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Jack Smith

Tourists come from all over the nation to visit the worst kept secret in Hollywood: The Magic Castle

June 22, 1987|JACK SMITH

If you stand in front of the rehabilitated Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and look north up Orange Drive to Franklin Avenue, you will see an ornate, vanilla ice cream white, Victorian era French chateau.

It is pure Hollywood.

This is the Magic Castle, which is Hollywood's most secret tourist attraction--or is that an oxymoron?

That the Magic Castle is a tourist attraction is a measure of its magnetic appeal, since it is a private club, open only to members and their guests, and absolutely no minors are allowed.

Yet, on almost any night, you will find the place full of people who are obviously here from Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and points east.

How can that be? Simple. Almost everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who's a member, and they can bring guests. Nothing is more prestigious.

Its appeal is not only in its lovingly preserved and augmented Victorian elegance, but in the continuous magic shows staged in its many rooms by local magicians, who love a gullible audience.

Having decided to re-explore Hollywood as if we ourselves were tourists, my wife and I started out one recent evening at the Magic Castle. It stands at the foot of the hills at the northwest corner of what might be called downtown Hollywood, on an almost straight line with those other ornaments--the Yamashiro Restaurant, a Japanese mountain palace with a 600-year-old pagoda; the Chinese Theater, with its storied forecourt; and the reborn Roosevelt.

Our host was Milt Larsen, who calls himself management director of the club, but who is more like its living spirit.

We left our car with a valet and entered an opulent foyer to wait for Larsen. I walked to a bookcase full of old books to look at the titles.

"Be careful," said the young receptionist. "That's an exit."

In a moment the bookcase swung in, and a man walked through from inside the house. In the Magic Castle, nothing is what it seems.

Larsen led us through a labyrinth of rooms to a chamber with a bar where a piano was playing "New York, New York." I mean the piano was playing it. There was no one at the keyboard. The keys were simply depressing by themselves.

Since a piano can't play itself, there had to be an explanation. The piano is actually played by Irma, one of seven sisters who lived in the castle when it was a private home at the turn of the century. Irma took a mail-order course in piano and so distracted the family with her eternal practicing that she was banished to the attic, where she stayed until she died in 1932. Irma vowed to haunt the house, and when the piano was discovered and returned to the Music Chamber, her ghost returned with it. She plays any old thing anyone requests. All you have to do is speak up.

Feeling rather foolish, I said, "I Wonder What's Become of Sally."

Instantly the keys began to depress and the piano played "I Wonder What's Become of Sally."

My wife requested "Always."

We got "Always."

I do not believe in psychics, fortune tellers, levitation or any other kind of paranormal phenomenon, but I am convinced that Irma's ghost plays the piano in the Magic Castle. What other explanation is there?

We had dinner in a terrace room overlooking Hollywood.

Larsen described himself as a maverick. He was born into a family of itinerant magicians, and he grew up in grand resort hotels.

"I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth," he said, "and I never knew it wasn't mine."

When the old mansion went on the market 25 years ago, Larsen acquired it on a long-term lease and began its restoration and expansion. He has added a western wing in which there is a small theater for magic shows, and a long bar whose glossy hardwood top was lifted from a floor at Hollywood High School.

In every corner of the old house you are likely to see some old magician doing card tricks for a group of spellbound cronies.

"When we opened 25 years ago magic was almost dead," Larsen said. "There were maybe 100 magicians around. They'd do kids' birthday parties, get 25 bucks. Now there are 2,000, and a lot of them are very young people."

Larsen seemed content and at ease in his crowded mansion. For 18 years he was a writer for "Truth or Consequences." That was fun too. A little make-believe.

"I've never done a thing in my life I didn't enjoy," he said. "If I live to be 100, I'll have lived 200 years."

We left him to see the show in the theater. It began with the old cigarette trick. The magician draws a continuous supply of lighted cigarettes from one hand, puffs on each one, drops it on the floor and draws another. There's no way that can be done.

The next magician called a young man up from the audience, placed a wooden frame around his head, and ran a sword through the front of the frame and through the young man's brain and out the back of the frame. When the frame was removed the young man walked away smiling.

Before we left I went back to the Music Chamber to see if Irma knew "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?"

She did.

We walked out through the door with the bookcase on it and returned to the real world, where everybody is trying to deceive you, but doesn't want you to know it.

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