- - Sunday, May 21, 2017

In late February, tragedy struck The Magic Castle, an iconic, semiprivate club in Los Angeles when a performer by the name of Daryl hanged himself in the closet of his dressing room — a bizarre and mysterious event in a place often shrouded with mystery.

The horrifying event shone an undeserved light on one of the coolest places you’ve never been to. But just a few months prior to the sad event, I sat down with the man behind the Magic Castle, owner Milt Larsen, to talk about how “The Castle” came to be.

Question: Is it true that you were born into magic?

Answer: Indeed, I was. The first time I opened my baby eyes, all I saw were two magicians: my mother and my father. And then everybody I knew when I was a kid was in the business. The house was full of magicians. Some of the great names in magic looked at me and said, “What a cute little baby.”

Q: Who were some of those great names?

A: One of the most famous magicians was Max Malini. He entertained for royalty. He was over at the house all the time. And names that people wouldn’t know now but were famous in their days. My dad was a very good lawyer who handled Mrs. Houdini’s estate after Houdini died. Everybody assumed he knew Houdini, but he didn’t.

Q: How old were you when you started performing as a kid?

A: I was 8 years old. There is a picture of me doing a trick for Mrs. Houdini. She was a nice lady.

My dad created “The Larsen Family of Magicians” shows, but he billed it as the cultural background of magic. It was a lecture. During the Depression, people who had money were at these resort hotels. They didn’t want to flaunt their wealth because everybody else was in the bread line. They accepted lectures more than a vaudeville show. We disguised our vaudeville show as a lecture, and it worked out fine.

Because of that we played all these absolutely gorgeous resort hotels and palaces. That’s where I got my love of wanting to live in palaces.

Q: What is the Magic Castle?

A: The Castle is a private club in Hollywood, California, situated in a grand old mansion that goes back to 1910. My dad always talked about maybe someday having a private club for magicians. He passed away at an early age back in the 1950s. My brother Bill and I decided to fulfill Dad’s wishes.

Q: What was The Castle like the first time you saw it?

A: The building was something right out of Charles Addams and “The Addams Family.” It really looked dreadful with giant weeds covering the entire front yard. The shutters were falling off. It really looked like a haunted house.

I met the man that owned it, and he didn’t really know what to do with the house. He was thinking of just knocking it down to create a road to the top of the hill. I told him about this crazy idea of turning it into a club for magicians.

He was a Texas businessman and I was a gag writer. Oil and water didn’t mix. But I was able to make a deal with the owner of the property.

Q: How did you and your brother put sweat equity into The Castle?

A: My grandfather was a master carpenter. I always liked woodworking and things. We had a magic company. I always liked working with mechanics and such.

My brother was a business guy. We decided he would do the work in setting up the organization for the private club for magicians known as the “Academy of Magical Arts.” I was the dreamer. I took a hammer and a saw and paintbrush and turned that old house into what it is now.

I’m considered the builder of the Magic Castle. He was the founder of the Academy of Magic Arts.

Q: When did the Magic Castle first open its doors?

A: Our opening night was January 2, 1963. We had to wait till after New Year’s to open because we had to wait for our liquor license. When we opened, it was really small. We just had a reception room and a room for our invisible piano player and a third room for magicians to perform. That was it for the first run. Then we kept growing from there.

Q: Who were some of the early members?

A: We had a lot of celebrities because they liked magic and liked the atmosphere of the Castle. It’s a private club so they weren’t bothered by the paparazzi. They could let their hair down and enjoy magic without ending up in the tabloids.

Cary Grant loved and did magic. He started in vaudeville. It didn’t hurt to have Orson Welles, who was a wonderful magician and legendary actor. Jimmy Stewart was a magician. He used to hang out at the Castle quite a bit.

Q: Do the shows change?

A: In the Castle we have a whole new set of magicians every week. They all have to be different. You have to have the balance of illusion and manipulation. We have one showroom for the big illusions and a closeup room for sleight of hand. Between them we have the parlor for the stand-up club magic. Then there are informal tables for magicians to do some magic.

Q: Will The Magic Castle always exist?

A: There will be magic forever because magic is simply imagination. As long as people can dream of things that are impossible, there will always be somebody who can do it. As long as you can think of something that has never been done and have someone do it, that’s magic.

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