“It is with heavy hearts that the Academy of Magical Arts shares the sad news that Magic Castle founder Milt Larsen has passed away. For decades, he brought magic to so many lives and his legacy will continue to do so. We will miss him tremendously,” said Chuck Martinez Chair, Board of Directors Academy of Magical Arts.
Members of the Larsen family have been performing magic continuously since the mid ’20s, with the fourth generation now on stage. Milt and Bill Jr.’s parents, Geraldine (“Geri”) and William Larsen, Sr.— a noted Los Angeles attorney, who became disillusioned with law and left practice to pursue magic—both performed as professional magicians and are revered as pioneers in the art. Geri was the first female magician to appear on TV, as a children’s entertainer known as The Magic Lady, on KTLA in the late ’40s.
By the age of six, Larsen was performing coin tricks in front of such luminaries as Bess Houdini. During the Depression in the Vaudeville era of the late ’30s, the family of four began touring as the “Larsen Family of Magicians,” playing in such opulent southern California resorts as the Hotel del Coronado on San Diego’s Coronado Island and El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs. When World War II broke out, many of the luxury inns were turned into military hotels and the family stopped traveling.
In 1942, the Larsen’s purchased their Hancock Park estate, called Brookledge. Built in 1933 by the founder of the famed L.A. Thayer Magic Company, the Larsens not only purchased the home, but the beloved magic company as well. Brookledge became an informal gathering place for the top echelon of the magic community of the day. A theatre behind the main house became the stage for virtually every famous name in the magic world. Brookledge, which remains in the family today, is often referred to as the “forerunner to the Magic Castle.”
A stage constructed at the family’s historic Brookledge estate in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles—built in 1933 and purchased by the Larsens in 1942 from the founder of the downtown L.A. Thayer Magic Company, which they also acquired—became an informal gathering place for the top echelons of the magic community of the day. Virtually every famous name in illusion visited and performed at the estate, often referred to as the “forerunner to the Magic Castle,” which remains in the family today. “You’d come home from school and magicians would be at your house,” Larsen told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “I was literally a kid in the candy store.”
The elder Larsens launched the magic magazine Genii in 1952, which continues to publish today. Retired from life on the road and managing the magic apparatus company, Bill, Sr., dreamed of opening an elegant, private clubhouse for magicians, but died in 1953 at just 48.
Prior to opening the club on Jan. 2, 1963, the Larsen boys both had successful careers in television. As a performer, writer and producer, Milt was a staff writer at Ralph Edwards TV Productions for the iconic Truth or Consequences for 18 years—later appearing as a guest on the show himself as a founder of the Magic Castle—becoming lifelong friends with host Bob Barker. The show aired 1940-57 on radio and 1950-88 on TV, featuring various hosts. It was from a window of the Ralph Edwards offices on Hollywood Boulevard that he spied the run-down Edwardian mansion on the hill—which has most recently served as a boarding house—which later became The Magic Castle.
On a handshake in 1962 with the property’s owner, Tom Glover—who also owned Yamashiro restaurant which sits atop the hill overlooking the club—the Larsen brothers leased the club and fulfilled their father’s dream, with Milt managing hands-on renovations of the landmark home and Bill Jr. supervising business affairs. Much of the ornate décor was rescued from the wrecking ball on the demolition sites of vintage estates or from Hollywood studio sets before being dumped into the trash. Larsen pal John Shrum, former art director for NBC and The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, was also an avid Castle enthusiast who assisted Milt at times—The famous talk show’s original L.A. “cityscape” backdrop is on display in the Owl Bar behind the bar upon which The Gold Diggers danced on the Dean Martin Variety Show. Many other AMA members, also well positioned within the entertainment industry, have left their personal imprints as well.
The circulation of Genii magazine, a loose affiliation of magicians, were issued cards and became the initial membership of the Academy of Magical Arts (AMA) a unique, non-profit social order and the premier organization dedicated to the art of magic, headquartered at the AMA’s private clubhouse The Magic Castle. Larsen, his brother and his sister-in-law all performed on Castle stages and at other venues, with Milt working a carpenter’s routine into his act in homage to his work on the club.
Today, the AMA’s nearly 6,000 members, who hail from 48 states and 40 countries, live by the “Magic First” creed, devoted to the advancement of the art of magic, preserving its history and promoting public interest as an entertainment medium and hobby. From close-up and parlour-style magic to stage productions at the 26,000-square-foot venue, magicians from around the world perform up to 32 scheduled shows a day on four stages—as well as at an array of impromptu performance areas—all but eight days a year.
Also honored with a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame with his late brother in 2006, Larsen also produced an all-star live magic revue show, It’s Magic (1956-2016), first at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, then at the Variety Arts Center in downtown Los Angeles, where the show would remain an annual event until 1984. In 1994, the show was revived at the Alex Theatre in Glendale.
Born in Pasadena, Larsen’s first commercial job came when he was just 13 years old, writing signs for Gimpy’s Hot Dog Stand on Wilshire Boulevard for which he was paid entirely in hot dogs. As a teenager, Larsen worked as a record archivist for Eddie Cantor. He was also the weekly guest of radio personality Jim Hawthorne on a nationally aired CBS radio program which featured Milt’s old records and commentary by CBS founder Andrew White.
Larsen’s first job as a professional writer was with the ABC Radio network on a daytime audience participation show with variety acts and a 25-piece house orchestra. Later working as a writer for Ralph Edwards, he was often called upon to keep the unsuspecting, famed subjects of This Is Your Life occupied while the production team set up their surprise introduction on the show, which was broadcast live. Enamored with the older stars, Larsen entertained legends like Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, Ed Wynn, Mack Sennett, George Burns, Jack Benny and many others
Larsen penned numerous stage revues and musicals, which—among other venues—were produced at the Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica and the Variety Arts Theater in downtown Los Angeles, both of which he owned and operated for 10 and 12 years respectively. Veteran stars Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Buddy Ebsen and Steve Allen often called upon Larsen for his consultation on songs and variety acts.
Larsen produced TV specials for ABC, CBS and NBC and was the creative consultant for the $50 million Caesars Magic Empire at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. An active member of SAG and AFTRA, he was a radio personality; an opening act for such noted acts as The Amazing Johnathan in Las Vegas; and has frequently been seen in films and commercials.
He appeared as an actor on TV’s Hart to Hart (1981) and had an uncredited cameo appearance in Disney’s Bedknobs And Broomsticks. He appeared as the back and hands of Raul Julia as Gomez Addams, performing his tablecloth yank at the end of Gomez and Morticia’s Tango dance in Addams Family Values (1993).
Larsen has been a lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute and at magic conventions around the world. A well-known historian and collector, Larsen curated many important collections including extensive archives of Ed Wynn, Eddie Cantor, Earl Carroll and others. In addition to one of the largest and most significant magic memorabilia collections and libraries in the world, his collections include books, films, recordings, scripts, orchestrations and sheet music from the early days of variety theater. He was the founder and president of the Society for the Preservation of Variety Arts (1975–1990).
He authored five joke books and co-authored three books about The Magic Castle. Partnering with longtime pal, two-time Academy Award and three-time Grammy Award-winning songwriter Richard Sherman, the duo had a cult following for comedic albums considered outrageous in their day.
A long-time resident of Montecito, Larsen divided his time between Los Angeles and the coastal town. In addition to his wife, he is survived by his niece Erika Larsen, president of Magic Castle Enterprises, Inc., and producer of “contemporary Vaudeville” variety-and-magic show The Brookledge Follies; his nephew Dante Larsen; and great-nieces Jessica Hopkins and Liberty Larsen. No services have been scheduled at this time.