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Magic Castle’s 50 years of sleight of hand

Milt Larsen, founder of the Magic Castle in Hollywood.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

This post has been corrected, please see below for details.

By Milt Larsen’s own account, he was born in a magic box. Well, not exactly born in a box, but being the youngest member of a family of magicians, he became part of the act at a tender age.

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The trick featured his father, William Larsen Sr., showing the audience an empty box. He’d close it and then, presto chango, he would open it again and there’d be bouncing baby Milt.


FOR THE RECORD:
Classic Hollywood: In the Jan. 21 Calendar section, the Classic Hollywood column about the 50th anniversary of the Magic Castle misspelled the last name of cartoonist Charles Addams as Adams. —


“I wasn’t very big at the time,” Larsen said, a twinkle in his eye. “This is the kind of crazy life that I’ve led. I liken my whole life to a train ride. Magic is the track and the track has kept going through all of these things.”

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Larsen, a dapper 81-year-old with a Clark Gable-style mustache, was holding court last week in Irma’s room at the venerable Magic Castle, the private Hollywood club for magicians and home of the Academy of Magical Arts, which he founded 50 years ago.

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Irma is the club’s resident “ghost” who will take requests to play on the piano. But at least on this afternoon, she seemed to be on a break.

Not only is the club celebrating its 50th anniversary, Larsen has just published his autobiography, “The Magical Journey (The First 30,000 Days),” and Ted Fields’ Radar Pictures is about to begin pre-production on a family film set at the castle, with McG (“Charlie’s Angels”) directing.

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During his first visit to the club, producer Mike Weber of Radar Pictures said he “immediately saw the opportunity of setting a movie around the location and the history of the castle.”

Larsen said his father was a successful criminal attorney in Pasadena who decided “that the life of a family of magicians would be better than defending a lot of leftover Prohibition people.” And soon the family — including his mother, Geraldine, who was “The Magic Lady” on KTLA-TV Channel 5, and his older brother, Bill Jr. — were performing in the L.A. area. His father also began the popular “Geniii, the Conjurers Magazine” in 1936.

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It was his father’s dream to create the Academy of Magical Arts and have a clubhouse for magicians to convene and perform. But nothing came of it before he died in 1953.

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But his two sons kept the magic alive. Milt Larsen produced his first all-star revue, “It’s Magic,” in 1956, which is still growing strong. By 1961, he was writing for the TV series “Truth or Consequences” and his brother was an assistant producer at CBS.

From his office at what is now Hollywood and Highland complex, Larsen could see the 1909 mansion on a hillside off of Franklin Avenue, which had been built by banker Rollin B. Lane. Over the years, it had fallen into disrepair.

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“It looked like something that fell out of a Charles Adams cartoon,” Larsen recalled. “It was terribly unmaintained. It had weeds.”

Larsen was “lucky enough” to meet the new owner of the property, Thomas O. Glover. And abracadabra, he soon leased the historical house from Glover.

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It began with a charter membership of 150; now the Magic Castle has some 5,000 active members — half of whom are magicians and half fans of magic. The castle hosts five magic shows each night in three showrooms: the Close-Up Gallery, the Parlour of Prestidigitation and the Palace of Mystery.

“Cary Grant was one of the very first members and he loved the club,” Larsen said. “Some of the other castle regulars were Jimmy Stewart and Orson Welles.”

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These days, stars even perform there. Neil Patrick Harris, who was a member of the junior magicians group during his “Doogie Howser, M.D.” years, is currently president of the academy. “Seinfeld’s” Jason Alexander does a mental magic act.

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And the Magic Castle has made stars such as Lance Burton, who at age 21 appeared in the “It’s Magic” revue.

“After ‘It’s Magic,’ they asked me to work at the castle,” said Burton.

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“It’s just totally unique,” he said. “Just the physical building itself is very special and when you walk in there, it just kind of creates a very unique atmosphere that’s all devoted to magic.”

Award-winning British actor-magician Steve Valentine came to Los Angeles in 1989 and was warmly welcomed at the club.

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“I have always understood the brotherhood of magicians around the world and I really saw it that day,” he said. “A couple of months later, I started performing there.”

“Magic is the greatest forum of intrigue and mysticism and fantasy,” Larsen observed. “I think we all want to live in ‘Alice In Wonderland’ and crawl through a keyhole and find out what’s on the other side.”

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For the record: An earlier version of the story misidentified the producer of Radar Pictures as Mark Weber. His name is Mike Weber.

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susan.king@latimes.com

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