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Not So Blaine

This Internet first date isn’t going so well. On her Nerve.com profile under “What Celebrity Do I Most Closely Resemble” it says “Catherine Zeta-Jones.” Suffice to say, she doesn’t — at all. But then mine says “David Blaine.”

Eventually, she offers to drive me home — her black Lexus is just around the corner on Hollywood Boulevard. As we head up Orange toward Franklin, the Magic Castle is lit up like a jewel in front of us. Natasha tells me that she has always wanted to go to the Magic Castle. Me too, I say, and then point out that she’s in the wrong lane to turn into my place. Natasha says she wants to go to the Magic Castle. I remind her that one must be a magician to get in. She looks at me and says, “But you’re David Blaine.”

Who can argue with a Russian litigator at 1:30 a.m. after eight beers? She drives the Lexus up the Magic Castle’s steep driveway.

The front doors are locked. I can see past the front greeting area, lights on and people inside, but no one comes to see what we want. I have been living in the shadow of the Magic Castle for nearly a year and have never been up here, so I take this opportunity to look around. A couple minutes later, I come back to Natasha still at the front door. She’s adamant — she wants to go in.

I pull an otherwise useless credit card from my wallet and attempt to jimmy the lock. Right when I feel that I may just have it, the doors open and the tuxedo-clad night manager, Kurt, steps outside. Kurt asks if he can help us. I say we’d like to come in. Kurt politely informs us that the Magic Castle is closed, that the Magic Castle is a private club and, looking at my Sammy’s Romanian T-shirt, that the Magic Castle has a dress code.

“Maybe I could fit into your tux,” I say. Kurt is a good four inches shorter than I.

Kurt smiles. “Maybe some other time, sir,” he says.

“Maybe some other time,” I agree, then turn back to the Lexus.

Suddenly, Natasha says to Kurt, “This is David Blaine.”

Kurt turns and looks at me in the dim light, and I am thinking that there is no way in holy hell, when Kurt extends his hand to shake mine. Abracadabra. Open sesame. The doors to the Magic Castle swing wide and, with furious beating heart, I step inside. Somehow, my voice doesn’t crack as I agree when Kurt says he’d like to introduce me to some people. We pass through the first bar and I receive nods from the dozen or so guests in tuxedos and evening dress. At the bar’s backside, Kurt introduces me to the owner of the Magic Castle, Milt Larsen, and an older magician. They both shake my hand. They tell me it’s a pleasure to make my acquaintance. I am struck dumb. I expect to be sawed in half any second now. The owner and the magician congratulate me on being “Magician of the Year.” I am nothing if not humble in graciously accepting their felicitations.

Kurt tells the owner that I’d like to take a look around, then leads me out of the bar area. I am expecting to be thrown into a room, the doors locked and the police called at any time. But with warm welcomes and well wishes, I am taken on a tour of the back rooms of the Magic Castle. As Kurt guides me, illuminating the way with his Mag-Lite, Natasha and I make eye contact. Neither of us can believe that we are getting away with this illusion. Kurt recounts his life story as a magician and tells me what an honor it is to meet me — that I have revitalized magic. I begin to get comfortable. Then I start to get all shticky. I act like I have a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that I imagine would work with the Blaine character. I rearrange chairs in one room. I feel doorways for their structural soundness. When I touch one item in a display with my eyes hooded to near closing, I feel Kurt’s eyes on me. He asks if I am getting vibrations from the object. My nearly imperceptible nod assures him that I am indeed. Kurt tells me that if I am into vibrations, has he got something for me. He leads Natasha and me to a door that is locked from the inside and excuses himself. From the other side, I hear what sound like numerous locks and chains being undone. The door swings open and Kurt stands with pride inside a small room dominated by a huge séance table. I pay that no mind, but immediately move toward a metal item about waist high in one corner. I lay my right hand, fingers splayed, on the round top and close my eyes tightly. Kurt whispers, asking if I am getting some serious vibrations from the object. I mumble that I am. With a hushed voice, Kurt tells me that I am touching Houdini’s milk can. Holy fucking shit. Kurt points out Houdini’s trunk on the other side of the room. I crouch in front of it as I hear Kurt telling Natasha that every magician who comes to the Magic Castle is just dying to touch Houdini’s things.

By now it’s 3 a.m. and we have seen every nook and cranny of the Castle. Back in the main bar, the owner shakes my hand again and tells me that I am welcome anytime — to perform or just hang out. Then Kurt asks me what brought me to Los Angeles. I say the first thing that pops into my head — that I came “to hear some men read some words.” I had been to a book reading earlier in the evening at the Beverly Hills Library. They get big grins on their faces. They exchange looks and then ask how that worked out for me. “Wonderfully,” I say.

Kurt opens the front door. I can see the window of my tiny studio apartment, basically across the street. Natasha and I hop in her car, roll down the steep driveway and hope that Kurt doesn’t watch as we drive across the street to the parking lot of the Hollywood Celebrity Hotel, where Natasha lets me out. I give Natasha a quick peck, enter my building and go to bed.

—Brian Mazo

Manager James Williams says Mazo did indeed show up as Blaine, but Kurt and Larsen weren’t fooled. An incident report is on file with the Magic Castle’s security.

Somewhere in a desert cemetery near Tempe, Arizona, stands the world’s first stereoscopic headstone. Depicting side-by-side cartoons of the late Tony Alderson that pop to three-dimensional life when viewed through binocular freevision, it marks the final resting place of a former president of the Stereo Club of Southern California (SCSC), a group of amateur stereo photographers and enthusiasts founded during the Atomic Age. Going to meetings of the SCSC means hearing a piano roll of obituaries — Charlie Piper, George Skelley, Earl Colgan, Paul Wing and Alderson in the last two years — which may be why this gang of obsessives meets monthly in the basement of the Wilshire United Methodist Church.

Once a year they break out for their annual awards banquet at Taix restaurant in Silver Lake, as they did last week. To an outsider, the members of the SCSC could be stock players in a Christopher Guest faux documentary. Wearing name tags on cords, they discuss the new Tim Burton–Johnny Depp remake of Willy Wonka — and lament that it’s not 3-D. (Ditto Pirates of the Caribbean.) While standing among them in Taix’s Bordeaux Banquet Room, it becomes immediately apparent that whatever environment these people wander into they immediately remake it. “That would be great in stereo,” says one to another, nodding toward the picnic mural on the banquet-room wall. “We’ve been having our banquet here for years,” says Oliver, a white-haired gentleman with 10 Fraternal Order pins on his blazer who remembers meeting Harold Lloyd, Art Linkletter and Edgar Bergen at SCSC meetings in the ’60s. “I’ve watched the waiters here grow up and grow gray”

2003 was a pretty good year for 3-D — there was James Cameron’s Ghosts of the Abyss and Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids 3-D (number one on the film’s opening weekend) — but it’s the 10-day World 3-D Expo at the Egyptian Theater (September 12 to 21) that provides the evening its real juice. Billed as “the largest 3-D tribute show ever mounted anywhere in history,” the Expo will feature a number of rarities that have tonight’s attendees excited, especially Gog, an oddball 1954 film about a rebellious space robot or ‰ something. SCSC members will be there, showing stereo slides in the Egyptian’s Steven Spielberg Theater, and otherwise, they say with barely containable anticipation, popping vitamins, drinking rivers of coffee and seriously compromising their cash liquidity on screenings and collectibles.

A kid with clean-cut black hair and wire-framed glasses rises to the podium, fumbles with a few knobs and speaks of “the night five years ago tonight when I saw my first stereo slide show. I didn’t know what stereo photography was. I didn’t even know what a ViewMaster was! A friend of mine invited me here on a whim, and lo and behold, I’m now president of the club.” Philip Steinman adds that he met his young fiancée — off to the side recording the speech with a silver digital whatsit — while taking a 3-D picture of her at last year’s L.A. marathon. (Claps and cheers.) Everyone in the room seems to be an ex–club president; no one swears or drinks too much or tells off-color jokes. So warm and corny is the tone, it might be 1955 again. A man in a fuzzy pig hat with flappable wings swears in the new officers, who recite the SCSC oath as a swaying, grinning mass: “I . . . state your name . . .” — they repeat this literally — “. . . do solemnly affirm . . . that I will cooperate . . . to the best of my ability . . . in the efforts to further . . . the art, science and enjoyment of stereo photography . . . amen.”

Then someone hands out polarizing glasses in a slotted box — not the cheesy red-green paper (or “anaglyph”) glasses of matinee fame but sort of like the kind you’d get from the eye doctor. (A corporate guy in a suit brings a box of his own, sleek and Italian-looking in individual envelopes.) As the lights snap out, a roomful of Roy Orbisons exclaim hosannas over the clack of changing slide images: rock summits in Yosemite; a Gulfstream stabbing the sky; Daliesque silhouettes over the skinlike folds of a sand dune; two dogs watching Lassie on TV, heads tilted; a 1946 A-bomb test at the Bikini atoll in the South Pacific; a Spanish basilica; Forrest J. Ackerman’s collection of sci-fi–horror-movie memorabilia; gothic shots of winged-angel statues and bogs in moonlight; the junk sculpture outside of MOCA; a flock of airborne gulls who appear to be tearing right through the Bordeaux Room; a frieze of water cascading past a cat’s tongue and, it seems, over the first two rows.

A photo comes up that doesn’t have the desired effect. The shouts follow like a fire drill: “Pseudo-stereo! Pseudo-stereo!!” Everyone suddenly yanks off their glasses and puts them back on upside down, righting the wrong of mixed-up slides. The Stereo Club of Southern California is back in sync.

It is a beautiful thing to see, especially in 3-D.

—Matthew Duersten