There are those who say vaudeville died in the mid-1930s; others, such as magician Harry Blackstone Jr., believe that it was murdered. The offspring of legendary magician Harry Blackstone, Harry Jr.--who carries on the family tradition of performing such illusions as the Floating Light Bulb and the Dancing Handkerchief--says vaudeville met its demise because of jokes like this one: “Did you know that my parents were in the iron and steel business? My mother did the ironing. . . .”
Whether vaudeville died of natural causes or fell victim to such foul plays-on-words, Milt Larsen, 64, the president-for-life of Hollywood’s Magic Castle, likes to say that vaudeville “died the day I was born.” While one hates to speak ill of the deceased, this passing was lucky for little Milt: Instead of becoming a vaudeville act, his family toured the state in the late 1930s as the Larsen Family of Magicians.
Another 30 years later, Milt and his brother, the late Bill Larsen, brought magic to a new generation of fans by opening the Magic Castle, the 1908 Victorian Gothic mansion on a hill above Franklin Boulevard that is now the headquarters of the Academy of Magical Arts. It remains a place that prominent practitioners hail as the mecca of magic.
Magic Castle alumni include illustrious magicians such as the Blackstones, David Copperfield and the Las Vegas duo of Siegfried & Roy, the latter engaging in such feats as riding elephants and disappearing white tigers each night at the Mirage hotel. Doug Henning studied at the Castle under the late sleight-of-hand master Dai Vernon, a Castle institution whom everyone called “The Doctor.” Vernon died in 1992, at 98, in defiance of a rip-roaring lifestyle that involved equal (and hearty) doses of cigarettes and alcohol.
“He did everything you aren’t supposed to do. Many’s the night we had to pour him into bed,” one Castle regular remembers fondly.
Today’s local membership includes surgeons, business people and such unlikely figures as Century City investment banker Lewis Horvitz and KTTV Channel 11 legal commentator Luke McKissack, who weighed in daily on the Simpson trial until that station discontinued its gavel-to-gavel coverage.
“There was a time back in the 1970s when I figured out that maybe a quarter of the great magicians in the world had lived within two miles of the Magic Castle,” said McKissack, who may be best known for representing Sirhan B. Sirhan, the convicted assassin of Robert F. Kennedy.
“If you are a magician, you haven’t lived until you have been to the Magic Castle,” Siegfried says by phone from Las Vegas. “It is an unusual spot, the openness, the camaraderie. . . . It seems to me the magic is in the walls already. It’s there--it’s built into the walls of the Magic Castle. You can’t copy it; it’s a labor of love. You are not just a customer; you are a part of it.”
The Magic Castle--a private club but one to which almost everyone seems to be invited eventually--opened Jan. 2, 1963. And now, 32 1/2 years after its inception, it seems only fitting to celebrate this significant anniversary and to look back at the story behind the Castle, which has become as much a local landmark as the Hollywood Wax Museum or Mann’s Chinese Theater.
Then again, maybe it doesn’t. But is there really a rabbit in your hat, 1,000 handkerchiefs in your sleeve, a quarter up your nose? When dealing with the world of magic, it pays not to ask too many questions.
“To understand the Castle and the Castle’s reasons for being, you have to understand a little bit about the Larsen family,” Milt Larsen says, settling in for a chat in one of the many bar areas in the Castle’s labyrinthine interior--a pack rat’s paradise of antiques, gargoyles, Tiffany glass, vaudevillian trinkets and show-biz memorabilia, all painstakingly collected by Larsen from historic houses and buildings about to face the wrecking ball.
The story really begins when William W. Larsen, a prominent Pasadena criminal attorney, became disillusioned with law and created the Larsen Family of Magicians. Magic tricks, Milt Larsen says, were considered somewhat distasteful, so the family booked itself as offering lectures on “The Cultural Background of Magic"--illustrated with plenty of magic tricks for educational purposes. They played opulent Southern California hotels such as the Hotel del Coronado on San Diego’s Coronado Island and El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs.
“I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, and it wasn’t mine--as entertainers, we were always living in the lap of luxury,” Milt Larsen reminisces.
In 1936, William Larsen founded Genii magazine, an international magic industry trade publication that is still being published by Erika Larsen, his granddaughter. William’s wife and Milt and Bill’s mother, Geraldine Larsen Jaffe, had her own TV show, “The Magic Lady,” on KTLA in the late 1940s; it later became syndicated by Telemount in the early 1950s.
When World War II broke out, many of the luxury inns were turned into military hotels, and the family stopped traveling. And, in 1942, William Larsen traded his Pasadena home for the Wilshire District manse of magic craftsman Floyd Thayer, home of the Thayer Studio of Magic. Thayer’s magic manufacturing company was established in 1907 and had been headquartered there since 1933.
The Mediterranean-style home includes the house, a 100-plus-seat theater and studio and office space--all surrounded by wild gardens, terraces, bridges, stone stairways and a natural stream that flows behind the house, which led the home to be named Brookledge. Still standing on the old Thayer stage is a bright red guillotine, made by the Thayer company in the 1940s, which William and later son Bill used in their stage acts.
The home became both the family residence and an unofficial clubhouse for Los Angeles magicians.
“You’d come home from school and magicians would be at your house,” Milt Larsen says. “I was literally a kid in the candy store because I had all these props to play with.”
William Larsen died in 1955, having returned to his law career in 1948. But until his death he held the position of president of Assembly 22, Society of American Magicians, and continued to publish Genii magazine. And, Milt says, his father continued to dream wistfully of someday having a real club where you could “have magicians come in to do tricks and things.”
That dream lay dormant for years.
In the early 1950s, Bill Larsen became an associate producer at CBS Television City working on “Playhouse 90,” “The Danny Kaye Show” and others. In 1956, Milt Larsen joined NBC, becoming a writer for “Truth or Consequences,” a position he would hold for 18 years. Also in 1956, he started a stage show called “It’s Magic!"--first at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, then at the Variety Arts Center in downtown Los Angeles, where the show would remain an annual event until 1984. In 1994, the show was revived at the Alex Theatre in Glendale.
By the early 1960s, Milt Larsen was doing six television shows a week, but “it didn’t occupy all of my time,” he says. During his unoccupied time, he would occasionally look out his 10th-floor office at the corner of Highland Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard and see a house--a 1908 Victorian Gothic mansion that was the former home of banker Rollan B. Lane. It was abandoned, dilapidated, perfect.
“It looked like a haunted house right out of Charles Addams,” Larsen says. “I kept looking out of the window and daydreaming about the place and thinking, ‘Gee, wouldn’t that be a neat place for magic?’ ”
So he persuaded his brother to join him in launching the Castle. Bill would be the business manager and Milt would roll up his sleeves and get out his hammer and nails. In 1961, Milt Larsen approached Thomas O. Glover, who had bought the property, as well as a restaurant he renamed Yamashiro and a hotel. Glover agreed to lease the property to the Larsens for a song; they continue to lease the building from the Glover estate, which remains a profit participant in the Castle. Both brothers continued to free-lance for television while they brought the Castle to life. “I would make up jokes for ‘Truth or Consequences’ while I was hammering and sawing away,” Larsen says.
Larsen notes that some magicians look at the Castle as sort of a sequel to Brookledge, saying: “All Milt and Bill did was move the party up the hill and put a cash register in.”
The Castle did indeed become a neat place for magic. In a recent telephone interview, Copperfield recalled his introduction to the Castle--which, because it serves alcohol, does not admit minors except during the day for junior members’ meetings and Sunday brunch:
“I showed up there at 18, with a girl I was trying to impress on my arm, and the people at the door said, ‘Sorry, you’re not 21.’ So I took my coat and my tie and the girl on my arm and sorrowfully walked down the ramp, having been refused the chance to go to the mecca of magic.
“I was already doing TV specials and I did a show in Chicago called ‘Magic Man,’ so I had a small bit of notoriety in the magic world. One of the higher-ups came running out and said, ‘David, David, come back, we know who you are!’ It made an 18-year-old very happy--and made me look very good to this young lady on my arm.”
German-born Siegfried Fischbacher was invited to the Castle about 25 years ago after Irene Larsen befriended him during his fledgling years as a Vegas magician with Roy. Siegfried says the Castle became a second home to him--especially since Irene, 59, Bill’s widow and the current president of the club’s resident Academy of Magical Arts--also hails from Germany.
“It became like a second family; for a young guy from a different country, to be welcomed like that, it was wonderful,” Siegfried says. “I know how it is as a young kid. When your hobby is magic, it is deep and happy. I can’t describe it. It’s like nothing else exists anymore--it’s in your blood. And to meet people who have the same interests is a wonderful thing. You don’t start out right away disappearing elephants--you start out with coins and cigarettes and cards.”
Every other Las Vegas hotel now features a magic act, but, Siegfried says, that wasn’t the case when he and Roy first broke into the business. Receiving honors from the Academy of Magical Arts, which holds an annual awards ceremony, helped the duo break down barriers.
“When we first came to Las Vegas, our welcome was: ‘You’re a magician; we have to tell you, magic doesn’t work in this town,” Siegfried says. “When I told my mother [he was planning to go to America to pursue a magic career], her biggest worry was that on my passport would be written: ‘Magician.’ The most difficult thing was to create a demand for what we are doing. When you are honored by your peers, it helps you get up the ladder.”
For those interested in membership, the Castle has two options: magician membership and associate membership. Magician members must demonstrate a certain level of magic skill; associate members just have to be 21 years of age or older. Associate members enjoy all the privileges of the club but may not enter a special inner sanctum in the Castle’s Magic Library that contains magic secrets of the ages. Associate members and visitors may, however, peruse the library’s odd collection of reading materials, including joke collections from “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” “The Eddie Cantor Show” and Milton Berle’s private joke file.
Like many area businesses, the Castle fell on financial hard times in the early 1990s. In 1993, the same year Bill Larsen died of a liver ailment, the business carried a half-million-dollar debt--a $200,000 bank debt plus $300,000 in money owed to purveyors. A hefty raise in dues, plus an appeal for a one-time voluntary assessment of $100 from all members (some paid less, some more), retired the bank debt and was applied to the owed accounts payable to take them down to reasonable operating levels.
The club has about 5,000 members--roughly 55% magician members and 45% associate members. Magicians’ annual dues were $125 but were increased to the current level of $200; associates pay $325 per year versus the $220 fee due before the increases.
Dues were raised on the counsel of investment banker Horvitz, a board member who was also serving as Castle treasurer. The one-time-only first-year membership fee was also raised, from $800 to $900. Horvitz says that softhearted Castle management had failed to raise dues for years to protect elderly retired magicians on fixed incomes, but he persuaded the leadership to protect the veteran artists with special discounts and raise dues overall. The Castle is now operating in the black.
“I have seen magicians who are retired, older fellas, who sit at the Castle every night, discussing their craft with their colleagues,” says Horvitz, a leading lender to the independent film industry who is known far and wide as “the Magic Banker.” He often does business during seances in the Castle’s Houdini Room or spices up his presentations at film festivals, including the prestigious Cannes, with a card trick or two. “I am positive they will live an extra five years because they have someplace to go.”
Old-timers are sometimes joined by the polished junior members preparing resumes for possible show-business careers. Membership standards are stricter for juniors, requiring a rigorous audition for admission.
“It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done,” says Danny Cole, 17, an Edison High School junior from Huntington Beach who joined the club several years ago and uses magic to set him apart from the crowd when he makes speeches for his school debate club. “But it was kind of a goal I set for myself. I always wanted to be a member.”
Cole, who already performs at magic clubs and conventions, says his friends at school at first had a hard time understanding why he would not reveal the tricks of his trade. There is no formal oath of secrecy, Cole says, but he adds that most magic novices at some point realize they don’t want to reveal their secrets. You are on your way to becoming a real magician, he says, when it “becomes more fun not to tell than to tell.”
Milt Larsen says that he has been approached on several occasions about cloning the Magic Castle but that he has always believed he could not make lightning strike twice. Besides, he points out, the Magic Castle has always been a family affair.
The Larsens have stuck together through all those years. To this day, various members of the family live at Brookledge. In 1960, Bill and Milt both moved back into the home from other residences. Bill married Irene--ex-wife of a close friend and fellow magician, John Daniels, who gave them his blessing--in 1962, just before the Castle opened, and she moved in too.
Irene became a veteran magician’s assistant during the course of her two marriages, with the distinction of having been chosen to perform as the “Disembodied Princess” with Orson Welles on “The Dean Martin Show.”
“I’ve been stabbed, made to vanish and appear, you name it,” she says now pleasantly.
Milt and Bill’s mother, Geraldine (Gerrie), remarried to Art Baker, host of TV’s “You Asked for It"; the two lived in Palm Desert but also kept a Los Angeles home close to Brookledge. And for many years, Milt lived and worked in the studio area out back.
Although Milt soon established a home in Newport Beach and bought his current Montecito home in 1977, he still used Brookledge as his unofficial residence until about five years ago, when he acquired an apartment near the Castle. “He lived here for 30 years--we couldn’t get rid of him! I used to tell Bill: ‘I married you and your brother,’ ” jokes Irene, a friendly woman who lives at Brookledge with daughter Erika, 26; Erika’s 7-year-old daughter, Liberty; three dogs, and 13 cats.
(An animal activist, Irene had Castle restaurant place mats--which featured a sketch of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat by its ears--redrawn to show the magician grasping the rabbit more humanely by the nape of the neck.)
At 64, Milt Larsen is a relative newlywed--he and his wife, Arlene, got married five years ago and spend long weekends at the Montecito home. He continues to work occasionally in TV and has also become magic consultant to Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where he is currently advising on the creation of “Caesars’ Magical Empire.” The attraction, slated to open late this year, is “the equivalent of a seven-story building underground,” he says, with a spectacular catacomb, dining chambers and showrooms.
The $30-million, 60,000-square-foot attraction is three times as large as the Castle, but Larsen says it will contain small theaters and dining chambers for not more than 24 people to maintain Castle-like intimacy.
Although he’s on to bigger things, Larsen will never abandon his Castle.
“I’m always remodeling,” he says. “To me, that’s catnip. I love the stuff. I always say I never worked a day in my life, because I have loved everything I’ve ever done. Some people play golf; I like to be a carpenter.
“I have a shop at my home in Montecito; I spend most of my time up there in the shop making little teeny, tiny gimmicks. And then I bring ‘em down and stick them in a wall here. I just enjoy it--if you asked me what my one favorite thing is in the Castle, it’s the whole Magic Castle. It’s just one big toy.”
* Magic Castle, 7001 Franklin Ave., Hollywood. Wangling an invitation should not be hard if one is inventive . “With a club of 5,000 active members from all walks of life,” Milt Larsen says, “the best way is to stand up in your office and ask if anyone is a member, and see if you can’t get a guest card.” The club accommodates groups and provides entry to anyone considering membership. (213) 851-3313.