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Magicians seek to conjure up new site for closed museum

The collection, which includes 5,000 props, costumes and devices used by such famed names as Harry Houdini and Harry Blackstone Sr., was once housed in a Hollywood bank basement but is now in storage.

March 11, 2012|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Ed Thomas, left, and John Engman prepare to demonstrate a flying carpet magic trick outside the Pico Rivera storage facility where the collection from the Society of American Magicians' former museum is stored.
Ed Thomas, left, and John Engman prepare to demonstrate a flying carpet… (Katie Falkenberg, For The…)

If only these stage sorcerers could reach into a black top hat and pull out a home for their magical paraphernalia.

Short of cash and abracadabra moments, the Society of American Magicians is struggling to find a public venue for its vast collection of antique stage illusions. After a freak accident forced the closure of the group's Hall of Fame and Magic Museum in Hollywood, the society moved its trove of tricks into a Pico Rivera self-storage center.

"We'd love to reopen the museum. The problem is money," said John Engman, president of the society's local assembly.

The collection includes 5,000 props, costumes and devices used by such famed magicians as Harry Houdini and Harry Blackstone Sr. The items were once displayed in basement space donated by what was then a Washington Mutual bank at Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street.

But the exhibit was shut down Dec. 13, 2004, by an explosion — and it wasn't theatrical flash powder. Smoke from a nearby underground electrical blast spewed into the bank building, coating the collection with toxic PCBs. A second exhibit that also shared the basement — a collection of microphones, radio transcripts and audio boards owned by the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters — was similarly contaminated.

The bank reopened after a thorough cleaning of the tellers' counter area, but the two groups' collections remained sealed for 3 1/2 years as the magicians and broadcasters wrangled with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power over the cost of decontamination.

The DWP eventually agreed to pay the two groups $57,000 each to settle a lawsuit. When the magicians and broadcasters regained access to their museums, they discovered that the contamination was less severe than had been expected and that the display items could be cleaned.

After Chase purchased Washington Mutual in 2008, the two groups' access to the basement was restricted to banking hours. Unable to conduct nighttime events, the magicians and broadcasters packed up their collections and put them in storage.

The broadcasters' collection is slated to eventually be displayed at the Thousand Oaks Library, according to Encino television producer Sam Lovullo, president of the 500-member Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters.

But the magicians have yet to find a home for their illusions, historic memorabilia, nightclub tricks and displays that trace the history of magic back to 2500 BC.

"We had a real nice deal with Home Savings and later Washington Mutual. They let us have the space rent free," Engman said.

To save money on storage, the magicians scrapped the mannequins they used in their exhibits and junked the theater-style seating used during Saturday evening magic shows.

They hope to have space donated for a new museum.

"We're looking for around 3,000 square feet, preferably in Hollywood. We'd have a little theater, a display area and storage space," said Engman, a retired Alhambra attorney who has performed magic tricks since he was a child.

If adequate and affordable space isn't found, it's possible the museum could be relocated to Parker, Colo., where the society has plans to open a national office in donated space, he said.

For now, the society's 80 local members have to visit the self-storage center if they want to see the historic magic show posters, the saw-the-girl-in-half illusion, the disappearing chair trick, the floating-carpet illusion and keys collected by Houdini for his escape-artist act.

"The keys were used by Houdini's wife, Bess, when she conducted her last seance on the roof of the Hollywood Knickerbocker in 1936 on the 10th anniversary of his death," said Ed Thomas, an office manager who lives in Koreatown and once served as national president of the 6,000-member society.

The magicians hope Houdini and the rest of the museum pieces soon escape from storage.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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