Vanishing Act : Magic Castle Seeks Donations to Offset Lower Attendance

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For many a blue moon, sorcerers have gathered nightly in a tall Victorian home overlooking Hollywood to ply the occult arts. Beyond a secret passageway, in elegant rooms of brass and dark wood, their stage acts have made the Magic Castle one of the most venerable--and otherworldly--of Los Angeles' private clubs.

But managers of the famed nightspot are finding that in bleak economic times it takes more than mere wizardry to keep a castle afloat. So for the first time in a quarter-century, members have been asked to reach into their wallets--or up their sleeves--for donations to offset longstanding operating debts.

The suggested contribution--$100 apiece--was recommended to the Castle's 5,000 members in a letter mailed Friday. If and when the money materializes, it will help revive the struggling club by retiring $200,000 in loans that had been guaranteed by former President Bill Larsen, who died in February after a long illness, according to club founder Milt Larsen Jr.

"Whether you're a hardware store or a Magic Castle, we're all fighting the same battle--which is survival," the younger Larsen, 62, said. "Happily, the Castle survives better than most."

In an era when private clubs in Los Angeles are reeling, the Magic Castle has seen a downturn in attendance and a drop in restaurant and bar revenues, Larsen acknowledged.

"We haven't had a tremendous drop . . . (but) business is off from what it was a year ago," he said. "The thing we have noticed is that people don't stay out as late as they used to. Where before we used to have to shoo people out (at closing time), now we seldom have people hanging around much after 1 or midnight."

In part, the trend reflects consumer belt-tightening, campaigns against drinking and driving, and possibly fear of urban violence after last year's riots, Larsen said. At the same time, he said, the Castle is trying to complete a $100,000 expansion that includes a new basement library devoted to magical arts.

The death of his older brother, who was in poor health for more than a year before dying of a liver ailment, meant that a loan had to be retired or guaranteed by someone else willing to put up the collateral, Larsen said.

"It's a loose end that had to be cleaned up," he said. He foresees no need to lay off any of the Castle's nearly 70 full-time employees or to dramatically raise the annual dues, now $220 for non-magicians. "It's absolutely no panic," Larsen said. "I'm sure we're going to pay off (the loan) very quickly and, ideally, have money left over."

But word of the donation drive--due to be followed by a one-night, all-star fund-raising performance of magicians this fall--caused concern among some members who regard the Castle as both a clubhouse and an institution in the close-knit world of performance magic.

"I'm very worried they may go under," said Steve Barnes, 22, a professional magician who became affiliated with the Castle as a 14-year-old junior performer. "For a lot of us, this is all we have as far as where to go to hang out with other magicians."

Jeffrey W. Cowan, 29, an attorney and part-time professional magician who has performed at the Castle, pointed out that the adults-only club is one of the few places where modern-day Merlins are seen as more than stiffs in cheap tuxedos doing card tricks for children.

"There's not a nightclub like this in the world," Cowan said. "It allows adults to go to an environment that's sophisticated and see magicians . . . magicians who are very funny and creative and who make magic a performing art on a par with the theater or ballet or any of the other performing arts."

Although some members expressed confidence in the future of the club--and a willingness to donate toward its survival--a few blamed management for exacerbating its financial woes. According to one member, a professional magician who declined to be identified, Bill Larsen's failing health left him unable to closely control the quality of the magic acts that performed in the Castle's three theaters.

Talent booked at the club was "uneven" and, in some cases, performers were double-booked some weeks, while the club scrambled to fill vacant schedules in others, the magician said. All the while, he added, Larsen continued to draw a salary rumored among the magicians to top $100,000 a year.

Ron Wilson, who succeeded Larsen as president of the nonprofit Academy of Magical Arts Inc. after his death, conceded that on "a couple of occasions" Larsen had double-booked stage acts. But he declined to comment on Larsen's salary.

In commenting on the quality of the acts, Wilson described Larsen as "a nice guy" who found it difficult to turn down acts that were marginal, especially if the performers showed promise.

"We book people from all over the world," Wilson said. "Bill would be at a convention in Germany and see a guy doing close-up (magic), and he would say, 'Can I do a week in the Magic Castle?' Sometimes they were just not as good as we'd hope they would be. . . . Bill always thought the Magic Castle should be place to (develop) the craft . . . to give people a shot."

With the Castle now in debt, management is banking on a better brand of legerdemain to foster a sort of fiscal escape, Wilson said.

"The way we're swinging now is toward a more finished product," he said. "(Guests) should see the best magicians in the world. The Magic Castle's reputation is (as home to) the best magic."

Milt Larsen, who founded the club in 1962 after renovating the 20,000-square-foot 1908 Victorian building, said renovations are planned for theater seats and other furnishings and added that the club probably will raise dues next year by $25 or so.

Downplaying the difficulties, he said: "Twenty-five years ago, we had a voluntary donation to pay for some air conditioning that we needed. I think if every quarter of a century we have to ask the members for a little extra, that's not too bad."

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