The 113-year-old Gothic chateau looms high on a hill, just a block off Hollywood Boulevard. Six decades ago, comedy writer Milt Larsen was gazing out his office window and thought the spooky mansion looked perfect for the magic club he and his TV producer brother, Bill, were dreaming about. Today, the Magic Castle sprawls over four floors of L.A.’s Historic-Cultural Monument No. 406, and generations of magic enthusiasts, movie folk, and those in the know have been able to visit, if they gained membership or scored a guest pass to the world’s greatest hideout for wizards.
Four generations of the Larsen family have performed magic. William Larsen gave up his law practice to travel the vaudeville circuit with his wife and their children, Milt and Bill Jr., in the 1930s. Granddaughter Erika Larsen has been president of the board for the Academy of Magical Arts (the nonprofit that runs the club) and has continued the tradition of hosting the Brookledge Follies, private variety shows at the family’s home theater near Hancock Park.
Milt, now 91, can still be found at the Castle’s Palace Bar most nights. He has compared his relationship with his brother to that of Walt and Roy Disney—that is, the creative side needs the financial genius to make the vision come to life. But Bill died in the ’90s, and the financial situation became precarious when the club was saddled with costly repairs from a fire in 2011. Then the land the club rented, which included neighboring Yamashiro restaurant, was offered for sale. The property was eventually split up, and the famed Japanese restaurant sold. But the financial instability continued.
Enter video-game mogul Randy Pitchford, the CEO of Gearbox Entertainment. He just bought the Magic Castle. The deal includes the land and landmark building, as well as the trademarks and intellectual property.
“For as long as I’ve known about the Magic Castle, it’s been a bit precarious,” says superstar magician Penn Jillette. “I always worried about it. Now I don’t need to. [Randy] has a day job, but in my mind, he’s a magician.”
Pitchford is a longtime castle member who began his career as a professional magician at the castle and at the Wizardz club at Universal CityWalk. After pivoting to study computer programming, he decamped to Texas and began designing video games, working on some popular titles including Duke Nukem before founding Gearbox in 1999. His breakout game, the Mad Max-style looter shooter Borderlands, spawned three sequels and a prequel and sold 48 million copies, generating over $1 billion in sales.
I know Randy has a day job,’ says Penn Jilette ‘But in my mind, he’s a magician.
Recently, Pitchford stepped back from game operations to helm the company’s film and TV division, Gearbox Studios. Then, earlier this year, he sold the company to Swedish game conglomerate Embracer for $1.3 billion.
(In the last few years, Pitchford became entangled in a legal dispute with a company lawyer and childhood friend. There were accusations of financial and sexual improprieties, but the case was settled in 2019. “All misunderstandings between the parties have been corrected,” they said in a statement. “And apologies were exchanged.”)
Pitchford is a longtime friend of the Larsen family, having purchased the magic magazine, Genii, that was founded by William Larsen Sr. more than 85 years ago. And his love for the family goes deep—he built a home in Frisco, Texas, modeled after the Larsen home. “Erika has taught me a lot,” says Pitchford. “The environment she has at Brookledge is one where lots of incredible performers try their material on really discerning private crowds.” Pitchford flies some of those artists to his Texas replica for command performances.
Erika, who will serve as president of the new entity, echoes the sentiment. “Randy’s purchase of the Magic Castle brings the heart and soul back. All the magicians flocked to L.A. to learn at the feet of the masters, and we’ll bring people out who have vast knowledge and give them a place to stay. Everything is going to be done under Milt’s artistic direction.
“And a lot more crazy gimmicks are coming back—that’s true to the original vision. We are definitely bringing the fart machine back.”
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