In a city of full of celebrity haunts, Los Angeles’ most exclusive club is tucked away in a mysterious Victorian mansion perched high in the Hollywood Hills. It’s known as the ‘Magic Castle’ – a home to the members-only Academy of Magical Arts since 1963 and a private playground for the world’s greatest magicians to socialize, drink and trade tricks (of the magic variety, of course).
Visitors are strictly forbidden at the Magic Castle unless formally invited by a member and members can only join after passing a performance exam in front of a panel of judges. Magicians and invitees alike must adhere to a formal dress code and abide by a strict ‘no-photos’ policy, before they enter the clubhouse through a trick door with a secret passphrase.
Almost six decades later, the club remains as mysterious and elusive to outsiders as the craft they practice inside. But now the Castle’s never-before-told history is set to be revealed in a new documentary titled M for Magic.
With unprecedented access, filmmaker Alexis Manya Spraic delves deep into the four generations of the legendary Larsen family who turned a decrepit gothic mansion into the famous, ‘mecca of magic’ beloved by Cary Grant, David Copperfield, Orson Welles, David Blaine, Steve Martin, Penn & Teller, Ricky Jay and Dai Vernon.
New documentary, ‘M for Magic’ delves into the history of Los Angeles’ most exclusive, members-only nightclub, the ‘Magic Castle.’ The club for magicians bills itself as ‘the most unusual private club in the world’ and is located in a Victorian mansion in the Hollywood Hills
All visitors must be invited by a member, abide by a strict dress code and follow the firm ‘no-photo’ rule for an evening intimate performances in the labyrinthine of rooms, staircases and trick doors. Interviewed in the documentary, Dita Von Tease said: ’It feels like part of a secret society, there’s no place on earth like this’
The Magic Castle was founded in 1963 by brothers Milt (left) and Bill Larsen (right) as an homage to their dead father’s unrealized dream of creating a hang-out spot for magicians. Bill’s wife, Irene (center) became ‘the face’ of the castle
Alexis Spraic, a fourth generation Angeleno told Deadline that she has always been fascinated with the Magic Castle and her casual appreciation for the craft evolved while making the film about the eclectic group of outsiders. ‘Nobody gets into magic because things were really working out for them in junior high school,’ said Moby, one of the many celebrity members interviewed in the documentary, which is currently still seeking distribution.
Spraic said her film is as much about two brothers as it is about as it is about ‘the four generations of Larsen women at the heart of the unlikely success story of a most unconventional family enterprise.’
William Larsen Sr. was a successful criminal defense attorney known for his dramatic flair. He often brought magic into the courtroom and always carried a cane, not because he needed one – but for theatrical effect. He quit his law practice in the late 1930s to pursue a travelling magic act with his wife and two young sons, Milt and Bill
One of these female figures is Irene Larsen, who opens the film with her inimitable sense of humor: ‘Magic is the second oldest profession,’ she declares, ‘and we all know the first one right?’
‘The idea for the castle was a crazy one to begin with and the backstory is larger than life,’ said Spraic. It was co-founded in 1963 by Irene Larsen, her husband Bill Sr. and his brother Milt. For the two brothers, the club was an homage to their late father’s unfulfilled life-long dream to create a clubhouse devoted to magic.
‘Most people thought we were crazy, and we were!’ said Milt in the documentary.
Their family story begins in the 1930s with Milt and Bill’s father, William Larsen Sr. who was destined to be a pea packer in Wisconsin for his family’s lucrative canning business. Instead he moved to California to become a very successful criminal defense attorney for a long list of gangsters, mafia men and unsavory clients.
‘He was kinda like the Johnny Cochran of his day,’ said historian and illusionist, Jim Steinmeyer in M for Magic. Larsen Sr.’s penchant for performance and drama was noticeable early on. He practiced magic on the side, carried a cane for affect and became known for performing magic tricks in the courtroom.
The Larsen family began performing as a travelling troupe of magicians during the Great Depression after William Sr. quit his lucrative job as a criminal defense attorney. Milt and Bill, along with their mother Geraldine served as magician assistants to William Sr
Geraldine was a pioneer in the magical arts during at a time when women were mostly being sawed in half as magician assistants. Geraldine eventually became famous in her own right, dubbed as the ‘First Lady of Illusion’ with her own syndicated television show called ‘The Magic Lady’
In the late 1930s, William Larsen Sr. traded homes with the celebrated magician, Floyd Thayer who built a 70-person theater (above) and operated his magic prop company out of a workshop he built in the backyard. The home was called Brookledge and it became the social epicenter for conjurers around the world. Houdini’s widow, Bess sits front and center
Eventually William Larsen Sr. became disillusioned with practicing law and quit his job in order to pursue his life-long magic hobby. He created a Vaudeville-inspired travelling act at the height of the Great Depression with his two sons, Milt and Bill, along with his wife Geraldine – together the family toured resort hotels across California.
‘There wasn’t a deep tradition of magic on the west coast when Bill Larsen Sr. arrived in California,’ explained Steinmeyer. In 1936, William Larsen Sr. began publishing Genii, a trade magazine for magicians (that still runs today) and his wife, Geraldine became famous in her own right, dubbed as ‘the First Lady of Illusion’ with her own syndicated television show called ‘The Magic Lady.’
6-year-old Milt Larsen performs a card trick for Harry Houdini’s widow, Bess
It was during this time that William Larsen Sr. worked out a deal with Floyd Thayer (a retired magician) to swap his humble Pasadena abode for Thayer’s palatial Hancock Park estate known as Brookledge. To this day, Brookledge, owned by the Larsen family, is an unassuming Spanish-style home with an adjacent 70-person theater, workshop and showroom that the celebrated magician used to display the various props, tools and apparatus he sold under the Thayer Magic Company.
Brookledge became the early blueprint for the Magic Castle. Larsen Sr. transformed his home into a private gathering place for the finest magicians from all around the world. They staged shows in the theater and demonstrated the latest in supernatural sorcery among peers. It soon became the social epicenter for conjurers, prestidigitators and the Larsen’s were at the center of it all.
During WWII, Orson Welles, the distinguished actor notable for his roles in Citizen Kane, The Stranger and Jane Erye rehearsed his USO performance with his wife Rita Hayworth (whom he sawed in half) and Marlene Dietrich, who acted as magician’s assistant. Later, Welles would become one of the first members to join the Magic Castle, he said: ‘I’ve never been excited by movies, as the way I’ve been excited by magic.’
German-born Irene Larsen was a woman ‘who spent her life being sawed in half,’ joked historian Jim Steinmeyer in the documentary. Before she met Bill Larsen Jr, she was first married to another magician named John Daniel, with whom the couple is credited for having performed the first ‘Thin Model Sawing’ illusion in the late 50s. Irene (pictured above in the box) said she was very proud to have assisted many famous magicians during her lifetime. She told the documentary: ‘Once you get into magic, it’s like a disease, it’s like a drug, it won’t let you go’
‘I came from a little village in Bavaria and the next thing I know I’m on stage assisting magicians,’ said Irene in M for Magic. Born in 1936, she caught her big break in 1955 when magician John Daniel asked her to join him on stage during a show
Later, Irene Larsen became a driving force in the Magic Castle as the ‘face’ and hostess that people came to see. ‘She was totally glamorous, just otherworldly grace who told dirty jokes and could drink anyone under the table,’ said her granddaughter, Liberty in the documentary. ‘The word grandmother never applied to her’
In 1951, William Sr. created The Academy of Magical Arts, an organization ‘dedicated to the advancement of the craft.’ He wanted to build an official clubhouse for the group of eccentrics but died prematurely in 1953 at the age of 48 from a cerebral hemorrhage due to alcoholism.
Bill Jr. was a producer at CBS while Milt worked as a young comedy writer in 1963. ‘My office was on the 9th floor with a window over-looking Hollywood and I kept looking at this old dilapidated mansion,’ said Milt in M for Magic. ‘It looked like the Adams family lived there.’
Orson Welles was a habitue of Brookledge where he rehearsed his ‘Mercury Wonder Show’ with William Larsen Sr. Orson’s wife, Rita Hayworth as well as Marlene Dietrich served as his magician’s assistant while they performed the act on tour with the USO
Colin Farrell echoes the sentiment. ‘Driving by it on the street it just looks like the strangest oddity on that hill,’ he tells the camera.
The majestic mansion, ornately crafted with multiple turrets and balconies was originally built in 1909 for Rollin B. Lane, a wealthy banker and his socialite wife. By the 1960s, the home fell into disrepair and was under the ownership of a Texas real-estate developer who allowed Milt to have the building rent-free for a year.
Milt tirelessly refurbished the home and left no stone unturned in the intricately decorated parlor room with a Lalique chandelier, antique magic props, trick bookcases, carved banisters. The maze of corridors and stairways lead guests to a never-ending labyrinth of rooms with sumptuous red wallpaper, gilded mirrors and a library of books. ‘Reason and gravity are all things that sort of just, ‘disappear,” explained musician, Moby in the film.
A former bedroom has been re-designated as the ‘Houndini Séance Chamber’ – it houses the famous escape-artist’s original straitjacket and set of shackles. ‘What Milt built is a thing of legend,’ said Neil Patrick Harris, former President of the club.
It took a whole year to complete, but the Magic Castle officially opened its doors on January 2, 1963. Cary Grant was the club’s first member, but despite the immediate celebrity attention, the club wasn’t an instant success.
In order to attract new members, Bill Jr., who ran the day-to day business operations hired Dai Vernon to become the club’s ‘resident magician.’ Vernon, known to have ‘the greatest sleight of hand’ secured his position in the magic community as a young man when he performed a card trick that stumped Harry Houdini, the great illusionist who prided himself on being able to reverse engineer any other magician’s tricks.
The Magic Castle opened on January 2, 1963 after Milt Larsen spent one year refurbishing the decrepit Victorian home in the Hollywood Hills. An early picture shows members enjoying a drink at the bar where ‘the emphasis was always on magic’ said Bill Jr. in an old televised interview
Bill Jr. was a producer at CBS while Milt worked as young comedy writer in 1963. ‘My office was on the 9th floor with a window over-looking Hollywood and I kept looking at this old dilapidated mansion,’ said Milt in M for Magic. ‘It looked like the Adams family lived there’
Bill Larsen Jr. hired Dai Vernon to become the Magic Castle’s resident illusionist in order to entice new members. ‘Wherever Vernon was, people came,’ said fellow magician, Johnny Thompson in the documentary. Vernon, known for having ’the greatest sleight of hand’ became famous for stumping Houdini during a card trick as a young man
Johnny Thompson (the Great Tomsoni) told the documentary: ‘Wherever Vernon was, people came,’ so Bill Jr. put the legendary card shark up in an apartment and paid for it until he stopped performing in 1990. Vernon became a fixture of the conjurer’s emporium, ‘He was always sitting in a love seat with other magicians, exchanging moves,’ recalled Irene Larsen.
A brief clip of old footage shows the veteran illusionist, schooling a young Doug Henning in the ‘Chinese linking rings’ trick: ‘Don’t make any superfluous moves, try to avoid superfluous moves, take them out,’ he said, ‘and then you’ll end up with something beautiful.’
In another piece of retro footage, Ricky Jay, a master in the art of misdirection tells a late a night television host: ‘The reason I moved to LA was to be with Dai Vernon at the Magic Castle.’
Irene Larson became a driving force in the castle’s early years and throughout the rest of her life, until she died in 2016. Born in a small German village in 1936, she caught her big break in 1955 when magician John Daniel asked her to join him on stage during a show. She was a natural and soon became part of Daniel’s permanent act. The couple got married and were credited for having performed the first ‘Thin Model Sawing’ illusion.
‘She spent her life being sawed in half,’ joked Historian Jim Steinmeyer. Irene said, ‘Once you get into magic, it’s like a disease, it’s like a drug, it won’t let you go.’
Bill Larsen Jr. took over the publication of Genii Magazine after the death of his father. In one of his monthly letters he wrote: ‘As a family man, I’d like to be home with my family every night. On the other hand, I’d like to be at the Castle six nights a week, since I can’t be both places at once, I try to be at the castle as often as possible’
Irene Larsen is lit on fire while performing a trick during her early career as a magician’s assistant. ’Irene owned me from the second she talked to me,’ said Penn Jillette from the performing duo, Penn & Teller. ‘She was faster, funnier and hipper than I was every second, I never really caught on’
David Copperfield (seated, center) between Milt (left) and Irene Larsen said: ‘We all are in debt to the Larsen family for giving us a place to hang out’
After her divorce from Daniel, Irene was deep in the magic circuit when she met and married Bill Larsen Jr. Together they blended their two children from previous marriages and had two more daughters of their own named Erika and Heidi Larsen.
Eventually, all the magicians that Brookledge hosted during the 1930s, 40s and 50s moved to the Magic Castle and intrigue began to grow with its membership. ‘Any time you went to the Castle, there would be celebrities there,’ said Hitchcock muse, Tippi Hedren.
‘The Castle is hallowed ground for anyone who practices this art,’ said Laurence Fishburn who was first introduced to magic by his fellow cast-mate, Marlon Brando during the filming of Apocalypse Now.
Irene and Bill Jr. dove head first into the daily operations at the nightclub which would be open all day until 2am. Bill, ran the books while Irene worked front of the house.
Her outsize character won over the affection and respect of many members, who described her gregariousness as ‘the personality’ of the club. ‘Irene owned me from the second she talked to me,’ said Penn Jillette from the iconic performing duo, Penn & Teller. ‘She was faster, funnier and hipper than I was every second, I never really caught on.’
Almost every night for five decades, Irene held court in her Castle, working the labyrinth of rooms and making sure that members followed the rules: ‘Women are required to dress in business attire of evening wear that is conservative, formal and elegant.’ Men were obliged to wear a formal suit or coat with a dress shirt, tie, slack and no casual footwear.
Irene was particularly close with Siegfried Fischbacher (of Siegfried & Roy, the Las Vegas tiger-entertaining duo), the two bonded over their German ancestry, though that wasn’t enough to get him through the front door one time when he mistakenly showed up wearing jeans and a leather jacket. ‘She turned him away and he had to go buy a shirt and pair of pants before she would let him back in.’
Bill and Irene’s devotion to the craft had some shortcomings for their children, who felt like they took a backseat to their work at the Magic Castle, ‘I had a love hate relationship with the castle my whole life.’
As the club grew in popularity, Bill and Irene became synonymous with the experience and more of their attention was required to sustain it.
Jay Ose performs a close-up card trick at the Magic Castle in the 1960s. Seinfeld actor, Jason Alexander told the documentary: ’The amount of sheer raw knowledge that is in this building on any given night is mind boggling’
Cary Grant, the Magic Castle’s first member stands between Siegfried (right) & Roy, the famous tiger-magic act from Las Vegas. Irene and Siegfried forced a close friendship over the years but she still refused him at the door when he showed up wearing jeans and a leather jacket
Milt Larsen (right) poses with Hollywood actress Ann Margaret and her husband, Roger Smith. ‘Any time you went to the Castle, there would be celebrities there,’ said Hitchcock muse, Tippi Hedren
President Ronald Reagan poses for a photo at the Magic Castle between Milt Larsen and his wife Areline. Milt told the documentary: ‘My wife Arline and I don’t have children but we have 5,000 members in the magic castle and they’re all my children’
The natural impulse to see the family’s legacy continue, turned into more of an obligation that put undue pressure on the third generation Larsens, who were not keen on entering the magic world.
‘None of us wanted anything to do with the magic world, it was just so much for so long, we were all over it,’ said Erika about herself and siblings, this left Bill Jr feeling hopeless.
Despite a steady influx in membership, finances at the Castle were often strapped. Money disappeared like it would in one of their tricks. ‘Many times we would have a mortgage on our house to save the Castle,’ said Irene.
Liberty Larson, a fourth generation family member showed early enthusiasm for the family business but Erika was careful to not apply the same pressure she felt from her parents as a child. But by the time Liberty was a young adult, her enthusiasm for the family business had faded – lost in the the constant family and financial turmoil during the Castle’s free fall.
Milt tirelessly refurbished the old mansion with recycled items he saved from buildings that were being torn down, the bar is made from recycled floorboards from the nearby Hollywood High School
Milt (left) was the creative force behind the Castle’s design while Bill Jr ran the business operation. ‘What Milt built is a thing of legend,’ said Neil Patrick Harris, former President of the club
Irene Larsen and Bill Larsen were honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003
Things got worse after Bill Larsen Jr’s death in 1993. Without his leadership, membership started to decline and the club began to lose its prestige as the art of magic lost favor for movies with special effects.
‘Bill was magic’s greatest diplomat,’ said Steinmeyer and Neil Patrick Harris said the Magic Castle wasn’t the same without him.
Politics and greed among the Board of Directors left Irene iced out of her seat on the board who continued to pillage the company’s diminishing funds. The Castle officially entered the dark ages.
As the Castle slid deeper into decline, the building’s original owners were looking to sell. It was then, that Erika Larsen, the third generation daughter who long swore off magic, put on her top hat and stepped up to the plate. She successfully ran for a seat on the Board of Directors in a last minute bid to save her parent’s life work.
Neil Patrick Harris, a vocal supporter of the Castle became it’s President, and together with Erika, they began to restore the iconic club back to its original luster.
Perhaps the greatest magic trick of all, said Erika, is that 57 years later, the Magic Castle is still here. ‘It’s part of a fairy tale story that almost didn’t happen.’
Liberty Larsen has also had a change of heart in recent years; and it seems more likely that she will carry on the family torch, (or in this case, wand). The fourth generation magician who once swore off the art of illusion has now entered the magic world with a dazzling routine of her own.
‘We all are in debt to the Larsen family, for giving us a place to hang out,’ said David Copperfield. Teller echoed the statement: ‘I am convinced that the Larsens exist for the pleasure of bringing beauty to their friends and to the world.’
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