For over a century, this sprawling, turreted structure has sat on a hillside overlooking a valley. It began life as the family home of people who thought they would hit it big in the orchard and ranching business. An extended drought prevented that dream from ever bearing fruit, though the family continued to reside in the great house until the 1940s. The next few years saw the property go through a sad decline, from being used as a home for the elderly to being divided up into a morass of small apartments. The house’s prospects of lasting much longer seemed bleak.
Things took a turn for the better in 1961, when a man named Larson bought the place with the aim of turning it into a private club for magicians. Two years later, after extensive renovations, the Magic Castle opened its doors, and it has thrived ever since.
The Magic Castle is indeed on a hillside overlooking a valley; specifically, in Hollywood, California. I cannot display any photographs of the building’s interior, since photography there is forbidden – not even the Magic Castle’s website has interior photos, but I can tell you that most of it is furnished in a dark, lush, late Victorian style. If this sounds like your cup of Earl Grey (I assure you it is mine!), then you should find a way in if you’re ever in the neighborhood.
I’ve used that phrase – “find a way in” – quite purposefully. While the Magic Castle offers an extensive roster of magic shows, accompanied by sumptuous dinners and brunches, one may only purchase tickets if one is either a member or is invited to do so by a member. Luckily for me, my friend Amy knows such people, so on an overcast Saturday in June, we found ourselves at the front door of the mansion.
The Magic Castle has a strict dress code for visitors. For evening shows, men must wear a proper jacket and tie. Sneakers and sandals are not allowed. Women must “…be in a dress, cocktail dress, elegant skirt & blouse combination, pant suit with a matching jacket … or evening pant suit ensemble…” We were there for brunch, which meant the dress code was slightly more relaxed, but only slightly.
The brunch buffet was truly the best I’ve ever encountered. I won’t go into great detail, except to say that if a brunch buffet could ever be called fine dining, this would be the time.
After eating, we pretty much had the run of the place. There are several performing spaces of various sizes within the Castle, from small rooms for private parties to a couple of decent sized theaters with legitimate stages and permanent seats. Shows are scheduled intermittently throughout the day. As luck would have it, the first theater show we attempted to enter was already full. There were about a dozen of us who couldn’t get in. An enterprising manager of some sort did not want us to be disappointed, so she asked us to wait while she went in search of any idle magicians. Within a few minutes, she’d found one and we were all ushered to one of the small private rooms. It was heavily curtained and had a green felt table at the front. We all pulled chairs up near the table. The magician entered and did card tricks for us for about 20 minutes. He was very good, and was completely unafraid of having an audience close enough to practically grab cards out of his hand (which we did not do, of course).
Over the next few hours, we saw shows in both of the larger theaters that featured the work of various seasoned professional magicians. When we weren’t doing that, there was plenty of magic memorabilia hanging on the walls for us to look at, particularly old magician posters.
Our final stop at the Magic Castle was a piano lounge adjoining the bar area. The piano is played by the Castle’s resident ghost, Irma. She is completely invisible, as is her ghost pet bird, who resides in a seemingly empty cage next to the piano. Irma never speaks; she does all of her communicating through the piano. Her knowledge of music both old and new is impressive. Even in death, Irma has kept up on popular music. One small boy requested that she play “Spiderman.” Within a few seconds, she broke into a rousing rendition of the old cartoon series theme song. At one point, I thought I should see how far back her musical knowledge went so I requested “Greensleeves.” Sure enough, she began playing a delicate arrangement of it almost instantly.
If Irma doesn’t know a requested song, or if she wishes to respond negatively to a comment or question, she will usually bang on the low keys of the piano. When complimented, she will usually play a quick trill on the high keys. And if you express your approval for Irma’s work by slipping a little cash through the bars of her pet bird’s cage, she will play a quick eight bars of “We’re In the Money.” Cheesy but charming.
I’ve been fascinated by magic all my life, so visiting the Magic Castle was an enormous treat for me. It’s a classy joint run by professionals who put on a great show in an incredible, atmospheric setting. Like I said earlier – find a way in!
Postscript— In the present era, so much of our entertainment and communication is delivered through video screens. The content may come from television, the internet, or a disc or game cartridge, but it is in a form that allows us to interact from within the familiar environment of our homes. Part of the attraction of a place like the Magic Castle is that it is NOT a virtual entertainment; it is actually occurring in our physical space. And that physical space is an environment completely apart from our living rooms. Real people are doing real things in a real space, and these elements are all integrated with one another. I think that sort of experience has a value. It also has a preciousness, made so by the fact that so many people no longer value such experiences. Oh, I still carry my smart phone everywhere I go, and I still spend much of my waking hours staring at a monitor of one sort or other. But if those should ever become my sole interfaces with the world, then put me in a box, take me to the Magic Castle, and ask them to saw me in half.