Magic Castle Revisited. Part Six.

•June 22, 2017 • 3 Comments

I couldn’t write this memoire without briefly discussing the joys of the numerous other characters who comprised the weave and fabric of the Castle in those joyous evenings back in the mid-seventies. It was always a pleasure to spend an hour in the Owl Bar drinking and listening to the deliciously barbed and acerbic comments of John Schrum. John was the art designer from the Tonight Show and could seemingly drink endlessly throughout the evening without ever appearing one iota inebriated. Perhaps you would spend time sitting at the main bar in the company of the incomparable Ron Wilson as he sat steadily sipping on glasses of scotch diluted with milk, while he shared his endless magical wisdom.

I always enjoyed joining Billy McComb, who would often be sitting at the Main Bar puffing away on his pipe, spinning a complicated yarn and performing one of his innumerable “Packet Tricks.” Billy was one of the many Irishmen who could consistently prove that it was speech and not silence that was golden. In the Hat & Hare Pub, Jules Lenier would amaze and amuse in the most maximum manner utilizing the most minimal of props. Later on as night advanced into morning, Jules could often be found telling tall tales of his early days in New York spent writing comedy with the likes of the great Jackie Mason.

In the Close Up Gallery or dining room Albert Goshman would often be found in a crumpled and greasy tuxedo working his wonders with coins and a saltcellar for astounded audiences. Perhaps later in the evening you could talk Tony Giorgio into reciting items from his repertoire of intriguing and authentic grifter poetry. Some nights you might even get to spend a few minutes chatting with Charlie Miller as he rushed around the Castle. Charlie, unlike most magicians, always seemed to be in a hurry as he passed through the Castle.

So many wonderful memories, with new ones being created nightly, no wonder the Castle was, and still is such a unique and beloved institution.

“As I sat in front of the Magic Castle on that 50th anniversary, I listened to the speeches mingling with the sound of the elaborate fountain directly behind us, and all these precious memories paraded through my mind as an entire separate panorama of reminisces and events. Are my memories bathed in a rosy glow of nostalgia? You bet they are. As I write this short memoir I am saddened to realize that everyone I have written about in this story, other than Milt Larsen, is no longer with us. Milt remains strategically center stage, as the ringmaster who created the ultimate magic circus and is unquestionably the man without whom the Magic Castle would have remained but a wistful dream.

 These particular memories are just joyous fragments and shadows of the past that I wanted to share with those who didn’t have the good fortune to be there in those golden years. Fortunately 40 years later the Magic Castle remains firmly in place creating fresh and vivid memories for entire new generations. The club is now more commercial, better run, and more successful than ever before and looks set to entrance magicians and their guests for another 50 years. The Castle has an indomitable life of its own, based squarely on the shoulders of the individuals who have brought it to life over the years. For me though I will always love it best in those earlier years when I was young.”

I  strongly encourage you to read Ron Wilson’s outstanding book “Tales from The Uncanny Scot,” which is an essential resource for anyone who truly wishes to understand the roots of the Magic Castle. There are still a few copies of this limited edition book available at http://uncannyscot.weebly.com


 

Magic Castle Revisited. Part Five.

•June 19, 2017 • 2 Comments

Further explorations in our retro Magic Castle tour.

The maître d’ in the dining room was Monty, who was a very important figure to impecunious conjurers such as myself. During those years a group of diners could hire a magician to perform at their table for 30 dollars. Many months when it was creeping perilously close to rent time, Monty would save the day for me. If I could score three “dinner shows” during the final week of the month then our 80-dollar rent was covered while still leaving a ten spot to give to Monty. I once performed a show in the dining room for my childhood hero Tony Curtis (Houdini to me), and after a 40-minute show he stiffed me for most of my fee by slipping a single five-dollar bill into my pocket as I left the table. Still, this was Hollywood, so being stiffed by a movie star was so much better than being stiffed by a regular Joe.

Looking back from the current day to the sepia past, I am also amazed at how keenly I remember the blue pungent haze of smoke that surrounded and almost obscured the various bars in the Magic Castle; whether it was, the numerous cigarettes, occasional fragrant cigar, or that grand old pro Johnny Platt puffing away at his pipe. Sometimes it was difficult to see even such substantial bartenders as Jimmy Campbell or Lauren through the curtain of smoke. I seem to remember that some of the younger members smoking less salubrious substances in the parking structure that was later to become the new “wing” of the Castle. I don’t have any personal knowledge of this, or then again perhaps my memories are just hazy.

One memorable Magic Castle highlight was the night the Los Angeles Fire Department closed down the Castle from business as usual. Unperturbed the management and magicians moved the shows and action into the parking structure where the magic continued unabated and without missing a beat. I was performing that night and it became a great story to embellish and share over the years. That particular evening is how I best like to remember Bill Larsen. Our President donned a spiffy tuxedo and played the elegant host for the entire evening, while the drab parking structure was transformed into the Magic Castle al fresco. It was a splendid occasion as the potential disaster was somehow miraculously transformed into an improvised triumph. I have always assumed that it was on that extraordinary evening that the idea for the Palace of Mysteries and the subsequent expansion of the clubhouse was born.


 

Houdini On Channel Four.

•June 16, 2017 • 2 Comments

I often find people who half remember the really cool starring role I had in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents back in the ’90s. It was especially written for me by the Executive Producer Michael Sloan and was quite an acting stretch. The episode was all about Harry Houdini and featured some (at the time) very rare Houdini footage from the Manny Weltman collection. All the props in my Houdini Seance Room were authentic Houdini memorabilia from Abb Dickson’s collection.  If you haven’t seen it then you will enjoy it.

If you want to read more about the filming of this show check out the stories HERE 

 

 

Magic Castle Revisited. Part Four.

•June 15, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Are you ready to visit the 2nd and 3rd floor of the Magic Castle?

The third floor of the Castle contained the executive offices for the club and also, more importantly, its fine little library. The green baize table located in the center of the library was considerately placed there for magicians to baffle each other with their latest miracles. However, as every magician knew, the table’s real role was to house the never-ending hearts game between Vernon, Kuda Bux, Joe (The King of Cards) Cossari, and Joe Berg. The banter and bickering between these dear friends was always a delight to listen to. Many a young performer was happy to linger at the bookshelves pretending to study a complex book by Ed Marlo while actually eavesdropping on the Hearts game; trying to remember tidbits to casually impress their friends with at a later time. It was widely believed that any of players were free to cheat during the game, but faced extreme social disgrace from their contemporaries if caught doing so.

Coming down the little staircase from the third floor library, if you made a sharp right turn you arrived in the dining room at the Castle. During the ‘70s the Magic Castle didn’t feature quite the haute cuisine dining that has recently blossomed in our clubhouse, but even in those far away days it was a pretty impressive experience. The highlight of the menu was the delicious prime rib, or if you weren’t hungry enough for such hearty fare, you could dine scrumptiously on the Festal Board and the Castle’s award winning chili. A very significant part of each performer’s remuneration in those early days was receiving your dinner on the nights you officially entertained in the club. I would happily feast at the Festal Board and then return home with my prime rib (end cut) in a Bunny Bag; my wife Susan and I would share it for breakfast the next morning. Friday luncheon featured another special dining delight, when the kitchen would serve up all the delicious beef ribs that had accumulated during the week.

There were two other great reasons to visit the dining room at the Castle. The first was that whenever passing through the dining room I was able to enjoy a brief visit with Sandy Spillman, the resident host of the adjacent Houdini séance room. If there was a finer and kinder gentleman than Sandy in the magic world I am yet to meet him. As knowledgeable as he was modest, Sandy was a true prince of a human being.
We will continue our virtual tour of the ’70s era Magic Castle in the next post.


 

Magic Castle Revisited. Part Three.

•June 12, 2017 • 2 Comments

Get ready to explore the ’70s era Magic Castle a little further!

In the mid ‘70s the Castle was a demonstrably smaller space and contained just two show rooms: The Close-Up Gallery, and the Castle Cabaret. The Cabaret was a tiny theatre located in what had begun its life as the basement of the original building. It seated about 40 people in comfortable red velvet movie house chairs, and then another 15 or so people stood at the rear of the room. It was always referred to as the Big Room!

In my first week performing in the Castle Cabaret, sharing a bill with the delightfully enigmatic Kuda Bux, I had what remains to this day one of my headiest performing experiences. Prior to introducing the show, Don Lawton popped into my dressing room and with a twinkle in his eye casually informed me that Cary Grant was sitting with David Niven in the audience, and seated at the rear of the room were Ingrid Bergman and Goldie Hawn. Was I nervous? Oh yes…

After concluding a show in the Cabaret I would often make my way up to the Castle library to see what was happening there. There were two ways to navigate this particular journey; one was via the grand central staircase with its imposing grandfather clock. The clock was widely rumored to have stopped at the exact minute Jay Ose had shuffled off this mortal coil; actually I heard several names mentioned in this connection, but most frequently it was Mr. Ose. However, generally my preferred route upstairs was a detour that involved a short cut through the kitchen that allowed me a brief sojourn in the little room that housed Prof. Dave Bourne. Bourne was the genial bearded ragtime pianist who brought Irma to life on most nights. Dave was a Kenny Rogers look alike and the kind of man who improved any day just by spending a few minutes in his company. I spent many happy hours in Dave’s anonymous little hideaway eavesdropping on guests as they requested their favorite tunes.

Dave and I had become firm friends dating back to the period when he had accompanied the acts at Milt Larsen’s Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica. One evening while performing at the Mayfair my Zombie Ball had dropped to the ground in mid routine, and Bourne had been deeply impressed with the nonchalant manner in which I continued the routine using just the gimmick. I’m not sure if the audience saw me sweat during the incident but they certainly heard plenty of laughter emanating from the orchestra pit.

 

 

Next post we will explore the upstairs of the Castle!

 

Magic Castle Revisited. Part Two.

•June 9, 2017 • Leave a Comment

This is the continuation of my virtual tour of the ’70s era Magic Castle.

Another iconic resident of the Castle was the legendary “Senator” Clarke Crandall. My first meeting with “Senator” Crandall was in his capacity as host. No sooner had we been introduced than he began to recite a quasi-biblical story about God instructing mankind on how to make a profit on the selling of polo shirts by sewing an alligator on the front of them. As he spoke he puffed on one of his signature spiral shaped cigars that definitely looked a great deal better than it smelt. After Crandall finished his recitation, I politely mentioned how much I enjoyed the writings of Woody Allen. The tale he told had been taken word for word from Woody’s first book, but fared even better for being translated into the spoken word. After I made this observation, the Senator gave me a sideways glance, a slight scowl and said, “A magician who reads actual books. I will have to keep an eye on you.” I am not sure if he really did keep an eye on me, but if the truth is told Crandall always scared me just the tiniest bit. I wish I had got to know him a little bit better.

Upon entering the Castle, once you had passed through the sliding bookcase, the first thing most magicians would do was turn their gaze to the left and see if Dai Vernon was in his regular seat on the little couch in front of the Close-Up Gallery. Most nights would find him holding court there, with a cigar in one hand, a deck of cards in the other, and a snifter of brandy on the table in front of him. Seated around “The Professor” would be a crowd of the very best of the current crop of Young Turks hanging on his every word. They were waiting for him to casually impart the “moves” and gems of card handling in person that had escaped being immortalized in his written work. They were seldom disappointed.

Vernon was gracious and generous in these impromptu demonstrations of his mastery as he imparted his endless wisdom. After a while one began to realize how shrewdly he calculated the ability of his students to grasp the lessons he dispensed. One quickly realized that like every true master Dai was fully aware that no information passed on to lesser minds was truly worthwhile if those receiving it were unable to put the information into application. The Professor was exceedingly careful to teach each particular student exactly what it was that they needed to learn. It was also instantly apparent that nothing gave Vernon more pleasure than seeing a young magician perform a sleight or trick that added to his own inestimable knowledge. The purest form of teaching is always a two-way street between those involved in the process.

Some nights The Professor was joined in his corner by master magicians such as Bruce Cervon, Larry Jennings, Mike Skinner, or Tony Giorgio–it was truly a sight to behold as they traded their tricks. I loved to watch these mind-bending sessions.

Over the years Vernon became quite a fan of my comedy magic act, but could never quite understand my need to inject comedy into my sleight of hand work. My very favorite memories of Dai were the nights when I would drive him back to his little apartment, stopping at the local supermarket for a few groceries. Pushing a rickety shopping cart around the Hughes Market while a demonstrably inebriated Professor selected items for his refrigerator was an honor I remember fondly. Usually Vernon would take these opportunities to good naturedly assure me it wasn’t too late to forsake the jokes and concentrate fully on my card work.

The third part of my tour will be in the next blog post!

 

 


 

Magic Castle Revisited. Part One.

•June 7, 2017 • Leave a Comment

“We sat around in front of the turreted Victorian styled building in rows of folding chairs, directly ahead was a makeshift stage underneath a canopy of black and white balloons. The occasion was the 50th Annual Founders Day Party at the world famous Magic Castle on the second of January 2013. There was the hustle and bustle of gossiping guests who were busy catching up with each other, seeing and being seen. The chance of mingling with the famous, not so famous, friends, and foes meant that the seats weren’t filled until the formal ceremonies commenced. I realized that I had never seen some of those present in sunlight before, and I’m not sure it improved all of them.

 As the speeches commenced I settled back and enjoyed listening to Milt and Princess Irene Larsen share their anniversary Magic Castle memories. The beloved duo talking were the two remaining founders of the world’s greatest magic clubhouse. I knew them both well enough, and had known them for long enough, that I was darn sure that there was little they would say that would surprise or profoundly enlighten me. Sitting under the California sunshine on that balmy January afternoon I allowed my mind to drift back to past eras and previous visits to this hallowed magical playground. There had been a decade when it had seemed like my second home.

 Most, but not all, of my memories of the Magic Castle were very happy. The prime source of any sadness about the Castle was connected with how many of my favorite people were no longer in their usual places within its red and golden walls. Waiting there in the shadow of the main entrance to the club, I found myself longing for a draft beer and shot of chilled Patron from the ice luge that had been installed in the Inner Circle especially for the event. However, there was still a little time before the formalities of the occasion morphed into the party that was destined to follow. Sitting on that increasingly uncomfortable folding chair, I allowed my thoughts to drift back to the days that were to me the halcyon era of the Castle. Come join me on my nostalgic trip back to the mid-seventies incarnation of this iconic institution.”


 I first joined the Magic Castle in February 1974, and like every other member before and since that time, I was assured that I had missed the really great years of the club. The Magic Castle has evolved and followed its own strange path over the years, and to call the Castle eccentric back in the ‘70s would be an understatement of monumental proportions. The Magic Castle was a wonderfully quirky little drinking club that marched to the curious beat of magic. It was filled with a vibrant bunch of magicians, celebrities, nobodies, and somebodies all rubbing shoulders in an awesome mix of incongruent elegance, and a general sense of vague disorder. Back in those days the Castle didn’t really follow a blueprint, it just happened, unfolding in a somewhat haphazard manner. This was a huge part of its charm.

On my first visit to the Magic Castle I really wasn’t too sure what to expect, although I did know it was considered my many to be the worldwide center of the magical arts. However, exactly what happened after you whispered “Open Sesame” to the golden owl, and walked through the sliding bookcase was a mystery to me. This was the perfect way to experience my induction into the mansion at 7001 Franklin Avenue; for isn’t mystery the natural ground zero to any magical experience?

On my first visit to the Castle I was lucky enough to be given a tour and introduced to the regulars by the inimitable Don Lawton. Don was one of the hosts at the club, and as I was to soon discover he was also one of the finest, kindest, and funniest members of its community. On a busy and overworked evening Don took the time to thoroughly welcome this 22-year-old newcomer to his world. In those years the Castle hosts were magical performers whose very presence added immeasurably to the joys, authority and authenticity of the club. These gentlemen didn’t just introduce a show they were a show.

In addition to Lawton the hosts included close-up of wiz Jack Hurlbert, and the trumpet playing Mickey O’Malley. Towards the end of each Castle evening Mickey would play “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” on his trumpet in the Irma room, somewhat to the bewilderment of unaware visitors. In a club filled with eccentrics Mickey stood second to none in this regard.

We will continue our virtual tour of the ’70s era Magic Castle in the next post.

 



 

 

 
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