Halloween, celebrated on October 31 is a time when Americans turn their attention to stories of witches, goblins and other supernatural creatures. At the Magic Castle, a private club in the hills of Hollywood, Halloween is a time to celebrate the ancient art of magic. The magicians who gather there recall the conjurers of the past, and highlight the young performers who are following in their footsteps.
An imposing Victorian mansion overlooking Hollywood, the Magic Castle is specially decorated now with the images of ghosts, ghouls and devils. Inside, the magicians who perform there seem to bend the laws of physics. They do mystifying card tricks, levitate tables and chairs, read people's minds and make objects vanish, then reappear.
A private club for magicians, the Magic Castle was started by Milt Larsen and his late brother, Bill, to fulfill a dream of their father, a lifelong aficionado of magic. Mr. Larsen was a comedy writer for television in the early 1960s, and worked on the 12th floor of a nearby office building.
"And I used to look down at this place and say, gee, what a nice old haunted house that would be, because at that time it was covered with weeds and it really looked like a derelict old house. So I kind of inquired around and everybody said the house isn't for sale. The person that owns it is absolutely crazy," he said.
The owner was just crazy enough to agree to a business deal with the young writer. It was a wise investment. Today, the Magic Castle is known around the world by magicians and magic fans. It features daily performances, and also houses artifacts from the history of magic. Upstairs, a darkened Victorian parlor with a large circular table is dedicated to magician Harry Houdini. On display are a trunk, straitjacket and handcuffs that the great performer used in his famed escape tricks.
The room also recalls one of Houdini's interests, spiritualism. He died in 1926 from injuries suffered after a trick went wrong. He would tense his abdomen and invite people to hit him, but someone punched him unexpectedly. He died a few days later. For the next 10 years, his widow held seances, attempting to contact the spirit of her late husband. Houdini had been a skeptic, but he and his wife had devised a secret code that could potentially prove if his spirit had survived.
"So for 10 years, they had seances trying to contact Houdini, particularly on the evening of Halloween, which was a perfect time to have a séance. And that was the day he passed away," Mr. Larsen said.
Mr. Larsen's father, who was Mrs. Houdini's lawyer, attended the final séance on Halloween, 1936. It was held on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. Blank slates had been prepared, but no mysterious writings appeared. The bells on the séance table remained silent. Mrs. Houdini announced her verdict. "She said Houdini did not come back. I do not believe in spirit communication in any form. Good night, Harry."
For believers, however, an unexpected rainstorm that erupted over Hollywood suggested that maybe - just maybe - the spirit of Harry Houdini had sent a message.
VOA spoke with a magician named Criss Angel in the Harry Houdini room at the Magic Castle. He says he is carrying on the work of his predecessor.
"Houdini was a master at being relevant for his day and age, because he connected to people on an emotional level. And I think magic unfortunately has lost that. It's become more about how it works and about these puzzles and shoving girls in leotards in boxes. What I wanted to do is present it in such a way that it would be an experience that would couple many different art forms," he said.
Criss Angel looks more like a modern pop star than a traditional magician. He appears on a popular weekly program on the A&E cable network called Criss Angel Mindfreak, which blends magic with fantasy and reality television. Among his most dramatic tricks, he was suspended by fish-hooks from a flying helicopter and caught a bullet in a cup gripped in his teeth. Mr. Angel was recently named Magician of the Year by the Academy of Magical Arts, an honor previously conferred on such stars as Harry Blackstone Junior, Lance Burton, David Copperfield and Doug Henning.
Criss Angel says magic may not be the world's oldest profession, but it comes close. He says people have always wanted to be baffled, mystified, awe-struck and frightened.
"So I think magic will always be around because magic appeals to the child in all of us. And when it's presented well, it really gives us a way to escape our everyday grind and lets us see that anything is possible," he said.
Hollywood's Magic Castle has 5,000 active members. Half of them are magicians. Half are magic fans, often businessmen and Hollywood executives who come to enjoy the ancient arts of conjuring, sorcery and legerdemain.
Once a year at Halloween, the Magic Castle presents its wizardry to the public. This Saturday and Sunday, top magicians are performing at a stage show called "It's Magic!" The cast, which includes Criss Angel, will appear at a Hollywood theater not far from the Magic Castle.