Originally published July 24, 2013 at The Los Angeles Beat
Beautiful, mysterious Los Angeles, how I love you so. Perhaps I love your secrets most of all. The world of private entryway and “who you know” and secret passwords and private invites may be off putting to some, but I’ve always regarded these things as a challenge. When I first moved to Los Angeles, more than half my life ago, I began hearing of an enchanted Victorian mansion, perched high upon a hill above Franklin Avenue in Hollywood. Even its name was alluring to me, The Magic Castle. I was told that it was a private magicians club that had opened in 1963 and since it was regulated to a “magicians only” membership I had little hope of ever seeing it. That, of course, intrigued me even more and my fascination remained.
And so the years passed, and one day, nearly two years ago, a new friend offered an invitation to finally go inside. As I expected, I fell in love with the place. From my first moment there when I whispered the secret password to the noble owl standing sentry at the door and the big wooden panel slid magically open… I was in awe. It was just what I expected, and more. Filled to the brim with magic history, memorabilia and antiques, after now having gone there a couple dozen times I still notice new things. Vintage magic posters, which I already adored, line many of the walls. There are multiple magic parlors with many performances nightly and several bars, including the Owl Bar and the W.C. Fields bar, both decorated with artifacts that live up to their chosen names. There is also a magic piano named Irma that will play the most obscure requests. The Castle itself is somewhat maze-like and it can take more than a few visits to discover all of the hidden rooms and know how to find your way around. Photography is strictly prohibited, mainly to maintain the mystery and secretive nature that the place commands and a glamorous dress code is enforced.
Then I learned of something else that I found incredibly interesting. The Magic Castle offers a series of magic classes to neophytes of card trickery and slight of hand. Taught by the legendary Mark Wilson who has performed worldwide for over 60 years and is also known for being the first magician to perform regularly on television, this is pretty much comparable to taking painting classes from Picasso. Mark and his wife/assistant Nani Darnell had a hit CBS TV show in the early ’60s called The Magic Land of Allakazam. They were also present the day the Magic Castle opened in 1963, performing an illusion in which Mark made Nani levitate as they stood atop the magical grand piano Irma. They have been a strong part of the Castle’s character and identity ever since. Besides the Magic Land of Allakazam, Mark and Nani created half a dozen prime time TV “specials” called Magic Circus in the early 1970s which included guests as diverse as Cher. Mark also appeared on The Tonight Show doing one-on-one tricks with Johnny Carson and he is the author of the top selling magic instruction book in the world, Mark Wilson Complete Course in Magic.
So, the moment I heard that they were teaching their 4-week class called The Sorcerers Apprentice I immediately knew that I was dying to sign up. After a phone call to Nani in which she assured me that my beginner level status was no obstacle, I took the plunge. I was also thrilled that I would have a temporary membership card to the Magic Castle during my studies. I have to admit that I was slightly nervous before my first class, but upon arriving my jitters completely evaporated. Mark and Nani turned out to be lovely and fascinating people who after sixty years of marriage and performing together have their routine down pat. My twelve fellow students came from all walks of life- retirees from the business world, a TV producer and his wife, a teacher, a performance artist and a couple from Japan. We all were united in the love of magic and the wonder of the fact that we were all blessed enough to be taking this class.
We began by learning simple tricks with corks and paper clips, ropes and cards. Mark starts by demonstrating an amazing trick, filling his act up with witty banter, always causing disbelief and the “how’d he do that?” factor. Then he does the trick again, slowly this time, while step-by-step explaining the catch, the secret to the magic. Then we practice… and practice… and practice. The students in the class who master the trick more quickly help out the students who are having a harder time. There is laughter, there is camaraderie, there is that victory moment when the trick is finally mastered.
The next four weeks passed quickly by, much too quickly in my mind. I was absolutely adoring these classes as well as my magical time spent with Mark and Nani. I was dreading that they were coming to an end. Nani assured us that with practice we now have the skills to pass the audition for a Magic Castle magician membership. Still, I wanted more and was thankful when the couple announced that they would be teaching the next level of classes in straight succession, a class they called Magic 3. About half of our group, including myself of course, signed up for this next round of classes, and this time it is a 6-week series. I am in the middle of it now and am still loving every moment. I have learned so many tricks that I will be practicing for many months to come. I am looking forward to becoming a magician member and to continue breathing in the mysterious aura of the Magic Castle.
The Magic Castle: 7001 Franklin Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90028; Class info: (661) 288-2517; firstname.lastname@example.org