As the Magic Castle Celebrates 50 Years, Its Founder and Historian Reflect on the Mansion and Its Ghosts
PHOTO BY STAR FOREMANMagic Castle frontman Milt Larsen, left, with his straight man, architectural historian George Siegel
As a performer and a writer for such 1950s TV shows as Truth or Consequences, 81-year-old Milt Larsen is a natural frontman. He cheerfully admits, "To spend 50 years lying about this place just came naturally to me. If I don't know the history, I'll just make up something."
He's talking about the Magic Castle, the exclusive, members-only club in the hills above Hollywood, which is dedicated to the art of illusion. This month, the castle has been celebrating the golden anniversary of its 1962 opening.
Even with its celebrity members past and present — Neil Patrick Harris is president of the board of the directors — it's "Magic Milt" who serves as the castle's ringleader. Dressed in a suit with a silver waistcoat, silver tie and blue pocket handkerchief, the dapper octogenarian is a walking encyclopedia of information about the place.
But even he is entranced by what his straight man has to say about pedimented gables, guilloché patterns and fuchsia finials. A tall man sporting a neat beard, the "way younger" George Siegel, who's actually 63, is the castle's "architectural historian." By day he's a computer systems analyst, but once a week he gets down to what he loves: historical research.
Siegel chases down information about the unusual building (a kind of Disney-fied Gothic Victorian chateau modeled on the Kimberly Crest residence in Redlands) and its patriarch, Rollin B. Lane, who owned the place before it became a mecca of magic. "I'm the caterpillar and Milt is the butterfly," he notes modestly.
As an "associate member" — a fan of magic rather than a practitioner — Siegel joined the Magic Castle seven years ago and jumped at the chance to become a member of the Heritage Committee, which was asking members to send in their memorabilia and souvenirs.
"We received hundreds of items — swizzle sticks, cards, napkins, menus, letters — and I photographed them all for the upcoming online database," he recalls. "But then it all kind of snowballed. We felt that the Magic Castle has its own culture and history, and we wanted to know the stories behind all of it before it was lost."
Sitting side by side in the castle's main bar, the two experts have an easy rapport, although they couldn't be more different. "This interview is the most outrageous thing I've done for years," Siegel says, whereas Larsen is an anecdote machine who can point at anything in the castle and tell you whether it was found in a Victorian manor on Millionaire's Row or is a "fancy" resin fixture from the 99 Cents store.
"Magicians tend to be obsessive-compulsive, practicing the same trick over and over again until they get it right," Siegel begins.
" ... And researchers are the same, digging away until they get their answer. George is like a barracuda — he just won't let go!" Larsen finishes.
Larsen's father, also a magician, had dreamt of a club for his fellow performers; Larsen's quest to fulfill that dream has been a lifelong endeavor.
A Dumpster diver long before it was fashionable, Larsen can't drive past demolitions without stopping to look for something that might grace the castle's walls.
"When we bought the place, all it had was three windows above the porch, so I would drive around in my pickup truck with a couple of six-packs. I'd always go around lunchtime, offer the guys on break some cervezas, and usually they'd let me take whatever I needed," he says. "Of course, today they call it 'architectural antiques,' but back then we called it junk."
Not surprisingly, he was not above a little trickery. One day, while driving past a dilapidated house, Larsen found himself "screeching to a halt" and pretending to be a plumber calling about the place. "Vandals had stolen all the pipes and brass faucets, so there was water leaking everywhere," he explains. He offered "$900, as the address was 900 W. Adams," to have a look around.
The castle's main bar and the stained glass in both the dining room and the entrance all came from that house. Larsen and his friends "went in like termites," he says. "To us, it was like King Tut's tomb."
Countless generous friends — many from the TV and movie industry — helped Larsen to complete the interior virtually from scratch, in a mash-up style that Siegel has christened "Larcenous Eclecticism — with the deliberate double entendre of 'larceny.' "
Siegel assures his friend that's a compliment, and Larsen adds that Siegel also has put some rumors to rest — ones that he understood to be gospel for years. This wasn't the homestead of a large orange grove (an old photo shows houses all around), and Lane didn't own everything all the way south to the Roosevelt Hotel.
Cautious as he is, Siegel is still fairly certain that one legend is probably true: Rollin B. Lane died in what's now the Houdini Room, a place where guests can enjoy theatrical séances: "It was August, and he'd been ill for some time — it was the coolest room in the house."
As for the future, Larsen says, "The castle is never finished. My brother used to call me 'Mrs. Winchester,' the weapons widow who was told by a spiritualist that she had to keep building her house, or the dead would come to haunt her."
That very odd house is a tourist favorite in San Jose, whereas this house is going to be far more visible in the future. Larsen recently released his autobiography, and McG is slated to helm a movie based on this part museum, part theater, part restaurant and part library.
When you next visit — if you manage to score an invitation — you may well find Larsen sitting in the Owl Bar. "From 6 to 6:30 that's my office, and I sit on the second bar stool from the end," he says.
Siegel is often there, too. But appropriately, he's often in the Close-Up Room.
"Every time we have an event here, I walk off with anything that's not nailed down: napkins, menus, cups, cards," Siegel says.
Larsen immediately shoots back: "Yes, we're missing a couple of paintings, too!"
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