co-wrote a musical about turn-of-the-century Broadway.

Nostalgia is the wrong word. Nostalgia [is] for something that happened that everybody remembers. We [he and his collaborator, Oscar-winning songwriter Richard M. Sherman] are doing a "period piece." There's a big difference.

"Hello, Dolly!" was a period piece; it wasn't nostalgia. Like the burning of Rome — you couldn't possibly have been there, but it's fun to look at people in togas.

Did Harry Potter change interest in magic?

Very much so. [It] was a very good influence on magic. [But] I don't think everybody went out with wizard hats and tried to make football games in the air.

Did you make J.K. Rowling a Magic Castle member?

She was in town for something and her publicity people rejected the idea.

From Houdini to Harry — it sounds as if you think humans need magic.

I have this wonderful book, it describes lighting a fire in an ancient temple with stone doors that 20 men could not move. You light a fire, and then the doors would open [on their own].

It's simple: The fire would cause hydraulic suction which would cause water to go into a retainer which would do a leverage thing which would open these huge doors. Just a magic trick.

Audiences want to experience the unbelievable. The magic illusions of today are often the scientific realities in the future.

In the meantime it's fun to be fooled. As long as there are people to be fooled, there will be magicians to fool them!

Patt.morrison@latimes.com

Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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