A trick for getting into the Magic Castle, which turns 60 this year


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May 05, 2023

A trick for getting into the Magic Castle, which turns 60 this year

The other night, my wife and I paid good money to a business that immediately

The other night, my wife and I paid good money to a business that immediately set about deceiving us. This is not the first time that's happened to us in Hollywood. But this time, we appreciated it.

In fact, we wandered room to room, drinks in hand, hoping to be fooled again.

The subterfuge is what has made the Magic Castle a rare destination for the past 60 years. Mystery and misdirection are the core of the brand, and you don't venture to the castle, which is really a customized Hollywood hilltop mansion, unless you’re ready to be flummoxed. Also, you don't get in unless you’re invited by a member of the Academy of Magical Arts — or if you’re staying in the Magic Castle Hotel next door. More about that in a moment.

Travel & Experiences

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Since co-founders Milt Larsen, William Larsen Jr. and Irene Larsen opened it in 1963 as a private clubhouse for members and guests, the castle has seen plenty of good times and bad. There was an attic fire in 2011, the backstage death of a performer in 2017, a closure and layoffs during the pandemic, then a leadership scandal involving allegations of sexual misconduct and racism that were disclosed by The Times in 2020. On May 28, the club's last surviving co-founder, Milt Larsen, died at 92.

But the club keeps coming back, now with a set of new leaders who arrived in 2021 and ’22.

We’re witnessing the passage of the Magic Castle into a new era.

What these dim, glitzy rooms offer is part Old Hollywood, part Las Vegas, part Harry Houdini, part Harry Potter. (Also part Harry Anderson — I spotted an old headshot of the late comedian-magician on one wall.)

You turn up in formal attire at a three-story mansion, built in 1909 with dramatic turrets. It's just up the hill from the Dolby Theater, just down the hill from the panoramic-view restaurant Yamashiro.

Outside the front door, a greeter will make sure you have a reservation, then give you a good once-over, enforcing the club's formal dress code, which bans denim, sneakers, shorts, skorts, athletic wear, hoodies, bare midriffs, exposed undergarments and more.

They mean it. I wore a coat and tie but was almost refused entrance because of my too-casual shoes (wool, not leather). In fact, the greeter fitted my left wrist with a pink plastic bracelet so that security wouldn't eject me. Thus I entered the Castle of Magic shackled by a bracelet of shame.

Stepping into the entry room for an evening visit, you will hand over $35 to $45 per person, up slightly from pre-pandemic times. Then you say the magic words and duck through the secret door (Psst! the bookcase!) and the adventure is on. You’ll climb stairs and step through a series of rooms full of oak paneling, stained glass, eerie oil portraits and posters announcing illusionists and tricksters of bygone years.

The new leadership's challenge is to hold onto the best of that throwback atmosphere while purging sexism and welcoming a diverse, contemporary crowd.

Though the vast majority of working magicians are male, Magic Castle spokeswoman Vicki Greenleaf said, the club has 38 women in its regular rotation of performers (among 482 magicians over the last three years). She also noted that the club has rewritten its guest dress code to eliminate all gender-specific requirements, and that of 67 children taking magic classes through the club's Junior Society, most are girls, people of color or international students.

Entertainment & Arts

Many of L.A.'s emerging and established magicians share and hone tricks in private ‘magic jams.’

"We can't change the past, but we can change the future," Chuck Martinez, president of the Academy of Magical Arts, said in a statement. "We are making every effort to ensure that the club's culture is inclusive and diverse for members, guests, staff and on our stages."

We came on a Monday night, prepared for business to be slow. It wasn't. The dining room and main theater were just about full, the barkeeps busy.

As you explore, every other room seems to be a bar (there are five in the building) and every cocktail seems to be steeped in mystery nomenclature (Sorcerer's Sangria? Tropical Trickster?). You’re obliged to have dinner, which costs about $45 to $60 per main dish. The dining room is swanky and the menu leans toward steakhouse fare. Our server was welcoming and attentive; my filet mignon wasn't my favorite of this year (that would be Jocko's Steakhouse in Nipomo) but it was tender and tangy.

If you start with dinner, as we did, you proceed next to a 45-minute magic show in the 130-seat Palace of Mystery, a.k.a. the building's main venue. First Danny and Stacey Cole did crazy things with shirts, ties and chairs. Then came Levent Cimkentli, perhaps the most high-velocity conjurer-comedian I’ve ever seen.

After dinner and the big show, you meander the mansion by your own timetable, dropping in on card tricksters, sleight-of-hand artists and other entertainers working the Close-Up Gallery, the Parlour of Prestidigitation, the Library Bar, Peller Theatre, and the Hat and Hare pub.

In the Palace of Mystery and the rooms that followed we saw levitation, disappearances, appearances, juggling, fake rabbits, card tricks, interlocking rings, many sight gags and audio gags. (You won't see any of this on Instagram. Once you’re beyond the entry room, photography is forbidden.)

The crowd was diverse in age and heritage, all dressed to impress. Whether you glimpse a celebrity or not, the people-watching is top-notch.

Even after video-game mogul and magician Randy Pitchford bought the castle building and neighboring hotel in 2022, co-founder Milt Larsen remained a regular at the castle's Palace Bar until days before his May 28 death.

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Cary Grant and Johnny Carson used to be members; visitors have included Johnny Depp, Katy Perry and Ryan Gosling. Performers have included Steve Martin and Neil Patrick Harris, who served as president of the academy from 2011 to 2014.

Soon after my visit, I heard the story of how the club once ejected Siegried Fischbacher (of Siegfried and Roy fame) for showing up in jeans.

The castle is adults-only except for brunch performances on weekends, when guests under 21 are allowed and the entertainment is tailored to accommodate kids.

If one of the club's roughly 6,000 members invites you, you can make a reservation. (If you don't know any members, you could check the castle website to see who's performing on the night you hope to visit, then DM a performer on social media to politely request an invitation.)

If you don't know a member and don't want to chase one down on the internet, you can turn to the Magic Castle Hotel, as my wife and I did.

If you book a night or more at the Magic Castle Hotel, you automatically get access to the castle next door (but still have to pay the entrance fee). Once a 1950s apartment building, the hotel is painted bright yellow, with an 88-degree pool, pool toys, games and free soft-serve ice cream and snacks.

Most rooms are suites with kitchens and a fold-out sofa in the living room. Rates start about $225. Across the street to the west is the Highland Gardens Hotel, where Janis Joplin died of an overdose in room 105 on Oct. 4, 1970.

The Magic Castle Hotel is quirky. I need to say that its furniture and grounds are worn and the interiors are plain; I wouldn't suggest a romantic weekend here.

But the emphasis on families is unmistakable, the location is central, the rates are lower than at many Hollywood hotels, and I found the service snappy and upbeat. If you offer your guests a welcome glass of Champagne (as the hotel does), much will be forgiven. It's also a great move to poll families on what movie they’d like to see screened in the evening on the wall above the pool.

(FWIW, going by the Vegemite bottle and accents I heard at the breakfast buffet, I am guessing that the place is popular with Australian travelers.)

One more thing about this hotel. Next to the pool is a red phone. Anytime during the day, you or your kid can pick it up and someone at the other end will answer "Popsicle hotline!" Free delivery follows. And then, if you learned anything at all from this experience, you make the popsicle disappear.