HOLLYWOOD September 15, 2006 — There are two paths to making your name immortal in Hollywood. One is to get it inscribed on a golden statuette known as an Oscar, and the other is to get it inscribed on a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences apparently overlooked Milt Larsen's role in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Hollywood finally came to its senses and awarded Milt, along with his brother, Bill, "star" status on its celebrated walk. The induction ceremony took place on Friday, September 15, 2006, under a bright California sun at 9:30 A.M., criminally early for those of us who had been lurking around the Magic Castle past midnight, hoping to see Doc Eason find a spectator's card under his drink one more time.
I must beg indulgence for injecting personal notes, but this was the first time I had directly participated in a formal media event, and the process was almost as impressive as the event itself.
Long before my arrival at LAX, Arlene Larsen had contacted me with the details and requested that I RSVP for both the event and the reception to follow at the Magic Castle. Later Milt sent confirmation that for the star ceremony I would be in the "inner circle of VIPs" which meant, he added, that I "would get to stand in the gutter." Cool.
|The first thing everyone noticed on the morning of the installation was that Milt's and Bill's new star is situated on prime real estate. It's just down the street (Orange Avenue) from the Magic Castle and barely around the corner on Hollywood Boulevard. This is a tourist hot spot, not only near the Castle but just a parking lot entrance away from Grauman's Chinese Theater, where authentically costumed movie characters mill about all day to pose with tourists and generate a Hollywood ambience. I wondered what Batman, Pinhead, and Captain Jack Sparrow thought of our little congregation of magicians.
By the time I arrived, a crowd already circumscribed the fence that had been erected around our little patch of sidewalk. Because the fence blocked off part of the street as well as the flow of tourist traffic, there were cops on hand and, more intimidating, a guy with a clip board. I checked with him to see if my name was on the list and was promptly told it wasn't. Arlene stood nearby, but I failed to make her list as well. Hmm. Just as things were getting dicey, I noticed Pete Biro waving me to the other end of our narrow stretch of turf. Ah, it turned out we were on the press list.
"And who are you with?" a pretty but coolly businesslike lady asked.
"The Little Egypt Gazette," I tried to say as officially as possible. At least I managed to not say Horse and Hound.
"Come on in," she said. "Sit there."
|This was even better than Milt promised! A bench in the gutter! My press companions were Pete Biro and Shawn McMaster, and we were finally in position and seated. Just across from us, stacked as they must have been many times, sat the real press, photographers from the local media armed with enough high-power camera gear that you would think Paris Hilton had just walked by.
Someone handed us an official press release titled The Magic of Hollywood. (Event 1 would be the 2317th star, Event 2 would be the It's Magic! 50th anniversary reunion, and Event 3 would be the It's Magic! 50th anniversary show.) We also received a small golden gift bag containing such souvenirs as a black plastic top hat, a bag of metal stars and moons, and a map of prominent sidewalk stars already in place. Milt and Bill will take up residence near Jack Nicholson, Mickey Mouse, and Godzilla.
As the crowd inside and outside the fence reached critical mass, including six perky cheerleaders from a local high school, the so-called honorary Mayor of Hollywood, Johnny Grant, kicked off the proceedings. Crusty, congenial, lovable (he reminds me of the late magician Jim Ryan), Johnny Grant is the perfect host for these events.
The real Hollywood press
|"The Mayor" concisely introduced the program: "Today we pay tribute to a duo that is known for producing exciting magic extravaganzas and of course creating the iconic Hollywood Magic Castle and other good venues for wholesome family entertainment. Yes, this is a big day in Hollywood, the morning that we add the names of Milt and Bill Larsen to the roster of the Hollywood Walk of Fame."
At every opportunity, the crowd cheered loudly. Not only did it consist of Castle regulars and such guest performers as Doc Eason and Rafael Benatar, but I've never seen so many Larsen kids and grandkids (if magic has a royal family, this is it) in one location. Milt had stacked the deck!
Adding to the introductory remarks was Hollywood Chamber of Commerce President/CEO, Leron Gubler. "You know, the Magic Castle is one of Hollywood's most venerable landmarks. It's been here for decades, and it's one of those features about Hollywood that we really love. It's because of the Magic Castle that the star today is ... at this location, in close proximity to the Castle. Personally, I am especially pleased today as we honor these longtime Hollywood business leaders, Bill and Milt Larsen. We appreciate not only their accomplishments, but their dedication and commitment to Hollywood through all the years. So on behalf of the Chamber, congratulations to the Larsen family on receiving this 2,317th star."
Johnny Grant asked the crowd to acknowledge the cheerleaders as well as "my man, the Buzz. Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon."
|He then proceeded to lay out the Larsen story, the why behind the star: "Milt and his late brother, Bill Larsen, Jr., are veteran producers and entrepreneurs of family-style enchanting extravaganzas. Their annual It's Magic! shows have been bringing live magic family entertainment to major Southern California theaters for 50 years. Milt Larsen is also responsible for the Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica ... the Variety Arts Center theater downtown, and of course Caesar's Magical Empire in Las Vegas. The Larsen brothers grew up in a family of magicians. Their father, a performing magician and respected Los Angeles defense attorney — his name was William W. Larsen, Sr. — and their mother, Geraldine, an early children's tv pioneer known as what else but The Magic Lady. She published Genii, the Conjuror's Magazine, which is still in publication. When William Larsen passed away, his dream of a place for magicians to gather was still unrealized. History was made when Milt Larsen met Tom Glover, an old boy from Texas, owner of the hillside property featuring the famed restaurant the Yamashiro, right up the hill here. Glover agreed to transform the mansion below into what has since become one of Hollywood's all-time world-renowned landmark attractions. ... This is Hollywood and we are jumping, and the Magic Castle is a part of it.
"Milt's biggest and at first practically only supporter was his brother, Bill Larsen, Jr., at the time a CBS television producer who promoted Milt's new enterprise among his network show business connections, bending ears and twisting arms, recruiting members for their new, unique, private club."
Guest speakers — Honorary Mayor of Hollywood Johnny Grant, game show host Bob Barker, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin
After briefly mentioning a few other "magical" stars on the Boulevard (Siegfried and Roy, David Copperfield, Edgar Bergen), Mr. Grant introduced Milt's longtime pal, Bob Barker, whose opening line got the big laughs I suspect it always gets: "Thank you. I don't usually get that much applause without giving away a refrigerator."
Bob Barker continued in the vein of part roast master, part admirer, and part historian, and the crowd loved going along for the ride.
"The first national show I did," he continued, "was indeed Truth or Consequences, and Milt here was indeed a writer on the show. We've known each other a half a century, that's right. Johnny covered many of your accomplishments, and I would like to enlarge just a bit on the Magic Castle, because it's, of all the things they have done, the nearest and dearest to my heart because I was there from the very beginning. We were doing two shows a day, Truth or Consequences over in Burbank, and between shows Milt said, 'I want to show you something.' So he brought me over here to Hollywood ... and he took me up to that beautiful old mansion, which was completely empty. You went through the same door you go through to go to the Castle now. And he said, 'Bill and I are going to put a bar over here.' He always starts with a bar, you see. And he said, 'We're going to get a license for wine and beer, and we're going to have some tables around here, we'll have a few snacks, and ... we're going to have magicians go from table to table and do close-up magic, with the cards and the shells and so on.' And he said, 'As fast as we can, we'll enlarge. We're going to have a dining room, maybe two or three dining rooms, and of course a kitchen, a big kitchen. We're going to have a bar on every floor. We're going to have a magic museum. And we're going to have three theaters. We're going to use every room in this house.' And he said, 'It's going to become a center for magic that will be known around the world.' He turned to me and said, 'What do you think?' And I said, a display of my business acumen, I said, 'Milt, I think you and Bill are going to lose every cent you have.' But, the Larsen brothers ignored my sage advice, and they went right ahead and they did exactly what Milt said they were going to do in exactly the order that they were going to do it. I think they started with the bars; they did that before the dining rooms. In any event they went right down the line and they did it, just as they had planned, and it has become a success I think beyond anyone's expectations except Bill's and Milt's."
The success of the Castle drew generous applause. Mr. Barker wrapped up his remarks with a nod to Arlene, who met Milt when she was the clothes designer for Truth or Consequences, and closed with his familiar request to help control the pet population.
|Johnny Grant returned to introduce the principals. "Well, I think it's time we hear from both Larsens, don't you? Ladies and gentlemen, come on up."
Irene spoke first, with brief and heartfelt words. "Thank you," she said. "It's wonderful to see so many friends here. I know that Bill is with us in spirit. ... He is in our hearts, in all of our hearts, and I just want to thank everybody that was involved in making this dream a reality. Thank you, very much. Thank you."
Milt, looking chipper in a bright red shirt for the occasion, followed her.
"Thank you," he said. "I know Bill is up in the big bar in the sky too. Thank you, Bob. Wonderful. It's so great to see all of you here. We have a certain amount of family — Arlene's family and Irene's family.
"Incidentally, it's such a thrill for me, for us, to get this star, because there are 2300 and some odd stars, and I notice that there are only 20 that are the Living Theater people, so we're very thrilled to be part of that group. The other thing is that probably my dearest friend in the world, my oldest friend and a collaborator on many things, Richard Sherman of the Sherman brothers over there. For years I have been envying the fact that Richard Sherman and his brother have a star on the boulevard. And now the Larsen brothers have their star, and Dick is over there in front of Hooters. At any rate, they said I have only 30 minutes to speak, so ... I can't resist a little plug for the 50th anniversary It's Magic! show which is solely at the Kodak Theatre, 14 of the biggest stars in magic and emceed by Jason Alexander. So if you don't have your tickets, run right down there and get them. And the other thing is that I couldn't do anything without the help of my wife, Arlene. ... We did meet when she was a costume designer for Truth or Consequences, and I knew her for many, many years before we got married, because I conned her into costumes for the Mayfair Music Hall. I was looking for someone to work cheap. She said, 'I'd do it for nothing.' Later, when she married me, I realized why she was doing that. Anyway, I just want to say thank you for coming, and there is one person I'm going to name, that you may or may not know, but I'm going to name him anyway, because he doesn't want to be named. A fellow by the name of Bob Lamoreaux. The reason I say that is that Bob decided, a few years ago, that the Larsen brothers should have a star on the Walk of Fame, and he bugged Mr. Grant, he bugged everybody, he was the buggiest person in town. Thank you, Bob."
|Johnny Grant returned to the microphone to introduce Buzz Aldrin, but also scored a few great laughs at Milt's expense. "We can't stand on Hollywood Boulevard and have a man of history in our midst and not at least have him say a word, because he's done something none of us have. Milt thinks he got to the moon a couple of times, but Milt really is a magician. He's the only guy I know who could manage the Magic Castle from Santa Barbara. He's never here. He's in Santa Barbara doing his radio show. You can hear it about 10 miles. He's big in those 10 miles. I said, 'Send me a tape, Milt.' He did. I still couldn't hear it. Anyway, for a few words before we unveil the star, let me have Buzz Aldrin come over."
Mr. Aldrin [Personal note: if you are anywhere near the Magic Castle you sort of have to pinch yourself to remind yourself that this is real, that these incredible people enjoy coming to the place] managed to get off a magician story before acknowledging the Larsens.
"It took a little magic to get here from Wilshire and Beverly Grand," he said to easy laughs, with a brief reference to his own accomplishments as "we pulled off a little magic to land on the moon 37 years ago." Regarding a recent trip to London, he added, "The real reason I came here is I want to learn one trick. When I was in London, a lady came up to me and said, 'You just have to meet this person. His name is Uri Geller.'" Uri's name drew laughs from the crowd. Mr. Aldrin continued: "I said okay, so I've got to watch him bend a spoon. Sure enough, he bent a spoon. I'm not sure where the bent one came from, but I hope that you'll explain to me how the hell he does that."
Johnny Grant and Leron Gubler unveil the star.
With all the guest speakers having completed their pleasant assignments, the big moment was at hand. Johnny Grant swelled with pride, like the Wizard of Oz bestowing gifts.
"I have proclamations here for both Milt and Bill that were instigated by Eric Garcetti, who is the Councilman for the Boulevard part of Hollywood, signed by everybody from the Mayor on down the line, and I'll just read this. 'Now therefore be it resolved that by the adoption of the resolution, the Los Angeles City Council, along with the Mayor, hereby congratulate Milt and Bill Larsen on this well-deserved honor of receiving their star on the world-famous Hollywood Walk of Fame.' So that's from the city of Los Angeles, and, as the ceremonial Mayor of Hollywood, I hereby proclaim this Milt and Bill Larsen day in Hollywood."
The star was finally revealed, and the cameras in our proximity began firing away. Milt and Irene posed for dozens of shots with the star, with various family members, with the speakers, with the cheerleaders, and with friends such as Milt's pal, Richard Sherman.
Oscar-winner Richard Sherman already has a star.
Any day with cheerleaders is a good day.
Erika, pretty proud of her dad and uncle.
Wendy Larsen with daughter Jessica.
Bill's "kids": Erika, Heidi, Wendy, Dante.
|Eventually the crowd of magicians and well-wishers, some still looking oddly surprised at being out and about in the bright morning, hiked back up the hill to the Magic Castle for a reception and generous spread of food in the Inner Circle. A young publicist drifted among the partygoers distributing fresh copies of Variety, a collector's issue that contained two relevant articles ("Castle casts spell on Larsen clan" and "All-stars gather for megashow") plus congratulatory advertisements. The party itself, a highly enjoyable mix of Magic Castle enthusiasts, Larsen family friends, plenty of Larsens themselves, one famous astronaut, and six cheerleaders, as well as the star ceremony we just enjoyed plus two more parties to come during the week, owed its success to the hard work of Arlene Larsen. This oft unsung lady behind Milt attends to the myriad details and does much of the down-and-dirty work it takes to entertain so many so well. It was her I saw inflating dozens of gold-foil helium balloons, it was her selecting the materials for and filling three different sets of gift bags, it was her juggling all the lists and making all the arrangements. If Arlene ever falls on hard times, she could have a great career as a wedding planner. The magic, of course, is in making it all look easy, and she does. Thanks to her, the week was off to what was both literally and figuratively a stellar beginning.|
The whole gang: Blair, Dante (behind), Libby, Erika, Jessica (behind), Irene, Milt, Arlene.