Hollywood's Magic Castle

Enchants guests and teaches teens the ways of magic   

Hollywood's Magic Castle by Barbara Neal VarmaIt's not Harry Potter's Hogwarts and down below is not a moat but Hollywood Boulevard. This is the Magic Castle, the world famous private club for magicians, where young illusionists come to audition for the Castle's elite Junior Society. As many as 50 teen wizards recently appeared to learn the fine art of magic. If selected, they will apprentice with the best: master magicians such as David Copperfield, Lance Burton - maybe even David Blaine if free from his latest self-imposed captivity. They will learn the ancient art of illusion, practiced and performed for centuries since Merlin first made a gold coin appear out of thin air. They carried cards and coins and other tricks of the trade, practicing just a few seconds more before they auditioned before the masters - five minutes tops - to prove their worth. Only a select few will pass the test.

   The Magic Castle rests on the Hollywood hillside like Marilyn Monroe on a divan, its classic style in direct contrast to the modern, more ordinary structures surrounding it, causing passersby to stare and wonder what secrets reside within. When Milt Larson first saw the old Victorian in 1960, then the Lane Mansion, he knew he had to have it as his own -- in memory of his father, a magic man with a lifelong dream of a private magicians' club. The vacant structure was many years neglected; weeds flourished while paint faded and dust and grime settled in. Larson, then a writer for NBC, sought out the owner, Texas tycoon Thomas Glover, Sr., and convinced him the house was a prime example of the elegance that was once Hollywood. With Glover's blessing, Larson and a team of recruits including John Shrum, art director for "Truth or Consequences," stripped the Castle down to its original smooth wood skin and storybook beauty. On January 2, 1963 with a liquor license still wet from the printer and barely enough time to say "Open sesame!" the Magic Castle opened its wide double doors for business. Enchantment restored.

Magic Castle   These days guests continue to be charmed by the old-world splendor captured within the Castle, its interior an eclectic mix of Victorian elegance, vaudeville posh and salvaged antiques all with a story. Members and their invited guests gain entry through a secret passage which leads into the main lounge and from there into a myriad of other rooms where food and libations are served and magicians perform every type of magic. A velvet parlor is home to a piano-playing ghost, and for a jolly good time, join a séance in the Houdini room. Visitors are required to honor the dress code: gents, you're in a suit and tie, and ladies, grab that little black number hanging in the back of your close - this is the magic night you've been waiting for. 

   The idea for a junior program appeared in 1974. Diana Zimmerman, Junior Society Chairman Emeritus, felt the time was ripe for the Castle to host a program to teach teens not just magic, but showmanship, pride, the promise that nothing is impossible. There was just one glitch. "Back then," Zimmerman recalls, "the Castle wasn't so keen on kids. I kept badgering my ex-husband who was on the Board to suggest the idea, and he did, but it pretty much fell on deaf ears."

   Until a member of the Board named Cary Grant heard about it.   

   "One evening I was sitting in the Castle's upstairs bar with Cary Grant and he said, 'Diana, it's a shame no young people are involved.' I nearly fell off my chair. I said, 'That's what I've been saying!' Right then and there he brought me into the Board meeting and said, 'Diana's got a great idea.'"

   Zimmerman laughs. "It's one thing to turn me down, quite another to say no to Cary Grant. The Board voted and approved it that same night."

   They decided to form a magic club for kids ages 13 through 19 who were interested in magic - "seriously" interested the guidelines stressed - and who could attend monthly meetings at the Castle to develop their skills. The intent was not to teach them magic, per se, but to provide them the support and environment they needed to enhance the skills they already possessed, a philosophy that Zimmerman and the other Junior Society sponsors continue to tout today.

   "The program has really grown in the past 30 years," she says, adding with an almost maternal pride: "Marvin Roy-he's also in magic-said you never meet a bad kid with a hobby, and magic is such a special hobby. When you do magic you're not thinking how you can't do something, you're thinking how you can. It teaches kids to say, 'Yes, I can,' not, 'No, I can't.'"

   Even girls are getting in on the act these days; this year's group includes five Herminias. Last year's winner of the Junior Achievement Award was not a lad but a young lady.

   "I remember the day I auditioned," says Nathan Gibson, Junior Program member and World Magic Seminar - Close-up champion. "I was just 14 and had only been doing magic for about six months. There were all these people in line practicing tricks, talking about what they wanted to do." He shakes his head. "It was intimidating."

   But two weeks later Gibson received the letter, not by owl but by mail: He was in, one of the lucky few out of about 50 that day.

   "I think what helped was everyone else was doing coins or cards," Gibson said, "but I did a rope trick. I was the guy with the rope."

   Bob Dorian, the program's current committee chairman agrees that sometimes being unique is the best trick of all. "We've been doing this so long, we know in the first 20 seconds if someone is ready or not. It's a matter of having something different, not just a magic talent but a quality that benefits them and will benefit us as well."

   Adult magician members must also audition before a panel of pros, plus pay an annual membership fee. Non-magician or "Associate" members pay, too, but at a higher rate, the price for not having to learn how to pull a rabbit out of a hat in front of their friends and family (or current squeeze). Once in, adult members and their guests can enjoy an unlimited number of visits and magic shows throughout the year, and best of all, the $20 dollar per person door fee disappears.

   "I think it's harder for a junior member to get in than an adult," Gibson said, "because the adults are there to use the club but we're there to learn."
Indeed. In addition to attending the monthly meetings, Junior Program members are expected to work together and take turns critiquing each other's latest technique, offering feedback or high fives as the effect warrants. And one must not forsake one's studies. The Castle's extensive "members only" library filled with books and videos on magic is also available to the group.

   Junior Program members are expected to perform during Saturday or Sunday brunch performances when the Castle is open to the under-21-years-old crowd. Those that excel are asked to perform during the Future Stars of Magic week and Young Adults Night, showing what they've learned to a regular evening audience.

   It can be a rigorous routine but these kids aren't complaining. Their mentors are among the magic elite: Lance Burton and Siegfried & Roy, just to name a few. Former juniors turned professional magicians such as Jason Latimer - that's World Champion of Magic Jason Latimer - and Lance Burton's protégé Danny Cole, also come back on occasion to mentor and set a good example.

   "They introduce us to all the top magicians," Gibson said. "We went to Las Vegas one time and toured David Copperfield's magic warehouse."

   And the tour guide? "It was him, David Copperfield."

   So who does Gibson say is his biggest influence? "My mom. She's seen a lot of shows, a lot of magicians. I'd show her a trick and she'd tell me if it wasn't that good. Most moms, they'd say, 'That's great,' but not my mom. I'd have to keep practicing the trick to get it better. I knew if she said it was good, it really was."

   Today the Castle still stands ready to receive, its tall turrets, graceful gables and winking beveled glass all reminders of days gone by when sorcerers stood by their queen and magic reigned over science.

   "It's so rewarding," Zimmerman says. "It's the little things that happen, that change people's lives. That's what makes me the proudest. And proud of Cary Grant that he had the foresight." She sighs, remembering. "He never missed one of their shows."

   It's a legacy Nathan Gibson is happy to inherit. "The Junior Program put me in the heart of the magic community. All the magicians go there. It helps you take your magic to the next level."

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