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The allure of the Magic Castle

The Magic Castle still wows visitors after 46 year

Posted: September 5, 2009 2:15 p.m.
Updated: September 6, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Magic Castle President Robert Lamoureux, left, socializes with founder Milt Larsen at one of the five bars in the Magic Castle in Hollywood. Magic Castle President Robert Lamoureux, left, socializes with founder Milt Larsen at one of the five bars in the Magic Castle in Hollywood.
Magic Castle President Robert Lamoureux, left, socializes with founder Milt Larsen at one of the five bars in the Magic Castle in Hollywood.
The famed Magic Castle in Hollywood was built as a private mansion in 1909 and opened as the Magic Castle in 1963. The famed Magic Castle in Hollywood was built as a private mansion in 1909 and opened as the Magic Castle in 1963.
The famed Magic Castle in Hollywood was built as a private mansion in 1909 and opened as the Magic Castle in 1963.
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"I was just born in a magic trunk," said Milt Larsen. And, with that, the founder of, and genius behind the Magic Castle makes short work of one amazing life and one incredible concept.

If you've been in the Los Angeles area for any length of time, you have to be aware of the Magic Castle, one of the most famous Hollywood landmarks. And you may have even met one or more of the Castle's member-magicians and received a guest pass to visit the venerable "Mecca of magic," as current Castle president Robert Lamoureux calls it.

Built as a private mansion in 1909, and undergoing quite an evolution in the intervening years, the Magic Castle, as such, opened in 1963. How it came to that, and what has happened since, is the stuff of Hollywood legend, and literally fills more than one book. But none of it would have happened without Milt Larsen.

In the foreword for one of those books mentioned above, Larsen wrote: "I was only 30 years old when I met Tom Glover and conceived the Magic Castle. I will be 70 years old in the year 2001. I still feel like that same kid .... The Castle still gives me the same thrill of a brand new challenge each and every day. It's my fun little tree house where the party has been going on, nonstop, for four decades."

Milt Larsen
Milt Larsen, now 78, can fill an evening with delightful stories of his youth, of being a television writer in Hollywood and, of course, of the Magic Castle. He is never without a quick quip or anecdote about the famous people who have crossed his path.

He was born in the age of Vaudeville and continues full-force in the age of iPhone - and he makes it all sound like great fun.

And, of course, there was always the magic.

Larsen's father was a successful attorney in Pasadena, but decided to stop his law practice and, in 1939, took the family on the road as the "Larsen Family of Magicians." "My father knew that, during the Depression, rich people still had money," Larsen said.

His father designed a show that was also a "lecture" on magic, which wealthy people accepted and patronized.

In 1942 his father "swapped houses and businesses and ended up owning the Thayer Studio of Magic."

Larsen said, "I grew up in a kind of ‘Alice in Wonderland' world."

The Larsen family also started Genii Magazine, devoted to magic and magicians, and published it until 1998, when they sold it to the Genii Corporation.

Milt Larsen was fortunate enough to become a writer for the "Truth or Consequences" television show in 1956 and continued there (while doing other projects) until 1977.

"‘Truth or Consequences' was the greatest job I ever had. I started with Ralph Edwards at the ripe old age of 25," Larsen said. "But, as much as I loved writing, I was more interested in entrepreneurship, and Ralph Edwards let me moonlight doing this (the Castle) while having a full-time job. I didn't have to choose."

Milt Larsen's brother, Bill Larsen, was also in television and the two longed to follow through on their father's dream of creating a place where magicians could gather and teach each other. However, it would be some time before they could accomplish it.

Regardless, they both flourished in their careers. In recognition of that, on September 15, 2006, Milt and Bill Larsen Jr. were honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.

Milt Larsen continues his off-castle projects today, including "Pazzazz!" a comedy musical he wrote with Academy Award-winning songwriter Richard M. Sherman ("Mary Poppins," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," "It's a Small World After All" - visit www.pazzazzthemusical.com).

The Castle dream
Bill and Milt Larsen originally planned to turn a showboat into their magic gathering place. But that idea proved unworkable. Later, when Milt met businessman Tom Glover, a partnership was born.

Glover was the owner of a "Gothic castle" on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood, as well as the landmark Yamashiro Restaurant at the top of the hill. Glover was unsure of what to do with the old home. On a handshake, he entrusted it, rent-free, to Larsen in 1961 and gave him a year to create his haven for magicians there.

Larsen formed a partnership with Don Gotschall, called Golar Enterprises, and the Magic Castle was born. Milt's older brother Bill accepted the challenge of resurrecting their father's concept of the Academy of Magical Arts.

Larsen said the Magic Castle probably would never have happened if he hadn't been a television gag writer and believed "nothing was too absurd."

Furnishing the property with Victorian-era items collected from homes scheduled for demolition and other venues, as well as movie and magician-related artifacts, Larsen has never stopped changing and expanding the Magic Castle.

"We started with a 6,400-square-foot house. It's now 29,000 square feet," he said.

And sometimes he has to work a little "magic" of his own to get things accomplished. As an example he related the story of how the Close-up Gallery got a second exit.

"A fire inspector came to the close-up room in our fifth or sixth year," Larsen said. The inspector felt the room needed a second exit to accommodate the number of audience members the club was allowing in. Normally, this would be a big project, but Larsen had another idea. "I told him to come back tomorrow and there would be a door." Larsen then proceeded to chop a new exit through a thin wall, using a fire ax.

People-wise, Larsen's stories are no less interesting, with many famous Hollywood names associated with the Castle, either as magicians or supporters. "Johnny Carson was a huge magic fan," he said, as was Steve Allen. And many famous magicians worked the Castle before they made it big, including Lance Burton and other headliners in Las Vegas.

Milt Larsen continues to perform magic on occasion, doing what he calls a comedy and magic act. "I'm one of the world's greatest magicians, but I'm modest," he quipped.

At which point Robert Lamoureux chimed in, "We won't book him here."

Lamoureux said he, himself, performs close-up magic, with cards and coins - "What I call real magic, not the stuff Milt does," he teased.

A night to remember
I was fortunate enough to spend an evening with Milt Larsen and Robert Lamoureux at the Magic Castle recently. Now, I had been there before, and always enjoyed the whole experience. But, on this night, I realized just how little I had seen in previous visits. I received a personal tour of everything, with backgrounds, explanations and anecdotes coming too fast for me to write and too numerous for me to remember.

Suffice it to say you'll need multiple visits to gain the full experience, and it might help to study up first with one of the books mentioned below. But you don't need to, because everyone connected with the place, from regular visitors, to magicians, to staff, is just dying to show and tell you things. They are proud of "their" Castle, and rightly so.

"We have 5,000 members," Lamoureux said. "This is just a big, dysfunctional family," he quipped.

An evening at the Magic Castle is an elegant experience with an old-Hollywood flavor, and the rooms and memorabilia fairly ooze a sense of mystery and legend. With enough bars (five) to keep things lively, you still find yourself presenting your best manners and "examining" with a sense of respect. Beyond that you are half-afraid something odd could happen at any moment - because, in some rooms, it does. And yet, it's a "good" apprehension, the kind of thing that makes for charming night.

Beyond that there is, of course, the magic. In every arena it leaves you astounded, wondering, "How did they do that?"

Here are just a few vignettes from my last visit.

Magic door: After gathering in the Victorian-style library/waiting room, you've got to get past the hidden magic door in the owl bookcase to move into the Castle-proper. But don't worry, someone will advise. (Hint: Say "Open Sesame.")

Grand Salon: You've got to get past the Grand Salon Bar if you intend to do anything else. But the bar is elegant, cozy and full of friendly regulars, so this is hard to do. There are secret switches to lower stools and rotate tables - to the befuddlement of distracted guests and the laughter of those in the know who watch them.

Invisible Irma's Room: Just beyond the Grand Salon, invisible Irma the ghost will play almost any tune you request on the piano. She's a lot of fun - but be respectful.

Dining: The food and service were excellent. But remember, you want to make the appropriate show in the Palace of Mystery, so don't lollygag.

Palace of Mystery: This is the big show, where we observed "stage magic," such as where the magician saws a girl in half. We made the 8:30 p.m. show, just barely, and caught Murray Hatfield & Teresa. No matter what he did to Teresa, she kept smiling and stayed in one piece. And no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't get any idea of how their tricks were accomplished.

But here's a warning - if you show up with the Castle president, you are quite likely to become part of the show on stage.

Parlour of Prestidigitation: A tribute to Victorian drawing room performances, here you will find mid-sized acts. Unfortunately, we were enjoying our tour so much that we missed the show. I'll definitely catch it next time.

The Inner Circle: Here are very interesting oddities such as the W.C. Fields Pool Exhibit and a collection of Edgar Bergan memorabilia. Here you will also find the W.C. Fields Bar, which was originally used in the movie "Hello, Dolly!"

Close-up Gallery: This small theater offers an intimate setting where great sleight of hand tricks are performed. On our evening, Jon Armstrong provided the amazement, along with a lot of good-natured humor, offered at the expense of selected guests who served as assistants.

There were many more notable impressions from this Castle experience, but, suffice it to say, it was a beautiful, memorable evening - and I'll be back for more.

So, find a magician, get a pass and visit the Magic Castle. Experience Milt Larsen's dream firsthand.

Yeah, it will be magic.

There are two great books available on the Magic Castle: "Milt Larsen's Magic Castle Tour," written and photographed by Carol Marie, and based on Larsen's personal tours; and "Hollywood Illusion: Magic Castle," by Milt Larsen. The former is chock-full of black and white photos of the paintings, artifacts and décor found in the castle and includes details on each. It also offers some history. The latter book is the history of the Magic Castle, relayed in short sections about the events and attractions that make the Castle what it is today, as well as about the people (many famous) involved. The books are available in the Castle gift shop and on the Web site, www.magiccastle.com/gifts.

Magic Castle President Robert Lamoureux is also the expert behind Your Home Improvements, which recently reached its 100th edition in the Home section of The Signal. In recognition of that, he would like to offer Magic Castle passes to those who stop by his office. To schedule a time to visit the office, e-mail ej@imsconstruction.com.

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