On January 14, 2015, I went to the Magic Castle. Today, a year later, I'm finally posting what I wrote about my visit. You're not allowed to take any pictures inside the Magic Castle, but don't worry: I can write too much about things.
I went to the Magic Castle and I had a real good time. I had worried that I might have some kind of Branson, Mo. experience in there, but no, I really liked it (and to be fair to Branson: I've never been there, so who knows? I might have a real good time in Branson as well). What did I like best about the Magic Castle? I'd have to say the magic. What did I like second best? I'd have to say the castle.
The Magic Castle’s premise is its hook:
Sitting on a hill just above Hollywood Boulevard, the Magic Castle is a castle (and by “castle” what is meant is “mansion with towers”) that serves as the private clubhouse for the magician members of the Academy of the Magical Arts. The mansion that would become the Magic Castle was originally built as the home of one Rollin B Lane, banker/real estate developer/philanthropist, in 1909. The mansion changed hands a few times after leaving the family in the 50’s, and in 1961 was purchased by Milt and Bill Larsen, television men who grew up in a family of magicians. Their father had died with an unfulfilled dream of founding a place where magicians could gather to drink, trade stories, and perform for each other, and by 1963 the Larsen brothers had converted the Lane mansion into the fulfillment of that dream.
Since its foundation, entry to the Magic Castle has been restricted to dues-paying members of the Academy of Magical Arts and their invited guests. In a world where getting into a club usually depends on how you’re dressed, if you or your companions are good looking, and the whims of a doorperson, the notion that you need to know not just a magician but the right magician to get into the Magic Castle imbues it with a definite air of mystery and exclusivity.
Except, it turns out, it’s not terribly hard to get into the Magic Castle.
When the notion recently entered my head that I wanted to visit the Castle, this knowing a member magician requirement seemed like quite the obstacle. But once I began vocalizing my interest, connections I never imagined I had started to appear: a banker friend in New York who had been a close-up magic prodigy in his youth volunteered two leads, a friend at an animation studio mentioned that he worked with a member of the Academy, another friend expressed that he had some sort of tenuous connection to someone associated with the Castle, and apparently the son of a member of my mom’s bookclub in Chicago knew one of the doorpeople. On top of this, light internet research suggested it wasn’t too uncommon to find members of the Academy selling invitations to the Castle on craigslist. Over the course of a few weeks I had gone from dreaming of a visit to the Castle to apparently possessing an excess of opportunities and ultimately one of these connections came through with a Wednesday night invitation to the castle for my party and me.
Arriving at the Castle I didn’t know well what to expect inside (besides some magic, of course). What I had read byway of reviews or reports on the goings-on inside the Castle ran along the lines of “it was my birthday and I had the best time” or “my wife and I always visit the castle whenever we’re in town.” I wondered if it was going to be cheesy and I worried that, as it was a Wednesday, it might be a sleepy night at the Castle. And the fact that I was able to secure an invitation undermined the regard in which I had held its air of exclusivity, to adjust the Groucho Marx quote, did I really want to visit a club that would have me as a guest? But in the quick ritual of handing our car over to the valet, lining up in the Castle’s antechamber to check in and pay, watching a young, short-haired female magician in a bow tie accompanied by long haired women in short dresses saunter pass the queue while waving “These jokers are with me” to the door people, and then waiting our turn to speak a secret password to an owl statue in a bookshelf to open the secret door to the castle itself (even after watching a half dozen people do this before us)—well, I might be unusual in that I don’t do this sort of thing often, but I found it to be exciting. And a little exclusive.
On the other side of the secret door, my fears of a slow Wednesday night were instantly assuaged as the Castle already bubbled with guests, and by the end of the night I’d find myself in the occasional bit of shoulder to shoulder traffic while making my way through its halls. Through the night I’d observe old rich looking couples, wobbly women in short skirts, impossibly tall gamines in impossibly tall heels, sharp looking cool dudes, older men that I took for retired pediatricians, one super dapper fellow in a tux, dates of disproportionate ratios of attractiveness, warlock looking dudes and a few Elvira-looking ladies, gay couples proudly celebrating anniversaries, groups of Japanese businessmen, and people wearing large buttons declaring that it was their birthday, as if they were at Disneyland or something. The interior walls of the castle are all of dark wood with Tiffany-style lamps or windows and thick carpet throughout—I’m not sure if it reminded me more of the first class dining room of the Titanic or a really classy saloon. Walking through its halls, you'll pass a man sitting alone by a fireplace, shuffling a deck of cards and looking like he's waiting for someone in a bathroom. Pass by that same spot a few minutes later and that man is now surrounded by a group of women in cocktail dresses, clapping as he wraps up one card trick and segues into the next. There’s magic everywhere inside the Castle, and everyone just loves it—this brings me to the epiphany that people like magic, but what they have a problem with are magicians.
It’s fairly cool inside the castle and one of my companions had to surrender her jacket to the coatcheck as it had visible zippers. Aside from the necessity of an invitation from a member of the Academy of of the Magical Arts, the second most famous rule of the Magic Castle is its strict dress code. Women are encouraged to “think elegant” and, among other things, restricted from wearing leggings. Men are to be in coat and tie (“standard or bow tie”, the rules indicate) at all times, except perhaps when dining, seated for a show, or wrapping their jacket around a female guest (although one must always be wearing their jacket when moving through the Castle). Tempered by the fashion tastes of practitioners of the magical arts, the dress code lists exceptions to the Castle’s “Tie Rule”: bolo ties, ascots, jeweled collars, ruffled collars and banded collars are all allowed. I had read this list of exceptions with a chuckle during my preparations for my visit, but during my night at the club I see just about all these neckwear options at play. Also unusually popular: maroon colored shirts with black ties. This seems to be the go-to dress up uniform for magicians, like black shirts with white ties are for cartoon gangsters or real life teenage boys headed to their first school dance.
Having arrived as early as we could, my party and I were able to catch two shows before dinner:
Our first was in the tiny, twenty-two seat Close-Up Magic Gallery where one Adam Wylie, a child actor turned CW network actor, performed from behind a felt-topped, half-circle table. As the name of the room suggests, the performance consisted of tricks best enjoyed up close, the sort of tricks you see David Blaine doing on TV before he’s buried in ice, the mind melting stuff where, at a flick of a Wylie’s hand, an entire deck of cards changes color or turns blank. I don’t know much about magic, but I know a lot of it has to do with misdirection, being distracted by the magician from what he’s really doing, having your attention drawn to the right hand when really it’s the left that’s getting the job done. So I keep a close eye on Wylie’s every move, but it seems that it must be the right hand that’s doing all the magic, not the left, because each trick comes off like a miracle. Wylie’s show is a good quick showing that there’s not going to be any two-bit stuff here at the Castle tonight, even the guy performing before the sun has gone all the way down is going to make your head spin.
The next show is on the Castle’s second floor in the Parlor of Prestidigitation, a theater about the size of a grade school auditorium. Here we see Chris Capehart, a white haired, white goatee’d African American man at home in a silk kung-fu outfit right out of a Shaw Brothers film, whose presence, demeanor and slight lisp would make him easy to mistake for a Keenan Thompson character on Saturday Night Live. Upon taking the stage, Capehart introduces himself as a Master Magician, which means “I can do any trick at anytime with any object.” He demonstrates this by producing handful after handful of playing cards out of thin air, dismissively noting “I could do this all day.” From here he progresses through, among other things, card tricks, rope tricks, interlocking ring tricks—next level renditions of all the birthday party magician staples—before declaring “Let’s do something impossible and get it over with” whereupon he causes a small table to not so much levitate but leap into the air, well above his head, while lightly holding on to a corner of its trailing tablecloth. I sit there thinking that of course, clearly, there must but be something hidden inside the tablecloth that’s holding the table up, but then he invites a sheepish and jumpy audience member to take the corner from his hand and the table remains aloft as she holds the cloth away at arms length as if it were snake. When Capehart returns the table to the ground, he whips the limp tablecloth away and collapses the table. The crowd goes bananas.
From here we proceed to our evening’s dinner. The Magic Castle’s dining room isn’t so much a room as it is a roped-off section of the second floor lobby and a hallway—we had hurried past it just an hour earlier to catch the Capehart show. Dinner at the Magic Castle is by no means a centerpiece, but it is a must. Not a “must do" in the sense of "you can't miss this" but a "must do" as in "you have to have dinner while you're here” just like you have to have your two drinks at a jazz club. As it's featured prominently at the top of the menu and is in harmony with the old LA vibe of the mansion, I order the prime rib, the Houdini cut, to be precise. I brace myself for a dinner theater quality meal, but am surprised to enjoy something at the level of, say, a catered charity event, the nice sort where companies buy tables in hotel ballrooms. And the speed with which food arrives at the table does suggest something of a catering option at work back in the kitchen. Still, dinner is perfectly fine and my tablemates enjoy their filets mignon or cedar plank salmons as much as I do my prime rib.
After dinner we head down a nearby hall, through the Gallerie d'Art, where hang framed posters of big Vegas magic shows alongside portraits of former members of the Academy, such as Cary Grant and Tippi Hedrin (The connection between Hollywood and the Castle is not rare. Neil Patrick Harris has served as the President of the Academy and Jason Alexander and Johnny Carson, among others, have performed [magic] here), to the Palace of Mystery, the Castle’s home for stage magic and the one ticketed show of the night. Pausing outside the lobby as we gather out tickets to the show, I observe an incredibly tall gentleman cowboy wrapping up a rope trick at the nearby bar, and then we enter the theater.
The Palace of Mystery, a large room with rows of chairs set out on the floor facing a curtained, elevated stage, rattles with the noise of many a guest many a drink into their night at the Castle. Groups of friends as well as couples seek out their seats, a dignified cluster of tall, broad shouldered men in incredibly sharp suits wearing rings on the thick fingers of their massive hands enter the room, escorting equally dignified female companions. I surmise they must be retired football players, but their faces are unknown to me. Although the reputation of the Magic Castle would have you believe you may find yourself sitting beside a celebrity at anytime (I overhear someone remarking that they had seen Brad Pitt and wife there previously) I don’t spot anyone I recognize that night, however a companion points out a man she insists had starred in the basketball comedy “He’s the Man” while another two discuss whether or not someone they’ve seen is a member of Maroon 5.
The audience settles down when the lights dim and the show's host takes the stage. Named David Deeble, he’s a juggler, which he explains is "like a magician, but without the girlfriend.” He gives us a taste of his juggling by kicking a pool ball into the air and catching it in his eye socket. He then rolls the ball across his face to his ear, turns his head and rolls the ball to his other ear, then rolls the ball from ear to ear a few more times, before returning the ball to rest in his eye socket and then dropping it back to his foot. Later he inserts multiple ping pong balls into his mouth and juggles them by firing them straight up into the air and catching them, in rapid succession and concludes his performances with a grand finale where he balances a wire hanger by one corner on his forehead, lights a marshmallow skewered on the hook of the hanger on fire, keeps the hanger with its flaming bon bon balanced on his forehead until they begin to fall, where he blows out the fiery marshmallow and bites it off the hanger in midair. Consider the audience won over and a few hecklers silenced.
Our first performer in the Palace of Mystery, Txema, a young man from Spajn, performs a silent act entitled "Waiting for Juliet" where he produces a variety of illusions from, or interacts magically with, a trench coat hanging on a coat rack, while ostensibly waiting for this previously mentioned Juliet. Always watching my performers as closely as I can for whatever clue to what they’re up to I can catch, Txema’s performance is noteworthy to me in that, once or twice, I notice him fiddling at the hem of his jacket with his free hand while performing with the other. Still, I’m never able to connect the fiddling with what happens next and his performance leaves me as mystified as any other.
The second and final performer in the Palace of Mystery is Dan Birch. Our juggler host lists many illustrious sounding honors of Mr. Birch’s, ending with the aside that Birch has just sold an illusion to David Copperfield (this footnote opens my mind up to an aspect of the magic industry I hadn’t considered, that just as performers on television employ rooms full of comedians to write their jokes, super stars of magic need to get their tricks from somewhere, too). The stage’s curtains part to reveal a stage with smoke curling along the floor and a backdrop of pinpricks of starlight and, standing at center stage, not another understated fellow in a suit, but a diabolically handsome magician in a long tailcoat. His act is all action, his only words silent "Thank you”'s mouthed to the crowd with a tiny bow after each trick. Over the course of his act he pierces a balloon with a glowing neon tube, changes the color of a tall candle from red to white, tosses balls of fire from its tip, then collapses it into nothing, and produces a total of seven doves from his person—he causes doves to appear from behind handkerchiefs, from flashes of flame, and out of thin air. Basically everything Birch touches turns into a bird, he even turns one dove, held out toward the crowd, into two. He hypnotizes and levitates another dove, transforms (with a puff of smoke and a flash of light) three caged doves into a small poodle, and, for his grand finale, produces a seemingly unending stream of scarves from an empty glass vase, holds them in a bundle before himself, gives it a shake, and a full-sized, bright and beautiful macaw parrot (like the kind a zookeeper would bring to Mr Roger's house!) emerges from the blossom of silk, wings beating like it's about to take flight through the jungle.
The performance, done in synch to a soundtrack of wailing guitar solos, is arguable corny in its turned-up showmanship, but I had never before seen such a thing in the flesh in my life and Birch’s relentless procession of wonders and amazement leaves me and those around me aglow with excitement. A parrot! It's one thing to secret a dove or seven on your person but a whole giant zoo bird? It's nearly all my companions and I can talk for the remainder of the night.
Birch’s performance isn’t the last act we catch that night, there’s one more trip to the Close-Up Gallery (preceded with a visit to the Castle’s surprisingly dungeon-like basement where I catch another glimpse of that gentleman cowboy from the upstairs bar performing to a group inside a very pub-like bar) to see magician’s magician Tom Ogden. Ogden, resembling a friendly grumpy uncle, leans forward at the table like he’s about to begin cracking open pistachios and performs complex card tricks so quickly that he’s halfway into the next one while I’m still trying to comprehend what had happened in the last one. I completely lose any track of what’s happening at all when Ogden calls on me to select a card for a trick myself and Ogden concludes his set by locating five different cards selected from the deck by five different audience members using five different techniques to find them. A lesser magician might be inclined to drop the proverbial mic and walk off at this point, but Ogden just sits back in his chair, reshuffles the deck, and complains under his breath that he still hasn’t won Close-Up Magician of the Year.
 The third most famous rule of the Magic Castle: No photography is allowed inside the Castle, something which we are reminded of constantly, as a preemptive caution, the footnote that selfies aren’t allowed either always included as a comical, yet serious, addition.
 While we all know that a magician never reveals their tricks, it seems they may sell them. Visiting the “Products” section of Birch’s personal website, you’ll find a selection of invisible levitation wires, bird pouches, pockets and harnesses that will leave you saying “Ah yes, so it was all a trick!”