"It's a members-only clubhouse. You have to be a magician," explains my native-born L.A. friend for the 20th time. "Or the friend of a magician."
This last piece of information is new.
"I'm a liar and a cheat and your new best friend," says Paul Nathan in his one-man show Devil in the Deck.
A departure from Nathan's regular work as a touring magician and the star producer of San Francisco's annual Dark Kabaret, Devil is the narrative tale of Jack Swindell, a Southern boy who learns to manipulate cards so he can evade a Gypsy prophecy. Nathan himself is a fourth-generation San Franciscan who learned magic to avoid regret.
"After I got out of the Army, college was already paid for," says Nathan, a gracious, baldheaded, broad-shouldered man whose mien still suggests force as much as finesse. "I didn't need a real job, and I had always wanted to be a magician, so ...."
The childhood dream, which started when Nathan saw the great Japanese magician Shimada perform on The Merv Griffin Show, became a pastime. At 22, while attending college in Southern California, Nathan garnered a coveted weekend slot at Vertigo in Los Angeles that was to last more than five years. Within six months after Nathan was hired, the club received national attention, and the fledgling magician found himself in a media vortex, surrounded by celebrities, performing for princes, appearing on MTV, HBO, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous no fewer than three times. But all of that didn't earn him membership to the Magic Castle.
"You have to audition in front of a panel of other magicians," explains Nathan. "I was petrified. I was a good magician, but not a very good technician at the time. But I had wanted to be a member since I was 11."
His fears notwithstanding, Nathan garnered a membership card at the age of 23 and full access to the Castle. "My favorite [room]," says Nathan, "is the library. I used to spend weeks buried in those arcane tombs, researching obscure methods and effects. They have a felt-topped table with a mirror on it so you can practice handling small effects while you study. ... The Castle has one of the most comprehensive magic libraries in the world. It's a dangerous place. You can get lost and never come back.
"You wouldn't have seen it. It's closed to the public."
Technically, the whole Castle is closed to the public, but a good word from a member and the all-important membership code delivered over the phone with a reservation request garner me a guest pass. The bookshelf slides away, revealing a dimly lit passageway lined with rich wooden paneling that spills out into a salon where elegant men and women are sipping cocktails at a bar accented by slides from the old Hippodrome Vaudeville Theater. The small crowd looks me over lightly, determining quickly whether I am showman, shill, or rube, and resumes conversation indifferently, leaving me to explore the building.
With three open floors, three theaters, and a grand dining room situated under a dome of Tiffany glass, there is more than I can manage to see before dinner. Posters and autographed playbills from the world's finest prestidigitators decorate the hallways; crystal chandeliers hang from the ceilings; in the subterranean Hat and Hare Pub, two magicians sit at a table poring over a book of card tricks while gossiping about a fellow magician who remains unnamed. I find W.C. Fields' trick pool table on display, along with Jimmy Durante's breakaway piano, the only pair of handcuffs that are said to have gotten the better of Harry Houdini, and countless dioramas depicting the likes of Madame Blavasky and Dion Fortune. In the séance room, the disembodied voice of Houdini issues forth from an Edison cylinder surrounded by old photographs, straitjackets, and milk cans. Though those in attendance show obvious reverence for the surroundings, the conversation in the dining room is animated and as off-color as one might expect in a room full of show people. The menu, also a tribute to great magicians and lesser wit, includes Scallopini Dante, Roast Prime Rib Blackstone, Filet Mignon Thurston, and Rack of Lamb Larsen. Despite the delicacy of the dishes and the attentiveness of the waitstaff, I can hardly eat a bite.
Seated in the Palace of Mystery, I try to imagine what it must be like for longtime veterans Tom Burgoon, Billy McComb, and David Sandy to perform in this room. As the host, comic magician Burgoon plays to his good ol' boy roots, mocking himself, the audience, and his fellow magicians to great effect. The white-haired McComb takes a similar tack, poking fun at his age -- his Social Security number is 7 -- and his nationality (Irish, if you must know), and charming the money out of our pockets; but Sandy, the current international president of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and producer of all the magical entertainment for President George W. Bush's inaugural banquets in 2001, is deadly serious. So serious, in fact, that at first I think he's kidding, then I start to feel very uncomfortable. Looking like a ventriloquist's dummy and sounding like a children's-show nightmare, he begins to tell us stories about his childhood and practicing magic in his father's garage. They're nothing like Nathan's tales -- the real ones about Army life, Hollywood excess, and returning home to learn how to busk, or the fictionalized ones about Gypsy curses, Southern hospitality, and running with the bulls in Pamplona. They are creepy, candy-coated tales augmented by overelaborate props and obvious, sleepy tricks, and I'm more than happy to get home, where magicians have darker hues and their tricks bend your mind even after their secrets are revealed.
Devil in the Deck plays Fridays and Saturdays at the Climate Theater through June 26. Paul Nathan can still be found on occasion performing at Fisherman's Wharf.