“Open sesame.” The phrase, spoken to a stone owl on a bookshelf, opens a secret door from the foyer to the interior of Los Angeles’ most magical, most exclusive, venue. From here, a venerable maze of rooms, halls, bars, and theatres offers those lucky enough to gain admission an evening of joy unlike anything else I have experienced anywhere in the world. The Magic Castle never disappoints.
Less than a mile from the bright lights of Hollywood, the Magic Castle was once a Victorian mansion. Since 1963, it has been owned and run by the Academy of Magical Arts, a play space for the world’s greatest magicians, their friends, and their fans. The legends have walked these halls and performed in these showrooms: David Copperfield, Johnny “Ace” Palmer, Ed Alonso, and more. For magicians, this is sacred ground.
Membership can be obtained in two ways. The first is with an exorbitant amount of money. The second, an audition. Members are recognizable by their lapel pins, and make up about 25% of those I see on this normal Saturday night. The rest of the attendees are those fortunate enough to secure an invitation. I am one of those, and have been on several occasions. I count my blessings each time.
For those who don’t have a connection to a member, there is another way to gain entrance to the Magic Castle. Next door, the Magic Castle Hotel stands, a refurbished apartment building offering overly large rooms in the heart of Hollywood. Darren Ross is the CEO and General Manager of the Magic Castle Hotel. He is also someone I am privileged to call a friend, and my sponsor for tonight’s Magic Castle evening.
Darren and I sit down for coffee a couple days prior to my Magic Castle date. We are in the courtyard of the hotel, next to a clear pool offering what has to be the world’s coolest hotel amenity: the popsicle hotline. Simply lift the red emergency phone and you will be rewarded with popsicle service on a silver platter, brought poolside by a staff that has consistently had the Magic Castle Hotel ranked number one for service in Los Angeles on TripAdvisor. (The hotel as a whole has never ranked outside the top ten in the nearly eight years I’ve known Darren, a feat made even more impressive with prices less than half of the other hotels in that exalted stratum.)
Darren tells me that for those who book the Magic Castle Hotel directly on their website (click here for that website) the hotel will make you a reservation at the Magic Castle. Packages are even offered for a suite and a dining credit at the Castle.
If good prices, great service, and admission to an exclusive club isn’t enough, Darren and the hotel are also involved in humanitarian work. During the year that the hotel was closed for Covid, Darren offered it to the city of Los Angeles for Project Safe Haven, allowing victims of domestic violence to live here for free in one of the property’s 43 guest rooms. Darren continued to pay staff to be present, and kept many of the hotel’s amenities going, at his own expense. (He has also offered empty rooms to those facing relocation due to fires in the area. Again, for free.)
Back at the Magic Castle, I head straight for the Close-Up Gallery, a small theatre seating around 25, where the farthest you’ll be from your magician performer is about eight feet. Terry Lunceford amazes me (and the rest of the small audience) with card and coin tricks. He is the first of three performers to use this space tonight, and I’ll return later to enjoy Aki Mitsui and his close-up magic.
The Magic Castle has three “main” showrooms, along with several other performance spaces. I am even called up on stage randomly by Kevin Li in the mid-sized Parlor of Prestidigitation, where that magician, fresh off stumping Penn and Teller on “Fool Us,” somehow manages to borrow a couple credit cards out of my wallet without me noticing. (He returns them, so no harm done.) The largest room, the Palace of Mystery, is headlined tonight by Lucy Darling and David Kaplan. By this point in the evening, much of the audience is fairly intoxicated, and Lucy expertly plays off the drunken exclamations from all quarters. (The Castle has at least five bars I can think of off the top of my head, with good – albeit pricy – cocktails.)
Between shows and drinks, the Magic Castle offers other entertainment options. In one small parlor, a ghost named Irma plays piano. Ask nicely (read: Irma, can you please play…) and she will delight you. To give you an idea of her range, I request Rhapsody in Blue and then Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. Both are expertly played. Meanwhile, you can venture downstairs to the basement. Here, magician members of the Castle take turns performing for visitors. As one such member, Georgia, tells me, she loves doing it because her family is sick of her tricks. Another member, who says to call him Just Joe, similarly likes to perform for strangers who haven’t seen his routine before.
Dinner is required for all non-members who visit the Magic Castle. It is expensive, but the food is good. I eat the first beef Wellington I’ve had in at least a decade, surrounded by formally dressed magic fans enjoying their food. The dress code is strictly formal. For men, slacks, jacket, and tie are mandatory. I forgot my tie, so bought a snazzy one at the entrance here. Women are all in dresses as far as I notice.
A brief note here on recent controversy at the Magic Castle. In late 2020, it came to light that there was a history of racial and sexual discrimination and harassment of both staff and performers. Since then, the place has come under new management, and is said to be working on making positive cultural changes. For what it’s worth, of seven performers I saw on this visit, two were women, and three were men of minority backgrounds. It is still an industry dominated by white men, but I am hopeful that the institution can learn from past mistakes and move forward. That does not, however, excuse past behavior, nor do I mean it to belittle the terrible experiences many must have been subjected to over the decades.
“But magic is for kids,” many exclaim. To those, I have two responses. First, no it isn’t. Ask those who pay literally hundreds of dollars to see top magicians perform in Las Vegas or other places. Second, it is a true blessing to be able to be amazed for an evening, like a child. I don’t know how these tricks are done, nor do I want to. I like being bewildered, and judging by the astounded exclamations of those around me – perhaps slightly aided by alcohol – so do they.
It is an expensive evening. With dinner and drinks, you can expect to pay well over $100 per person (less for weekend brunch, the only times children under 21 are allowed), but as a one-time experience I consider it worthwhile. Even as a once every few years event, I don’t mind. It is worth that for the shows, for the environment, and even for the building itself (although no photography of any sort is allowed inside, so you’ll have to take my word for it).
So whether you are a local Angeleno, or a visitor to the City of Angels, add the Magic Castle to your bucket list. Spend an evening being amazed by world-class magicians, having an experience that is completely unique in the world. You won’t regret it.
Thank you to Darren Ross for my invitation to the Magic Castle. Thank you as well for your friendship, and for the good you do for our community.
Like it? Pin it!