An exterior of the Magic Castle, a club for magicians. (Courtesy of the Magic Castle)
At the top of a winding driveway on the edge of Hollywood Heights sits a huge Victorian mansion. Guests in suits, gowns and diaphanous shawls step out at the valet stand. You can pick out the newcomers by their wide eyes taking in the looming mansion, the water fountain and the stained glass owl in the window up high. Before they enter, couples snap photos together. It’s their last chance to memorialize what is sure to be a memorable night at the Magic Castle, the Los Angeles clubhouse for magicians.
Once guests check in, they're directed toward a bookshelf. They lean toward an owl figurine with red glowing eyes. They say the magical phrase — “Open Sesame," of course. The owl coos, and the trick bookcase swings open, welcoming guests into the Grand Salon.
Inside the mansion, burgundy walls are covered in ephemera and lit by chandeliers. The place is a maze of bars, banquet rooms and lounges. It’s easy to forget which floor you’re on as you snake about the mansion. There are four theaters. The biggest can seat 150, the smallest about two dozen. Off the stages you’ll find bartender magicians, and Magical Academy members mingling with guests. That unassuming guy in a gray suit, he’ll make your chosen card appear tattooed on your new friend's wrist.
For a long time you had to know a magician to get into the Magic Castle, or stay at the Magic Castle Hotel next door. But access recently got a little easier. Guests of the Hilton can now book a trip to the clubhouse as an add-on to their reservation.
But access doesn’t come without a few rules: No photos inside, you must make dinner reservations and you must dress up. No exceptions. Even Siegfried (of Siegfried & Roy) was turned away for wearing jeans.
Though many magicians come here to perform, some come to learn.
The library in the basement has around 28,000 items, which include magic magazines from the 1600s, and books signed by Houdini. Members can learn about the performances their predecessors created, and see if their ingenious new trick is really something new. Members can often be found in the library, discussing their routines and practicing sleight of hand in front of full-length mirrors.
The place was founded by Milt and Bill Larsen Jr., who grew up in a family of magicians. Their father was an ex-attorney turned magician, and their mother was said to have been the first female magician on television. The family toured California doing magic, and opened a magic shop in Los Angeles. They spent time with Houdini’s widow. Around here, the Larsens are referred to as “magic royalty.”
This club was their father’s dream, but Milt and Bill made it a reality when they found the house. The mansion was built in 1909 by a banker, and later served as a boardinghouse for young boys. It was in a state of disrepair when the brothers began leasing the mansion in 1962.
“My favorite memory was the day I was handed the keys to this place,” says Milt Larsen.
While Bill took over the business, and managing the Academy of Magical Arts, Milt set about fixing the place up. He went to demolition sites and salvaged materials. Some paneling in the theaters is made from repurposed doors from the Los Angeles courthouse. One of the bar tops is made from the wooden flooring from the gymnasium at Hollywood High. Tin ceiling tiles in the Palace Bar were salvaged from a Redondo Beach fire station.
The castle has also acquired pieces from movie and television sets, such as a painted L.A. skyline behind the Owl Bar, which was originally the backdrop from "The Tonight Show." They have Jack Nicholson's headboard from "The Witches of Eastwick," and the downstairs bar was originally used for the musical, "Hello, Dolly!"
There are also unique installations, like a piano-playing ghost who takes song requests, an owl that will answer any yes or no question, a prototype illusion for Disney’s original Haunted Mansion, and a Houdini seance room where guests can try to contact the dead while surrounded by props used by the famous magician.
The Magic Castle has had some eerie incidents over the years. In 2011 a fire broke out in the building on Halloween — a date also significant to magicians because it is the day of Houdini's death.
“While we know the fire was due to roofers, not ghosts, the only room in the entire club that had no damage was Houdini’s room. And the room that had the most damage was the Dante-themed dining room," says the Magic Castle’s Vicki Greenleaf. "Dante and Houdini were the two major magicians of their day. They had a great rivalry. They couldn't stand each other.”
Ties To Fame
Over the years, many famous people have joined the club. Early members included Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Orson Welles. Both Steve Martin and Johnny Carson have performed at the Magic Castle, and Neil Patrick Harris was once president of their board.
“Neil did so much to promote the art form, not only on 'How I Met Your Mother' but also on the Academy Awards, on the Tonys," says Joe Furlow, general manager of the Academy of Magical Arts. "We hated it when he decided to move to New York, but he does visit from time to time. I think he did more from 2011 to 2015 to promote the art form than most.”
Celebrities have been known to stop by the club. Adele, in particular, caused quite the stir. But she's not alone. There have been a number of other celebrity guests in recent years.
“I was standing down by our main bar, and a couple came down our main staircase, and turned like they were both heading to the restroom. Before they got to the doors they stopped and started to kiss," says Furlow. "The PDA got a little X-rated. So I walked over and I tried to interrupt them from kissing and said, ‘I love PDA as much as the next guy. However we need to keep it PG.' And then I realized who it was ... Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes!'"