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Now You See It, at the Alex : 'It's Magic!' at the historic Glendale theater is bringing its cast of prestidigitators back to the area after a 10-year absence.

October 28, 1994|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T.H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times. and

GLENDALE — It was there in prehistory, when a drawing on a cave wall guaranteed a good hunt and rhythmic movement brought rain clouds. It has been a part of everyday life ever since. A visiting uncle amazes the kids with simple card tricks, and big brother pretends to swallow a coin, then miraculously pulls the same coin out of little brother's ear.

"It's Magic!"

That's also the name of a familiar theatrical friend to fans of illusion in the area, and a steppingstone of sorts for the professional world of magic at large.

"It's Magic!" which opened last night for a limited engagement at the newly refurbished Alex Theatre, first appeared in 1956 and returned annually for 31 years, first at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, then until 1984 at the Variety Arts Center in Downtown Los Angeles. This return engagement after 10 years, which features some of the top professional magicians in America, is like coming home for Milt Larsen, who has staged the show in all its editions, and is co-producing the revival with Terry Hill, whose Terry Hill Entertainment Group manages events at the Alex.

By the mid-1950s, stage magic was going out of style. The period's famous magicians, such as Harry Blackstone Sr. and Thurston, were no longer touring. The postwar boom didn't invite escapism.

Larsen, who also operates Hollywood's 32-year-old Magic Castle, recalls, "There was just no place to do magic very much. Magic itself was kind of down then. 'It's Magic!' helped bring it back."

The show gave impetus to the careers of such television celebrities as Ernie Kovacs and Art Baker, along with being the starting point for the careers of many well-known prestidigitators.

Vegas headliners Lance Burton and Joseph Gabriel were in their late teens when they first appeared in "It's Magic." In both cases scouts for "The Tonight Show" saw them and booked appearances on the show. (Johnny Carson, a magic fan, started out as a teen-age magician.) Following that exposure, Burton and Gabriel became Las Vegas stars.

Larsen is thrilled that it's coming to life again. "I've been having a ball doing it," he says. "And we've gotten together a group of some of the most wonderful people. When we announced we were bringing it back, we started getting calls from acts saying, 'We want to be on it, we want to be on it.' "

Two Las Vegas showrooms, where acts play seven days a week, have done what Larsen calls "the unthinkable." The Flamingo Hilton, where Gabriel is starring in the long-running "City Lites," and Harrah's, home to the "Spellbound" revue featuring Sherry Lukas, have allowed these acts time off to appear in the current edition of "It's Magic!"

Larsen, always very busy at the Magic Castle, had to be coaxed into guiding the revival. Hill, who was so young the first time he visited the Castle in 1962 that his father drove him because he didn't have a driver's license, felt that the Alex's entertainment policy was perfect for what Larsen has always referred to as "an adult show for the entire family."

"I've been in the entertainment business most of my adult life. My father was an amateur magician. It was a hobby. I grew up around magic, and always enjoyed it." Hill's father, a charter member of the Castle, was there the week it opened. Hill uses magic acts in his business, which besides operating the Alex, books concert tours.

"I just decided," Hill says, "that 'Magic' hadn't been done for a few years, and it would be fun to bring it back in this beautifully restored theater. I kept twisting Milt's arm until he said yes."

Although some impressive magic can be seen at the Castle, Larsen says, "There's really no place in Southern California where you can actually see really big stage magic. You'd have to go to Vegas to see the acts in this show. It's really kind of a shame that there's no variety venue anymore. 'It's Magic!' at least brings part of that back."

He continues: "We took magic out of the doldrums and gave it a nice setting. We made a lady out of magic back in the '50s. In a sense we kind of started this ball rolling down the hill. In so doing it helped create the Copperfields and the Lance Burtons, and these young kids who are now major stars. All I take credit for is that I give the performers a platform, turn the light on and, hopefully, fill the space with people who appreciate the art."

Many young people are coming into the field of magic today, and there is plenty of work for them, from cruise ship shows to conventions, club dates and industrial shows, Larsen says. Even though you have to be 21 or over to join, the Magic Castle has a junior group of magicians from age 15 to 20.

"You have to be a very good junior magician to be in the group," Larsen says. "It's a small group, and it's very hard to get into." But they are a part of the next generation of artists dedicated to fooling us all.

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