Featured in
Issue 240

No Pictures: The Hidden World of the Magic Castle

The greatest trick of the Los Angeles members club is making itself invisible

BY Christina Catherine Martinez in Opinion | 08 FEB 24

This article appears in the columns section of frieze 240, ‘Sleight of Hand

My first mistake is wearing a suit. On the occasion of my inaugural visit to the Magic Castle, I have paired a vintage navy-blue pinstripe Yves Saint Laurent with a black latex leotard from Lady Love – a risqué dancewear emporium in Hollywood where I get most of my performance clothes. The owner, Avi, designs every spangly sparkly rubbery slip of fabric in the store with pride, and has a detached-but-concerned approach to the female form: a gynaecologist of glam. When I come out of the dressing room in the bodysuit, he puts his hand on his chin. ‘Very nice,’ he says, then gestures to the black wires of fluff sticking out the sides of the gusset. ‘Now you just shave here and shave here, and you are good.’ I remind him that I’m comedian, not a stripper. But for Avi, there are only entertainers – and everyone else.

Commissioned illustration by Laurie Herman, 2023

The Magic Castle is tucked into the base of the Hollywood Hills. There is valet parking only, and the driveway inclines at an angle that pushes the limits of my manual transmission. (In Los Angeles, a steep driveway is a sign you’re about to enter somewhere weird, or expensive, or both). Velvet rope and red carpets mean increasingly little in a time and a town where any flop-era starlet slapping their name on a tube of retinol calls for a launch party, but when I pull up to the chateau-esque manor in my little coupe, I feel I have arrived at some unknown eldritch version of Disneyland, one with higher stakes and absolutely no children allowed. Inside the baroque and labyrinthine castle, which acts as headquarters for the Academy of Magical Arts, my fears are confirmed: I see sequin gowns and suspenders, unironic three-piece suits and cocktail dresses with slits up to there, pastry-like chignons and weathered pocket watches, wire-rimmed glasses that went out of fashion decades ago. Suddenly, my low-key getup seems like an embarrassing form of hedg­ing in a place so committed to the discipline of its own fantasy.

We all know magic isn’t real, but the depth of its craft is

The castle is, famously, a members-only club, and the only way to gain entry is to attend as the guest of a member. My host for the night is a friend of a friend, a magician I don’t dare name, who is waiting in the book-lined lobby to walk us in, slipping us past the ropes with a mere jut of his chin. He greets me with a perfection of manners I can only interpret as disdain, so of course I am now in love with him. He directs us towards a small niche in a bookcase with a sculpture of an owl nestled inside and whispers the passcode in my ear. I repeat the phrase to the owl and the bookcase creaks open to reveal a dark corridor lined with flickering sconces. Beyond the corridor lies a realm where affect makes a U-turn at the 21st century and pulls over at Vaudeville.

My connection to the castle is a gossamer thread that runs through the clown community and frays at the edges of an inner circle of LA-based magicians, who I suspect look down their noses just a little bit at people who are merely funny on stage. A contemporary magician is a comedian, a clown, a cynic and a child scientist all rolled into one. Through the accretion of furtive palmings, card throwings, various disappearances of the audience’s personal effects, fields of fabric blooming forth from the most inti­mate crevasses of the hand, the magicians have erected around the castle a sieve that lets in the play­fulness of postmodernism while filtering out the irony.

Commissioned illustrations by Laurie Herman, 2024

Everyone seems to know our host, which makes me feel important. People make a beeline for him all night, interrupting us between Moscow mules to ask him what he thinks of this or that, whether he knows a good contortionist act to bring to Vegas, etc. If he says someone is an asshole, they nod, storing the information for future use. He tells us which shows to avoid (on account of assholes) and which ones are worth squeezing into. There are magic shows nearly every hour, all night long, in theatres of various sizes sprinkled throughout. Photography, video or recording of any kind is so adamantly forbidden that I have promised not even to use proper nouns to describe my visits. (In terms of cultural cache, the trust of a magician is more precious to me than the bona fides of this publication.) Yet each memory is surfeit with images: cool, dark underground tunnels leading to tiny rooms for impromptu showdowns; a flustered young man in a green tuxedo rushing up to apologize to our host for some past faux pas. I stare for a full ten minutes at a statue in the library, only to scream bloody murder when he winks at me. A magician hops behind the basement-level bar. I write my name on my own 20-dollar bill and minutes later he pulls it out of a sealed Twinkie. He hands me the creamy bill and I start to cry. We all know magic isn’t real, but the depth of its craft is: there is a devastation in having such intimate artistry laser-focused on you, especially in front of others. I think of Brian Eno writing on the fallibility of mediums in A Year with Swollen Appendices (1996): ‘It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart.’ The Magic Castle does not brook the charm of fallibility. If the whole thing feels retrograde, it’s because there is a will to transcend – or, at least, to give the illusion of transcending – the medium of the body. Defying physics feels like a desperate form of hope. It’s why Avi’s referendum on my pubes feels not insulting, but merely quaint. The wish to hedge one’s rough human edges for the thrill of an audience belongs to a dying breed of entertainer. One who resists the treachery of images, no matter how beautiful the spectacle.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 240 with the headline ‘Notes on Tricks’

Main image: Commissioned illustrations by Laurie Herman, 2024

Christina Catherine Martinez is a recipient of an Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and has been named a Comedian You Should Know by Time Out LA and New York Magazine. She is subject of a forthcoming documentary from PBS, to be released in 2024.