TO REACH Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, students famously had to step through a solid wall at a London train station. My route into the Magic Castle, home to the Academy of Magic Arts in Los Angeles, involved a secret passageway, too, of sorts. To secure a reservation at the members-only club, which looms over Hollywood like a haunted French château, I booked a room next door at the Magic Castle Hotel, a canary-yellow 1950s apartment building-turned-motor lodge, where the sound of kids playing in the pool wafted up to my balcony.
Nonmembers usually need an invitation from a member to visit the neighboring Magic Castle, but there is a little-known loophole. Although under separate ownership, the Magic Castle Hotel has long had special permission to book its guests at the club for dinner and shows. Since 1963, the Magic Castle has been a beacon of Old Hollywood, the haunt of eccentric TV and film celebrities. Today, spending a night at the castle remains an all-consuming, often bewildering theatrical experience. “There is a kind of performance intimacy there that you just can’t get anywhere else,” explained Teller, silent partner of Penn and Teller, when I called him before the trip. “With magic, you want to be close to it.”
And so, after dark, I slipped into my vintage gold-velvet jacket and pink silk tie—the club enforces a formal, if creative, dress code—then strolled the few steps across the hotel driveway to the turreted Victorian mansion, where I joined a line of men in tuxedos and women in flowing gowns parading through an arched doorway flanked by griffin statues. I felt like I was entering a different dimension of reality; or, to put it in Hollywood terms, like stepping from a chirpy Doris Day film into the château in Jean Cocteau’s 1946 “Beauty and the Beast.”
“ ‘A bookcase slid open to reveal a hidden doorway, and I stumbled into the Grand Salon.’ ”
In the entry hall, which resembles a Gilded Age library, a clerk behind a desk urged me to say “Open Sesame” to a carved wooden owl with glowing red eyes. (”You have to say it louder,” a fellow guest told me after my first attempt failed. “He’s getting hard of hearing.”) A bookcase then slid open to reveal a hidden doorway, and I stumbled into the Grand Salon, a softly lit enclave adorned with scarlet wallpaper and gilded mirrors.
The evening passed in a blur. I drank a Nefarious Negroni at the bar and enjoyed an “Academy beef Wellington” in the pricey restaurant. I went to an illusionist show in the main theater, aka “The Palace of Mystery,” whose updated takes on mind-reading and sleight-of-hand were both hilarious and confounding. I wandered around the maze of corridors and stairways admiring antique hand-tinted slides, old posters of magicians and photographs of famous members (Cary Grant was on the board of directors). The hokier elements—like a self-playing piano purportedly played by a ghost named Invisible Irma—were firmly tongue-in-cheek and, to me, irresistible: I willingly suspended disbelief for a chance to be entertained while surrounded by so much quirky history.
Sit a Spell
Inside Hollywood’s Magic Castle Club
Only when I found myself back in my hotel room at 2 a.m. did I look over the show schedule I had been given at the castle door and realize how much I had missed: other theaters, other magic shows, relics belonging to Harry Houdini. So I resolved to visit again—after some spending some time researching the strange world I was exploring.
THE LOWDOWN / Keys to the Magic Castle
The Magic Castle in Los Angeles offers dinner, cocktails and an array of live shows nightly; kids are allowed at brunch on weekends (door charge: $ 25 Mon-Thu, $ 35 Fri-Sun, 7001 Franklin Ave., magiccastle.com). As a private club, it can in theory only be attended by members and their invited guests, but staff at the Magic Castle Hotel next door can make a reservation for guests (from $ 169 a night, magiccastlehotel.com). Another option for non-members: Groups of 10 or more can book the Chef’s Table or (when it reopens after renovation in August) the Houdini Séance, if one person in the party buys a one-day trial membership for $ 250.
The manse was first built by a banker in 1909, I learned, when Hollywood streets were little more than dirt tracks. It had fallen into disrepair in the early 1960s when Milt Larsen, a TV writer, began to renovate it as a clubhouse, aided by his brother Bill. Members of America’s magic royalty, the pair had, as children, toured the U.S. performing magic with their parents, who founded the Academy of Magical Arts in 1951. For the new clubhouse, Milt Larsen cannibalized décor from mansions being demolished for freeways—a Lalique chandelier, carved banisters. The Magic Castle opened in 1963 and became a cult hit. Along with Cary Grant, regulars included Orson Welles and Johnny Carson. The castle offered classes to budding magicians and, with Grant’s support, a Junior Academy for the next generation, with stringent entry tests for 13-year-olds.
By 1989, when the castle was named a Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument, that first golden age had faded. “It was dead!” said Erika Larsen, Bill’s daughter and former club president. “People got so inured to special effects in cinema and TV, they weren’t into live magic. And they didn’t want to dress up. The castle just wasn’t hip.” Things turned around in 2008, when the actor Neil Patrick Harris became president and booked fresh acts to lure a younger crowd. In 2012, Katy Perry hosted her Halloween-themed birthday party there. Other unexpected cultural forces came into play. “I think the Harry Potter movies made magic cool again,” said Ms. Larsen.
On my next visit, after saying “Open Sesame” to the owl more forcefully, I tracked down Houdini’s original straitjacket and the set of manacles he wore in his escape act. They were displayed in a former bedroom that has long been used for séances. I pored over antique props like crystal balls and “Magic Linking Rings.” I learned about magicians who were once as renowned as Houdini, including Chung Ling Soo (real name William Ellsworth Robinson, 1861-1918), who died when a “bullet catch trick” went awry. But the live acts were the main draw. In the featured show, magician Dan Birch produced doves and a macaw from thin air. In the Parlour of Prestidigitation, TV producer and part-time magician Alex Acosta launched into a string of coin tricks. David Blaine wouldn’t feel threatened, but seeing even this old-school hocus-pocus up close was dazzling all the same.
I still only absorbed a fraction of what was on offer. Perhaps it’s inevitable to leave the castle wanting more. Like a magician’s top hat popping out bunnies, its contents may never quite be exhausted.
Magical Mystery Tour / A Few Other Spots Around the Country to Suspend Your Disbelief
The Magic Castle anchors Los Angeles, but there are other sacred magic sites in the city. Ivan Amodei has had a show, Secrets and Illusions, at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for nine years and is now touring the U.S. (ivanamodei.com). The bar Black Rabbit Rose is known among aficionados as the “mini-Magic Castle,” and was once the private speakeasy of silent movie heartthrob Rudolf Valentino (shows Thurs-Sat nights, $ 40 a ticket, blackrabbitrose.com/theatre). Hollywood’s Spanish-colonial beauty, the Roosevelt hotel—home to the first Academy Awards in 1929—hosts The Magic Show at the Roosevelt, with Justin Williams, star of the television show Magic for Humans (from $ 89 a ticket, themagicshow.com). In nearby Santa Barbara, the revered creator of the Magic Castle in L.A., Milt Larson, is opening another independent version next year.
New York, of course, is another great node of American magic, with many key sites hidden in the anonymous skyscrapers of Midtown. First started in the 1920s, Tannen’s Magic Shop, offers free magic classes and an after-hours magic show every Tuesday and Wednesday by Noah Levine ($ 65 a ticket, 45 W 34th St #608, tannens.com; magicafterhours.com). A stone’s throw from Penn Station, Fantasma Magic includes the Houdini Museum of New York(213 W 35th St.; fantasmamagic.com). On the trendier side, The Magician performed by Dan White at the chic NoMad Hotel is a hit show for adults (fueled by cocktails)—the show is so popular tickets can sell out in ten seconds as soon as they’re available online (from $ 129 a ticket; nomadupstairs.com). The McKittrick Hotel is also hosting a return of At the Illusionist’s Table, an immersive show with dinner until at least mid-March ($ 225 a ticket, mckittrickhotel.com/events/at-the-illusionists-table). In a Gilded Age parlor in the Lotte New York Palace Hotel, Steve Cohen’s Chamber Magic is an intimate show for elegantly dressed guests, which one fan, Woody Allen, called “a religious experience” (from $ 125 a ticket, chambermagic.com)
But L.A. and New York are hardly the only places in the U.S. to have a natural affinity for hocus-pocus. “Las Vegas is the magic capital of the world by any standard,” said Teller, the silent partner of Penn and Teller. “You can’t go 5 feet here without running into an ad for a magician or a mentalist.” Their eponymous stage show, Penn and Teller, is the longest-running headliner in Vegas history, now in its 18th year at the Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino, although it tours regularly (from $ 62 a ticket, pennandteller.com/wordpress). For other local shows, see: vegas.com/traveltips/best-magic-shows.
Magic attractions seem to be thriving in smaller cities too. In Marshall, Mich., the American Museum of Magic is an extraordinary repository of documents (americanmuseumofmagic.org/amm). Scranton, Penn., has its own Houdini Museum, with a magic show (”with noted professional magicians, & live animals including doves, a rabbit, a duck & two poodles”) rare historical film footage of the illusionist and tour of memorabilia daily at 1 pm ($ 20 a ticket, houdini.org). And of the many great magic collections in private hands, Ken Klosterman’s Salon de Magie outside Cincinnati, Ohio is the most revered by professionals. For conservation, it is kept 83 feet below earth in deep basement; visitors enter via a “mine shaft” (by arrangement, salondemagie.com).