Magic, a source of fascination and wonderment. A flick of a wand renders a room breathless with jaws agape and eyes stunned. And in that moment, silence exudes and the surrounding world ceases to exist. Established in 1962 with its headquarters at the Magic Castle, The Academy of Magical Arts is a non-profit social order that has captivated that unified thrill through every inch of its décor and nightly happenings.
The historic Magic Castle is a one-of-a-kind members-only clubhouse in the heart of Hollywood, where an endless slither of celebrities and other walks of life eagerly escape their reality and enter a spectacle of youthful imagination sparked alive by the swirls of illusion. Access to the stomping ground for magicians and devotees is on an invite-only basis, or for guests at the neighboring Magic Castle Hotel.
The lauded list of members (some students of the academy, some performers) is comprised of world-renowned performers, both past and present, including David Blaine, Channing Pollock, Harry Blackstone Jr. and Sr., Dai Vernon, and famed duos such as Penn & Teller and Siegfried & Roy. Showbiz personalities have also adorned badges. Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Johnny Carson, Jason Alexander, and Neil Patrick Harris – who also served six years on the AMA’s board of directors, four of them as president – were all once performing members. Other notable enthusiasts have wandered the halls as awestruck spectators, including Ronald Reagan, Johnny Depp, Drew Barrymore, Debbie Reynolds, Hugh Hefner, and Katy Perry (who celebrated her 28th birthday there with a costume party), to name just a few.
A wealthy banker and real estate investor, Rollin B. Lane constructed the Gothic Renaissance chateau in 1909 as a residence for himself and his wife, among what was then a prosperous orange grove. When the building fell into disrepair during its mid-century tenure, brothers and Magic Castle Founders Milt and Bill Larsen convinced then-owner, Thomas O. Glover (also the landlord of the beloved Yamashiro restaurant up the road), to transfigure the property into a private club for magicians, which was a lifelong dream of their father’s. To the Larsen brothers, whose lineage of magical family members spanned generations of illusionists and spellbinders, the estate was a perfect setting to house a world of mystique. Thus the Magic Castle opened its doors on Jan. 2, 1963.
“When we started the castle, we thought it should feel a bit like the Addams Family or Disney’s Haunted Mansion,” recalls Milt Larsen. “The mansion still had the aura of a mystical time, so from there we took advantage of what people thought magic should be and made it all come true. There’s nothing quite like it in the world.”
Like a museum of Los Angeles stalwarts and architecture, the property is decked out with artifacts sourced from various L.A. buildings, TV sets, and other locations. The globe street lights that line the driveway for example, once glistened on Venice’s Victoria Pier and guide guests to a celebration of relics and thrills.
A Magic Castle adventure begins with a wise owl perched on the lobby’s library shelves, where whispering “open sesame” unlocks a hidden door. A spectacle for the senses then commences. The aroma of dark woods and antiquities hint at generations of craft and spirits roaming the halls.
Eyes are overcome with trickery around every corner - an impromptu sleight-of-hand from a bartender or card player, or a flurry of secret doors and panels. Rambling to the Grand Salon, guests lean against a bar top gilded with hand-tooled wood that once coated the ballroom floor of the Waters Mansion. A cherub painting acquired from William Randolph Hearst’s collection looks down at imbibers, as does glass slides of advertisements from L.A.’s Hippodrome Theatre, circa 1920.
The Grand Salon is a dizzying display of whimsy coupled with an equally dizzying offering of tipples. From magically-themed sippers to classic cocktails, the mind is altered making guests wonder if its booze doing the trick or the castle itself.
“For everything we know, there’s something surprising around the corner,” Larsen notes, regarding the castle’s sensibility and its goal to transfix the human experience. “Everyone is entertained by magic whether they want to admit it or not. Some people don’t want to admit they’ve been fooled, but either way they’ve enjoyed the moment.”
The fantasy continues as ears are charmed by the sounds of contemporary and nostalgic tunes played by "Irma the ghost," who tickles the keys of the infamous piano upon request. Irma knows more than 62,000 tracks and it is alleged no song is a stranger to her.
Archimedes, another devious owl in the Owl Bar, befuddles any evening by predicting the future. This winged clairvoyant, once a living and breathing part of late magician Harry Keller’s act, answers "yes" or "no" queries with shocking accuracy.
Prior to a show, patrons enjoy dinner (or brunch on the weekends) in the elegant dining room where waiters are clad in black tie attire. With the upswing of magical interest in recent years, Magic Castle General Manager Joe Furlow led an effort to improve the club, including the food and beverage program, which was sprinkled with a nod to California’s robust selection of produce and flavors from the club’s onsite garden.
Afterwards, diners are dazzled by various stage performances in either The Palace of Mystery or the Parlour of Prestidigitation. In a town of movie magic, not much compares to a show here.
“Computers can do anything. Movies have technology to perform magic,” Larsen says. “But if you’re sitting two feet from a magician at the castle, you know what he’s doing isn’t an optical effect. It’s a genuine person tricking your eyes. That is why magic will always be around forever. There’s no limit to imagination.”
Further deceptions continue in the basement where Pepper’s Ghost – a haunting ghost display – resides. This particular element was the actual prototype for the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland (think the ghostly revelry around the dining table). And if you’re an exclusive guest, a drink in the W.C. Fields Bar in the downstairs Inner Circle will have you witness to a bamboozled pool table, once owned by W.C. Fields.
On weekends, the Houdini Séance Chamber is opened for small groups to summon spirits long gone - the effort pays homage to Houdini’s wife, who tried for years to summon his spirit after his untimely death.
For a keepsake, Magic Castle: Beyond the Smoke & Mirrors by Carol Marie and Kendall Bennett is a retrospective of photographs and tales. And in August 2018, a petite location called Magic Castle Cabaret opened in Santa Barbara, offering coastal magic for members.
A meander through the Magic Castle is a constant turn of the neck that wisps away the rigors of reality and presents an experience of childlike astonishment. “In today’s world, it’s important to escape the bad stuff and make dreams come true, and magicians do that all the time,” says Larsen. “You watch a magician and don’t think about anything … and it opens the door of imagination. And once you get that door open, nothing else in the world is happening.”
And to that, we say “open sesame!”