Milt Larsen. 36 years of friendship and counting.

When I first arrived in Los Angeles it was 1974. I had exactly $50 to my name and a bunch more energy and drive than I have now! For various reasons my wife Susan and I spent our first night staying in one of her friends houses in Santa Monica. I was anxious to see my new homeland and while my wife went to sleep I took a long walk around Santa Monica. I just couldn’t wait to explore.

Much to my amazement one of the first things I saw was a building that looked like a beautifully recreated Old English Music Hall. The marquee proclaiming that my powers of observation were smack on and read, ‘The Mayfair Music Hall.’ I was very excited and the next morning told Susan that I had already found a place where I could work. I just knew it.

I visited the ‘Mayfair’ later that week and met its creator, a highly pleasant and friendly chap called Milt Larsen. He took the time to have a couple of drinks with me and I discovered that this was the same person who had created the ‘Magic Castle.’ well I certainly knew all about the Castle by reputation and definitely wanted to visit and to work there as soon as I could.

However, I got my first job at the ‘Mayfair,’ I was very excited, an actual wage! It wasn’t much, but coupled with a very short career selling men’s clothing in the Northridge Mall it allowed me to join the Castle! My work continued with various weeks at the ‘Mayfair’ and then branched out also into weeks at the Castle. It was the foundation of my career in America and the greatest training ground a young performer could wish for.

Over the next few years I met Milt often and he was always friendly, courteous and best of all encouraging. He always bought me a drink, I remember with a pang of horror the night I asked him what he was drinking and he replied, “Aquavit.” I said, “I’ll try one too.” They just don’t make hangovers like that anymore.

The more I got to know Milt, the more I discovered that he had truly created my two hubs of work. I mean actually created, with a hammer in one hand, a glass of wine in the other and most important of all a vision in his mind that could create something unique and tangible from abstract ideas. I developed an enormous respect for this slightly crazed creator, carpenter and T.V. writer and it is a respect that has only grown through the years.

Suddenly, there was talk of a new venture  ‘a society for the preservation of the variety arts,’ it was very vague initially but I paid fifty dollars to become a member of a club, that existed mostly in one man’s head and didn’t even have a clubhouse where members could meet. That didn’t worry me, and I was right not to worry, because that germ of an idea turned into a four-story building with a full sized theatre, a nightclub, a restaurant and the look and feel of an old fashioned and larger than life venue, it was just another of Milt’s ‘Castles in the air’ that arrived firmly on the ground. The ‘Variety Arts Center’ was born.

The ‘Magic Castle,’ however was always Milt’s masterpiece and a glorious tribute to the ideas of his father William Larsen Sr. It has employed more magicians and encouraged, nurtured and given them a perfect ‘Jewel Box’ to showcase what was a quickly declining form of entertainment. In fact, I think it is fair to say that in the ’70s the Magic Castle, along with Siegfried & Roy and Doug Henning gave magic a re-birth. The Art of Close-Up Magic would certainly never have developed as it has without the Castle.

One interesting thing was the way the Castle never quite remained physically the same, not only subtle changes but some very major expansions too, Milt couldn’t resist his instincts to improve what most people would have considered a fully completed masterpiece. The one constant was that magic always remained as the heart, soul and core of his creation.

Milt never seemed that concerned with the day to day running of the Castle, while obviously having an extremely shrewd business sense, he stepped back to let his brother Bill take care of the day to day affairs. Milt may have had the mind of a good businessman but his soul remained that of a highly creative artist. A pretty smart call!

Times change, not always for the better, and at a certain point the off hand casualness and eccentricities of the Castle were seen as some kind of weakness instead of one the keys to its continued success. Well, at a certain point the desire to create a slick and commercial vehicle out of what was always a work of love by both creators and performers suddenly arrived on the scene. It usually does.

Has recent change improved the Magic Castle for its membership, I suspect any long-term member (my membership number is in the mid 2000s, so I’m not a part of the true pioneers, but pretty close to the source!) would give you the same answer? Do I need to tell you what it would be? I won’t do so because any off my readers who know me understand I always run a mile from speaking my mind or being controversial. LOL.

Let me just say that Milt has earned my respect and admiration for 36 years now. He’s not an easy man to get to know but I feel we have become real friends over the years, friends in the quiet and understated way we both prefer. The Magic Castle without Milt is as inconceivable as Disneyland without Walt. I guess you could turn Disneyland into a Six Flags operation but what would be lost in the process would be incalculable.

I make these comments in a personal and non-political way; I’m not one to keep up with gossip or Internet forums so my timing is quite random. I just want to thank Milt for creating three unique venues and being a friend for 36 years and counting……………

~ by Nick Lewin on July 21, 2010.

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