written by Erin Donnelly
photos by Neil Bedi
A small ceramic owl perches on a dimly lit bookshelf as a woman in a shimmering gown shuffles over to whisper in its ear. "Open sesame."
The bookcase cracks ajar to reveal the elusive world of Hollywood’s Magic Castle.
"By the time I came along my dad had stepped away from magic, but he still had his whole books of magic and Magicana. I worked my way through that by the time I was 12"
Settled on a hilltop just blocks away from Hollywood Boulevard, the Magic Castle is a relic of the mysteries of the entertainment industry's gilded age.
Vines wrap ominously around the Victorian-style mansion, with ornate designs curving up toward pointed roofs. A soft glow illuminates the manor around twilight, the sky’s purple hue reflecting off the windows.
Spectators clad in their evening best huddle up under the castle’s awning, eager to get a glimpse of the reclusive world beyond the moving bookshelf.
Most are not allowed to see beyond its spired exterior.
Unless you’re an invited guest, the only way inside the Magic Castle is to audition to become a member of its private club, the Academy of Magical Arts. Most importantly, prospective members have to prove that they are willing to live by a “magic-first” creed – a promise to preserve the dignity and history of magic. The mansion offers cocktails and fine dining in addition to numerous magic shows in intimate locations throughout the building.
With her gold member pin proudly displayed on her collar, Angela Sanchez, a UCLA graduate student in education and information studies, bypasses the line and gives the doorman a knowing nod.
Though Sanchez has been coming to the castle on an almost weekly basis for years, her eyes still light up as she passes through the door.
A grand bar meets guests as they enter the mansion. The walls are decorated with advertisements from 1920s movie theaters, embodying the golden age of Hollywood glamor the mansion goes to great lengths to preserve. Dress code is strictly enforced – even waiters wear coattails – and most importantly, no photography is allowed past the lobby.
Banker Rollin B. Lane built the property as his private mansion near the turn of the century when the land surrounding the house was mostly filled with orange groves.
The lavish chateau fell into disrepair as the decades wore on until the 1960s, when brothers Milt Larsen and William W. Larsen Jr. leased the property and converted it into the magic haven it is today. The Larsens wanted to give their father, William W. Larsen Sr., the private magic club he dreamed of creating.
They couldn't imagine the success that was to come.
After the Magic Castle’s doors opened in 1963, magicians made the pilgrimage from around the world to experience all that the castle had to offer.
The club rapidly gained popularity among Hollywood elite, with visitors including Cary Grant, Johnny Carson and former President Ronald Reagan. More recently, actor Neil Patrick Harris served as president of the Academy for several years and Katy Perry celebrated her birthday in the castle.
Sanchez arrives in a smart black dress, decorated only by her membership pin and a UCLA button. In addition to her current studies, she also graduated from the university in 2013, with a degree in history.
She wants to be a college counselor to help students access higher education the way teachers helped her as a teenager. But her heart belongs to magic.
Sanchez became a member of the Academy as soon as she turned 21 – the minimum age – proving her dedication through an undergraduate thesis on the role of women in magic throughout history.
Magicians are often in a position of power, and the relationship between women and power has always been complicated, Sanchez said.
"You can trace that back to the witch hunts," Sanchez said.
Even magic paraphernalia – top hats and trick sleeves – are closely associated with men's attire.
Some women she studied broke barriers, like Adelaide Herrmann, wife of famed magician Alexander Herrmann, whose portrait hangs in a place of honor on a Magic Castle wall. When the legendary performer died suddenly on the road in 1896, Adelaide Herrmann took center stage to take over the performance.
She became the known as the “Queen of Magic," and would become an inspiration for many aspiring magicians, Sanchez added.
Bouncing up and down the hall, Sanchez points out her favorite magicians, her tone altering between studious and professional and that of kid in a candy shop.
Her eyes linger on a poster of Goldfinger and Dove, old family friends.
Like the castle's founders, Sanchez inherited her passion for magical culture from her father, a fan of card tricks and a friend of Goldfinger in his heyday.
“By the time I came along my dad had stepped away from magic, but he still had his whole books of magic and Magicana. I worked my way through that by the time I was 12,” she said. “I loved reading about the misadventures of the golden era.”
In middle school, Sanchez started practicing tricks in her spare time. By the time she reached high school, she started her school’s first magic club, where fellow students learned from each other and discussed magic culture. Goldfinger even came to a meeting and gave them a free performance.
Once enrolled at UCLA, Sanchez was committed to fostering a magical community wherever she went.
While in line on the Hill for a freshman event, a classmate named Jason Chang caught her attention.
“This guy came up and said ‘Want to see something cool?’” she said, with a laugh. “I thought ‘You better be a magician.’ ... That's the only cool thing I would watch.”
Turns out, he was.
A small crowd started to form around them as they engaged in an impromptu magic-off. He made a scarf disappear and she whipped out her cards.
They soon started UCLA’s first magic club, Magic and Illusion Student Team, with a handful of enthusiasts. Today, the club includes about 30 students who perform at different campus events. But back then, the club's numbers were small.
“There were six of us and I was the chick,” she said. “(Being the only woman) is expected, it's the same thing at the castle.”
Sanchez passes through a small room with a few inviting couches and a grand piano on display. This is the room belonging to Irma, the castle’s resident ghost, who spends her nights haunting the piano and entertaining guests.
“You can ask her to play anything from Beethoven to Maroon 5,” Sanchez said with a smile.
She then leads the way down through the Magic Castle’s basement to her favorite room – the library. More than 26,000 volumes line the shelves of the intimate room, chronicling the stunts of the greatest performers.
Peppered with armchairs and small tables for practicing close-up tricks, the William Larsen Sr. Memorial Library is just as decadently decorated as the rest of the old school mansion.
The castle’s resident librarian, Lisa Cousins, rushes forward to embrace Sanchez, a fellow historian and one of the relatively few other female members of the club.
The two first met during the Magic Castle’s first "Women in Magic Week," in which only women performed on the castle's many stages.
For months, Sanchez visited the castle library every Friday afternoon as she researched her thesis, getting to know Cousins while documenting the role of women in what is often acknowledged to be a male-dominated field.
“When people think of magicians, they don’t think of women. If there is a woman, she is getting sawed in half or ripped apart,” Sanchez said. “It seems novel if she gets to be the one performing the magic tricks.”
After months of work, and even a trip to a Harvard University library to see original magicians’ advertisements, Sanchez presented her work to the Academy's officials about two years ago. Her meticulous research, as well as an audition, allowed her to gained entry to the club as both a magician and a magical historian.
She still comes almost every week.
“It is the ultimate nerd club. I love it,” she said with a laugh.
To better represent the women in the Academy, she helped form a women’s club, which meets about once a month to discuss magic, practice routines and hear from guest lecturers.
“(Being part of the group) feels great because I’ve been in a masculine environment for so long,” said Cousins, who started visiting the castle about 15 years ago. “Seeing women doing magic was such an inspiration – hopefully I’ve played that role for others.”
The group also volunteers at the New Village Girls Academy in the Westlake neighborhood, near downtown Los Angeles, to inspire a younger generation of women to take an interest in the craft.
As the night wears on, Sanchez sips on a "Shirley Temple" and watches the bartender make lemons appear under his cocktail shaker to cheers from the crowd.
The majestic flair and fascinating history hooked Sanchez into the world of magic, but it's the familial community that keeps her coming back each week.
"I can't get enough of this stuff,” she said.