Back in 1965 my father, Sandy Spillman, became the manager at The Magic Castle, a private club for magicians in Hollywood. At that time I was ten, and until my late teens, the Castle was my home away from home. My name is Steve Spill and I’m the founder of Magicopolis. Certainly there would be no Magicopois today were it not for The Magic Castle. I love The Magic Castle.
The Magic Castle was the brainchild of Bill and Milt Larsen, whose father, William Larsen Sr., a lawyer by profession but a devotee of magic, had often talked of starting such a place. Larsen Sr. did magic shows with his wife and sons, and the Larsen family hosted members of the local magic community as well as visiting magicians. When William Larsen died in 1953, the idea of a private club for magicians was put aside by his sons. Both Bill and Milt went on to TV careers: Bill as a producer, Milt as a writer.
One day Milt saw an old house on a hill overlooking Hollywood that he knew would be a perfect spot for a magic club. Milt remodeled it and Bill promoted it. The Magic Castle opened in 1963. Its membership started at 150 and today numbers in the thousands. The Castle became known to magicians as the place to go when you had no place to go.
Throughout the 1960’s into the early 1970’s the magicians who hung around The Magic Castle playing poker and doing card tricks for each other were older guys who found it tough to get a gig since the demise of first Vaudeville, and then the supper-club era. I was one of a handful who learned sleight-of-hand from the old masters.
I had a certain cachet at The Magic Castle, partly because I was one of the only kids that hung there, partly because I practiced relentlessly and could perform many difficult card sleights, and largely because my dad was the manager. My father wasn’t a great magician, but everyone always treated me with respect because they loved my dad. I felt right at home with the senior citizen magicians. For the first time I was accepted as an equal among adults, people with far more experience than I had, who recognized in me abilities and helped me to nurture them.
When an aspiring magician wanted a magical education, there was no better place to learn than The Magic Castle. At their best, there were none better than Dai Vernon, Charlie Miller, Francis Carlyle, Kuda Bux, Tony Slydini, Senator Crandall, and so many others, all of whom are rolling in their graves because I didn’t mention them. I was so blessed to have watched this cast of characters. It was an incredible time. I craved their attention and absorbed by osmosis their lessons. Each one had his own trick, a nuance, a personal way of doing things, a lesson, a gesture, a story, a philosophy, an attitude. I took something from each of them.
At The Magic Castle everyone’s favorite guru was Dai Vernon, a dapper man with silver hair, a thin mustache, and eyes that sparkled with an imperial confidence. He liked to sip brandy, puff on cigars, discuss yesterdays, usually with a little grin on his face, the sort of half smile that seemed to say “I know something you don’t know,” which was always true. They called him The Professor and The Professor had a nickname for me, “Spill,” which was short for my real last name, Spillman. He said he dropped the “man” because I was a “boy.” The nickname stuck and eventually became my legal name.
Through the years Vernon developed a fanatical following. He was one of the all-time greats at sleight-of-hand with cards. The Professor started the study of magic when he was six years old. “I wasted the first six years of my life,” he was fond of telling people. Vernon was around seventy when he arrived at The Magic Castle in 1963.
The Magic Castle didn’t become hallowed ground until the Professor’s arrival, and magicians around the country started moving to Hollywood to be near him. I will always have fond memories of both The Professor and The Magic Castle.