WHAT DON’T WE KNOW? WE KNOW THERE WERE NO WMD. WE KNOW THE SHAPE OF THE AIDS VIRUS. We know how to access the hidden porn on our kid’s Grand Theft Auto game. We know there was only one assassin. We know, well, theoretically, that the fundamental constituents of reality are vibrating tiny strings about the size of 1 meter x 10-35. We know the fix is in. We know that conservative talk radio is calculated entertainment. We know The Da Vinci Code, and it was far worse than we could have imagined. We know Bigfoot was a guy named Bob in a suit. We know that the farthest we can escape civilization in the continental United States is a tree 32 miles off a Montana road. We know God is dead––Time said so. We know that Lindsay Lohan just happened to be out driving that day and that Tom Cruise is not gay. We know we’re right. We know the earth will end in fire around 5 billion years from now when the sun swells into a red giant. We know shit––wait, cancel that. What exactly is it that we don’t already understand? How a quarter can vanish into thin air before our eyes.
At the Magic Castle a few years back, a magician named Armando Lucero grew famous for doing just that. Lucero had sat in his room alone for ten years with four quarters and a deck of cards––vanishing a coin under a card, making it reappear, vanishing it again, making two appear. A couple years went by. One day three quarters appeared. Another year went by Four quarters appeared. At the castle, which is the country’s oldest and best-known magic club, there are all kinds of magicians: dove magicians, ring magicians, comedy magicians, math magicians, money magicians, balloon magicians, cardsharps, illusionists, mentalists, parlor performers, stage performers, and close-up performers. Lucero had once been a mime, dressing in purple. Now he had reinvented the “reverse matrix effect”––quarters slipping unseen between cards on a table. Four quarters under four cards become three quarters under one card become no quarters under three cards. For this Lucero wore black.
The inability to experience wonder is an occupational hazard for career magicians. They can fool an audience, but eventually––even when David Copperfield vanishes the Statue of Liberty––nothing surprises them. Lucero astonished everyone. “I probably saw Armando do that coin trick ten times,” says Mac King, who works at Harrah’s in Las Vegas. “It was the sort of thing where you go, ‘Holy fuck, I have no idea.'” Magicians arrived from all over to watch Lucero’s four quarters move invisibly across a table. “That’s what magicians get hyped about,” says King. “Two cards, a coin under one. Now it’s under the other with no move. It’s so simple, it’s inexplicable.”
The Magic Castle is the creation of two brothers named Milt and Bill Larsen. Opened in 1963 in a once-crumbling Victorian mansion, it has sat on a hill over Hollywood for about the same length of time that Norman Bates’s house has brooded over Universal’s back lot. “I thought of it as something that had fallen out of a Charles Addams story” is how Milt Larsen describes the first time he saw the 1908 structure. Today Larsen, who is 75, spends three days a week working at the castle. (His brother died in 1993.) Like City Hall, the Gamble House, the Beverly Hills Hotel, and Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the Magic Castle is one of L.A.’s most recognizable buildings, but unlike those public spaces, it remains one of the city’s least understood institutions. Even without entering other private clubs like the Jonathan, the Valley Hunt, or the California Club, we have a good idea what’s found inside: wealth and connections. There are no private retreats in L.A. for actorscertainly none for painters or novelists––yet there is one for magicians.
L.A. is the entertainment capital of the world. At the pinnacle of the ziggurat sits moviemaking, followed by television, music, publishing, pornography, Paris Hilton, video games, Web content, and theater. Keep descending: cover bands, boardwalk jugglers, single-actor life monologues. It’s a hierarchy of cool as much as it is of status, income, New Tork Times coverage, and the ability to penetrate foreign markets through ancillary branding platforms. At the base of the pyramid you will find magicians––typically conceived in the popular imagination as kings of hokum, patrons of the pirate shirt, masters of the mullet residing in the cornball basement. The Magic Castle, in this anthropology, is a safe house for guys who couldn’t get laid as teenagers, who dreamed of alter identities––Merlin! Prospero! Melvin!––then wrapped themselves in the security blanket of magic and stepped into adulthood. We know this story.
But what’s inexplicable is how on any given night at the Magic Castle one of these guys will perform a card trick so uncanny and awe inspiring that the rug of what you know is pulled out from under you. Movies can’t do that. But like some boomerang effect from the laws of physics, the most socially derided of entertainers––after mimes, of course––are capable of the most spectacular feats of marvel. Things just vanish.
Lucero eventually did. He was at the castle one night with his coins and cards, and the next he was gone. He hasn’t been seen or heard from in nearly two years. Nobody up there knows what happened to him. Maybe he’s in the Reverse Matrix; maybe he’s back in his room. He disappeared as efficiently as a quarter.
YOU ENTER THE CASTLE BY SAYING “OPEN SESAME” TO A BOOKCASE, WHICH then slides away. Inside is the Grand Salon, with sweeping leaf-pattern carpets, Victorian chandeliers, a lit fireplace, and a looming grandfather clock perched on the landing of a staircase that leads to the club’s restaurant and larger performance theaters. The salon is the castle’s best room. Completed just 25 years after Raymond Chandler wrote The Big Sleep, it recalls those gorgeous, corrupting human vaults where the West’s new money went to mold overnight. It’s a nostalgia of kitsch. The imagination on display in the Grand Salon springs from early television set design. Milt Larsen hired Truth or Consequences art director John Shrum to help realize the castle’s interior, and what you are looking at is a 1963 TV art director’s conception of 1883, with all of its passion for velour and candelabra. In other words, Vincent Price’s House of Usher. Or Petticoat Junction.
The castle has a dress code—no jeans for the ladies, no open collars for the men—that is impossible to evade. Quentin Tarantino was turned away at the door. He came back. Johnny Carson, after many visits, was accidentally turned away. He never came back. The castle is a private club, but it’s also an entertainment venue. Outsiders cannot walk in off the street, but they can visit with a member’s invitation. In the Grand Salon they mix with club members who might include magic scholars, hobbyists, fans, agents, archivists, illusion designers, show producers, magazine publishers, and cigarette-trick inventors. To join what’s officially called the Academy of Magical Arts, each of the castle’s 5,000 or so members who are magicians have had to perform in front of a judging group of magicians, then pay annual dues of up to $1,085. Maybe several dozen are pros—magicians who make a living full-time off their craft. Maybe a couple hundred of them are deranged—half-cracked, long-winded, possibly brilliant, and lost in the ephemera of magic’s history They accost guests at the salon’s bar, droning on about Chee Toy, the mysterious three-year-old magical girl from China, or Pinchbeck’s Learned Pig, the porcine conjurer who shuffled cards with his teeth to solve arithmetic problems. The majority of castle members, however, are amateurs, dabblers. They are like 40-year-old accountants who spend Sunday afternoons playing in a garage band, though it’s a well-known fact that amateurs—magicians who do not perform for their livelihood or even necessarily for an audience—can own incredible talents. Two widely admired sleight-of-hand artists of the past half century were a plumber and an accountant.
There are several theaters in the castle, including the Close-Up Gallery; where sleight of hand is performed; the Parlour of Prestidigitation, whose stage is sizable enough for an illusionist to produce a few chickens from his suit; and the Palace of Mystery, a large auditorium where a magician can work with an assistant, a Chevy, and a big cat, if he has the insurance coverage. There’s also a seance room, a magic piano room, a museum, and several bars—each an excuse to produce four aces at the top of a deck.
One night at the castle’s W.C. Fields Bar I watched as a magician named Jon Armstrong performed a card trick for a dozen guests. Armstrong, who is 30 with red hair and boyish looks, fanned open a deck face forward at his audience. He asked someone to choose a card with his eyes and remember it. Armstrong proceeded to shuffle the deck, pull out a card, dampen it with his tongue, and slap it onto his forehead, where it stuck.
He informed a second person that she had the ability to guess what card the other person had chosen. Four guesses were made: seven of hearts, jack of spades, four of clubs, two of diamonds. All were wrong, according to the man who had made the first choice.
“Can you now tell us what that card is?” Armstrong asked.
“It’s the five of diamonds,” replied the man.
Armstrong peeled the card off his forehead and laid it down. The five of diamonds.
“But I don’t want you to feel like you didn’t know what you were doing,” Armstrong told the woman. He pulled out his wallet from a vest pocket, flipped it open, and removed four cards that he laid on the table with a staccato flourish. Seven of hearts. Jack of spades. Four of clubs. Two of diamonds.
The audience fell apart.
MOST GUESTS AT THE CASTLE, LIKE MOST VISITORS IN LAS VEGAS, ARE seeing live magic for the first time. “Sometimes,” says Armstrong, “there are weeks when the talent onstage here is ‘Oh, nay God!’ bad. Some weeks it’s really good.” But because the audiences are largely uninitiated observers—unable to qualify what they’re seeing as off-the-chart great or not—even the worst magicians can draw enthusiastic applause.
“I’ve watched acts there,” says Jim Steinmeyer, a club member who designed illusions for the magicians Doug Henning and David Copperfield, “where people said, ‘It was great!’ I said, ‘Well, wasn’t that guy wearing a mullet and a silver cummerbund from the ’80s? And didn’t his assistant look like a hooker? And wasn’t he arrogant to the audience?’ They’ll answer, ‘But that trick with the dove was really good.’ In magic, you cannot set the bar low enough.”
Conversely, the best magicians can draw mute stares. On another evening I watched as Armstrong performed some of the strongest sleight of hand I’d seen: an innovative take on three-card monte; a fan of cards that appeared to float above his palm; and a deck—shuffled twice by different onlookers—that when spread out by Armstrong was split perfectly into red and black suits. It was a stunner, but as with the illusions before, the crowd of 20 sat quiet, showing almost no reaction. “You guys,” said Armstrong gamely, “are a tough audience.”
Observing Armstrong’s spectators, I wondered if they were so overwhelmed by their Time Warner cable hookups that nothing could dazzle them. Maybe everything—Fear Factor, the Iraq war, Lost, levitating cards—had become the same. I thought of a story, perhaps apocryphal, about the late Age of Aquarius magician Doug Henning. In it, Henning travels to the green reaches of the Canadian frontier and finds an Indian tribe living an aboriginal existence. He performs his act, wanting to see their reaction to modern illusion. They, too, are unmoved and say, ‘For us, the sun rising every day is an act of magic.’ That Henning couldn’t compete with.
“I know Henning was a nice man,” Teller, the silent half of Penn & Teller, said to me backstage at his theater in Las Vegas’s Rio hotel, “and his TV specials had good moments. But I always thought that he was silly. His whole thing was, ‘Set aside your critical faculties, become a stupid child, and let wonder, wonder, wonder wash over you.’ What magic can do,” Teller went on, “is make you wide awake. It’s a form where you see things with two eyes—one of what you know can happen and one of something that’s impossible and right in front of you. That conflict between what you see and what you know”—here Teller slapped his hands together for effect—”makes you very awake, challenged, intensely present in the room. It’s impossible to watch good magic without being uneasy”.
Impossible, yes, unless you’re feeling pretty easy already. Even with two Van Halen concerts and a brief stint at the Renaissance Faire under my belt, I have never seen drunker adults than I did in several months spent at the Magic Castle, where you can’t help running into a bar every 30 feet or so. After a few cocktails, guests suddenly forget they’re wearing a suit and tie. “They won’t shut up in the shows,” says John Lovick, who books talent at the castle. “And they begin yelling at the magicians.”
Once I witnessed two inebriated brothers in their twenties attempt to take on ten staff members in the driveway (They hit the asphalt and their $160,000 Bentley before a swing could connect.) On another occasion I was watching an illusionist named Andrew Goldenhersh perform his signature trick: He hikes up a shirtsleeve and scratches a butterfly tattoo on his forearm. A live monarch flutters off his skin into the air. When Goldenhersh released the monarch, a drunk woman who’d been gibbering as if possessed jumped to her feet and spent the remainder of the show stumbling after it.
IN THE 1940s AND ’50s, MILT AND BILL Larsen’s father had been a successful mob attorney and an amateur magician. “There are fantastic stories about their youth,” says Steinmeyer, “back when being a mob attorney meant you had someone cooling their heels at your house for a couple of weeks.” When his sons were young, Bill Larsen St. formed a magic troupe with his family and performed in hotels like San Diego’s Del Coronado. He founded Genii, a magic magazine that is still in print today. Magicians mixed with the accused and put on shows at the family’s Mid Wilshire house, which was named—like something out of Gatsby—Brookledge, after a natural stream that coursed through the property.
Larsen Sr. died in 1955. By then Bill Larsen was a producer at CBS; Milt Larsen became a gag writer for Truth or Consequences a year later. The story of Milt lighting on the idea of the Magic Castle has been retold so many times by magicians it is now myth. A joke writer sitting alone in his office stares out each day at a stricken mansion overlooking Hollywood. He dreams of converting it into a magic club like one his father had often spoken of creating.
A deal was made between Larsen and the property’s landlord, Thomas Glover, in 1961, and remodeling began. Much of L.A. was being razed, making way for new construction, and Larsen retrieved everything he could find. Lanterns were pulled from the doomed Hippodrome Theater, banisters from Pasadena mansions, and a gold leaf ceiling out of the Odd Fellows Lodge downtown. Bill Larsen, who was more socially comfortable than his brother, was given charge of the private club’s nightly operation.
“You have to remember,” says Steinmeyer, “that in the early 1960s, when Milt started thinking of a magic club, no group in America was of less interest or more disenfranchised than magicians. Saying to your friends ‘I’m a magician’ was worse than saying nothing—like saying ‘I do balloon animals’ before they even invented balloon animals. Suddenly, magicians who had no respect at all for what they did could say, ‘Hey, you want to come over to my private club? You gotta dress up.’ L.A. is very class conscious in its own way, and a buzz started, and people went up to this neat little secret place.”
Without great magicians, however, the castle would have been a bust. It was the Larsens’ luck that at the time they opened their doors, magic had bottomed out in America. “The great vaudeville stages were long gone,” says Teller. “Magic had been forced into nightclubs, where live animals and scantily clad assistants were introduced just to control attention. It was real dog and pony.” All over the country, magicians who had been sitting around with nothing to do began gravitating toward L.A.
The most talented of them was Dai Vernon, then living in minor obscurity in Chicago. Vernon, who died 14 years ago at the age of 98, was a crank, an extrovert, a raconteur, and a sly operator. Born in Ottawa, Canada, he moved to New York in the 1920s, where he worked Coney Island’s boardwalk and hung out in magic shops. Sleight of hand was a popular entertainment at the opening of the century, but the form, meant for the vaudeville stage, was showy and obvious. Almost single-handedly Vernon reinvented card magic, introducing the relaxed and subtle style of the gambling cheat to the close-up table. The group of like-minded magicians who gathered round him became known as the Inner Circle.
“When Vernon jumped to the West Coast in 1965,” says Max Maven, a mentalist who sits on the castle’s board of trustees, “the Larsens suddenly had the imprimatur of the center of the magic universe.” Other respected magicians would follow: Charlie Miller, “Senator” Clark Crandall, Billy McComb. In the ’70s, sleight of hand underwent a period of expansion at the castle due to Vernon’s presence. His two most famous acolytes are Ricky Jay, a magician just as well known for collaborating with director David Mamet, and Lance Burton, who today has Las Vegas’s most successful, longest-running magic act. You can find club members who credit Vernon as the castle’s true creator. “As far as I’m concerned, he built this house,” an intense magician named Jason Latimer told me. “Babe Ruth didn’t create Yankee Stadium, but it’s known as ‘the House That Ruth Built.’ This is ‘the House That Vernon Built.'”
Yet it was the Larsens who kept the club running. The brothers enjoyed comparing themselves to Walt and Roy Disney. Bill was Roy. He had acumen and flair and looked a little like a slicker Jack Cassidy In photos from the ’60s, he always appears to be holding a martini glass, whether one is in hand or not. Milt conceived of himself as Walt, the visionary and master builder. It is an identity he’s clung to. Several years ago Jim Steinmeyer was working at Walt Disney Imagineering when the castle’s quality of operations began to slide. One day he received permission from Imagineering’s then chief, Marty Sklar, to bring a group of Disney’s creative staff to the castle for an unofficial, low-key consultation.
“The castle had no interest whatsoever,” says Steinmeyer. The manager told him he was stabbing Milt in the back by offering to bring in Disney. Months later Larsen bought Steinmeyer a drink. “He said, ‘I know you were trying to be nice, but I can’t let you bring Disney in here. For 30 years now people have been coming and telling me that I’ve created Disneyland for adults.'”
One evening earlier this summer, near the Parlour of Prestidigitation, a young sleight-of-hand magician named Derek DelGaudio was idling beside the Upstairs Bar. He is a handsome kid in his early twenties with Vince Vaughn’s jaunty walk and a self-conscious off-the-cuff patter. The Magic Castle is crammed with cliques of magicians, hierarchies of fakery that jostle for prestige and respect. Talented close-up magicians like DelGaudio are known for their egos, not necessarily their personalities. Often they let the deck speak for them. DelGaudio happens to be smooth, but he is not beyond a showdown. “See that guy back there?” he asked, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at an older gentleman who’d just passed the bar. “That guy’s a schmuck. And the reason that guy’s a schmuck”—here he paused to let his pronouncement sink in—”is that he claims he’s the world’s most famous balloon magician. Okay? But what he likes to do is sneak up behind card guys doing great close-up, then complain, ‘Hey, you know you’re showing.'”
There it was: one of the Magic Castle’s dozens of hierarchies explained in anecdote. Balloon guys are the subalterns of card guys.
Two dominant faiths preside over the Magic Castle’s performance rooms—close-up magic and stage magic, both in continuous conflict for stature. “Your close-up guys are your purists,” says Michael Gingras, the castle’s general manager. “And within your close-up guys you have your Nazis, the mechanics.” In Las Vegas “mechanic” refers to someone who works under fire, who does sleight of hand not as entertainment but for deception in a poker game. That unruffled finesse of the cheat is what Vernon brought down, so to speak, from the mountain like Moses. At the castle “a mechanic is a guy who can do anything with a deck,” says Gingras, “who doesn’t give a shit about entertaining and just wants to blow everybody away with his latest move.” Vernon’s most devout admirers are the mechanics, evangelists of card manipulation. For them, the castle’s holiest site resides in the salon, where the old magician held court for more than a quarter century—a red velvet couch stuffed in a corner that stands in for Mount Sinai.
“We have a reverence for that spot,” a sandy-haired mechanic named Damian Nieman told me. “So we police it with our presence.”
“If we see a guy doing marginal magic there,” added Jason Latimer, who was seated beside Nieman, “we’ll walk over and do something with a deck. It’s not too hard for me to intimidate people. They leave.”
The three of us were talking in the Hat and Hare Pub, which is in the castle’s basement. Latimer has the build of Fred Flintstone and like Nieman, an unflagging focus. During two hours of conversation the pair incessantly palmed, shuffled, flipped, and then reshuffled twin decks of cards in their laps—a persistent flurry of hand movement that bordered on autoerotic metaphor.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Latimer said. “Stage magic, no doubt, requires tremendous skill. When Copperfield produces a car onstage, it’s one of the greatest tricks I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“But pure sleight of hand done well doesn’t rely on apparatus,” Nieman added.
“Right,” Latimer nodded. “At some point I know Copperfield didn’t do the trick—a device did the trick. With cards you can’t say that. Cards are more cerebral and plain harder than something born of wires and gears.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. The strangest sensation would creep over me in conversations at the club, no matter the topic. Magicians deceive by employing misdirection—shifting our focus off an illusion by patting our shoulder, telling a complicated story or introducing us to a woman in a red spangled bikini. Disregarding the bikini, it’s a more sophisticated version of ‘Hey, look over there!’ If you spend enough evenings around people who do this professionally, however, you are eventually seized by an all-consuming suspicion that you are the victim of misdirection and actually have no idea what’s going on. I always checked for my wallet after a night at the castle.
Following my drink with Nieman and Latimer, I watched as Goldenhersh—who has the long, black, storybook tresses of a Jewish mystic and Adrien Brody’s sleepy looks—invited two audience members onto the stage to inspect a straitjacket. They proceeded to strap and lock Goldenhersh into it. After five minutes of sweaty struggle, he emerged free, with two Chinese chickens the size of basketballs. It was a tremendous illusion; somewhere misdirection had to have been employed. “I think illusionists can be looked down on by the close-up guys,” Goldenhersh said later backstage. “It’s because certain illusions out there are sold and popularized as easy to pull off.” Stage magicians must fool an audience into believing it was they, not a box, that created the magic, but they are still derided as box pushers. “Plus,” said Goldenhersh, “these are the guys wearing the mullets.”
Since only a small percentage of the Magic Castle’s membership are professional magicians and because only a very small percentage of those show up regularly, the club is a house of amateurs. “Magic clubs like the castle,” says Steinmeyer, “are not only not the real world, they’re not even the real world of magic. Amateurs, who have the geekiest hobby in the world, who are nobodies to their neighbors and coworkers, are suddenly members of the Magic Castle and can say, ‘I can get you in!’ Max Maven has a good line about this that goes something like ‘Circus fans may take photos and collect memorabilia, but they don’t put up a tight-trope in the backyard and tame lions in their house.’ You should ask Maven.”
I did ask Maven, and though he would not repeat the circus metaphor, he did say, “If I’m going to have work done on my teeth, I’m going to a dentist, not an amateur who collects spitballs as a hobby.
“Magic is different from other subcultures,” Maven continued, “in that there is a complete blurring of lines between the professional magic community and amateurs.” In rock and roll, an amateur who picks up the guitar doesn’t believe he has the chops to hang with Carlos Santana. Part-time actors don’t think that owning a couple Stanislavsky books means they run in the same circle as Meryl Streep. Not so in magic. Maven didn’t recall his circus line because he’s gotten in hot water over it before. “I guess I can’t talk to you now!” an amateur hissed at him after hearing about it. Amateur magicians have a strong sense of entitlement. It’s one reason professionals like Penn & Teller and Ricky Jay are known to stay away from the Magic Castle. Jay, in particular, derides amateurs who want to follow him around and steal his moves. (“He’s just a paranoid freak,” an amateur told me.) “But a minor involvement in magic,” said Maven, “should not instantly grant you equal status. Meritocracy, I think, would actually be good for magic.”
That’s not likely to happen soon. Magicians are fascinated by brotherhoods. They’re drawn to societies. They’re clannish. Something old-timey and wholesome characterizes the way men socialize in magic circles—recalling ’50s suburbia and its backyard boys’-club culture. (I often heard a forgotten advertising line ringing in the back of my mind when I was at the castle: “Boys! Raise giant mushrooms in your cellar!”) Tucked up inside magic is a lost world of secrets and passwords and bylaws. “It’s why you have so few women in magic,” says Teller. “They can’t stand the social nightmare they have to go through just to be accepted.” Yet as a separate society of mostly men, magicians don’t inspire the kind of overcharged testosterone that’s common to other men’s groups. Magic may also be the last bastion of male power in America from which most women could not care less about being excluded.
I don’t like card tricks,” an ex-carny named Aye Jaye said over lunch one day in the castle’s Terrace Dining Room. “A gentleman, I believe, is a person who can do card tricks and chooses not to.” Aye Jaye is a big man in his mid-’60s, built like a butcher, with a happy, moon-shaped face you might find on a ravioli can, and a pencil-thin waxed mustache he twirls sometimes for effect. For 35 years, following his life as a teenage carny, he ran the McDonald’s clown program, scouting Ronald McDonalds all over the world. His method was simple: When Ringling Bros. came to town, he would sneak through the tent’s rear entrance with two bags of hamburgers and leave with three clowns. “I’m a rip-off, a carny,” Aye Jaye said. “I’ll take your watch and your wallet—not like some magician who works a deck.” He pointed a sausage-shaped finger at John Lovick and said, “That’s what he does.”
Lovick offered up a weak smile, and Goldenhersh, sitting at the table beside a magician named Dave Cox, dropped his chin onto his hand and sighed. They’d heard it all before: Magic is based on deception, so why not be honest about it?
For three years this group, along with a revolving cast of a few other magicians, has been sitting down to Friday lunch in the Magic Castle, arguing over blind shuffles and palm shifts and rising aces. It is a venerated tradition among magicians—the lunchtime hash session-—and often as not the more respected tables have been located in bars and eateries. In Chicago in the 1940s and ’50s, those tables were found at the Drake Hotel. In the 1960s, in New York, magicians convened in the cafeteria of the Wurlitzer Building on 42nd Street. By the ’70s, Manhattan’s table had migrated three blocks north to the Piccadilly Hotel Coffee Shop on West 45th, and later to the Edison Hotel, and then on to Reuben’s Deli. Magic clubs appeared, enjoyed brief runs, and folded: Mostly Magic in New York, Illusions in Indianapolis, Caesars Magical Empire in Las Vegas, Wizards at Universal CityWalk. Only the Magic Castle has outlasted each greasy spoon and $60 million Strip venture.
Armstrong sat down at the table. It was he who had thought up and pieced together the Friday gathering. “If we could start a working lunch,” said Armstrong, “I believed that we could build on our routines, create stuff—that things would happen.”
“I think,” said Lovick, casting an eye toward the septuagenarians dining at other tables around them, “that Jon’s thought was probably, ‘Let’s lower the average age of the castle’s lunch to somewhere just below death.'”
The former Victorian mansion has lately taken on a musty whiff. Once you could find Johnny Carson smoking at the bar and Orson Welles perusing titles in the library. In the 1970s, Cary Grant sat on the board of directors, enunciating crisp points of order in his Bristol accent. Perhaps a quarter of the country’s great vaudeville-era magicians lived within a mile of the castle. The magic boom of the ’90s that flourished in Las Vegas was gestated in the Magic Castle.
But the vaudeville mentors all eventually died, and Burton and Jay and their like never returned to fill those shoes. Over the past decade the castle’s membership has aged while its numbers have crashed. Rocked by a financial scandal that threatened to close the castle’s doors for good, the club’s board of directors became mysterious to the members they serve. Parlor gossip now resembles Aye Jaye’s lunchtime allusion: Has the Magic Castle’s leadership always been honest in their dealings, or have their actions been based in deception?
“Obviously, the castle is not what it used to be,” said Armstrong. “There are rumors, true or not, of skimming that went on everywhere. That’s why younger guys like us have to save it. It’s another reason I started the group.”
“I don’t like to get involved in politics here,” said Aye Jaye, tipping back his chair to gaze at the ceiling that supports the club’s fourth-floor business office. “I don’t want to know what’s going on up there.”
The magic castle is billed as a hideaway for magicians. But on any given evening 80 percent of the attendees can be guests. It’s the only private club in L.A. that, so overwhelmed by nonmembers, has initiated a members’ night. “You have to understand that the job of castle members,” says Steinmeyer, “is to keep directing outsiders in.” Those guests, in turn, bankroll the club—they pay a $20 entrance fee and must eat in the restaurant, where entrees run as high as $40. As a private club, the place can come off like a magic gimmick.
“There’s no heart and soul up there anymore,” says Diana Zimmerman, who has been a member of the castle since the late ’60s and began its program for child magicians. “And it doesn’t feel like a private club. Go to the Jonathan Club, go to the California Club. You can see that it takes a special kind of hand to create a private club. Nobody at the Magic Castle knows how to do that anymore.”
The first three decades of the castle’s existence were successful. “The castle essentially was a fiefdom,” says Maven, “run by Bill Larsen and his secretary. Milt did the decor.” Both brothers, however, found ingenious ways to earn money off their club. For years they owned the wholesale liquor business that sold alcohol to the castle. Milt persuaded the board of directors to purchase the castle’s interior from him. “They bought the ceiling, the lamps, the wainscoting,” says Steinmeyer. “I don’t think Milt was planning on ripping it out.”
Then in 1992, Vernon passed away. He was followed a year later by Bill. After that the castle began going downhill. “Milt is a genius,” says Zimmerman. “He’s visionary and creative. But remember—he’s Walt Disney. And Walt without Roy couldn’t run a business.”
The financial structure of the Magic Castle is so complex, consisting of so many entities, it’s amazing that things didn’t slip earlier. Essentially, the Glover family own the land and the building. Up until 2005, they rented the building to Larsen, who in turn rented it again for a profit to his club, the Academy of Magical Arts. The academy ran the restaurant and bars, a portion of whose profits were channeled back to the Glovers as part of the lease arrangement.
But the restaurant was tanking. “Here was a restaurant with a sweetheart of a lease,” says Maven, “taking in $5 million a year, to my understanding. No restaurant in L.A. with those prices was doing that kind of business. Yet suddenly it was barely breaking even—whether from bad business behavior or nefarious activities I cannot say.” Gingras, an affable, high-energy individual whom everyone credits with helping to stabilize the castle’s operations, worked as a host in the ’90s. “After three months I thought my head was going to explode,” he says. “We were giving away the house. I asked Milt what was going on, and he grinned and said, ‘I have no idea how it works.’ After six months I asked the general manager what our food and liquor costs were. He said, ‘Mind your own fucking business.'”
“There were so many hands in the pot,” says Steinmeyer, “that by the time everyone took their percentage, the castle could not produce a good meal. So you had terrible food, ridiculous prices, erratic acts, no air-conditioning, and the place smelled. That’s what the members were sensitive to, and if you screw them over, they’re not coming back.”
The Glovers, who also own and run the hilltop Japanese restaurant Yamashiro, were unhappy with their negligible return on the castle’s restaurant. In 2002, they initiated negotiations for a new lease agreement to gain control of the castle’s food-and-beverage operation. Talks with Larsen dragged, until Zimmerman founded a business consortium named Castle Partners. It was made up of several members of the academy. Its aim was to take over management of the castle from Larsen. “We thought it could easily be doing $20 million a year,” says Zimmerman. “Our goal was to save the place.”
Talks began surreptitiously, but word leaked out and chaos ensued. In Web chat rooms the Shakespeare metaphors flew fast: Zimmerman was Lady Macbeth and Regan and Goneril in a silk blouse. “When Milt heard about Castle Partners, he felt like he’d been stabbed in the back,” says Maven. Larsen claimed he would shut down the castle if the Glovers chose Zimmerman. It ended with Larsen giving away his food-and-beverage operation and the Glovers severing their relationship with Castle Partners.
A year following Larsen’s new deal, the Academy of Magical Arts financially collapsed. In June of 2005, a letter went out to its membership informing them that a large sum of money had gone missing from business operations. (More than half a million dollars had to be found to cover that loss.) Academy members were told that they would each be assessed up to $275 to replenish the missing cash. Dues were also raised, angering magicians. “What infiariates me,” says Maven, “is that if the deficit is partly management’s fault, dunning the membership should be the last resort.” Worse, approximately $150,000 of the money in question was owed to Larsen in the form of rent. “Milt is a multimillionaire who has more money than he will ever spend,” a longtime castle member told me. “But he never chose to defer on it.”
A forensic accounting investigation ordered by the academy was carried out by the Century City firm Bernstein, Fox, Whitman, Goldman & Sloan. The final report revealed that the Academy of Magical Arts under Larsen had kept no physical records of its food, beverage, and gift shop inventory It found that in 2004, $532,000 was earned at the door from guest entrance fees. But, the report stated, “we became aware that large amounts of cash (currency) were not being routinely deposited into the bank, and that on many occasions, significant amounts of cash (primarily from door charges) were being held in the accounting department in unsecured locations.” In short, there were nearly zero cash controls at the castle.
The management ultimately blamed its own off-site accounting firm for internal discrepancies and fired them. Academy membership was assured by the board that the investigation, detailed in its account, had laid to rest the mystery of the missing funds. Yet the first page of the report reads that the Century City firm was “not engaged to, and did not, conduct an examination in accordance with generally accepted auditing standards or a review in accordance with standards established by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.” Therefore, the report continued, “because we did not perform a detailed examination of all transactions, there is a possibility that errors, irregularities, or illegal acts, including fraud or defalcations, may exist and were not detected by us.”
“We came up smelling like a rose,” Larsen told me.
To find the castle’s library you walk through the Grand Salon and up the staircase by the Mezzanine Owl Bar, go through the Terrace Dining Room and down the long hallway filled with portraits of the dead, pass alongside the Palace of Mystery and the Parlour of Prestidigitation—finally descending a creaky staircase into a deserted ballroom where on the far side glows the library’s doorway.
There you will see librarian Gordon Bean sitting alone in magic’s past. Pale, gray haired, genial, and bespectacled, at 47 Bean is a true gentleman in the oldest-school sense. Rising around him, stacked ten feet high, are thousands upon thousands of volumes of every word, every secret, every manipulation ever written down by a professional liar. How to vanish a birdcage, crush a lady, walk through a brick wall, escape a Corsican trap, levitate a fakir. Volumes dating back to 1584. Volumes cataloged under headings like “Linking Rings,” “Silk and Handkerchiefs,” “Vent. and Puppets,” “Chem/Fire.” Volumes of every imaginable title: Korem Without Limits, Top Secret Stuff, A Handbook of Fist Puppets, Miracle Mongers and Their Methods, The Magic Numbers of Dr. Matrix, Straight Talk About Theme Park Magic, The Encyclopedia of Cigarette Tricks.
And The Expert at the Card Table, by S.W. Erdnase. Published in 1902, it’s a book no one read and no known person wrote, the author still a mystery today, even if you do spell the alias backward: E.S. Andrews. No magician took serious notice of the card cheat’s book until Dai Vernon found it sometime during his childhood and ran away with it, ran away with it like Picasso ran away with everything before him. “There are two death dates I always remember,” says Bean. “The day Shakespeare died and the day Vernon died.” Bean grew up in Schenectady, New York. On weekends as a teenager, he traveled by rail to a Manhattan cafeteria table, where he heard about the Magic Castle. He stayed away from it, even after moving to Los Angeles. “I couldn’t step foot into the Magic Castle,” says Bean. “I couldn’t walk in because l knew Dai Vernon was there. I didn’t feel worthy. I was afraid I would have to do a trick in front of him and it wouldn’t be good enough and that would ruin my life.”
Within Bean’s purview is the reason the great cafeteria tables of vain, insecure, quarrelsome magicians once thrived—and the castle, too. Back then you waited five years, ten years, for the next book of strong magic to appear. Between publication dates, if you were hungry to learn more, you traveled 200 miles by passenger train, took four rail transfers, to find a coffee-stained Formica perch and a secretive circle. Everything was hidden. In the 1980s, you had to journey 3,000 miles to the Magic Castle, where Vernon was emptying out the contents of his head during the last decade of his life. Magic still had a frontier.
No more. Now everything is on the Internet. Everything is on QuickTime video, a click away for magicians to watch. And if they’re under 20, they’re watching the videos of one man: David Blaine. No magician has done more to popularize magic in the past decade, and none is more mocked, impugned, or disliked at the castle. “Look in all the trades now,” says Goldenhersh. “Every young magician is wearing a black tank top, kneeling in an alleyway with a deck of cards and a chick in the background.” For the next generation Blaine has removed magic from the stage, the parlor, the close-up room, and placed it on the street. Schooled magicians think that performance and storytelling skills—the show-business side of magic, which Blaine’s television shows de-emphasize—are slowly dropping from favor. “What kids do today.” says Steinmeyer, “is post videos of themselves on a corner with a deck, talking in Blaine’s voice. ‘Hey, watch this. This is really cool, man. This will freak you out. See that?’ Then there’s a reaction cut to five high school kids, and it goes on the Net. If those guys stumbled into the castle, what do you think they would do on a stage? See that?”
Las Vegas, however, is already sweeping magic off the stage. The hotel boom of the early ’90s, when the town overnight began billing itself as a family arcade, needed magicians to fill its theaters. Now what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas: Pussycat Dolls, burlesque theater, strip clubs, Celine Dion. Only a handful of magic acts have survived in the big casinos. “In music,” says Teller, “there are a million air guitarists, a million bar bands, and only a few people doing interesting stuff. But while you can name five interesting bands, today you cannot name five interesting magicians.”
Magic’s popularity as entertainment has always cycled like the planet’s climate. “Magic is always crashing, then coming back up,” says Steinmeyer. Now it appears ready to enter another of its ice ages. Which is likely the best hope for the Magic Castle’s future. When magic peaked in Vegas a decade ago, nothing was worse for the castle. No one wanted $500 for 21 shows a week when you could earn five times that a gate away on Southwest. Today magic is experiencing something like what happened in the early ’60s. “I’m resigned to the fact that it’s likely good for it to go underground again to be reformulated,” says Steinmeyer.
If everything does already exist on the Internet, then the best thing magicians might do is retreat into the castle as they did in the ’60s. It’s what Armando Lucero did to reinvent the reverse matrix effect—disappear for ten years with four quarters and a deck of cards. Magicians like Jon Armstrong are fleeing Las Vegas to take up residence there. If magic did regroup for a decade or so inside the castle, in session groups like Armstrong’s, that cloak of secrecy the Internet has chewed away on might slowly be remade. “The thing that has always made magic impervious,” says Bean, “is secrets. As long as secrets last, it will last.”