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False Idylls: The Magic Castle

I don’t like wearing suits. My daywear consists of Weekend Dad Chic: aloha shirts, jeans that aren’t too stained mostly kinda, and usually a baseball cap if I haven’t wet my hair yet. I’m just not a suit guy, and that was before I added some mass to my ass during the lockdown eat-a-thon. But one thing will get me to knot a tie, throw on a matching jacket and pants, and wear those shoes that cost enough to look great but not enough that they feel great.

And that thing is MAGIC.

I love magic, and the world of illusions. Recently, my cohost Matt and I did a whole Thirty20Eight podcast episode about David Copperfield, the magician with the big hair that made the Statue of Liberty disappear. He was supposed to open a restaurant of illusions in Times Square and at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, but that sort of fell apart. Fun fact: my ex took me to a David Copperfield show when I turned twenty and it was the only time he ever got a birthday present right. There’s a reason he’s my ex.

False Idylls: The Magic Castle 3

When I first heard about The Magic Castle in Los Angeles, I was beside myself. Not technically a castle, this imposing Revivalist edifice looms from atop a hill in Hollywood, seeming to survey the world of harsh reality below. Well, as real as L.A. ever gets, anyway. You can’t get inside unless you have an admission, and you can’t get an admission unless you belong to the Castle’s Academy of Magical Arts club itself … or are friends with card-carrying member. Now, I have several friends who are members of the Academy, but this is Los Angeles, and trying to pin down one of my on-the-go L.A. friends to invite me for a night of magic and merriment has always proven impossible. 

There is, however, a workaround. If you book a stay at the Magic Castle Hotel next door – more motel than hotel, a charming mid-century L.A. inn that brings to mind Philip Marlowe more than Houdini – you can weasel your way in. I had no problem being a weasel. 

My travel buddy Jeff and I were in the midst of touring southern California’s tiki bars, starting me on the road to obsession that would bear full fruit during lockdown. Until this point, when Jeff and I would plan vacations together, he usually took the lead. Jeff has been to Amsterdam and Prague and all the places that Charlene laments loving in I’ve Never Been to Me. We have different strategies. He loves natural history and artifacts from Days Long Gone, and I’m obsessed with man made kitsch with an emphasis on the aesthetics of the fifties through the eighties. I mean, sure, I’ll go to Japan and love me some temples, but then I want to go to a restaurant where you get free popcorn and can watch kaiju battle while J-pop blares. Different strategies.

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So I was a little taken aback when Jeff agreed to do this Magic Castle stuff with me. We packed suits, and he was baffled that I knew how to iron them in the room. (PS I post pictures of me ironing all the time on instagram, but I think he thought it was for the accomplishment thirst traps and not because I knew what I was doing.) One thing to note is that when you check into the Magic Castle Hotel, they give you free candy. And you can just keep getting free candy. Keep in mind that if your suit doesn’t have a lot of give, this can be an issue. 

You get your ticket to the Castle at check-in, and when you enter the building, the real world is very much left behind. You’re standing in a lobby that looks like a library, one belonging to that of an old gentlemen’s club or Disney World’s Adventurer’s Club, tomes of magic and tomes about magic. And lest you forget this was Los Angeles, there’s a gift shop just off to the side. There’s a fireplace with a peacock screen, mirrors and photographs surrounded by ornate frames peering out from the walls, and a bronze owl figurine whose eyes glow, nestled among the books. Like in the stretching room of the Haunted Mansion, there are no windows and no doors. As I stood there in my suit, feeling overwhelmed by mahogany and excitement and a weird species of imposter syndrome (do I really belong here? They’re going to find out I’m not a magician. They’re going to find out I’m not even all that great a gentleman), I wondered, Where’s the rest of the club?

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The owl was the key, and if you whisper just the right incantation to it, the doors will slide open before you. Like magic

You know that feeling when you take a friend of yours to something that you are absolutely nuts over but you’re worried that they’re not going to have a good time, but then they seem very much to be having a good time so you get over it, mostly? As we descended into the depths of the Magic Castle, that feeling kept recurring. Is Jeff going to be mad I forced this on him? Is Jeff on my level here? Is Jeff … completely enrapt by that guy at the bar doing close-up magic in between sips of his old fashioned? Well okay then. 

Magic was everywhere, and for once, that’s not hyperbole. There are several bars nestled in the depths of the Castle, and almost all of them come with shows; seats lined up behind the barstools so you can watch illusions being performed as drinks are poured. Small tables for quieter illusions are set up in corners and nooks. Bronze owls proliferate, some with magician’s top hats, and at one bar, there’s even a bronze dragon’s head holding a lamp in its mouth. Portraits and artifacts line the long initial corridor; there’s so much history here that you want to obsess over everything, but there’s simply too much. In one room, a ghost plays piano based on suggestions from the audience. There’s an interior English tavern called the Hat and Hare, where rabbits take over for the owls and seem to multiply in cabinets and corners, while table magic holds the attention in the middle of the room. Everyone, even the magicians, is the audience. The people are illusionists. The Magic Castle is illusion. 

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Midway through the night, we are treated to a sumptuous dinner – I had the rack of lamb, Jeff had the Academy Beef Wellington – that surpassed even the experience of being in the Castle itself. We were seated in a dim room that felt both refined and mysterious. Illusions and magic swirled just out of sight, capering and jesting as we ate one of the best meals I’ve ever had in California. That feeling of being in a throwback gentlemen’s club (albeit one where all genders were welcome and feted) persisted; all the dark wood and bronze anchored me in a place and time that was at once very specific and thrillingly vague. This is magic, folks: this could be the 1920s or 2019. You understand here why the dress code is so strictly enforced: if we are meant to be in the thrilling no-time of the Magic Castle, then we ourselves are part of the illusion. This is a place where magicians like Doug Henning and Dorothy Deitrich and Misty Lee all exist in perpetuity, because magic never really dies. 

Following dinner, we eventually took in the big show of the evening, featuring stage magicians from all over the world – the best of the best. It was an outstanding show, but because I knew the night was ending, I couldn’t help but feel a little melancholy. Themed entertainment is meant to evoke a certain visceral response – joy, fear, wonder, excitement, nostalgia – and the Magic Castle evoked all of them. One of the surest signs that the surest signs that the illusion worked is that, even during your first time, you have a feeling like a part of you has been here forever, and that when you leave, that part of you stays behind. The only way to reconnect is to go back, over and over, and re-explore that version of you that fell in love the first time, and see if you can’t find new ways to fall in love again. That’s the best trick in the world.

Written By

Kevin Quigley is a novelist, graphic designer, and podcaster living in Boston with his husband, Shawn. His first taste of themed entertainment was the Chuck E. Cheese’s in upstate New York he would drag his grandparents to every summer for his birthday. Since, he has immersed himself in environments as diverse as Disney parks, tiki bars, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show live, forever at the crux of kitsch, camp, and radical sincerity. He’s a fan of mid-century modern design, aloha shirts, and the homoerotic subtext of the music of Bruce Springsteen.

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