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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.

"It became like a second family; for a young guy from a different country, to be welcomed like that, it was wonderful," Siegfried says. "I know how it is as a young kid. When your hobby is magic, it is deep and happy. I can't describe it. It's like nothing else exists anymore--it's in your blood. And to meet people who have the same interests is a wonderful thing. You don't start out right away disappearing elephants--you start out with coins and cigarettes and cards."

Every other Las Vegas hotel now features a magic act, but, Siegfried says, that wasn't the case when he and Roy first broke into the business. Receiving honors from the Academy of Magical Arts, which holds an annual awards ceremony, helped the duo break down barriers.

"When we first came to Las Vegas, our welcome was: 'You're a magician; we have to tell you, magic doesn't work in this town," Siegfried says. "When I told my mother [he was planning to go to America to pursue a magic career], her biggest worry was that on my passport would be written: 'Magician.' The most difficult thing was to create a demand for what we are doing. When you are honored by your peers, it helps you get up the ladder."

For those interested in membership, the Castle has two options: magician membership and associate membership. Magician members must demonstrate a certain level of magic skill; associate members just have to be 21 years of age or older. Associate members enjoy all the privileges of the club but may not enter a special inner sanctum in the Castle's Magic Library that contains magic secrets of the ages. Associate members and visitors may, however, peruse the library's odd collection of reading materials, including joke collections from "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," "The Eddie Cantor Show" and Milton Berle's private joke file.

Like many area businesses, the Castle fell on financial hard times in the early 1990s. In 1993, the same year Bill Larsen died of a liver ailment, the business carried a half-million-dollar debt--a $200,000 bank debt plus $300,000 in money owed to purveyors. A hefty raise in dues, plus an appeal for a one-time voluntary assessment of $100 from all members (some paid less, some more), retired the bank debt and was applied to the owed accounts payable to take them down to reasonable operating levels.

The club has about 5,000 members--roughly 55% magician members and 45% associate members. Magicians' annual dues were $125 but were increased to the current level of $200; associates pay $325 per year versus the $220 fee due before the increases.

Dues were raised on the counsel of investment banker Horvitz, a board member who was also serving as Castle treasurer. The one-time-only first-year membership fee was also raised, from $800 to $900. Horvitz says that softhearted Castle management had failed to raise dues for years to protect elderly retired magicians on fixed incomes, but he persuaded the leadership to protect the veteran artists with special discounts and raise dues overall. The Castle is now operating in the black.

"I have seen magicians who are retired, older fellas, who sit at the Castle every night, discussing their craft with their colleagues," says Horvitz, a leading lender to the independent film industry who is known far and wide as "the Magic Banker." He often does business during seances in the Castle's Houdini Room or spices up his presentations at film festivals, including the prestigious Cannes, with a card trick or two. "I am positive they will live an extra five years because they have someplace to go."

Old-timers are sometimes joined by the polished junior members preparing resumes for possible show-business careers. Membership standards are stricter for juniors, requiring a rigorous audition for admission.

"It was one of the scariest things I've ever done," says Danny Cole, 17, an Edison High School junior from Huntington Beach who joined the club several years ago and uses magic to set him apart from the crowd when he makes speeches for his school debate club. "But it was kind of a goal I set for myself. I always wanted to be a member."

Cole, who already performs at magic clubs and conventions, says his friends at school at first had a hard time understanding why he would not reveal the tricks of his trade. There is no formal oath of secrecy, Cole says, but he adds that most magic novices at some point realize they don't want to reveal their secrets. You are on your way to becoming a real magician, he says, when it "becomes more fun not to tell than to tell."

Milt Larsen says that he has been approached on several occasions about cloning the Magic Castle but that he has always believed he could not make lightning strike twice. Besides, he points out, the Magic Castle has always been a family affair.

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