Any evening that begins by whispering the words "open sesame" to a golden owl with blinking red eyes to open a secret passageway through a faux bookcase is bound to be memorable.
High on a hill, the Magic Castle is a private club for members of Academy of Magical Arts that, over the years, has counted Cary Grant, Mae West, Ryan Gosling and Johnny Depp as visitors and members. Neil Patrick Harris was recently the president.
This is not any private club, it's an ornately decorated Victorian mansion with a Disney-like turret just steps away from Hollywood Boulevard. Inside is the mysterious world of magic. Secret doors and hidden panels lead to the 13 different performance stages where elaborate illusions are performed. For a tourist, the Magic Castle is surprisingly easy to get in to, though a coat and tie or formal frock are obligatory.
If you don't know who Milt Larsen is upon entering, there is no doubt you will by the end of the night. His portrait is everywhere. The 85-year-old leased the mansion back in 1961 and scavenged film sets (including the bar from the movie Hello Dolly, and a Johnny Carson Tonight Show backdrop) to deck it out.
We're sitting down to the compulsory pre-show dinner. After delivering plates of prime rib (the "Harry Houdini Cut"), our waiter points out the new painting of Milt and Walt Disney.
"Two dreamers," he says wistfully.
It was Milt who chose the red-flocked wallpaper, the stained glass windows and trompe l'oeil ceilings. There's a Houdini seance room with the illusionist's straight jacket framed, a well-stocked library and vintage framed posters everywhere. Milt is also behind Invisible Irma the piano-playing ghost who takes requests in the front bar. If you're lucky you might even catch Milt there telling tales.
We gather in the Palace of Mystery theatre to see the headliners, Mark Kalin and Jinger Leigh "with a J". They appear to be a big deal in the magic world. He's an illusionist, she's his assistant – curiously there are no female headliners the night we visit. He saws her in half and they ham it up Vegas-style.
But what's most interesting is the shoptalk at the bar. Much of the pleasure of being a magician is membership in a subculture where methods can be appreciated only by the initiated. There are two men sessioning – the magicians' equivalent of jamming.
"Rub the card with powder dust … now you can fan them and do all the stuff faster," the older bearded man tells the young hopeful who is holding a deck of cards.
"Don't buy third grade cards, man, they are cut the wrong way," he lectures.
"You need ones cut with a sharp knife, you can tell by hearing them man, go for grade one, gold seal and always, always feel the lip."
Between shows, magicians roam the castle dressed in top hat and tails looking for a likely candidate to impress with their timing and theatrics. In an empty basement room a tall man in a cowboy hat walks towards us with a rope, we're cornered. He takes a ring from my finger and threads it. Abracadabra, it's gone. A pause and "El Ropo" makes it reappear.
He then speaks in hushed tones of the two greats – Houdini and Dai Vernon – the king of the cup and ball, the magician-in-residence here until his death aged 99. His urn is mounted on the wall.
Rob Zabrecky, an actor and former musician is limbering up for his second magic show of the night, but the room is full so we're going to have to wait for the third performance. We've got front row seats and I'm called up on stage. He asks me to draw a picture and turn it over. He draws the identical image of Elvis circa 1977. Of course it's all smoke and mirrors but his darkly comical performance leaves us all, well, spellbound.
The night of magic is over. We depart through the iron gates back into a far grander illusion, Hollywood.
Delta Airlines fly from Australia to Los Angeles. See www.delta.com.
STAYING THERE & GETTING IN
If you book a stay at the Magic Castle Hotel (www.magiccastlehotel.com) next door, the nearby Hollywood Hills Hotel (www.hollywoodhillshotel.com) or Hollywood Celebrity Hotel (www.hotelcelebrity.com), they can book a reservation at the Magic Castle for you. Or for a more modern experience, stay at the nearby Loews Hollywood (www.loewshotels.com) which has a rooftop pool and exceptional spa; check the schedule on magiccastle.com and email one of the magicians performing.
If you ask nicely they may be able to put you on the paying guest list, they are allowed a quota a night.
Expect to pay upwards of $98 for the cover charge and compulsory dinner. Formal attire and ID is required.
Andrea Black travelled as a guest of Discover Los Angeles and Delta Airlines.