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A Considerable Town

Magic Castle Battles Back From a Halloween Fire. Was it a Message From Houdini?

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Thu, Feb 9, 2012 at 9:00 AM
click to enlarge CURIOUSJOSH
  • CuriousJosh

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.

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