Enchanted by The Magic Castle
Reviewed by Alexis Murine
7001 Franklin Ave | Los Angeles, CA 90028 | Reservations (323) 851-3313
Admission by Invitation Only
“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
― Roald Dahl
Winding up a steep driveway, lights from Hollywood Hills flickering like distant stars, The Magic Castle’s unquestioningly Victorian silhouette, with its glowing amber windows, and gargoyle tipped turrets, embodies its given name at first glance.
An elven-looking hostess ceremoniously accepts our invitation from the great magician David Minkin. The entrance and exit doors are covered with a bookshelf wallpaper, faux wood grain and spines merging with actual shelves, where a bronze owl perches, electric red eyes pulsing with anticipation. I feel a twinge of Scooby Doo nostalgia as I lean in and whisper:
A hesitating moment passes, and the doorway creeps open revealing a silver suit of armor and a group of men wearing suit and tie and questioning glances. Sheldon, a Castle Knight, appears immediately ushering us into the main bar room. A fire crackles and cast shadows upon the wooden staircase, the blank eyes of a carved lion head seem to twitch.
The Magic Castle is reminiscent of the Winchester Mystery House, architectural sleight of hand, enigmatic and eerie, opulent velvets draping the windows, burgundy, gold and emerald green patterning the walls. Portraits, photographed and painted, look as though they might leap from the walls if you turn your back, but a radiating magnetism pulls you from room to room. After procuring our beverages, Sheldon gives us a private tour of the Castle. He goes on to tell the tale of the Larson Family, the mother and father were magicians with the dream of creating the Academy of Magical Arts, so the sons utilized their backgrounds in film and television to transform a mansion from 1910 into what is now the Magic Castle in 1963. We wander up and down narrow stairwells, passing by artifacts and artificial replicas of famous magic props of bygone eras.
“Milt Larson will change things all the time. These props are always switching, moving, so you never know what is real, and what is fake”.
It seems to be a common theme of the castle in general: Illusion and truth overlapping in a way that is hard to see the moment one ends, and one begins, just a gradient spectrum of reality.
Magicians cleverly perform for tipsy twenty-somethings while waiting in the hall perhaps biding their time in between shows, shuffling cards and smirking at passersby. Since it is an exclusive club, there is a look on everyone’s face wondering if you’re “someone”.
Sheldon shows us each of the five bars, explaining how everything inside came from somewhere else. One bar hosts a scruffy looking owl, tattered feathers and plastic eyes, a taxidermy relic of magic history, a magician’s pet forever immortalized, and animated. If asked a yes or no question, the owl will coo, hoot, and nod a response. Pieces of other bars were imported from England pubs or Irish taverns, with bar tops from TV shows or defunct Hollywood high school gym floors. Everything is reclaimed, revitalized, re-appropriated, repurposed.
Just off of the dining room is a round chamber, The Houdini Séance Room. The walls are lined with posters, photographs, and memorabilia of Harry and his wife Bess, accompanied by handcuffs, industrial milk canisters and all. If you are interested, for $1000, you can host your own private four-course dinner and theatrical séance with an in-house medium with you and nine of your best friends.
Sequined and silken guests dine, laughing about performances gone wrong, and every random topic that could arise. Sepia photographs show the fielded Hollywood landscape of the 1900s and the stained glass windows reflect swirling shapes on to the tablecloths and wineglasses. The hallways are lined with the faces of famous Magic Castle magicians over time, one of which is actor Cary Grant, who served as a board member. He was the one who proposed the rule that there should be no photography or filming allowed inside the club, and it has remained this way for over 40 years. Although slightly disappointing for eager visitors, it maintains the allure, mysteriousness, and exclusivity that is so synonymous with the Castle itself.
Let The Magic Begin
Sheldon delivers us to the W. C. Fields bar, where Mark Collier begins his bar-magic routine. We giggle through mouthfuls of luscious 4-cheese bread, playing cards scrambling, shuffling, and sorting themselves out for a gaggle of gasping, beer drinking patrons. The final piece is a trick where an unsuspecting girl writes her name on a card, and instead of finding it buried amongst the rest of the deck, it appears in an unassuming bottle of wine.
While examining a darkened fish tank and framed collection of manacles, a small man in a grey suit tells us that if we are interested, there is going to be some close up magic performed in the adjacent room. He leads the way to a black velvet table lined with gold fringe, and invited us to sit in the first three chairs. Rows of empty wooden seats wait patiently behind us for the magic to begin. This man, in what I believe is his seventies by the texture and movement of his hands, wears a tiny Canada maple leaf pin on his lapel. He places a variety of card decks on the table, and tells us that he is preparing for a lecture tour, and wanted to try out some of his acts. Moving fluidly from one trick to the next, his Frank Lloyd Wright tie and cards complementing each other, he explains that he doesn’t know the tricks, but the cards do, and each deck has learned a particular feat.
After his cards have wooed us with their talents, he lowered himself down to his own chair, his age creeping back into his voice. We lean forward, chins resting on our fists, intently listening to him describe how Comedy & Tragedy are similar to magic.
“In both Tragedy and Comedy, there is always something that could have been prevented. We as viewers think of how we would have done things differently, or would have known better in the first place. We know the order that things should go. But magic, it gives us imagination, the ability to see different possibilities. Science is pretty magical, too. There is a mathematical language and a natural language … everything is defined by relationships to other things, whether that be molecules or individuals. Magic helps redefine those relationships”.
A lanky tan young man rounds the corner into our room, breaking the trance we have fallen under.
“Are you performing?” he asks, the tassel of his fez swaying at his temple.
“No, no,” the older man says, smoothing his tie and gathering his cards. We would have listened to him lecture for hours, given the chance, but as more people started to trail in behind the fez-ed wonder, I gave the man a warm handshake, and he introduced himself as Norman Gilbreath. Only later did I find out he is a 77-year-old master computer, who invented the Gilbreath Principle in 1956.
The rest of the night was a glided blur of rich butternut squash soup, grey bearded men in turquoise suits, surprisingly savory cinnamon bread, the flash of John Legend’s smile, hot pink prime rib, cascading metal hoops, un-pop-able balloons, and giant talking paper moons.
After exiting the Palace of Mystery show, we flew up and down flights of stairs, weaved through the hallways and dodged all the bars in order to make it in time for David Minkin’s final show in the Close-Up Gallery at 12:15am. A gaunt young man guards the entrance with folded arms, slightly leaning against a sign reading “GALLERY FULL”. My heart dropped to my stomach as I pleaded with him to let me in, trying to think of my own feat of misdirection, but he didn’t flinch.
With the lightning of cameras flashing at John Legend in the background, I thought to myself, not getting to see all of the shows at least gives me an excuse to return. Looking back up at the glowing light, the owl banner fluttering in the breeze, it is hard to imagine anyone unaffected by the equivocation of wonder, the anachronistic charm, the enchanting old-Hollywood glamour of the Magic Castle.
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