"Talk to the owl," the hostess tells me.
I say, "What?"
"Say, 'Open sesame.' To the owl."
There is a gilded owl perched on the bookshelf. In my stupefaction, I hadn't noticed it. I walk up, I say the words. The bookshelf glides open.
And so another novice enters the Magic Castle, Milt Larsen's shrine to sorcery in the Hollywood Hills. In all the world there is nothing quite like it: a private club devoted to the art of ― in Larsen's words ― "confounding and bedeviling people."
The castle is a hard place to describe, thanks to the alterations Larsen performed on a formerly straight forward Victorian mansion. With its dark-paneled opulence, it resembles a gentlemen's club, assuming the gentleman is Gomez Addams. In search of the Palace of Mystery or Parlour of Prestidigitation, you follow fellow guests up stairways to more stairways, past griffins, turbid oil portraits of turbaned sorcerers, and a skeleton or two. The setting turns even visitors and staff into opening acts, as I discover when I sit at the Owl Bar to ask Larsen my questions.
Me, still stupefied: "So, you're a magician."
Bartender, interrupting the inane comment with gin and tonics: "Sure, he's a magician. We're both magicians. I make the drinks appear, he makes them disappear."
As for Larsen, he has the rumpled face and tidy gray moustache of a favorite uncle. "We had no business plan," he says of his decision to start the castle with his brother Bill. "We figured it would take a year for the bankers to catch up with us."
Four decades later it's clear that the Larsen brothers (Bill died in 1993) were onto something. Today the castle is a clubhouse for the 5,000 members of the Academy of Magical Arts. In general, only members and their guests can attend the evening performances. (Membership dues range ― in a sliding scale apparently devised by gnomes ― from $275 to $950.) The castle also offers magic classes for members and nonmembers.
It's an unusual calling but one that Milt Larsen was suited for. His father was an attorney who grew disillusioned with law. He turned to his first love, forming the Larsen Family of Magicians with his wife and two sons. "We played all the great resort hotels," Larsen says. "The Hotel del Coronado, the El Mirasol in Palm Springs. I tell people I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth but I always knew it wasn't mine."
Milt Larsen had a career as a television writer, but as the castle succeeded, he focused his eccentric energies solely on it. He treats his castle as if it were his own long-running play. "All we do is change the cast," he says.
Over the years the castle has helped launch the careers of magicians from Night Court's Harry Anderson to Las Vegas headliner Lance Burton. Hollywood habitués have ranged from Cary Grant, who was on the board of directors, to Nicolas Cage and Jason Alexander.
It's time for the 8:30 show in the Palace of Mystery, and a posse of expert young magicians is ready to take the stage. I'm an ideal audience for sleight of hand, being a sucker who is fooled by anything. But the show works. Silk scarves are transformed into live doves! Women vanish in smoke, then reappear! The classics still dazzle.
Afterwards, I meet Larsen at the bar to ask him why magic retains its power. "I don't know about you," he says, "but the whole world is a mystery to me. I have no idea how it all works. But no matter how serious the world is, you can come here and forget about it for five or six hours."
Larsen thinks for a moment. "Here's another thing," he says. "There are no old magicians. Even a magician who is 98 thinks like a 10-year-old kid. How does this work? How can I do that? That's why magicians live so long."
Magic Castle: (323) 851-3313 or www.magiccastle.org.