From the moment I walked into the library-themed lobby of The Magic Castle, I was captivated, transported to another world that felt like time-traveling back to Old Hollywood. Red-and-pink Victorian-looking wallpaper, rich-toned wood moldings and old-fashioned floral carpets set a mood of quiet elegance in the dimly lit space. But it was the secret doorway disguised as a bookcase that intrigued me the most. We said a password to the owl on the bookshelf and watched as hidden doors magically opened, like The Wizard of Oz bursting from black-and-white into full-blown color.
Housed in a majestic 1909 turreted mansion on Franklin Avenue, The Magic Castle is the private clubhouse of the Academy of Magical Arts, an organization of about 2,500 magicians from around the world. Every evening, magicians perform in several theaters, with informal magic shows held in the Castle’s bars and pubs. Guests must be over 21, and there are also daytime brunch performances on Saturdays and Sundays for all ages. We arrived a couple of hours before our dinner reservation, giving us a chance to explore the rooms and venues.
The secret doorway opened into a central parlor, anchored by a classic-looking bar and grand staircase. Magic-related art and memorabilia lined the walls, offering a preview of what we would find in the rooms beyond. It was a festive, party-like atmosphere, and the Castle’s strictly-enforced “evening wear” dress code immediately made sense. It was simply one of those times where it would have felt out of place not to be dressed up.
Our first stop was the Close-Up Gallery, an intimate theater that holds about 26 people. Framed caricatures of magicians lined the walls of the waiting area, and servers from the bar took beverage orders while we waited. You could almost hear everyone smile as we entered the charming room. It was decorated like something out of the Gilded Age, with red velvet seats and a billowing red-curtained stage that was so up-close I couldn’t imagine how magician Richard Raven would perform his slight-of-hand magic without giving away a secret or two. He did, of course, performing flawlessly and generating lots of applause and “how did he do that?” sighs from the audience.
Next we headed down a back staircase and found ourselves in the Hat and Hare Pub. Magicians seemed to be holding court in every room, with visitors floating in and out as if we were all guests in someone’s home. We passed a hallway with some wonderful memorabilia from Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion and stopped to watch magician Jon Armstrong perform before going back upstairs to the music room, home of Irma the Invisible Piano Player. I whispered a request to Irma’s ghost at the piano and she immediately obliged, piano keys playing away, with no fingers in sight!
Much too soon, it was time for dinner. As we walked up the main staircase, I realized it would be impossible in one evening to see every performance and take in the seemingly endless amount of interesting art, posters, furniture and memorabilia that decorated the Magic Castle’s corridors and rooms. The dining room was no exception, filled with unique and carefully planned décor covering every inch of the space. Even the china was imprinted with a Magic Castle design. The food was fabulous as well, and the special magic-themed birthday dessert for Herb was a delightful touch.
Our dinner reservation included passes to the Palace of Mystery, the Magic Castle’s main stage. Three acts – David Kovac, Anson Lee and The Evasons – performed a mind-stumping amount of magic and illusion, with Kovac doing double-duty as master of ceremonies. As they performed with lightning speed, interacting with the audience and often incredibly funny, it struck me how magic is an art that goes far beyond slight-of-hand or illusion. The best magicians are true performers, a genuineness that can’t be rehearsed, coming from somewhere deep inside the creative spirit.
Academy of Magical Arts members were stationed throughout the Castle all evening, greeting guests and answering questions. One member offered to give us a tour, asking if we’d found the “secret staircase.” That was all he needed to say! We were off on a mission, with our guide leading the way, stopping at various displays to give us a little Magic Castle history. The bar tops, he told us, were salvaged floors from the old Hollywood High School. Other fixtures were rescued from neighborhood mansions that had been demolished to make room for the nearby freeway in the early 1960s.
Our guide talked about Hollywood celebrities who frequented The Magic Castle. He explained that actor Cary Grant was a regular visitor, often posing as someone who looked like Cary Grant to unsuspecting guests. A table in the dining room is named in Grant’s honor, and he is credited with implementing the club’s “no inside photography” policy. As much as I would have loved to have taken photos that night, I immediately understood the reasoning.
Once you enter a place through a secret doorway, why spoil the magic?