“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 mystupefaction, I hadn’t noticed it. I walk up, I say the words. Thebookshelf glides open.
And so another novice enters the Magic Castle, Milt Larsen’sshrine to sorcery in the Hollywood Hills. In all the world there isnothing 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 thealterations Larsen performed on a formerly straight forwardVictorian mansion. With its dark-paneled opulence, it resembles agentlemen’s club, assuming the gentleman is Gomez Addams. In searchof the Palace of Mystery or Parlour of Prestidigitation, you followfellow guests up stairways to more stairways, past griffins, turbidoil portraits of turbaned sorcerers, and a skeleton or two. Thesetting turns even visitors and staff into opening acts, as Idiscover 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 drinksappear, he makes them disappear.”
As for Larsen, he has the rumpled face and tidy gray moustacheof a favorite uncle. “We had no business plan,” he says of hisdecision to start the castle with his brother Bill. “We figured itwould take a year for the bankers to catch up with us.”
Four decades later it’s clear that the Larsen brothers (Billdied in 1993) were onto something. Today the castle is a clubhousefor 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 apparentlydevised by gnomes ― from $275 to $950.) The castle alsooffers 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. Heturned to his first love, forming the Larsen Family of Magicianswith his wife and two sons. “We played all the great resorthotels,” Larsen says. “The Hotel del Coronado, the El Mirasol inPalm Springs. I tell people I was born with a silver spoon in mymouth but I always knew it wasn’t mine.”
Milt Larsen had a career as a television writer, but as thecastle succeeded, he focused his eccentric energies solely on it.He treats his castle as if it were his own long-running play. “Allwe do is change the cast,” he says.
Over the years the castle has helped launch the careers ofmagicians from Night Court’s Harry Anderson to Las Vegas headlinerLance Burton. Hollywood habitués have ranged from Cary Grant,who was on the board of directors, to Nicolas Cage and JasonAlexander.
It’s time for the 8:30 show in the Palace of Mystery, and aposse of expert young magicians is ready to take the stage. I’m anideal audience for sleight of hand, being a sucker who is fooled byanything. But the show works. Silk scarves are transformed intolive doves! Women vanish in smoke, then reappear! The classicsstill dazzle.
Afterwards, I meet Larsen at the bar to ask him why magicretains its power. “I don’t know about you,” he says, “but thewhole 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 andforget 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 likea 10-year-old kid. How does this work? How can I do that? That’swhy magicians live so long.”
Magic Castle: (323) 851-3313 or www.magiccastle.org.