I’m standing in a small room, roughly 6ft x 6ft. Not quite enough space to lie down which is a shame, because that’s exactly what I feel like doing. To my left there are two large frames on the wall, each containing a sheet of uncut playing cards. In each frame four cards are signed. Eight names in total, all of which I recognise. The idea being that both performers for that room each week will sign a single playing card and in 52 weeks, the sheets will both be full. I decide not to sign yet. I want to (need to?) earn it. Also, I’m not yet someone who has performed in that room, just someone who is waiting to.
Scanning around the room I see a dressing table with a small chair, sitting in front of a mirror with a table. Scattered across the table are the various items required to perform a magic show, more specifically, my magic show.
There is a knock on the door, shortly followed by the appearance of a head. The head is joined by a body and altogether they make a man. The man’s name is Bob. Over the course of the week we would grow to become good friends but this is our first meeting and he introduces himself as my room host. Essentially it’s down to Bob to go out first, warm up the audience, explain the rules and then introduce me. I find out later in the week that Bob is not only an accomplished performer in his own right but also a screenwriter and actor. This is after all, Hollywood.
We chat over my various requirements, the conversation is short as I have none. I’m still hoping that if I keep my head down and don’t ask for much, no one will realise I’m in over my head and that I’ve somehow conned my way onto one of the magic world’s most prestigious stages. As a magician it’s my job to be a liar, but this is the first time I’ve really felt like one.
Bob tell’s me it’s time to start the show and leaves the room.
Now alone I become aware of a noise on the other side of the curtain. It’s a noise that’s both strange and familiar. I recognise the murmuring, the getting comfortable and general conversation but unusually, this audience sound like they are excited. Fancy that.
Often as entertainers we are put into situations where entertainment is an extra. An unexpected bonus, or occasionally an inconvenience to an evening out. This place is different. The audience are here for one reason only…They want to see a magic show.
More on that later.
Now I hear Bob on the other side of the curtain too. His presence brings a new level of excitement and once he greets the crowd, they become immediately silent.
Bob makes some jokes and his introduction has all the hallmarks of a well rehearsed speech. He’s clear, concise and funny.
He welcomes the audience and tells the room that the magician they are about to see has travelled over 5500 miles to be there. I feel a rope beginning to find it’s loop somewhere in my stomach.
He tells them that it’s my first time performing in at The Magic Castle. The loop becomes a knot and my stomach turns over on itself.
He tells them that they are in for a great time. I now realise the knot isn’t leaving much room for the dinner I ate earlier and I wonder if I’m about to see it again all over the back of this curtain.
Finally he says ‘Please welcome, Mark James’.
I pause, take a deep breath and push through the curtain into the room.
Let’s come back to the show later. First I’ll tell you about how I got there and what happened in the rest of the week.
So the journey really started two years ago. I was talking to a friend named Farrell Dillon. When we first became friends he was living in California, not too far from the Magic Castle and was also a regular performer himself. I’d always wanted to perform there, but Farrell planted the seed for me that it wasn’t just a pipe dream. He also set the wheels in motion for me to be considered as a potential performer.
For the non magicians reading this I should explain that the Magic Castle is a legendary place to perform in the magic community. In religious terms, it’s the Vatican.
Since it’s opening in 1963 it has played host to the greatest magical talents from around the planet. It sits at 7001 Franklin Avenue opposite North Orange Drive in Hollywood California. Thanks to it’s strict no photography rule (a rule set in motion by former member Cary Grant, yes that one) it is a place people can go to enjoy fine dining and entertainment without being bothered by deadening requests for selfies. For this reason it’s audiences often contain everyone from world leaders to A list celebrities.
Each week a different set of performers can be seen in the Castle’s multiple performance spaces.
The Magic Castle is a place where a specific phrase spoken to an owl on a bookshelf will cause that bookshelf to move sideways, revealing a secret corridor. It is a place where any song requested can be heard on the piano, despite the fact there is no visible living pianist. I don’t wish to give away anymore of it’s surprises or secrets so I will say only this. It is a place where anything is possible.
Of course any week spent in Hollywood is filled with a whole host of different adventures. I was delighted on the trip to be joined by my wife Sarah. Often I find myself in far flung corners of the globe on my own as Sarah works full time for Urban Decay. We decided this was a pretty special occasion and for one of only a few times, Sarah took 10 days off work so that she could join me in the USA.
We planned a full itinerary of exciting day trips and got started on the Tuesday morning upon waking. Having gotten the first night of shows out of the way (don’t worry I will be coming back to that) I was able to relax a little and enjoy this trip as both work and a holiday.
So, Tuesday we booked ourselves an Uber Cab and headed to Universal Studios.
Upon arriving we headed straight down to the Universal Backlot tour. Anyone who knows me will know what a movie nut I am and so this was a must. Unfortunately the set I mainly really to see, a colonial street featured as the main location for The Burbs and Desperate Housewives was in use as a TV show was filming so we had to miss it out. We did however see the Bates Motel from Psycho and this more made up for it!
We hit all the rides that were open (sadly not as many as we’d have liked but not worth moaning about), had a terrific time, some great sushi and headed back to the apartment.
Now the apartment building that you stay in when performing at The Magic Castle is quite an amazing place. It’s directly over the road from the Castle and has four floors. Most of the performers for the week stay there and as I was travelling with Sarah they very kindly put us the top floor apartment known as the Charlie Miller Suite. It’s decorated beautifully, incredibly spacious and has magic related items placed tastefully throughout.
Another night at The Magic Castle (yes still coming back to it) was followed by another day out in California. This time we headed over to Burbank. Being huge fans of Back To The Future we wanted to see the house where Marty McFly lived. We arrived on the quiet street and whilst taking pictures were greeted by one of the neighbours. She regaled us with stories of the filming and having spent time with the cast. Amazing! She also happened to be from Manchester! Small world.
The rest of our Wednesday was taken by shopping in Burbank and a trip to Five Guys. We walked and walked until we could walk no more before grabbing another Uber Cab to a shopping centre. While there I bought a new GoPro camera, my original one had stopped working the night before and not wanting to miss out on recording the weeks shows this was a top priority job. We picked up the camera before heading back to the apartment. That night I tried out some different material. I changed my act to include a multiple selection routine.
Before we knew it Thursday came around and we suddenly felt that the week was going more quickly than we’d have liked it to. We took a tour of Hollywood in an open top bus, cruising by some famous homes and major landmarks. We also visited a seafood buffet restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard.
Now we find ourselves at the weekend. I feel I should remind you at this point that it hasn’t been all holiday. I have also been working every night. My performances at the Magic Castle were in the Parlour Of Prestidigitation. I was contracted to perform 3 x 20 minute shows each evening. Now to call this work would be outrageous because it was so much fun. Every night the audiences were amazingly enthusiastic and attentive.
They say (whoever they are) that true happiness can be found in doing something you love whilst looking forward to something else you also love. For me, this was the formula for a perfect week. Every day I was having the best time in California with my wife, followed by living my performing dream each evening. Now add to the mix that America really is the home of great food and you have a powder keg of joy! You can basically get anything you can imagine, at any time you would like.
One of our favourite food stops was a famous landmark hotdog stand on North La Brea in West Hollywood. This place was recommended to me by magician Michael Finney. Michael has become a great friend to me in magic. He has supported and pushed my name to people whenever he has had the chance and for that I can’t thank him enough. I’m as equally thankful for this as I am for him having told me about Pinks! This hotdog stand has been operating in the same place since the 40s and it’s menu is legendary. I don’t remember the exact name of the movie themed dog I had but it was incredible. I’m happy to report that it was completely delicious.
Other highlights of the weekend included a trip to the Venice Beach Freakshow where we met Todd & Danielle Ray, Asia, Morgue & Dakota the Bearded Lady! We had a great chat with them all as well as watching their show and checking out the exhibits. Nice people and a great time. If you get chance, check out their TV show ‘Venice Beach Freakshow’. (at time of re posting the article it is sadly no longer there)
Finally Sunday brought us to the last day of the trip and my last night performing at The Castle. I must give mention to some of the other people I met during the week. Firstly a HUGE hello to a man I now call a dear friend. Jonathan Mercer Buell (I give you the full name as he’s going to be a huge star one day). Jonathan is an actor by day and a special butler at the Magic Castle by night. He was funny, encouraging and charming in equal measure and was always there when I needed him.
I also spent some time that week with Ice McDonald and Lady Mystina. They were performing in the Palace Of Mystery in a fantastic double bill show I had the pleasure of seeing twice.
Another performer I had a great time hanging out with was Tom Ogden. I can’t think of anyone better to have shared a performance room with for my first week as he was was incredibly generous with his time and advice. It is often said that American’s don’t really do sarcastic comedy in the way the British do. Anyone who says that has never met Tom.
Finally I must mention Jack Goldfinger. Jack is the Magic Castle’s talent director and the man responsible for putting the pen to the paper that booked me. He was incredibly supportive during my time at the Castle and didn’t give me a a single misplaced tip. I’ve yet to meet a man more creatively or instinctively intelligent when it comes to an act and it is because of him that I ended the week a better magician than I started.
Which brings up neatly back to the beginning.
So….I pause, take a deep breath and push through the curtain.
I’m immediately struck by how close the audience feel. I take a moment, say good evening and off we go. I performed the show and the audience stayed with me for every beat. It’s rare to be able to experience something in the moment whilst simultaneously experiencing nostalgia for the present. I knew before it was over that I would miss it.
The show ended and I opened the door for the audience to leave, shaking their hands on the way out. The experience was joyful and once the last person had left I entered the room again closing the door behind me. I turned around to find just two people still inside. One was Jack, the other my wife.
Jack hugged me.
I was both surprised and relieved. It felt like all I needed but on it’s completion he said
‘My friend, you have definitely arrived’. He congratulated me on the performance and as you might expect, I was elated. I think the smile on my face was enough to tell him I also felt it had gone well.
Jack left the room. Sarah and I stood alone.
Between having booked the show 6 months ago and worrying about it every day since, posting props to California ahead of time, going through all of the necessary loop holes in organising flights, visas and other arrangements and then finally taking the 5500 mile flight to the USA, the pressure cooker of expectation had reached it’s ultimate boiling point.
Suddenly I could relax. It had gone great and I was about as happy as I can ever remember feeling. It is in this singular moment all my memories from the week come back to.
My second hug of the night came then from my wife. Her words were different to Jack’s.
She said ‘Baby, You did it’.
She was right. I had done it.
I had performed my first show at the World Famous Magic Castle in Hollywood.