A Long-Dead L.A. Magician Is Bringing Angelenos Together to Solve a Puzzle

This elaborate, immersive storytelling game is a nod to L.A.’s magic heritage

For his final trick, the late and legendary magician and inventor Floyd G. Thayer has left behind a large box, sealed with 19 curious locks. You, his special guests, are tasked with opening it, but not before you open several smaller boxes. These boxes will be passed out at the beginning of the evening, until each table, occupied by about eight guests, has five or six. Each box contains a letter from Thayer and an artifact that can be used to solve a puzzle. Cross-collaboration among tables is essential: one table might have to assemble a Bunsen burner, while another possesses an object they need to heat. All puzzles lead to that ominous trunk and the secrets it holds. This is the premise of 49 Boxes, an immersive storytelling game unfolding in Hollywood.

Courtesy Michael Borys

Like any good trick, 49 Boxes is a mix of truth and fiction. In real life, Thayer (who died in 1959) did not plan a swan song in the form of a great puzzle game, but he was a real member of the Los Angeles magic community. As the founder of Thayer Magic Company, he produced wands, throwing cards, billiard balls, and even offered a ‘Trick of the Month’ club to subscribers. In 1933, he opened a theater in his home near Hancock Park, which he named Brookledge. Magicians frequently gathered at Brookledge to entertain and be entertained. In 1942, Thayer and his wife exchanged homes with Bill and Gennie Larsen, founders of magic magazine Genii, with the Thayers moving to the Larsens’ house in Pasadena. When the Larsens’ sons, Bill Jr. and Milt, and Bill Jr.’s wife Irene opened the Magic Castle in Hollywood in 1963, magicians began congregating there instead, leaving Brookledge to sit empty for many years. In 2009, Bill and Irene’s daughter, Erika Larsen, revived the performances in her childhood home as an intimate and exclusive variety show called Brookledge Follies.

“If it wasn’t for Floyd Thayer, the greatest creator of magical apparatuses the world has ever known, the Magic Castle wouldn’t exist,” 49 Boxes creator Michael Borys says. “The interesting thing is that laymen don’t know who the heck he is. In fact, I didn’t know who he was until I met Erika [Larsen], but he’s probably one of the most important people in magic.”

Borys met Larsen four years ago when she invited Borys and his wife, Gina, to Beyond Brookledge, a magic-themed weekend hosted by Larsen and book publisher Bob Self at the labyrinthian Mission Inn in Riverside. Borys was thrilled enough to be a guest, but ecstatic when he was asked to create something for the event the next year. He developed a team-based puzzle game in which several boxes held letters detailing a forbidden love between a housekeeper and a bellhop who were separated when the bellhop was drafted into WWII. The final box contained a song, written by Gina Borys and Timothy Hafer, as the housekeeper’s final gift to her lost lover.

“People cried when we played [the song],” Borys says. “We realized we had something different and special. Here people were doing chemistry and math and word-association problems, but all coming together and working as a team.”

At that point, Borys recruited his long-time collaborator, Alex Lieu, to partner on 49 Boxes. Borys and Lieu met while both were working for Disney, predominantly in web animation, and they now serve as executives with Burbank’s 42 Entertainment, a company that specializes in alternate reality games (ARGs). They worked on Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero and Why So Serious?, a worldwide game promoting The Dark Knight. In the latter, fans went on frantic scavenger hunts, marched down the street campaigning for Harvey Dent, and at one point, even had to pick up cakes from 22 bakeries across the nation that contained cell phones hidden by the Joker. Suffice it to say, Borys and Lieu are no strangers to getting people engaged in elaborate narrative games.

Neil Patrick Harris at a recent 40 Boxes event

Though 49 Boxes’ venue changes, it’s typically tied to magic in some way; for example, previous versions of the show went down at the Houdini Estate in the Hollywood Hills. Borys said that some of the few remaining magicians in the world who worked with Thayer have attended and later said, “Thayer would have loved this. This is thinking like Thayer.”

Interestingly, guests who count the boxes will note there are more than 49. Borys explained 49 is the number of stories they’re hoping to tell via the 49 Boxes format. The Thayer story is the third iteration, indicating Borys and Lieu have no intention of slowing down any time soon.

A pair of upcoming shows are scheduled for March 24 and March 31, but the former is sold out. Tickets are still available for the 3 p.m. show on March 31 (exact location to be revealed after purchase). You can sign up for 49 Boxes’ mailing list for future show announcements.

RELATED: Revealing the Secrets Inside the Magic Castle

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