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Brookledge, Hancock Park's magical home

Vintage magic tricks and variety acts make a comeback each month at the Brookledge Follies, but just try to buy a ticket.

September 17, 2010|By Jessica Gelt, Los Angeles Times

By dressing the show up to look and feel vintage, its participants can lay claim to the rich, kitschy history of magic while performing first-rate, contemporary tricks. In other words, they can have their cake and disappear it too.

"I think it's wonderful what the kids are doing," Milt Larsen, now 79, says of his niece, Zabrecky and their creative partners in the Follies, co-producer Jeremy Kasten and musical director Kristian Hoffman. "They're utilizing that crazy little theater totally off the radar in what you could call the most respectable of millionaire alleys."

Zabrecky, 42, was frontman for the popular indie-rock band Possum Dixon in the 1990s. During one of the band's last tours, he happened onto a magic shop in Baltimore and bought a simple trick — a vanishing silk handkerchief. He performed the trick onstage that night using a condom instead of a handkerchief, and after that he was hooked.

When the band broke up, Zabrecky made it his mission to become a magician member of the Magic Castle, eventually earning a place as one of its core performers. He insists that the purpose of magic is not to fool people into thinking an illusion is real, but rather to astonish, to reintroduce a state of "childlike wonder."

The first Brookledge Follies show was staged last October and was in the form of a vintage spook show.

"Spook shows just kind of died off. They had a real shelf life," says Zabrecky.

The formula is one Erika Larsen knows well. When her mother immigrated to the United States from Germany in the late 1950s, she and her husband toured the country performing in spook shows, which pivot around a well-timed blackout during which ghostly effects are triggered and spirits appear to enter and toy with the room.

During Brookledge's first spook show, the audience was introduced to two showgirls who supposedly had recently returned from a trip to Africa. They brought a gorilla with them (actually, a magician in a gorilla suit), and the gorilla got loose. Zabrecky then pursued it. "I fired up a gas chainsaw and as I revved it and rushed into the audience, the blackout occurred," Zabrecky recalls.

The effect was electric, and the Follies became a monthly affair. They aren't all spook shows; some, like the one Gosling attended, lean heavily toward the variety arts.

Brookledge, built in 1937, has been filled with magic from the beginning. Its first owner was Floyd Thayer, who manufactured high-end magic equipment. In 1942, Thayer traded homes with William W. Larsen Sr., father of Bill and Milt. The elder Larsen ran Genii magazine, which he founded, out of Brookledge.

Thayer's Studio of Magic, as the home theater was called, was a showcase for magicians, including Blackstone and Dante, who came to test their illusions on the stage. During World War II, Orson Welles rehearsed his USO tent shows with Rita Hayworth, Joseph Cotten and Marlene Dietrich at Brookledge. That era is marked by an old green-and-gold sofa, called the Orson Welles sofa, which sits against a wall at the rear the theater.

In the backyard after a recent Brookledge Follies show, performers and guests chatted and sipped drinks beside a brook that runs through the yard. A garden composed entirely of gnomes collected by Irene and Erika glowed in the moonlight. Zabrecky reveled in Brookledge's illustrious past and his pleasure at its current reincarnation.

"I'm the luckiest guy in the world because I get to host it," he says of the Follies. "You can't believe you're there and then this odd man comes out on stage, and wow, I'm that odd man. I have to suspend my own disbelief."

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