Irma the ghost is playing the piano. Apparently, it’s a habit with her. She takes requests on a nightly basis, although by the sound of it, her repertoire stops somewhere in the late 1970s.
It’s my first time inside the Magic Castle, LA’s well-known but exclusive club for magicians. I gave the owl sculpture perched in the foyer the secret password—“open sesame” of course—a hidden door slid open, and now I’m nursing a cocktail while people in their late sixties sing along to songs I’m guessing were groovy party standards back when I was still in diapers.
I’ve come for a friend’s birthday. I would celebrate her anywhere, but scoring this invitation carries a certain cachet for those in the know: Only members or their guests can walk through the Castle’s front door.
Like most big cities, Los Angeles is made up of vastly different sub-cultures all sharing the same geography. What unites them is a commitment to informality, whether real or laboriously studied. So wear your Levi’s and flip-flops to a surf party, or your $200 high-end jeans to a film industry event. But don’t wear them to the Magic Castle. You won’t make it past the front desk.
A fifty-year old restaurant, performance space and private club for members of the Academy of Magical Arts, the Castle is one of the only places left in this town that demands formal attire. The dress code is specific: jacket and tie for men, dressy attire for women. No sneakers. No exceptions. Until 2006, when the policy was officially updated, women had to wear skirts or dresses. The first thing I saw when I walked into the small, book-lined vestibule was a hostess helping a man into a borrowed shirt and jacket. People must make this mistake often: when the clothes didn’t fit, she went into a closet to find another size.
That formality matches the décor. Housed in a hillside mansion in the middle of a slowly gentrifying stretch of Hollywood, closely-packed apartment buildings below and the tonier Hollywood Hills above, the Magic Castle stands out as much for its style as location.
Built in 1909 and designed in what George Siegel, the Magic Castle’s official architectural historian, calls the “Chateauesque” style, the house it distinguished by its mansard roof and turreted exterior. It’s also one of the oldest houses still standing in Hollywood, a fact notable in demolition-happy Los Angeles, where any structure older than fifty years that isn’t replaced by something newer (and often uglier) is considered a relic.
Originally called the Holly Chateau, the Castle was erected by Rollin B. Lane, a transplanted midwestern banker and real estate investor. It’s hard to imagine that Lane, a philanthropist and upright citizen of his day, would be pleased with what’s become of his home. According to the well-researched Hollywoodland blog, Lane and his wife, who were involved in developing the city of Hollywood, never warmed to the influx of movie people in the early twentieth century. Whether because the Lanes looked down on them as crass arrivistes or due to common ethnic prejudices of the time, they systematically excluded film industry types from their lavish society parties.
Lane and his wife lived in the home until their deaths in the 1940s. In the ensuing years, the mansion went through a few permutations common to big old manses: first a multi-family house, then a home for the elderly, and finally a maze of small apartments, until it eventually passed out of the Lane family ownership.
In 1961, Milt and Bill Larsen Jr., sons of William Larsen Sr., a passionate magician and defense attorney, were on the lookout for a space where they could fulfill their father’s dream of opening a respite for magicians to gather for drinks and camaraderie. By the time the Larsens came across the property, it was run-down and weed-choked. They quickly leased the building and embarked on an intensive clean-up project.
Drawing on connections in the television industry, where both brothers worked, they opened the Magic Castle on January 2, 1963, with 150 initial members. In the fifty years since, it has become known around the world as one of the premier venues for magicians. Membership has grown to five thousands professionals, hobbyist magicians, and assorted lovers of magic.
“It’s an honor to be a member,” says Chad Mallam, who describes himself as an amateur magician, and uses the kind of adulatory language I found characteristic of members, who are uniformly devoted to the Castle. “I love the art of magic and appreciate the craft—everyone at the club is likeminded in that regard so I always feel at home when I’m there.”
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As unusual as the Castle’s exterior is, it’s inside where, forgive the pun, the magic happens. Movie memorabilia peppers the place, including the carved bar from Hello Dolly, as well as WC Fields’ pool table, with its crooked cue. The curtains and proscenium from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson adorn the stage in a small basement theater. Many actors—including Cary Grant, Steve Martin, and the Castle’s current president, Neil Patrick Harris—are counted among past and present members.
Darkly paneled, with multiple staircases, winding passageways, and walls covered with velvet hangings and portraits, the Castle’s opulent décor scheme comes off as a quasi-Victorian blend of brothel and men’s club. Much of it is painted in a color originally custom-mixed by Johnny Carson’s set decorator and dubbed, simply, “Castle Red.” Tasseled, wrought-iron, and Tiffany-inspired chandeliers throw pools of light and shadow over ornate furniture.
Members and guests fully embrace the fantasy created within the confines of the building. The prohibition against taking pictures is meant both to protect members’ privacy and the organization’s carefully constructed aura of mystery. It’s all about the ability to love magic in the simple and wonder-struck way we all did as kids—and the chance for everyone to indulge in some drama of their own. Men wax their mustaches and polish their shoes to a high shine. Women don floor-length gowns and wear feathers in their hair.
“The dress code makes it an event, something classic and classy,” says member John Douglas. “Because you are dressed up, it makes the Castle a destination, not just some place you are stopping over at until the next diversion. It also gives you that fantasy experience of stepping back in time.”
Magic, of course, is always on tap: members and their guests line up to watch five nightly performances in the three theaters—the Palace of Mystery, Parlour of Prestidigitation, and accurate but blandly-named Close-Up Gallery. Small tables throughout the house accommodate impromptu card tricks at any time.
Magicians are always ready to put on a show. Because I was the guest of Gay Blackstone, a former president of the Academy of Magical Arts and widow of famous magician Harry Blackstone Jr., it wasn’t hard to find a few of the roaming magicians willing to give us a taste of their acts. One man held out a fistful of $1 bills and, presto-chango, turned them into hundreds—only I could see the folded money in his hand the whole time. Let’s just say that blunted the effect. Another utterly confounded us with his card tricks, performed so smoothly, and with so much charisma, that he had a tableful of admittedly tipsy women wrapped around his finger.
The Castle’s greatest allure is what happens behind the doors of the Houdini Séance room, which focuses on the occult. (Houdini dipped into the subject a bit himself, and after he died, his wife held a number of séances in hope of talking to his ghost.)
I spent about an hour in that room the night I visited, as I was led through an old-fashioned séance—blinking lights, elevating table, all the bells and whistles—by a veteran named Leo, who has been doing this act for almost twenty-five years. Although Blackstone emphasized that the Castle “treats spiritualism as part of the entertainment medium,” Leo, his suit and mien appropriately funereal, never let on that this was anything other than a serious attempt to raise the dead.
Aside from a few parlor tricks with a doll and a box, there wasn’t much magic to the séance. The trip wire that rattled a crystal light fixture was plainly visible, and the sound effects came from a cassette player that probably dated back as long as the act itself on a nearby shelf.
It was, frankly, laughable. And although Leo never broke character, the rest of us did laugh. At first, it was due to the sheer silliness of calling Houdini and his widow to come talk to us (it doesn’t give anything away to say that she did, in a raspy whisper, proving that death would be more enjoyable with a bag of throat lozenges on hand). Slowly but surely, though, the tenor of our giggles changed. They took on an edge of nervousness. The lights flickered and then went out altogether. The sound of something rattling came from one side of the room, only to be followed by a moan in another part. Something crashed to the floor. None of us believed that a ghost had really swooped through the small room causing all the havoc. But in the pitch black, the table shuddering wildly under our hands, we reacted like people riding a roller coaster. Things were moving around us, and even though we were safe, we couldn’t control any of it.
We may not have conversed with the dead, but our senses were fooled all the same. And isn’t that what the art of illusion is supposed to do?
The truth is, I’m not that into magic. It can be fun, but I long ago lost the wide-eyed awe at the craft of sleight of hand. I admire its flamboyance, but I never would have sought it out. And let’s be honest, magicians can be a peculiar lot. Think David Copperfield or Chriss Angel. Often obsessive, with a tendency toward showiness, they never quite lose the sniff of having played Dungeons and Dragons too much as teenagers. I imagine that many have very strong feelings about Harry Potter.
The whole place more or less enacts Scooby Doo’s idea of a haunted house. It’s high kitsch. And that’s its charm. The Magic Castle is exactly what it wants to be: a nostalgic throwback to the idea of a time of greater formality and theatricality.
“You never know what you are gonna find in relation to the history, the décor,” said delighted guest Jocelyn Benjamin. “It almost seems as though it’s haunted in some fashion…but the magic that happens inside is very cool!”
Being in the Magic Castle is not a real resurrection of a lost era. Though he died in the Houdini Séance Room, Rollin Lane is, much to my chagrin, never invited back for a chat. Instead, the Castle—its décor, traditions, and outlook—present Hollywood’s vision of an earlier time. In a city devoted to the creation of illusion, it’s one of the only places where people can enter and become part of the story.
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Michal Lemberger is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Slate, Salon, and smithsonian.com. You can follow her on Twitter: @wordmama.
Joseph Lambert is a cartoonist and lives in Vermont. He is the author of I Will Bite You!, and Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller. See more of his work at SubmarineSubmarine.com.