Patt Morrison Asks

The Magic Castle's Milt Larsen: Why humans need magic

Milt Larsen

Milt Larsen, founder of Magic Castle in Hollywood, is seen at his home in Santa Barbara. (Los Angeles Times / March 14, 2013)

The Magic Castle is a private club with about 5,000 members, half of them magicians and half not.

When we first opened, we said let's have a club for magicians, and we immediately figured, who's gonna pay for it? So we have associate members who don't have to be even amateur magicians, just people who like magic, like entertaining their guests [here]. Then we have magician members who have to qualify and be able to perform or at least prove an interest in magic.

Your father and mother were magicians; your mother was "the Magic Lady" on KTLA TV for years, but that was unusual. Are there more women in magic now?

The 1920s, 1930s, and before that, three were very few lady magicians. The stereotype was white tie and tails, a suave person in a top hat, and the [female] assistant could only hand him props or appear in boxes. Now there are wonderful lady magicians sawing the guy in half! The whole world has changed; it's just natural that magic is no different. Ladies say, I can do that. I don't have to carry the props for that guy — I'll let him carry the props for me.

The castle began more than 100 years ago as Chateau Holly. You saved it and restored it, but in 2011 there was a fire — on Halloween. Ghosts?

A [roofer's] torch accidentally got knocked over. We'd had a whole week of Halloween. We called it "Inferno" — we always call it something — and it's second only to New Year's Eve for us.

Here's the spooky thing: Houdini passed away in Detroit on Oct. 31, 1926. The fire department was able to pinpoint the time the fire started and it was almost exactly the time Houdini died.

The other thing that's spooky: The fire started in the attic; there was a lot of damage to the attic and third floor. The main damage, the water damage, was the Dante Room, named after Dante the magician, who was a rival of Houdini's.

That room was completely destroyed. On the other side of the building, the Houdini Room, wasn't touched.

People say you're nostalgic. You play 78s on the radio; you co-wrote a musical about turn-of-the-century Broadway.

Nostalgia is the wrong word. Nostalgia [is] for something that happened that everybody remembers. We [he and his collaborator, Oscar-winning songwriter Richard M. Sherman] are doing a "period piece." There's a big difference.

"Hello, Dolly!" was a period piece; it wasn't nostalgia. Like the burning of Rome — you couldn't possibly have been there, but it's fun to look at people in togas.

Did Harry Potter change interest in magic?

Very much so. [It] was a very good influence on magic. [But] I don't think everybody went out with wizard hats and tried to make football games in the air.

Did you make J.K. Rowling a Magic Castle member?

She was in town for something and her publicity people rejected the idea.

From Houdini to Harry — it sounds as if you think humans need magic.

I have this wonderful book, it describes lighting a fire in an ancient temple with stone doors that 20 men could not move. You light a fire, and then the doors would open [on their own].

It's simple: The fire would cause hydraulic suction which would cause water to go into a retainer which would do a leverage thing which would open these huge doors. Just a magic trick.

Audiences want to experience the unbelievable. The magic illusions of today are often the scientific realities in the future.

In the meantime it's fun to be fooled. As long as there are people to be fooled, there will be magicians to fool them!

Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at

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