The first time I got invited to the Magic Castle, I didn't realize what a special invitation it was. I didn't live in LA yet. I thought the only exclusive Hollywood parties were movie premieres and awards show ceremonies.
But the Magic Castle is pretty hard to get into unless someone invites you. And you must be invited by a member of the private club that's housed there.
That means, most likely, you must be invited by a magician.
Fortunately, LA attracts so many aspiring performers, while you're here, you'll probably come across a magician or two. Or a puppeteer or a comedian who happens to know enough magic to qualify for membership.
But while you're waiting for that invitation, the Magic Castle awaits you—perched up on a hill above Hollywood Boulevard, looking down at both the tourists and the locals who aren't "in the know," and may never get the chance to get in there. If you do know, and if you've ever been there, all you can think about is how you can get back in. It taunts you with its exclusivity.
Even an invitation doesn't guarantee you admission. You have to adhere to a strict dress code: suit coats and ties for men, dresses or pants suits for ladies, no athletic shoes or flip flops, and no denim anywhere (not even a denim suit). If your dress is not acceptable, they won't let you in. Although they have some jackets and ties for men to borrow, they're intentionally horrible to shame you for not wearing proper attire.
The Magic Castle isn't a castle exactly—it's more of a converted Victorian mansion that just kept growing, its magical elements proliferating. And since 1963, it's been the clubhouse for the Academy of Magical Arts, and a sought-after destination for Hollywood's most bizarre nightlife.
Once you've been invited and gotten all dressed up, getting through the secret bookcase and into the Castle is as easy as "Open Sesame." Prepare to be amazed.
The magic shows change every week, with each professional magician doing shows on a seven-day rotation. Even on a relatively slow Monday night, there are three performance spaces open—the tiny Close-Up Gallery, the Parlour of Prestidigitation, and The Palace of Mystery—each with multiple performers doing multiple shows throughout the night. Later in the week, you can also find magic at the W.C. Fields Bar and The Peller Theatre, and maybe an impromptu performance at the Hat and Hare Pub.
When it comes down to it, though, you can find magic pretty much anywhere at The Magic Castle—not just in the official performance venues. Magicians (often amateurs) might set up at a table at any given corner, or do a trick or two for their guests during dinner. The Magic Castle is a bit like Disneyland, with all of its Easter eggs hidden throughout the winding hallways and multiple levels of an enchanting labyrinth. Strike up a conversation with an unlikely companion at The Owl Bar. Press a button and watch ghostly apparitions appear and disappear. Contact Houdini during a seance. Throw a dollar (or two or three) into a bird cage and request a song (or two or three) from Irma, the piano-playing ghost who haunts the mansion. Her repertoire ranges from Tin Pan Alley to Taylor Swift.
Much of the castle's decor was salvaged from film and TV movie sets (the headboard from The Witches of Eastwick, the backdrop from Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, the bar from Hello Dolly). Even some of the walls are made of salvaged doors, whose keyholes are still visible. With its hidden passageways, memorabilia, spirits, and surprises, it feels akin to the Mission Inn in Riverside or the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. I've managed to get into the Magic Castle three times so far—each through a different person or organization—and I still haven't seen everything. As they say, "There's a lot to see, so try to avoid blinking."
It's a Mecca for magicians, and for magic enthusiasts, but it's also a piece of living history, and a repository of artifacts that are both bewitched and bewitching. The whole experience is a bit baffling. Delightfully so.
Photography is forbidden anywhere inside—even in the restrooms. And whatever you're privy to while you're there, you're sworn to secrecy once you've left.
Photo Essay: The Museum of Misfit Houses
Photo Essay: An Inn for Presidents, Padres, and Patron Saints
The Los Angeles Athletic Club: The Story of an L.A. Icon (Excerpt)