originally published March 24, 2012
Once again I find myself thrust into travel mode by my lovely Wikipedian ticket agent, and once again she has directed me to sunny Los Angeles. Maybe it’s the three inches of snow nature dumped upon us yesterday, but I’m downright giggly at the thought of heading here again. On Day 57 I took a tour of the historical Sunset Strip. Today we’re seeing one of the quirkier local sites, a picturesque mansion known as the Magic Castle.
In 1909, banker, real estate developer and (my dream profession) philanthropist Rollin B. Lane bought up some land in Hollywood. His dream was to recreate the Kimberly Crest House & Gardens, a famous and downright lavish estate up in Redlands. The architecture style is ‘Chateauesque’, which basically means it looks like a freaking castle.
Lane lived in his mansion for almost 40 years, selling it to Thomas O. Glover in 1955. Glover leased it out to a pair of magic-lovers, and the Magic Castle opened up in 1963.
From what I can tell, the Magic Castle is really just a west-coast Hogwarts. They put on shows and sure, it’s a bit more tourist-y, but it’s also a place where magicians go to hone their craft. Like this guy:
Dai Vernon, also known as “The Professor” (probably only until Gilligan’s Island – I imagine after that, the nickname would have been rather awkward), was a Canadian expert at sleight-of-hand. Vernon moved from Ottawa to New York and became famous for his ability to mess with people’s heads. Harry Houdini once bragged that he could pick up any card trick after seeing it three times, so Vernon showed him a good one: he pulled the top card off the deck, flashed it to Harry, then slipped it under the next card so that it was second from the top. Then he’d flip over the top card again and it would be the same card. Houdini made Vernon repeat the trick seven times, and he still couldn’t get it.
Vernon moved into the Magic Castle right after it opened, and he remained the magician in residence there until his death in 1992. His ashes are still there on-site, just in case some magician who knows a reanimation spell happens by.
The Castle was a training ground for a lot of emerging magicians – and yes, at one time this was an active means of entertainment that people actually cared about. It’s funny, people still love magic, and watching someone who really knows their stuff, whether it’s David Blaine reaching through panes of glass on TV or Lance Burton blowing minds in Vegas, is incredible. Yet the age of the magician seems to be done. When I was a kid, David Copperfield made something giant (a plane, the Statue of Liberty, etc) disappear after an hour of posing dramatically overtop synth music and an impressive wind-generator machine. Doug Henning used to appear on television specials with an enthusiastic, child-like fervor that always made my parents get up and deadbolt the front door. But where are the magicians now? Even Penn and Teller, the famous magic-deconstructionists, seem to have given up on TV magic.
The Magic Castle was once host to a man named Mark Wilson, who pioneered the phenomenon of magic on TV. He started out in Dallas in 1955, then began doing his magic on the first ever nationally syndicated and videotaped television show, Magic Land of Allakazam, in 1960. He was the president of the Academy of Magical Arts, which runs out of the Magic Castle, for many years. I suspect that’s an exclusive and sacred organization, much like the famed Magician’s Alliance on Arrested Development.
Magician and hypnotist Peter Reveen was one of the Magic Castle’s founders. If you aren’t familiar with The Man They Call Reveen, perhaps one of his early 1960s hypnosis albums on quitting smoking, quitting overeating or simply relaxing can help you out. I thought his act was garbage until I listened to his record, Reveen Is Awesome. Now I just think he’s awesome.
I’ve already decided that the Magic Castle will be among the places I must see next time I head to LA. It’s a private club, open only to members and guests, but you can pick up a membership even if you aren’t magically inclined. Their website won’t disclose the cost of membership, but really can you put a price on being entertained by the mystical spirits of the great beyond? (Actually yes, you probably can.)
I don’t care. It’s a formal-wear-only club with a full bar and a return trip to childhood. A trip to the Magic Castle is a release of the cynicism of adult consciousness, the embrace of a time before you realized that the world is a smelly cesspool of failed dreams and unrealized potential. Also, they have a ghost named Irma who plays a piano and takes requests.
Okay, their website won’t give it away – magicians are sticky about revealing stuff – but a Yahoo Answers page quotes the monthly membership at $100 for non-performers. Sweet Jesus.
Well, it would still be an experience. You enter the lobby of the club and there are no doors to the rest of it; you have to utter a secret phrase to a sculpture in order for the wall to open and grant you access. I want this for my bedroom.
Once inside, there are a number of different theatres offering shows at the same time. It’s like Magic Mecca – performers are perfecting their craft, trying to keep this genre of entertainment alive in an ADD world dominated by flashy video games and reality television. On the weekends you can bring your kids, and even sign them up to train in the Magic Castle Junior Group. Many of the kids in this group go on to become professional magicians, so I guess if you don’t like your kids very much and want them to struggle financially when they grow up, this is a great idea.
The Magic Castle truly appears to be a Hollywood institution. Celebrity “magic hobbyists” like Cary Grant, Steve Martin, Johnny Carson, Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Alexander have performed there. Reveen performed there, and my subconscious tells me he’s the best ever. Who am I to argue?