By Perry Smith
Sunday Signal Editor
The five friends hadn’t gotten together in months, due to COVID-19, but when they assembled on a recent Saturday, they didn’t miss a beat.
The speed at which they produced belly-splitting laughs among one another was surpassed only by the quickness of their imperceptibly fast hand motions when the deck of cards came out.
Mike Elkan, Robert Lamoureux, Len Reid, Al Rosson and Mark Wilson all enjoyed their respective and varied “day jobs,” whether audiology or animation, or as longtime Signal readers might recognize from his smiling mug shot The Signal prints every week for his Your Home Improvement column, construction — but what’s brought together their bonds of friendship over the years is a shared love and appreciation for magic.
Through decades of practicing the craft, they can boil it down, explain what they do step-by-step and share with each other the beginning, middle and end of the tricks they’ve learned.
“One of the things we talk about a lot,” said Rosson, who started his own animation company, Health Nuts Media, after experience drawing for shows like “Animaniacs” and other major network shows, “is in magic, when you really boil it down, if you watch magic — there are just sort of a handful of things. The basic effects are: You can make something vanish; you can make something appear; you can make something switch places. You can destroy something and re-create it again. … but almost everything is based on one of those things.”
However, as he’s quick to add, that’s not what makes things appear magical. The “how-to” explanation of a trick will help you understand magic the way an equation might explain a chemical reaction — it still won’t really convey the experience.
“It’s all about, ‘How you dress it up? How do you change it? How do you give it a new presentation?’ And you create that moment, that moment of magic, that sticks with people as an experience.”
Of course, it takes more than an interest of even a passion, as Reid, a longtime magic performer, put it in the terms of the old saying: “How do you get to the Magic Castle?
“Practice. Practice. Practice.”
It starts early
Rosson, who’s well-coiffed beard seems ever-prepared to pair with a magician’s traditionally impeccable three-piece performance attire, said his love of magic grew organically from childhood, an origin story that starts at a well-known spot where Rosson grew up in Maryland called Al’s Magic Shop, when he was 9 or 10 years old.
Much like the group of friends still do with each other, Rosson just hung around Al Cohen’s shop on the weekends and absorbed what he could.
Just like with a group of friends tasked with managing secrets, there’s a period of time through which a trust develops, whereby one can earn admission, so to speak.`
“I just wanted to hang out there and learn stuff,” Rosson said, “and they knew that the more I showed up and was really taking an interest — then they start sharing with you and, you know, teaching you tricks and secrets and everything.”
By the time he moved out to California, he’d already known about the Magic Castle, a world-renowned mansion-clubhouse for magicians on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood that “promotes the art of magic, encourages fellowship and maintains the highest ethical standards,” as well as hosting the Academy of the Magical Arts, according to its website.
“And that’s the beauty of what we do,” said Lamoureux, with a hearty laugh, reflecting on a trick Rosson performed earlier in Lamoureux’s office. (Rosson had me pull a card, which was then placed in an envelope, sealed and held to the face. Rosson created a brief moment of tension by feigning a mistake, which, of course, made it all the more impressive when the card placed in the envelope somehow was heard playing back on a phonograph [pictured] Rosson designed and built by hand.)
Despite Lamoureux having 35 years of practicing magic under his belt, the technical move Rosson used when the card was chosen was one he’d never seen before, leading his fellow magician to believe he had actually made the mistake Rosson wanted everyone to think he had.
And in that sense, their child-like wonder, amusement and, often, sense of humor, when it comes to magic doesn’t change, whether it’s a group of friends performing card tricks at the table of Black Bear Diner or in Magic Castle’s close-up room with names from the Walk of Fame outside like Drew Carey, Neil Patrick Harris and countless others over the years.
For Wilson, a former general manager of Magic Castle, his earliest memory of magic was probably watching “The Amazing Kreskin” on television as a kid growing up in Liverpool, he says.
While his professional career was on the venue-management side, which includes spots like the Sportsman’s Lodge in Van Nuys, as well as Magic Castle, through his career and personal and professional relationships he’s developed, he’s had opportunities to work at several historic venues and with some pretty well-known acts.
“I ran the Debbie Reynolds Hotel in (Las) Vegas,” Wilson said, referring to the venue on the Strip that was owned by the famous singer, actress and dancer of the same name in the 90s. “And I got to book Kreskin when Debbie’s on vacation. … I made the mistake of inviting all the magicians in Vegas to come see him to fill the room at the time, because he didn’t sell out all the tickets. … So, yeah, Kreskin was not the happiest guy in the world when I filled the room full of magicians.”
Kreskin, who still makes public appearances and predictions, practices an act known as “mentalism,” a type of magic that involves “reading” people and situations in order to make predictions.
Mentalism is a popular form of magic that also requires a great deal of practice and skill, said Len Reid, a mentalist who joked that boredom was why he initially stumbled into magic. But his journey into mentalism started with intrigue and a fittingly fantastic tale that takes place about 30 years ago.
“And there’s a discipline to it, of course,” Reid said. He had been learning and practicing magic for a while when the magic of mentalism showed up on his doorstep, at the office.
Reid started taking lessons with a friend in 1980, and he practiced, frequently, to the point where the teacher of the class, Jerry Blunt, eventually helped Reid get an audition as an associate at the Magic Castle.
After Reid got to the point where he’d been performing as a magician at the Castle for a while, a man came into his audiology office and the experience prompted Reid to change everything.
The visitor said he’d heard Reid was into mentalism, which Reid said wasn’t necessarily the case in the moment. However, after the man asked to use his phone to call his dad, who was then able to relay to Reid the name of his front-office assistant, as well describe her blouse, Reid was convinced.
“I said, ‘I’m in,’” Reid recalled. “‘Whatever it is you’re doing here, I’m in.’”
Reid’s “side job” at the Magic Castle would continue for more than 20 years, performing three to four shows seven nights a night, including one week when he performed 34 shows.
Labor of love
Mike Elkan, who still performs only a few times a year, was the first of the group to join the Castle. (That may or may not explain why he seems to have the most wry sense of humor of the bunch — which, among a group of magicians, might be more of a feat than most might realize, I learned.)
“I think to do magic, you need to want to perform — you have to have the bug to perform,” he explains. “And magic is just a tool, basically. I always say I am a magician because I don’t know how to play the piano. So once you’ve got the performance bug, it’s just how far are you willing to go to learn magic.”
It’s that passion that led Elkan to reinvent his performance entirely after an industrial accident injured his hand about 15 years ago. Despite sharing his friends’ penchant for rapid-fire “patter,” as it’s known by those in the industry, Elkan, who’s also a skilled woodworker, is pretty humble about his magic career. But Lamoureux is quick to mention Elkan has performed internationally, and a check on the Magic Castle’s Hall of Fame website mentions the Award of Merit Elkan’s won, twice.
“When you pass by a room full of people, you see a crowd,” Reid mused, adding to Elkan’s explanation. “We see an audience — (that’s the) difference.”
Lamoureux remembers his first trick, like most who are first introduced to magic, was what’s called a “self-performing” trick — a penny that became a dime, which first drew him in, when he was about 10 years old.
Lamoureux had long been a fan of the castle, and as an adult, his brother, who was friends with Larry Harmon of Bozo the Clown fame, Lamoureux was able to get an invitation, and he became hooked. He went home and practiced tricks for hours in front of the television, pre-internet, in the era of “books and tapes,” he pointed out, until he felt ready to try and audition — after about two years of practice.
After eventually moving through the ranks as Associate and Magician at the Magic Castle, Lamoureux ultimately became president, one of a handful who’ve held the title in the nearly 60 years of Magic Castle history.
Before the venue became one of thousands in L.A. closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, Lamrouex occasionally still visits as a guest, although his stage-performing days are now more fond memories, which include entertaining Hollywood luminaries like Tony Curtis, a famed actor who performed with the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin and Burt Lancaster, but is perhaps best-known in magic circles for the starring role in “Houdini.”
When the friends get together though, all that matters are the good times, fun and fascination that got them started in the first place.
“It’s just constant. We’re just … we’re children,” Lamoureux jokes, reveling in a past exchange, over the phone Tuesday. “We’re nothing but big kids who love coins and cards.”