New documentary lifts the veil on Hollywood's exclusive 'Magic Castle'
Hollywood’s mecca of magic: New documentary pulls back the curtain on the eccentric dynasty of magicians that run the legendary Magic Castle – where members David Copperfield, Orson Welles and Cary Grant used secret passwords to enter through a trick door
- New documentary ‘M for Magic’ reveals the history of Los Angeles’ legendary Magic Castle; a private exclusive club for magicians
- Former and current members include David Copperfield, Cary Grant, Orson Welles, Steve Martin, Penn & Teller, Johnny Carson, Siegfried & Roy, Dai Vernon
- All visitors are strictly forbidden unless granted invitation by a member
- Among the dining room, handful of stages, and magic library inside is the ‘Harry Houdini Séance Chamber’
- The Magic Castle was started in 1963 by the eccentric Larsen family who has maintained control of the club for almost six decades and four generations
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 infamous, ‘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 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 to Deadline. 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 the M for Magic documentary. 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.
‘I come from a little village in Bavaria and the next thing I know I’m on stage assisting magicians,’ said Irene in M for Magic. ‘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. Brando hired a magician as entertainment for a party that he organized for his colleagues and Fishburn was forever hooked after the sorcerer turned a handkerchief into a dove.
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, Erika, Larsen told M for Magic: ‘Growing up, it’s as if my parents had five children.’ She added, ‘I had a love hate relationship with the castle my whole life.’
‘As the Castle grew bigger, more of their energy was needed to sustain it, when people came they expected to see Bill and Irene, that was part of the trip,’ said Erika.
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’
Being a shy child, Erika said that she often felt overwhelmed and that her childhood was ‘like growing up in a fishbowl.’
‘I don’t think the kids really knew what they were in for when they entered this strange world of magic, they were sorta royalty but nobody taught them how to be prince and princesses,’ said Max Maven, Vice-President of the Magic Castle.
Heidi Larson, (the elder of the two sisters) was presumed to be the heir apparent of her family’s legacy, but as she got older, she was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and buckled under her parent’s high expectations. Irene struggled with accepting Heidi’s illness.
‘There’s a natural impulse in a family when you created something special to see that legacy continue the same way you’d want to see a bloodline continue,’ said Liberty Larsen, a fourth generation magician and the granddaughter of Bill and Irene. ‘For my mom’s generation, there was a lot of obligation and that felt more like pressure.’
‘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. The reality of this caused her father Bill to feel hopeless and Irene told the documentary: ‘I just couldn’t believe the children had no desire to be in the magic business.’
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 grew up with a penchant for performing. Careful to not make the same mistakes her as her parents, Erika said, ‘When Libby was younger, I thought for sure she had the show business bug, but I didn’t want to push her, you can’t tell your kids what to do, that’s for sure.’
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.
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. Neil Patrick Harris told the documentary: ‘He was so connected to the Magic Castle, they were one in the same to me.’
Not long after his death, Irene was boxed out by the Board of Directors who left her penniless and pillaged the company’s demising funds. Without their Bill, the Castle entered the dark ages. ‘It was every man for themselves,’ recalled Erika.
Erika took over Genii Magazine. And even though Irene was no longer being paid by the Castle, she was still expected to show up every night as ‘the face.’
The Larsen family magic wand has been passed down to Liberty Larsen, a fourth generation magician who long refused her family’s legacy
Erika Larsen (left) stands with her mother Irene (right) and Uncle Milt. Erika, a third generation magician, along with her daughter, Liberty now run the Magic Castle
Irene Larsen and Bill Larsen were honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003
It was very important for Irene to be the support for others, and she was careful not to splinter the community that her and Bill spent years building. ‘She did receive a lot of medicine through social interaction’ said Liberty in the documentary and she put pressure on her family to put on a happy face for their guests.
‘It’s not about image, it’s about a sense of service; that’s what was ingrained in us,’ said Liberty who admitted that growing up under her grandmother’s watchful eye was ‘like the most intense charm school you’ve ever been to.’
This contributed to Liberty’s reticence in carrying on her family’s torch, (or in this case, wand). She said: ‘Why would I take performing something that I love and put it where it’s subject to everyone’s opinion, including the people closest to me?’
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.
‘So much of her heart went into it because she was protecting something that belonged to our family and our community,’ said Liberty. ‘And I know she was also doing it for her dad.’
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.’
In recent years, Liberty Larsen has also had a change of heart. The fourth generation magician who long refused to trade in card tricks, mind games and flash paper has decided to carry on her family’s tradition with a dazzling routine of her own. ‘It took so much nerve for me to book my first solo week in the parlor room in the Castle, but of course, sitting in the front row for every performance was her grandmother, Irene.
‘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.’
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
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