Wonders await up the antique staircase. | Courtesy of the Academy of Magical Arts
Wonders await up the antique staircase. | Courtesy of the Academy of Magical Arts

Step Behind the Curtain of LA's Famed Magic Castle

The Gothic wonderland may itself never change, but its members will.

You’re gonna want Kevin Li at your party. Because if things go south, the 25-year-old can save it by performing a magic trick at a moment’s notice. Though he’s modest, saying it’s something every magician can do: “It’s our job to always be ready to go, even if you don’t have a deck of cards. If you’re a magician, technically speaking, a real magician, you can do magic with anything, at any time.”

That may be true, but not every magician has the charisma it takes to pull off his go-to icebreaker: Getting strangers to give up their phones for him to unlock by guessing the passcode (he swears he never looks at the photos). “People are hesitant, like, ‘My smartphone??’ It’s a very private thing,” he says. “But once I do that trick, it takes down barriers instantly.”

Everyone should have a photo like this, magician or not. | Taylor Wong

You’ll also want Li around because he’s kind of famous. You may have seen him on Penn & Teller’s Fool Us—twice—blending emotionally-driven storytelling with deft sleight of hand to make for compelling television. On his first visit, at the age of 19, he summoned a joke exploring the poignancy of memory. And though his techniques didn’t quite fool the veteran magicians, he did succeed in making Teller tear up. (A feat, considering the general public has never even heard the guy speak.)

The second time Li was on Fool Us, the youngest repeat guest in the show, he succeeded in tricking the duo—this time with a premise that he could teach anyone Mandarin without even one lesson. Having to learn the language is “something every Asian kid has probably gone through,” he says in his intro. “I thought that it would be interesting to somehow bring that memory into a magic routine.” In the video, Penn and Teller are stumped. And those of us playing along at home are maybe a little bit hopeful for our own educational prospects, even though—as with all magic—what we see is in direct contradiction to what we know. Of course you can't become fluent in a language by having someone flip through a dictionary somewhere near your brain. But what if you could?

But the third reason you definitely want savant magician Kevin Li at your party is that he can score you entry into one of the most exclusive magic clubs in the world: The Magic Castle in Los Angeles, California.

Lane Mansion in 1962. | Courtesy of the Academy of Magical Arts

A magical wonderland, all by design

If you’re into the conjuring arts—or happen to live in Los Angeles—you’ve definitely heard of the Magic Castle, that pointy-headed Gothic Renaissance mansion looming in the hills above Hollywood. Constructed in 1908 for banker and philanthropist Rollin B. Lane, it was originally called the Holly Chateau. Lane himself was responsible for building up much of the now world-famous neighborhood by donating money for parks, libraries, and orphanages. Today, at over a century old, the chateau passes for downright historical in these parts.

After Lane passed away in 1940—in what is now the Houdini Séance room, current day setting of actual séances, should you be brainstorming Halloween plans—the building fell out of the public mind, becoming, among other things, a boarding house and a home for the elderly before falling into disrepair. That was until the 1960s, when Milt Larsen, magician and writer for the television game show Truth or Consequences, along with his brother Bill Larsen Jr., a CBS producer, found the reportedly haunted chateau. Then, in 1963, the pair opened the hallowed cathedral we know today.

It fulfilled a dream of their parents, Geri and Bill Larsen, prominent practitioners of the deceptive arts and publishers of the long-running magic magazine Genii, who, with their sons, rounded out the Von Trapp-like Larsen Family of Magicians. Geri, a pioneer in her own right, became the first female magician to perform magic on television back in the 1930s.

In a 1951 issue of Genii, Geri and Bill Sr. announced the formation of the Academy of Magical Arts and Sciences, but the organization didn’t gain traction until their sons opened the Magic Castle. The Academy finally had a physical home. And not just that—it was a veritable Disneyland for magicians, with Tiffany glass decor and antique staircases creating a respectable veneer for the trickery within its Escher-esque halls.

Jay Ose, one of the first resident magicians of the Castle. | Courtesy of the Academy of Magical Arts

In 1962, an ad was placed in Genii soliciting members for the Academy, and today it boasts over 5,300 members from 40 different countries. Budding magicians can take classes and hone their techniques in the Castle’s extensive members-only library, and current membership ranges from amateur hobbyists to the likes of Penn and Teller, David Copperfield, and Derek DelGaudio, plus enthusiasts outside of the magic circuit like Jason Alexander.

And no one, no matter how prestigious, is exempt from the Castle’s strict dress code (there’s a story of prominent member Siegfried of Siegfried & Roy fame showing up in a pair of jeans—which cost $1500, incidentally, but still prohibited—and being forced to buy slacks from Men’s Wearhouse to gain entry). Celebrity appearances have included everyone from Cary Grant to Laurence Fishburne, Steve Martin, Ariana Grande, and Katy Perry, who once rented the entire space out for her birthday party. Most recently, Zoey Deschanel and Jonathan Scott snapped a pic celebrating their anniversary there (it should be noted that another one of the rules is that photography is not allowed inside… ).

“We get a lot of emails and DMs, like, ‘Hey, it’s my fiancé’s birthday coming up, can you please give us an invite?’”

To attend one of the Magic Castle’s 32 nightly shows across four showrooms, you either have to be a member or arrive as one’s guest, paying a $35 to $45 admission fee and springing for dinner in the onsite steakhouse. “Friends just ask me, like, ‘Hey, can we set up a Magic Castle date?’ and we go as a group,” says Li. “I don’t have to be with them to get in, but I always like to give them a personal tour.”

Even if you don’t know a magician, it’s likely you can find one to let you in—even if you live in, say, Ohio. Members hail from around the world. “You just have to find a friend who knows a magician, and it’ll eventually chain react to a Magic Castle member,” says Li. The ideal method is to ask in person, Li recommends, but if you must cold-contact a member online, remember to ask nicely. “We get a lot of emails and DMs, like, ‘Hey, it’s my fiancé’s birthday coming up, can you please give us an invite?’”

The main bar in the late 1970s. Snazzy. | The Magic Castle

If scoring an invite doesn’t work, you can also book a stay at the hotel next door to gain entry. And, if all else fails, you can always apply for an associate membership. No magical skill is required for this level, just a commitment to promoting the magical arts—and paying the fee.

But perhaps the best way to get in is to befriend Li and have him take you around. Even after years of membership, he still has a palpable sense of wonder about the transportiveness of it all. “Once you step inside and say the magic words to open the sliding bookcase,” he says—and yes, that’s something you really have to do. ”It really feels like you’re not in LA anymore.”

There are knick-knacks stuffed inside other knick-knacks, old magic and movie posters lining the walls, and a (once-living) owl mechanical named Archimedes perched above the Owl Bar, one of five bars throughout the space. Ask him any question and he’ll answer with a yes or a no. Maybe ask about the bar itself, salvaged from a wrestling arena and was once used on the set of the Dean Martin Show.

Magic Castle co-founder Milt Larsen poses with the secret entrance. | The Magic Castle

Elsewhere, pick up the ringing phone in a telephone booth and a sneaky skeleton appears (perhaps the place is haunted, after all). You can peruse displays of old costumes, portraits, and bronze busts of practitioners past. And you can wander past one-of-a-kind memorabilia like Houdini’s magic wand and hand-scribbled notes.

Li likes to take his guests down to the cellar, where fellow magicians are usually found trying out new tricks. But he also can’t help but break out his skills. “The thing about the Castle is that you can perform anywhere,” he says. “Just sit down and start your own show.” Which is why, while roaming the space, you might spot magicians casually conjuring up an illusion on a felt-topped table in the corner. Pull up to the bar for a drink, and the guy perched on the stool next to you—or even the person behind the bar—might ask you to “pick a card, any card.”

And any visit will always include the mysterious Irma, a captivating player piano which, if you don’t pay attention, can steal a great portion of your night. “You can name any song and she can play it,” he says of the instrument. “I remember specifically naming a Chinese song from this Taiwanese pop artist Jay Chou, and Irma knew it. I literally dropped my glass.”

Ask Irma to play a song, any song. | Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

From real to virtual, and back again

Walk around the Castle and you’ll notice, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the majority of performers skew older, male, and white, the only thing differentiating the crowd from 1963 being their outfits (and sometimes, not even that). But while recent #MeToo-related events may point to the contrary, Li says that the demographic is changing, albeit slowly. Younger magicians are bringing their cultural backgrounds into their acts, and as he puts it, embracing their own kind of “swag.”

One way this is done is via the Junior Society—Li’s own original ticket to entry alongside notable alumni like actor Neil Patrick Harris, who later served as the Academy’s president (and also has a drink named after him). When Li first started practicing magic he’d never even heard of the Magic Castle. But, then again, he was just eight years old.

“My grandpa taught me a trick using a red handkerchief, where you put it in your fist and it vanishes completely,” he recalls. He was mesmerized. “I took this trick back home to school, showed everyone, and taught myself from there. It gave me a lot more confidence—everyone thought that I was cooler than I actually was.”

The Magic Castle today. | Magic Castle

When Li was 16 and living in Rowland Heights, California, his dad suggested that he consider trying out for the Junior Society. Here, young magicians aged 13 to 20 could be mentored by professionals while mingling with the like-minded. It also filtered directly to the Academy. “This sounded pretty much like Hogwarts,” says Li, laughing. He put together a five-minute audition and performed it in the Parlor Of Prestidigitation (the same space you can see him performing this week, now through September 4). Two months later, he got an acceptance letter in the mail. Enclosed was his official black membership card, complete with “Academy of Magical Arts” written in a fancy font. “It was pretty legit.”

Junior members perform at the Magic Castle’s weekend brunches and special young adult nights. They also attend workshops taught by member magicians like Michael Carbonaro, who gave a memorable lecture about his prank-style television show, The Carbonaro Effect.

But something they probably don’t teach yet is the profession’s new virtual dimension, which has grown even greater during the pandemic. Li, for one, is a master of the online: A glance at his Instagram can lead to hours down a wormhole, as he makes things appear and disappear, enacts magic music videos, blows the minds of people like Simu Liu and Jackson Wang, and shows off his crowd work. It’s a direct lineage from television and street magicians like David Blaine, just on a much more intimate, smaller screen.

The Owl bar. Look for Archimedes the mechanical owl and ask him your questions (within reason). | Courtesy of the Academy of Magical Arts

That handheld connection might be why magic has blown up so much on social media. According to Li, expanding your practice into the digital world is absolutely necessary: Like many professions, it’s now mandatory to use your internet presence as a calling card. And for him especially, it was instrumental in launching his career. “[On Instagram], you have to hook someone within the first three seconds or else they’ll click away,” says Li. While still in business school at Cal Poly Pomona, he filmed an Instagram series with the help of a friend that featured “sleight of hand cheating”—ostensibly using trickery to cheat on tests. “It was always a schtick,” he says.“But that first video garnered 4 million views organically. Worldstar reposted me—I was like, ‘This isn’t a fight!’ But okay, I’m down for that.”

His popularity led to him securing an agent, traveling around the world performing for clients like Google and Toyota, and scoring collaborations with powerhouses like AT&T and the very cool Asian cultural megabrand, 88rising.

"Worldstar reposted me—I was like, ‘This isn’t a fight!’ But okay, I’m down for that.”

But, he says working online takes a different set of skills than working in person. Sure, there’s magic involved, and even some (sort of) face-to-face interaction. “You can say something like, ‘Hey, before you click on, I want you to remember one of these cards. Double tap after you’ve locked it in, and I’m gonna try to guess through the screen’,” he explains.

The videos also require multiple takes and just the right camera angles to make sure a trick looks flawless without giving any secrets away. Because, of course, the viewers will always expose any seams. “People will slow-mo it and rewind it millions of times, and you have to be ready,” says Li. “Whereas when you’re in person, the attention of the audience is in a focused area, so you can divert their attention somewhere else.”

The steakhouse, where you can perform your own trick of making food disappear. | Courtesy of the Academy of Magical Arts

Doing magic online came in especially handy during the pandemic, when magicians had to move to digital platforms if they wanted to maintain their following. Even the Magic Castle started producing virtual shows dubbed “Dine and Delight,” which Li helped launch. In turn, the proliferation of social media performances has given rise to a whole new generation of magicians.

“Here’s the ironic part: There are so many social media magicians that are amazing at garnering engagement and followers [online], but if you put them in a live setting, most of the time, they can’t perform,” says Li. “The dynamic is not the same. You can’t go up to a live audience like, ‘Double-tap my table once you’ve locked in your card.’”

For Li, the real magic will always be in person. He recently staged his first ticketed live show, and future goals include opening his own 60 to 70 person theater in Los Angeles. But until then, you can always catch him at the Magic Castle, either on stage or just popping in, trying out new tricks in the corner. And you can definitely always find him on Instagram, testing the limits of the budding medium. Get you a magician that can do both.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. Show her all your magic tricks.