Hollywood's Magic Castle: The hardest trick is getting in

(CNN)When's the last time you enjoyed a night of astounding magic and illusion with a festive supper-club crowd gathered in an old Gothic mansion on the edge of Hollywood?

Chances are it's been a while.
Perhaps this mystical experience still awaits you -- at the Academy of Magical Arts and its private clubhouse the Magic Castle.
    L.A.'s iconic, castle-ish landmark (built by a local banker in 1909) at the foot of the Hollywood Hills has for the last 53 years been the hallowed headquarters of the AMA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion and advancement of the art of magic.

    Magic fortress

    A who's who of eminent magicians and illusionists have performed at this curious-looking fortress over the years, which pulls in big names -- Mac King, Michael Carbonaro, The Amazing Johnathan -- that still might escape you.
    Penn & Teller, David Copperfield and Siegfried & Roy -- whose smiling photos hang on the walls -- may not have played here, but they're all proud AMA members.
    So was Johnny Carson, a big magic fan, who frequented the Magic Castle -- and, as the story goes, was once stopped at the door for not arriving in the club's famously enforced formal evening dress code.
    Johnny Depp apparently digs the Magic Castle, as does Quentin Tarantino.
    What better place, you'd think, for anyone to indulge an appetite for the conjuring arts -- let alone Oysters Rockefeller, Beef Wellington and whiskey cocktails named Sassy Black Magic?
    If you can get in. And that's the snag.

    Rules of entry

    Officially, this private venue is open only to registered AMA members -- of which there are now more than 5,000 spread across 48 states and 47 countries, but probably not you.
    As for the rest of us magically-challenged, non-AMA-card-carrying types, getting into the Magic Castle requires one of three sleight-of-entrance methods:
    1. Having an AMA member (if you know one) provide you with a guest pass.
    2. Staying at the Magic Castle Hotel next door -- no relation to its famous neighbor, but hotel guests are provided courtesy access to the separately run club.
    3. Being Johnny Depp.
    Whatever "in" you can swing, slipping past the front foyer's fake bookcase portal into the Magic Castle's inner sanctum has become its own vintage Hollywood rite of passage over the past half-century.

    Houdini Seance Chamber

    Having scored a chance dinner invitation to the privileged lair which bills itself one of the most extraordinary private clubs in the world, I prepare myself for my first magic show since my nephew's birthday party.
    Inside is a time warp of labyrinthine halls, stairwells and dimly lit rooms exuding quirkiness at every turn.
    Yes, there's a painted portrait of a man whose eyes follow you as you walk by.
    And a stuffed owl perched above one of the club's many bars which nods or shakes its head to yes-or-no questions.
    There's a private [Harry] Houdini Seance Chamber honoring the late legend's promise to his wife Beatrice that he'd send a message from the other side if at all possible.
    Museum-ish bric-a-brac is everywhere.
    Most importantly, there are several theaters spread throughout the building featuring top practitioners of the magical arts who can best answer what anyone standing outside of this curious house is likely to wonder:
    "The Magic Castle. What goes on in that place?"

    The Palace of Mystery

    "Let me know if you feel the slightest stabbing sensation in your throat," says tonight's headlining magician, Mark Miller, pointing a sword at an audience volunteer's neck.
    "Because that means the trick is not working."
    About a hundred guests in suits and cocktail dresses are assembled in the main theater, the Palace of Mystery, down the hall from a turn-of-the-century-style dining room -- where lobster tail specials and many drinks (judging from the joyous shrieks of this Tuesday-night crowd) were enjoyed before the evening's featured magic performance.
    "You've picked a very good time to come and experience the Magic Castle," my dapper waiter had assured me during dinner, after recommending the lobster bisque and sea bass (both far better than one might expect from a dining room with an adjacent Houdini Seance Chamber for private parties).
    "Our new chef is really quite exceptional."
    "Don't forget --" he added with some emphasis, "drinking is permitted in all of the theaters, so please feel free to take your glass with you to any of the shows.
    "In fact, we strongly recommend it."
    The Magic Castle was established by Milt Larsen in 1962.

    The Parlour of Prestidigitation

    Spilling out of the theater to the awaiting Palace Bar after the big act, the crowd then fuels up for a rotation of smaller stage shows -- where much of my favorite magical artistry of the night is performed.
    Working a compact crowd from a mini proscenium called the Parlour of Prestidigitation, a sleight-of-hand master begins his 20-minute set by predictably borrowing an audience member's wedding ring and even more predictably losing it into thin air.
    "Oh, well. Easy come, easy go. Sorry about that," he deadpans.
    "Hopefully some of these other tricks will work a little better," says the legerdemain artist -- before teleporting a folded two of diamonds into a rubber duck, delivering an autographed eight of spades into a zipped wallet, and just as inexplicably sending various other things from here to there and back again, while casually wisecracking to a bemused and amused set of faces.
    At the end of the show -- pop!-- the wedding ring appears inside a burst balloon animal that couldn't have possibly contained the ring before it was inflated. Right?
    "Phew," says the magician, flipping the ring to the woman. "Now you can enjoy the rest of your marriage."

    Close-Up Gallery

    The Close-Up Gallery is the ultimate test of a magician's sleight-of-hand skills.
    Around midnight, as the weekday Magic Castle crowd thins, leaving a small group of hardcore, converted magic fans to attend the final show of the night, I find myself in my favorite room of all.
    The Close-Up Gallery -- furnished with a few short rows of seats, a small felt magician's table, and a cozy audience of just 12 people all staring with unblinking, laser-beam focus at a magician's hands a few feet away.
    If anyone's catching one of these jokers in the act tonight, it's going to be in this room.
    "Okay. Is everybody watching very closely?" says tonight's midnight Close-Up Gallery closer, a visiting Spanish magician named Woody Aragon, wearing a Superman shirt under his dinner jacket and a warm, guileless smile.
    "Because this I think you will all enjoy."
    Aragon hands one closed deck to an audience member, who safely tucks it in his jacket pocket.
    The other deck Aragon casually works, while repeatedly asking audience members to think of random cards and numbers -- which every single time informs the precise location of a specific card and its order in the closed, pocketed second deck that absolutely no one could have had any influence over.
    It's choke-on-your-Scotch amazing. Again and again.

    A magician never tells

    Twenty minutes later, the room is empty. Save for Woody Aragon and a single pesky audience member committing the ultimate post-magic show faux pas: Not so subtly angling for just the slightest hint as to how that ridiculous trick was pulled off.
    Woody flashes me a forgiving smile.
    "I love small groups," he says, changing the subject. "By the end of the show, when it's time to say goodbye, we're almost like a family."
    Right. So now that we're like family, I prod...
    "I mean, that other deck was never once in your possession. Not even close. So there was no chance for any kind of trick or sleight of hand to happen. Right?"
    Woody smiles sweetly. Right.
    While packing up, he mentions he'll be performing next week in Vegas, and the following week in New York. Then back to Europe, home to a burgeoning magic scene. But hopefully he'll be returning to L.A. and the Magic Castle soon.
    "This is a special place," says Woody. "You can just feel it."
    Right. It's time to leave the Magic Castle. I thank the magician and shake his infuriating hand.
    Next time, if I get invited back, I'm sitting in the front row.

    The Magic Castle, 7001 Franklin Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90028-8603;