Magic Castle Battles Back From a Halloween Fire. Was it a Message From Houdini?
The Magic Castle, the 100-year-old Victorian mansion that serves as the private clubhouse for the Academy of Magic Arts, caught fire on Halloween last year. The fire began in the attic. It burned a hole in the roof, progressed to the third-floor administrative offices, slipped between the walls, then leaped from helicopter news cameras to TV screens -- straight into the hearts and minds and imaginations of magicians across the Southland.
As word spread, people worried. They worried about the staff. Did everyone get out OK? Then they worried about things. Priceless, irreplaceable things, such as the original trick billiards table from W.C. Fields' stage show in Ziegfeld's Follies. Or items hanging in the Gallerie de Arte, such as the rare program from a Royal Command Performance for Queen Victoria. Printed on silk with a lace border, it was the queen's personal program, handed to her one Monday evening in 1855.
They worried about other things -- mundane but invested with meaning. The brass owl with the glowing, ruby-red eyes, sitting on a bookshelf in the foyer: Whisper "Open sesame," and the bookshelf slides away to reveal the Castle's secret entrance. Or the baby grand Baldwin piano played by invisible Irma, the Castle's "resident ghost," who takes requests. Did Irma, some folks joked, get out safely?
Superstitious sorts wondered about the odd circumstances of the fire. They noted the strange coincidences. The costume party scheduled for that night had a theme of "Inferno at the Castle." And what about Houdini? The most famous magician of them all died on Oct. 31 at 1:26 p.m. -- almost the same time as the fire started 85 years later.
And how many firefighters showed up? 126. They carried out priceless artifacts and covered oil paintings with plastic tarps. Flames, it turned out, weren't the worst problem. It was water. Water from the fire hoses and sprinklers hit the dining room first, then the lobby. It trickled into a thousand little nooks and crannies, soaking the Cherub Room, the Dante Room, the Museum and Irma's Room.
But not the Houdini Room.
The Houdini Room is used, as founder Milt Larsen says, "for séances and stuff." It contains the great escape artist's straitjacket, innumerable sets of handcuffs and his glass Metamorphosis Chest. For reasons unknown, the Houdini Room was the one room that wasn't damaged by water or flame. Was Harry Houdini, people asked, making his presence felt?
The actual cause of the fire was decidedly more earthly: Contractors were repairing the roof, and a worker's blowtorch hit the wall while he was heating asphalt.
No one was injured, but the visuals -- smoke billowing out of the burning hole in the roof, firemen scrambling up past gargoyles onto turrets and gables -- were dramatic. Larsen was at his home in Santa Barbara when his executive director called to say, "You might want to turn on the news."
The Castle hasn't been fully open since the fire. Insurance covers the ongoing renovations. Expenses such as staff salaries, however, are another matter. The Castle operates with a staff of 100. Currently, it's able to use only half that many. And the timing of the fire was terrible. "Half of this place's business is in November and December. If you lose that ... ," Larsen's voice trails off.
The Academy of Magical Arts hasn't asked for too much help, but the day after the fire, an army of magicians showed up. David Minkin was one. A soft-spoken, self-effacing and elegant man, Minkin is the guy the Castle calls to perform when celebrities visit. "It would be like my own house burning down," he says.
Almost anyone who's ever pulled a rabbit out of a hat for fun and profit either got their start at the Castle or came through it at one point: Lance Burton, Criss Angel, Harry Blackstone Jr. and Sr., Penn and Teller, Siegfried and Roy, David Copperfield. A few have even died there. The late Dai Vernon, sleight-of-hand master, who once performed a card trick so confounding even Houdini couldn't figure it out, spent the last 28 years of his life holding court at the Castle. Upon his death in 1992, his ashes were interred in a small wooden box, high up on a ledge outside the Parlor of Prestidigitation.
Minkin himself cut his teeth at the Magic Castle. He performed there four to five nights a week when he first started 12 years ago, doing impromptu shows for free in the downstairs area known as "the dungeon." It's where members go to practice new material. Minkin's 1,000-plus shows in the dungeon were like boot camp: "Like 'Eye of the Tiger' in Rocky. You train and you train and then suddenly this lucidity comes in, where you realize what magic means to you."
Minkin was horrified by what he saw at the Castle on Nov. 1. The offices, he says, "looked like a war zone. There was a large burnt part in the roof covered by plastic. Everything had been stripped out."
It disturbed him to see the place looking so vulnerable.
These days, Minkin's regular gig is called "Evening of Enchantment." Guests drink wine, eat hors d'oeuvres and watch Minkin perform magic at a restaurant by the beach. He donated the proceeds from one of the shows -- some $2,000 -- to the Castle's "Inferno Fund."
So far, the fund is up to $17,000, and Larsen is encouraging members to donate more. The fire was a disaster, but it could become an opportunity -- a chance to spruce things up.
With the new decor in place, the old carpeting in the areas not damaged by the fire looks shabby by comparison. Houdini once promised that if it were possible to communicate from the afterlife, he would do so. Perhaps his message this time around is: Buy new carpet.
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