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MAGIC : These Walls Really Can Talk : Hollywood's Magic Castle, where conjurers like David Copperfield and Siegfried & Roy got their start, does special effects the old-fashioned way: practice, practice and more practice.

July 02, 1995|Diane Haithman | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer.

There are those who say vaudeville died in the mid-1930s; others, such as magician Harry Blackstone Jr., believe that it was murdered. The offspring of legendary magician Harry Blackstone, Harry Jr.--who carries on the family tradition of performing such illusions as the Floating Light Bulb and the Dancing Handkerchief--says vaudeville met its demise because of jokes like this one: "Did you know that my parents were in the iron and steel business? My mother did the ironing. . . ."

Whether vaudeville died of natural causes or fell victim to such foul plays-on-words, Milt Larsen, 64, the president-for-life of Hollywood's Magic Castle, likes to say that vaudeville "died the day I was born." While one hates to speak ill of the deceased, this passing was lucky for little Milt: Instead of becoming a vaudeville act, his family toured the state in the late 1930s as the Larsen Family of Magicians.

Another 30 years later, Milt and his brother, the late Bill Larsen, brought magic to a new generation of fans by opening the Magic Castle, the 1908 Victorian Gothic mansion on a hill above Franklin Boulevard that is now the headquarters of the Academy of Magical Arts. It remains a place that prominent practitioners hail as the mecca of magic.

Magic Castle alumni include illustrious magicians such as the Blackstones, David Copperfield and the Las Vegas duo of Siegfried & Roy, the latter engaging in such feats as riding elephants and disappearing white tigers each night at the Mirage hotel. Doug Henning studied at the Castle under the late sleight-of-hand master Dai Vernon, a Castle institution whom everyone called "The Doctor." Vernon died in 1992, at 98, in defiance of a rip-roaring lifestyle that involved equal (and hearty) doses of cigarettes and alcohol.

"He did everything you aren't supposed to do. Many's the night we had to pour him into bed," one Castle regular remembers fondly.

Today's local membership includes surgeons, business people and such unlikely figures as Century City investment banker Lewis Horvitz and KTTV Channel 11 legal commentator Luke McKissack, who weighed in daily on the Simpson trial until that station discontinued its gavel-to-gavel coverage.

"There was a time back in the 1970s when I figured out that maybe a quarter of the great magicians in the world had lived within two miles of the Magic Castle," said McKissack, who may be best known for representing Sirhan B. Sirhan, the convicted assassin of Robert F. Kennedy.

"If you are a magician, you haven't lived until you have been to the Magic Castle," Siegfried says by phone from Las Vegas. "It is an unusual spot, the openness, the camaraderie. . . . It seems to me the magic is in the walls already. It's there--it's built into the walls of the Magic Castle. You can't copy it; it's a labor of love. You are not just a customer; you are a part of it."


The Magic Castle--a private club but one to which almost everyone seems to be invited eventually--opened Jan. 2, 1963. And now, 32 1/2 years after its inception, it seems only fitting to celebrate this significant anniversary and to look back at the story behind the Castle, which has become as much a local landmark as the Hollywood Wax Museum or Mann's Chinese Theater.

Then again, maybe it doesn't. But is there really a rabbit in your hat, 1,000 handkerchiefs in your sleeve, a quarter up your nose? When dealing with the world of magic, it pays not to ask too many questions.

"To understand the Castle and the Castle's reasons for being, you have to understand a little bit about the Larsen family," Milt Larsen says, settling in for a chat in one of the many bar areas in the Castle's labyrinthine interior--a pack rat's paradise of antiques, gargoyles, Tiffany glass, vaudevillian trinkets and show-biz memorabilia, all painstakingly collected by Larsen from historic houses and buildings about to face the wrecking ball.

The story really begins when William W. Larsen, a prominent Pasadena criminal attorney, became disillusioned with law and created the Larsen Family of Magicians. Magic tricks, Milt Larsen says, were considered somewhat distasteful, so the family booked itself as offering lectures on "The Cultural Background of Magic"--illustrated with plenty of magic tricks for educational purposes. They played opulent Southern California hotels such as the Hotel del Coronado on San Diego's Coronado Island and El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs.

"I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, and it wasn't mine--as entertainers, we were always living in the lap of luxury," Milt Larsen reminisces.

In 1936, William Larsen founded Genii magazine, an international magic industry trade publication that is still being published by Erika Larsen, his granddaughter. William's wife and Milt and Bill's mother, Geraldine Larsen Jaffe, had her own TV show, "The Magic Lady," on KTLA in the late 1940s; it later became syndicated by Telemount in the early 1950s.

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