Milt and Bill Larsen are the brothers who transformed an old Hollywood mansion into the Magic Castle, a Los Angeles landmark that has beckoned wizards and prestidigitators the world over. David Copperfield, Siegfried & Roy, Harry Blackstone, Doug Henning and Lance Burton are among its hundreds of alumni.
The chateau-style building has stood above the hubbub of Franklin Avenue since the Larsens first opened it in 1963. The castle is the home of the Academy of Magical Arts, a private club with about 2,500 members.
The castle was a product of the Larsens' lifelong love of magic.
The Larsen family story begins in the late 1930s with Milt and Bill's father, William W. Larsen Sr., who was a Pasadena criminal attorney and a skilled magician. Disillusioned with law, he created the Larsen Family of Magicians, an act that toured resort hotels in San Diego, Carmel and Palm Springs. In 1936, he also began publishing the Genii, a magazine for magicians.
In 1955, when William Larsen Sr. died of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 48, Milt and Bill promised each other that they would fulfill their father's dream and create a real clubhouse for magicians. That dream was put on hold as television grew in popularity and the Larsen family got into the act.
Geraldine Larsen Jaffe, Bill and Milt's mother, starred in her own series as "The Magic Lady." Bill became an assistant producer at CBS, and Milt latched onto NBC, writing gags for a number of game and variety shows, including "Truth or Consequences," where he spent 18 years.
In 1956, Milt produced and starred in the "It's Magic!" revue, first at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, then at the Variety Arts Center in Los Angeles, a venerable downtown theater and monument to vaudeville. The show remained an annual event until 1984. It was revived a decade later at the Alex Theatre in Glendale.
Sitting in his TV business office at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue in 1960, Milt began eyeing an abandoned, dilapidated fairy-tale castle on a hill. It had been built by Redlands financier and orange grower Rollin Lane and his wife, Katherine, and designed by the architectural team of Dennis & Farwell.
Milt Larsen approached developer and owner Thomas O. Glover, who also owned the property 300 feet above the castle. Glover liked the idea of restoring the timeworn landmark house below. He leased it to the Larsens for a small fee in 1961.
Milt's "carpentry sleight-of-hand" and Bill's magic touch with money soon turned the castle into a paradise of antiques, Tiffany glass, vaudevillian trinkets and showbiz memorabilia, including Jimmy Durante's "break-apart" piano.
The gimmick-laden castle has a nonhuman cast that includes a piano-playing ghost named Irma; a telephone booth that flashes a skeleton when the door is closed; a sinking barstool; secret doorways; and the Great Alibi Machine, a pay phone with taped sound effects (airport, car mechanic shop and outdated office typewriters) to fool a boss or spouse into thinking the person is calling from elsewhere. The men's room includes talkative urinals that play "It's a Small World" and hurl off-color insults.
In 1963, magician Dai Vernon, a master of card tricks who was known as "The Professor," moved to L.A. and helped make the castle a success. He held court for fellow magicians and celebrity magic enthusiasts such as Cary Grant, Dick Cavett, Marlene Dietrich, Muhammad Ali and Johnny Carson. Vernon was a castle institution until his death in 1992 at age 98.
Bill Larsen died the next year, and the castle faced financial issues and slumping membership. Many members said that Milt Larsen's dedication and brilliance saved the castle.
Milt's endeavors in the magic business weren't limited to the castle, however. He spent years tirelessly restoring the Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica. In the 1990s, he put together the $35-million Caesars Magical Empire — which opened in 1996 and closed in 2002 — at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.