|Cover Story||September 2nd, 2010|
Nestled at the foot of the famed Hollywood Hills lies a mysterious mansion that is home to one of the world’s most influential and secret societies, whose antecedents extend back in time several millennia, predating even the honorable Freemasons. For almost half a century now, this Victorian castle sits in the Hollywood Hills, like the mythological sphinx, precluding any visitors who do not possess both membership and secret password, from entering its inner sanctum. Its cavernous interior is laden with priceless relics and artifacts amidst secret passageways and hidden chambers. The ledger of names that have trafficked through these hallowed premises comprise the world’s most prepotent movers and shakers. U.S. presidents, royalty, heads of state, and many of Hollywood’s most illustrious icons have collected here, along with the Magi who have inspired its existence, and the legions of devotees who hold coveted membership. Without hyperbole, this portion of real estate rivals the magic and wonder of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, as well as J.K. Rowling’s imaginative Harry Potter books! It is a place of utter enchantment, stunning beauty, and wizardry that would curl Merlin’s beard. It is a realm where the line between the believable and the unbelievable is blurred. To the magical world, it is the Mecca that draws practitioners of the arcane craft of magic and illusion together, from all points of the globe. But, unlike Tolkien’s and Rowling’s fictional world of charms, and hocus pocus, this ‘world’ is real, and palpable, and unlike anything most have ever conjured in their most fanciful dreams.
It is Hollywood’s world-famous Magic Castle, headquarters for the Academy of Magical Arts (AMA), and private domain for magical members, only. But hope springs eternal for non-members: they can gain access to The Magic Castle if they are at least 21 years of age and know a Castle member, and thereby obtain a Guest Pass. Each Guest Pass allows up to 8 non-member visitors to spend an unforgettable evening where they can dine on the finest cuisine, imbibe the best spirits, and witness some of the greatest sorcerers in the world in lavish showrooms and theatres throughout The Magic Castle.
This article takes you on a rare excursion ‘behind the scenes’ of The Magic Castle, and reveals some of its inner-most secrets, as well as the fascinating history behind its existence!
The Magic Castle has a strict dress code: Coats and ties for men, evening apparel for women. This dress code is stringently enforced, regardless of the status of any visitor, be they celebrity, royalty, or president of the United States. When President Ronald Reagan visited The Magic Castle, he – as well as his seven Secret Service men – were all appropriately dressed. The President and Mrs. Reagan, attended The Magic Castle’s spectacular Houdini Séance.
Magic Castle proprietor, Milt Larsen, told me of one high-profile occasion where the criterion for attire was challenged. Television producer-director, Dick Carson, brother of famed talk show host, Johnny Carson, once showed up at the celebrated Castle foyer, by himself, but sans tie. Anticipating such scenarios, the Castle keeps a supply of ties for guests who may have forgotten to put one on. The front-desk host offered Dick Carson a complimentary tie for the evening – but he flatly refused to wear it! Dick was reminded of protocol: No tie, no entrance. In turn, Dick reminded the hostess who he was, implying that he was above such rulings. The situation escalated as both sides remained steadfast. Unable to reach resolution, the hostess called upstairs to speak with Castle owner, Milt Larsen. Informed of the stalemate, Milt placed a call to Johnny Carson and asked him to make a ‘judgement call,’ regarding his brother, Dick. An honorable member of the Castle, himself, Johnny fumed: “Put my G—damned brother on the phone!!”
Milt recalled that, “Johnny apparently read his brother the Riot Act, and that was that.”
Dick put on the tie.
Johnny Carson loved the art of magic, and respected the rich tradition behind it. As a small boy in Norfolk, Nebraska, Johnny yearned to find fame as a conjurer, and even performed under the stage name of “The Great Carsoni.” He never relinquished his love for magic, even when the hand of providence moved him onto a different career path.
Time management is essential for your visit, but even so, it is virtually impossible to take in all points of interest. Taking a free tour from one of the Knights of the Castle is one strategy. These Knights usually frequent the Main Floor near the Grand Salon Bar, and are identified by the badges they wear. However, others feel they would rather “map out” their own magical journey, predicated on the outlay of the strata of floors, and studying the schedule of live performances at the various showrooms.
The elegant showrooms and theatres, such as The Palace of Mystery, are the centerpieces of startling illusions and legerdemain that make the Castle legendary.
Knowing the layout of The Magic Castle is paramount. Often, guests roam the premises not realizing that underground passages lie -- like undiscovered cities -- beneath their feet! One such example is the Haunted Wine Cellar, located in a network of subterranean catacombs that include an intimate theatre for live magical performances, as well as the popular Hat and Hare Pub, a place for refreshments served up by a wizard bartender!
When the Haunted Wine Cellar was nearing its debut, a rather comical situation came about. Prior to its opening, the conscientious janitors had cleaned away all the faux cobwebs the night before! The fake cobwebs had to be quickly replaced so that the Haunted Wine Cellar could live up to its ghostly ambience.
But, how did this place of enchantment ever find its way into existence? The creation of The Magic Castle is as remarkable as the magic within. The edifice was originally built in 1910, as a private home for the prominent Lane family. Mrs. Olive Lane purchased the site where The Magic Castle now sits, in 1903.
The Lane residence, also called the Lane Mansion, was first conceived and designed by architects, Dennis and Farwell, in 1903. The actual permit for building the home was issued in March of 1909, the same year it is widely reported to have been completed.
However, a Los Angeles Times article in 1910 reports the mansion as only nearing completion. In 1922, the ownership of the Chateauesque building was duly transferred to Mrs. Lane’s son, Rollin, when she passed on.
The Rollin B. Lane family is recognized for its philanthropy and as being harbingers in the development of what is now known as Hollywood. Rollin, himself, was a lawyer of the first order, as well as an astute banker, newspaper editor, and cogent real estate investor.
His hand in building-up Hollywood was through well-conceived property development, and serving on the old Hollywood Board of Trade.
Lane made audacious investments in the infant stages of the San Fernando Valley, as well as investing heavily into California’s San Joaquin Valley. Through his involvement, the San Joaquin Valley blossomed into one of the nation’s premiere regions in agricultural development.
The Lane Mansion, itself, morphed into a multi-family home in the 1940s. It was further divided; first becoming a home for the elderly, and then it became an assortment of tiny apartments.
In 1955 the erstwhile Lane Mansion was sold to Thomas O. Glover, whose family presently owns the Deed to the property, and surrounding areas. The once majestic home that was a close duplicate of the 1897 Kimberly Crest House and Gardens, in Redlands, California, had deteriorated into a sad shadow of its former self. The Grand Dame of yesteryear, had lost all its historical and architectural integrity. Through the years it has been variously described as Gothic Renaissance, and even a liberal translation of a 16th -century French fortress design. The elusive descriptions, along with complex physical changes, now led to a denouement of sorts: the once-regal edifice was approaching its grisly appointment with the wrecking ball.
Its savior came in the person of a Mr. Milt Larsen. Larsen, an NBC writer for the popular Truth or Consequences television game show, successfully negotiated with owner, Glover, thereby transforming the former home into a private club for magicians, in 1961. In so doing, Milt Larsen finally crystallized his Father’s dream of someday founding a private clubhouse for the magical fraternity. It was a touching, and befitting tribute to his Father, William W. Larsen, Sr., who passed away in 1953.
It became a Herculean task for Milt to rebuild what was now a mere vestige of the Lane home. Though he had sporadic help, the transfigured residence carries the mark of Milt’s fortitude.
On January 2, 1963, The Magic Castle was fully restored to its Victorian elegance, and is now the official home to the Academy of Magical Arts (AMA). Like a phoenix, the 1903 home of Olive Lane, rose from the ashes and now stands – reborn – as the world’s most exclusive, and revered, private magic club!
As the Castle evolved, so also did the secrets behind the special effects, which became the Castle’s hallmark. John Shrum, art director from television’s The Tonight Show, became enamored with the magical monolith, and procured the special effects talent from NBC. A team of stalwart individuals came in on their “off hours” to lend their spooky ‘expertise.’ Milt Larsen, himself a most inventive magician, constantly adds to ‘innate’ illusions around the Castle interior that delight and intrigue visitors.
The late James Gordon Williams, an Emmy award-winning sound technician, contributed much to the Castle’s special effects. His Father was one of Disney’s Imagineers whose brainchildren were made manifest in such marvels as “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” which held countless millions of Americans spellbound.
Prior to the opening of Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction, Magic Castle owner, Milt Larsen, was among an elite esprit de corps invited to view its inner modus operandi. After consulting with Larsen, the Disney Research and Development team confessed that they could have saved two years in special effects experimentation for their Haunted Mansion if they would have tapped Larsen’s reservoir of knowledge beforehand.
The Castle’s illusionary surroundings carry the torch of magic that extends from antiquity. History edifies us on this ancient, secret society shrouded in sub rosa tradition. Sub rosa was the ancients’ tradition of hanging a rose from a table top, or other object, to signify that all participants gathered were sworn to secrecy, and only then were meetings allowed to proceed.
Hieroglyphics reveal that this arcane art form had its genesis more than 5,000 years ago! The famous Westcar papyrus at the State Museum in East Berlin recounts the first-known royal command performance by a notable magician by the name of Dedi. Though the Westcar papyrus is dated, circa 1700 B.C., Egyptologists say the ‘words’ were copied from a far earlier source, millennia ago, during the reign of Khufu (Cheops in Greek language).
The ancient sorcerer, Dedi, performed marvelous tricks and illusions for Egypt’s mighty Pharaoh. History records Khufu as the builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza, one of the mightiest monoliths among the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World!
Down through the years, magicians have lived up to their epithets, as “The Scientists of Show Business.” French conjurer, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (b. 1805), who is universally recognized as “The Father of Modern Magic,” created history’s first-ever electrically-controlled burglar alarm, which segued into today’s modern security system.
Fifteen years prior to Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb, Robert-Houdin created a special rudimentary illumination system to light his daughter’s first holy communion inside his chateau! The source for his revolutionary lighting system was a series of uniquely applied batteries!
Other practitioners of illusion, such as Giovanni Guiseppe (b. 1750) and Andrew Oehler (b. 1781) were pioneer balloonists. Fellow conjurer, Andre-Jacques Garnerin (b. 1769), perfected the world’s first, practical frameless parachute.
Often times, these so-called “Scientists of Show Business” are conscripted to help out in times of war, both here and abroad. During the Second World War, John Maskelyne’s son, Jasper, parted with long-held, precious secrets so that the allied forces could more effectively camouflage tanks, artillery, and warships. Many naval personnel were spared from the vicious burns of hot flashback, emanating from the warships’ heavy artillery fire, when Jasper gave away his secret skin-protective chemical formula!
Even Harry Houdini, the great extricator, was a pioneer aviator who became the first person to fly a controlled powered airplane in Australia, on March 16, 1910; a fact that is taught in Australia’s school curriculum! (Previous attempts by others resulted in plane crashes!) How apropos, that history records the great escapologist as the one who first broke the shackles of earthbound gravity, over Australian skies, on a controlled flight!
Suffice to say, history is replete with such examples that intertwine magic with science.
Today, visitors to the Castle can witness sleight-of-hand and illusion that have sprung from the dawn of human history, and from the “Scientists of Show Business,” who have helped shaped the civilized world, as we know it today.
Visiting Hollywood’s magic mansion can present one with both fun, as well as facing a daunting task. The 1989 Magic Castle souvenir booklet captures this essence: “Visitors to The Magic Castle must keep their eyes open at all times, since many have reported that the walls are keeping an eye on them. Guests believe that the eyes in the paintings have followed them as they pass through the rooms; that tables have mysteriously moved and barstools have imperceptibly shrunk in size while they were seated on them. Other reports include the sudden appearance of skeletons in phone booths and the strange passing of creatures in the dining room.”
Not knowing one’s surroundings whilst in this magical domain is akin to touring the Louvre blindfolded! And even if one is not enamored by prestidigitation and sorcery, The Magic Castle is sure to seduce one’s senses. The interior reveals a breathtaking Victorian splendor, and there are countless treasures to be enjoyed. Museums, artifacts, and priceless collectibles abound in an atmosphere that is alluring. Up the Grand Salon Staircase, visitors wind their way to the majestic Main Dining Room and the celebrated Cherub Room, to feast.
Cognizant of one’s surroundings can bring enhanced enjoyment to the rarities that are often masked in subtlety, waiting to be discovered! For example, guests in the Main Victorian dining area may not realize that they are peering through gorgeous cut crystal windows and 175-year-old etched glass from the Imperial Restaurant in Scotland!
If only one knows where to look, hidden beauty abounds. Many diners are unaware, but, if their gaze were to look heavenward, their eyes would feast on a priceless Tiffany Dome embedded in the ceiling above them! And the historic Hollywood of old beckons far below as guests, enjoying their magnificent meals, look down at the old Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, landmark for the Motion Pictures’ Academy Awards (the Oscars), where they were first presented on May 16, 1929.
Even the most pedestrian of objects are astonishing. The Palace Bar, on the second level, is from a 17th-century London pub. The Inner Circle Ballroom, where the W.C. Fields Bar can be found, is wonderful for dancing on special occasions (New Year’s Eve, Halloween’s Masquerade Ball, and Valentine’s Day). It is located some 30-feet under the Parlour of Prestidigitation Theatre. The Ballroom houses rare memorabilia from Hollywood’s golden movie era! The Inner Circle Ballroom ceiling reflects what is known as an “infinity illusion.” Though the ceiling is only one-inch thick, the viewer sees an endless, infinite sky! (Sometimes this illusion is not “turned on,” so viewers should remind a Castle staff member.)
The men’s restroom, adjacent to the Grand Salon Staircase on the main floor, and near the library bookcase secret panel, is haunted in a manner reminiscent of The Phantom of the Opera. Likewise, strange voices seem to emanate from the mirrors inside, often to the unexpected delight of men tending to their personal business!
But, the most popular phantom on The Magic Castle premises still remains to be “Invisible Irma.” Irma is the Castle’s resident ghost who plays requests on her piano.
Singing legends Barbra Streisand, as well as Frank Sinatra, became so enamored by the mischievous sprite that they spent protracted periods of time singing along to her piano
Many celebrities and VIPs frequent the Castle, partly because of the strict rules in place: No cameras are allowed. Neither are guests allowed to seek autographs, thus ensuring the privacy of countless luminaries. Such rules were especially reassuring for movie legend, Cary Grant, who was eagerly sought-after by the notorious Paparazzi, as well as by rabid movie star fans. Grant was not only a member of The Magic Castle’s Board of Directors, but, he occasionally performed there as “The Great Carini.”
Speaking of celebrities, Milt Larsen imparted this true anecdote: “Johnny Carson had Orson Welles as his guest on The Tonight Show. Running out of time, toward the end of the show, Johnny said to Orson, ‘Why don’t we go to The Magic Castle after the show?’ Well, The Tonight Show was recorded about 6 p.m., and then it would air at 11:30 p.m. Well, both Johnny and Orson showed up at the Castle about 7:30 p.m. for dinner and to see a magic show, then they left . . . before the actual show was on the air! Well, sometime after 11:30 p.m., there was a lot of noise and cars honking in front of The Magic Castle! It turned out that these people saw the show and turned up late at night hoping to see Johnny and Orson!
Well, because of the delayed ‘airing’ of the show, Johnny and Orson were long gone andprobably asleep in bed!”
Upon entering the Castle’s foyer, one is required to show a picture I.D. and one’s membership card or Guest Pass. Then, the magic begins. Visitors must approach the golden owl with the red blinking eyes and utter the secret words: “Open Sesame.” The large bookcase magically moves and a secret panel is revealed that guests disappear through! Going through the short, secret passageway one passes a medieval suit of armour on the right, which often speaks to those who intrude.
Such fantasy invokes within us all, elements of our character that were once in great supply as children, but sadly jettisoned as adults. The Magic Castle retrieves those priceless, misplaced values from our youthful innocence. It rekindles one of humankind’s most precious possessions: our sense of wonder!
I cannot help but reflect on Shakespeare’s Othello: “What charms, What conjuration and what mighty magic . . . “
To learn more about The Magic Castle, please visit their official website at: www.magiccastle.com.
How fortunate you are to be an avid reader of Lyle E. Davis’ The Paper, because if you would like to visit The World-Famous Magic Castle, please read the following to possibly win a Magic Castle Guest Pass (one Guest Pass admits up to 8 people):
1. All entrants must be of U.S. citizenship or legal residency.