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Season's Greetings.

The Magic Castle at 50.

The family tree.

December 2012

Season's Greetings!

In a few weeks, on January 2, the Magic Castle will celebrate its 50th anniversary. More specifically, the Castle plans to celebrate all year, and I envy those who get to join in the festivities. I've been a fan and supporter from the get go (though a member for only 45 years), and I wish everyone in Hollywood the best.

Under the circumstances, this issue will largely be about Milt Larsen, whose House on Haunted Hill is only part of the Milt Larsen story. Like others of his ilk (I'll discuss four more below), Milt has tried his hand at many things, and he lays out the whole story in My Magical Journey/The First 30,000 Days, an essential autobiography that should top your Christmas wish list.

Ten years ago, for the Castle's 40th anniversary, I collaborated with Richard Kaufman on a 34-page article in Genii (January 2003). Genii subscribers are encouraged to revisit those pages online and enjoy the story in lovingly spooky detail.

We'll round out the magic musings with a look at the December issue of MAGIC (Milt Larsen hogs the cover) and a new book of Christmas magic, just in the Jolly Old Nick of time.

It has again been a bountiful year in magic as well as with family, especially the trips to London and Walt Disney World. I'll close again this year with photos of my grandkids, who make life fun all over again. A very Merry Christmas, or whatever holiday suits your fancy, and Happy New Year to all.

THE FAB FIVE -- The regard in which I hold Milt Larsen can be appreciated only in the context of my regard for others like him, creative American geniuses who started small and bet everything they had on their dreams. They saw the things we all would want, things that hadn’t existed before, things that made the 20th century (and now the 21st) the best times ever in which to live. I never tire of hearing their stories, of how they started from scratch, risking all they had personally, in pursuit of their visions.

Accordingly, let’s take a look at my Fab Five.

ROSS -- One of the nuggets of information unearthed during the Matt Field Genii bash interview with the Larsens and Richard Kaufman was that The New Yorker was Bill Larsen’s favorite magazine. Mine too. As a child, I knew it only for its cartoons that were reprinted elsewhere (especially those of Charles Addams!). I later found access to it as a college student, and eventually subscribed as an adult. Although its inception had little to do with magic, it had a lot to do with cards. Founding editor Harold Ross met his financial backer Raoul Fleischman at a weekly card game, the Thanatopsis Pleasure and Inside Straight Club (members included Franklin P. Adams, Alexander Woolcott, Heywood Broun, George S. Kaufman, Harpo Marx, and Irving Berlin, among others; the norm: three rounds of five card draw followed by a round of five card stud). To launch The New Yorker in 1925, Ross and his wife put up all their savings, $20K, and Fleischman $25K (it ballooned to $400K, but the magazine turned profitable by 1929). The launch was a bold move by Ross, and his magazine’s pages eventually gave us cartoons by Peter Arno and Charles Addams and George Booth, humor by S.J. Perelman and James Thurber and Woody Allen, essays and fiction by E.B. White and John Updike and J.D. Salinger. As with Genii, subscribers have access to all back issues online, and one of my favorite pastimes is to read the weekly reports on Ivy League football from back in the seventies by J.W.L., simply because the writing is sublime. Magic lives there too. If you search, you can find in-depth Profiles on Dunninger, Ricky Jay, Penn and Teller, and Jamy Ian Swiss. There is no greater honor in American letters.

Ricky Jay in the magazine whose founder played poker with Harpo Marx.

But back to Ross, it was he, the brash young Stars and Stripes editor who ran away from home at 13 to become a journalist, who conceived a new kind of magazine and who was willing to bet all he had on the idea, who laid it out in and eventually lived up to the words of his prospectus: “It will be human. Its general tone will be one of gaiety, wit and satire, but it will be more than a jester. It will not be what is commonly called radical or highbrow. It will be what is commonly called sophisticated, in that it will assume a reasonable degree of enlightenment on the part of its readers. It will hate bunk.” It was what all magazines should shoot for.

STEVE -- It is arguable that Steve Jobs changed the world more than anyone else in the 20th century, with some of his most innovative achievements arriving early in the 21st. Virtually the entire workforce and most of the play force of the planet do what they do in front of a computer, each device a direct descendent of the Apple II. He created entire categories for people to flock to, stuff we just couldn’t get along without. It’s incredible that Apple grew from two boys manufacturing primitive computers in a Steve Wozniac spare bedroom and then his garage. The two Steves sold Jobs’s VW bus and Woz’s scientific computer to raise the $1300 to start Apple, and they never looked back. Jobs gave us the Macintosh, the iPod, the IMac, the iPod Touch, the Nano, the Shuffle, the iPhone, Apple TV, the iPad, Pixar movies, and more. If you are lucky and wise, you are reading these words on an iMac or on some ios device. Steve Jobs' on and off and on relationship with Apple is one of the great stories of American business.

Marco Tempest plays three card monte with three iPods.

In recent years, of course, magic has learned to exploit the ios technology. I love Chris Kenner’s Rising Card, and no one gets more out of an iPod than Marco Tempest. Magic will continue to fascinate, even in this age of the Jetsons.

WALT -- I quote Walt Disney at the top of every issue of Little Egypt Magic: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” Walt began doing just that when he left Kansas in 1923 for Hollywood, where he soon gave us Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie, the first feature-length animated movie, Snow White (panned before it came out as “Disney’s Folly”), countless more ground breaking movies and television programs, product spinoffs galore, and songs that made you as happy as if there were a bluebird on your shoulder. (The best Disney music came from Milt Larsen’s lifelong friends, the Sherman brothers.) Walt’s most significant leap of faith crystallized in what has become known in show business lore as the Lost Weekend, when he cajoled artist Herb Ryman into sketching a 270-acre theme park like nothing the world had seen before. Herb completed the task, Walt took it off to New York to meet with backers, and Disneyland was born, with Walt Disney World and other sibling parks around the world to follow.

Early transportation at Walt Disney World.

The early Disneyland had a magic shop, sometimes two, that provided employment to the likes of Aldini, Leo Behnke, and Steve Martin. I’d like to think that Walt enjoyed them and, if he were alive today, would still have them open in all the parks.

HEF -- I don't recall when I quit reading Playboy. It no doubt had to do with the children growing up, with increased respect for the mindset of modern women, and with changing attitudes at the magazine itself: celebration of the girl next door had morphed into celebration of synthetically enhanced uber-women. But there was a time when Playboy was important to me, and relevant, and cool, when it defined the months of my matriculation at the University of Illinois, when Hef was our alma mater's most important alumnus. He still is. Yes, we looked at the girls and knew them by name. Few of my generation can forget Donna Michelle and DeDe Lind and Claudia Jennings. But we also really read, and discussed, "the articles." Here were significant interviews with Fidel Castro and Jimmy Carter and John Lennon; art by Shel Silverstein and Gahan Wilson and Alberto Vargas; fiction by Ray Bradbury and Ian Fleming and Vladimir Nabokov. Hef's dedication to his lifestyle fascinated (and probably ruined) us. Fellow U of I students working as delivery boys occasionally rated glimpses inside the Chicago mansion. Hef early on grasped multimedia, and his hipster television shows “Playboy’s Penthouse” and “Playboy After Dark” featured the likes of magician Don Alan. You could immerse yourself in the Playboy world by visiting a big-city Playboy club, where cotton-tailed cuties deposited drinks at your table with a bosom-revealing curtsy. A perfect evening in my early adulthood was to enjoy Goshman and Vernon and Slydini at the Magic Castle until about midnight, then to head over to L.A.'s Playboy club for music and a late breakfast. Breakfast and drinks each cost $1.50. The good old days sometimes really were!

I used to love those fat Christmas issues.

Hef created an empire devoted to his swinging lifestyle, and it all began with his mortgaging his furniture and borrowing enough from investors, including $1000 from his mom, to launch that first issue with a nude calendar photo of Marilyn Monroe. Oh, what lay ahead, and has anyone else ever so completely subscribed to Dai Vernon's secret to life?

MILT -- And then there is Milt. I always knew there was a Milt Larsen. He was, after all, the son of, the brother to, and the uncle of a succession of Genii editors. Perhaps some day he will adopt Richard Kaufman and extend the relationship.

Milt’s achievements are no secret to anyone reading this. He has pretty much been to magic what Ross was to journalism, what Steve was to computers, what Walt was to our animated dreams, and what Hef was to sex. The second child of a magical family, growing up in a one-time Thayer magic shop, Milt headed straight from high school to a gag-writing partnership in Hollywood. He and Red Baker founded the Comic Information Service in an office funded by their nights working in Dr. Zomb’s midnight spook show. (You can’t make this stuff up.) This they parlayed into a writing gig with Ralph Edwards’ “Truth or Consequences,” with Bob Barker as host. It helped to have your dad’s friend, comedy writer Snag Werris, as mentor. Some 3000 episodes and many other TV shows would follow.

Milt (and Bill) get a star.

I thought I was doing something "new" when I began a series of Christmas greetings using magicians' names in rhyme. (See Poetry 101.) Milt was way ahead of me, having done his first such poem for a 1969 Castle lunch menu. He eventually wrote the lyrics to over 200 songs with his pal Dick Sherman (that's him in the photo above), some for comedy record albums such as Smash Flops, others for nostalgia-driven musicals such as Victory Canteen.

A fan of magic shows done right, in a beautiful theater with a full orchestra, Milt helped produced Hocus Pocus ’56 for the S.A.M.’s annual show. By the third year Milt and his partner, Oliver Berliner, branched out on their own and re-named the show It’s Magic! The show became an institution that has lasted well over 50 years. (For a complete look at the first 50, including Milt’s star-studded anniversary show at the Kodak Theatre, check out our most recent edition of The Little Egypt Gazette.)

Fortunately for the rest of us, Milt’s ninth-floor office at Ralph Edwards Productions looked out on a lovely old Victorian mansion. Milt dreamed of turning it into a magic-themed bar and restaurant, but was told it wasn’t zoned for a restaurant. It was, however, zoned for a private club. Bingo. This led to that, Milt shook hands with Tom Glover, and the Magic Castle and the Academy of Magical Arts were launched on January 2, 1963. With an invisible piano player and a sliding bookcase as inaugural gags and with Jay Ose as an inaugural Resident Magician, the establishment was a hit from the get go. Dai Vernon would soon arrive to attract a migration of disciples, and fifty years of magic history would make the case that this lovely old domicile, magically larger on the inside than it is on the outside, is the most magical place on Earth, arguments from Disneyland notwithstanding.

Although the Magic Castle has benefitted from fifty years of Milt's being a gag writer with a hammer and saw, he didn’t limit his creativity to that establishment and It’s Magic! alone. Over the same decades he lent his hand to the Mayfair Music Hall, the Variety Arts Center, and Caesar’s Magical Empire; he wrote for and appeared in movies and on TV shows; he wrote books and articles; he produced record albums and spun records as a radio DJ; he furthered the careers of dozens of magicians; he performed his Carpenter Act on special occasions and opened for Amazing Johnathan; he wrote lyrics for and produced musicals with his pal Dick Sherman; and he has been one of the foremost collectors, promoters, and preservers of the variety arts. And in addition to still being active in most of these endeavors, he has remained a really nice guy who, if the situation calls for it, can yank a tablecloth from beneath a full set of dinnerware. Milt’s friends are as legion as his accomplishments.

Milt Larsen tells all.

Lately Milt has been busy with his typewriter. His new autobiography is a fascinating 297-page hardback (or soft cover if you wish) chock full of great color photos and illustrations. Titled My Magical Journey, its paradigm is that of a train ride through the decades, with occasional sidetracks. Even if you think you know all there is to know about Milt Larsen, you may surprise yourself by how much you didn't. Milt shares fascinating detail, including a sampling of the gags he concocted for "Truth of Consequences," and he shares his failures as well as his successes. (Once, he opted to write for a summer TV series starring Ricky Nelson rather than a single one-hour variety special; the Ricky Nelson series folded after seven episodes, while the "single" special became "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" and ran for 140 episodes.) I also found the photos fascinating, especially one of young Bill, Jr., gracing the label of a jar of baby food (Milt's grandfather was a pea packer from Wisconsin whose employees formed a little football team that became the Green Bay Packers) and one of Bill, Sr., looking exceedingly glamorous in his pre-mustache performing days. if you are into magic at all, this is a must-have volume. Edited by Carol Marie, 297 pages, $60 hard cover, $40 paperback, directly from the Magic Castle gift shop.

A MAGIC CHRISTMAS ISSUE -- Over the past few months, especially as Genii’s 75th anniversary kicked into high gear, I have neglected any recent mention of its only true rival, Stan Allen’s MAGIC. Partly because Milt is on the cover, which gives me an excuse to post his mug, let me mention that in the December issue Stan knocked several articles out of the park. “Open Sesame” is by Milt himself on how the whole Magic Castle thing got started, and, I'm happy to note, the piece is going to be continued. As I have mentioned above, I never tire of hearing these startup stories. “Road Trip” is Jason England’s account of his and R. Paul Wilson’s cross country “quest for great magic, great food, and a flawless false shuffle” with a most surprising last incident. “Twelve Magical Months” chronicles the 1.7 million dollar give away that Stan will cough up at MAGIC Live to rival the Genii bash gift bag, or so I wish. It’s a crazy month by month list of things you could buy if you were stinking rich, my favorite being Burger and Fryes and Pop (Eugene Burger, Charlie and Sherry Frye, and Whit “Pop” Haydn will come to your house and teach you magic, all for only $7450). Josh Jay’s “Talk About Tricks” lists Josh’s ten favorites from the past year, sending me back through my bookshelf, the delightful find being Jason Dean’s Double Open Prediction.

But the really cool thing in Josh’s column is a link to his Bluff Shift Bundle video. I once paid for this download, probably ten bucks, and you can get it free. These bluff controls are fun to do, and the price is so right. You aren’t a MAGIC subscriber? Just buy the issue online for your iPad for only four bucks and you get this ten-buck video gratis. Such a deal! Plus, Ian Rowland offers a surprisingly spooky item, Mark Kornhauser is as first-readable as ever, and so on. You should be a subscriber, so check it out if you aren’t.

Stan puts out another great issue.

Happy holidays!

IT'S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS -- The Magic Castle is always at its most beautiful during the Christmas season. Whether any of this year's December performers (Oscar Munoz, Robert Baxt, Jon Armstrong, Scott Land, Woody Pittman, and Dana Daniels, among others) plan on doing any specifically holiday material I have no idea. However, if they want to do so, they can find many good ideas in a new book, Magic with a Christmas Theme, by Marc Dibowski.

Although the book is subtitled Christmassy ideas for (children's) entertainers, there are ideas that will work fine for adults as well, my two favorites being a card matching routine (with Christmas expressions written on them) and the prediction of a date chosen from an Advent calendar. Whether you choose to do an entire Christmas-themed act or merely insert a Christmas routine into your regular program, you should find plenty from which to choose. Mr. Dibowski is an elementary teacher in a large town in Germany and performs semi-pro for both children and adults. His book in excellent English covers the entire spread of Christmas magic, including music, stage setting, props, traditions around the world (I learned a lot about Christmas I didn't know), gags, routines, fragments of routines, and practical thoughts on producing Santa Claus. I was going to say that Christmas magic isn't quite my thing (I'm more Halloween), but I must stand corrected. A spirit slate routine (that has nothing to do with messages from beyond) in the book is compelling, and I'd love to perform it at my next opportunity, regardless of the season. Seventy-eight pages, foreword by David Kaye, available from as an e-book or printed edition, $25.

At Christmas once again, we indulge in a family visit ...

One grandkid likes her blue coat, the other plays the blues.

Peace on earth, good will to men.

Little Egypt Magic is the erratically updated web site of Steve Bryant, spawned (the site, not Steve) by a former internet magazine known as The Little Egypt Gazette/for magicians only.

Steve Bryant is an obscure magician and writer who generates this site from an iMac in Bloomington, Indiana. He frequently journeys to and performs magic in Little Egypt, the local name for extreme southern Illinois, where the towns bear such names as Cairo, Thebes, and Karnak.

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