“Open sesame.” I asked the secret passageway through the bookcase to reveal itself. “Open sesame!” I commanded, an octave lower. Nothing. I looked at my friends, the ten of us pressed close together in the bustling hallway, but they were all there for the first time as well. I stomped my foot. “OPEN–” The creaky bookcase swung open, and we hurriedly followed the guide inside. For my fortieth birthday I had decided to celebrate with the Houdini Seance Evening at The Magic Castle in Los Angeles.
My boyfriend at the time had told me about The Magic Castle’s Houdini room. A magician friend of his who used to live in LA had given him a tour once, and apparently the room, filled with actual Houdini artifacts and memorabilia, could be reserved for dinner and a seance. A seance! What a crazy, creepy, kooky way to spend my fortieth birthday! Apparently Houdini himself had enjoyed seances, and one could be arranged along with a five-course meal in this private room. I had never been to The Magic Castle, a formal dinner club famous for its fabulous magic shows. Only members of the Academy of Magical Arts or their guests could get in, but the Houdini Seance Evening was actually open to the public without a member’s assistance.
I called to reserve the room a little under one month in advance and there was a seating available for a Saturday evening, a few days before my actual birthday. I was lucky to get a date with such little notice. The event was for 10-12 people, no less, no more, and a deposit of $300 had to be made up front. Cancellation for a full refund of the deposit could be made up to 14 days before the event. The remainder was due in one payment on the night of the seance. The total came to $177 per person, which included a five-course meal with wine and gratuity, the seance, and seating at the Palace Mystery Magic Show (in the Castle’s largest theater). The only things not included were valet parking ($8 per car) and additional drinks. It was certainly more expensive than I could logically afford, but I was only turning 40 once.
Every now and then I listen to Hayhouse Radio on the Internet, an inspirational talk radio station billed as “radio for the soul.” A week or so before the seance, I heard two different speakers who discussed communication with the dead. One was a woman on a cruise ship who led a session that was more talk show format than strict seance, with the spirits talking to her, not through her, about people there in the room. Another was a man who could do seance-like readings for listeners who called in to his show. I wondered what the process was for transfer of information between listener’s ghost and radio host across state – and phone – lines. A bit of a stretch, particularly as he seemed to be wrong quite frequently, but I got to thinking – and worrying – about the seance. There were likely mediums who could legitimately call upon spirits of the dead, and it seemed logical enough that these spirits might have messages of comfort or encouragement for the living. But like psychics or palm readers, there were probably many more swindlers than mediums with authentic talent, and I had no way of knowing which we would have at The Magic Castle.
The idea of a seance was creepy, but then I didn’t really know too many people who had died. Either of my grandmothers was the best bet for someone who might try to contact me, and I was sure that both of them would only have messages of love and support. (My one grandmother might complain that I was dating a Jewish man, but she wouldn’t say anything scary.) I had to submit a seating chart to The Magic Castle a few days before the event – full names for everyone – maybe so the medium could google us for seance-worthy material? At any rate, I decided to seat the medium between me and my sister, who also lives in LA. At least I’d have familial back-up.
All of the people attending were my friends, but none of them really knew each other. My friend Nancy came out to visit from Baltimore with her mother-in-law Galina who was visiting from Russia. My Russian friend Tanya attended, so she sat next to Galina and gave Nancy a break from translating. Nancy talked to my former roommate, and my sister yelled across the table at Tanya’s husband who spoke a little Russian but couldn’t really follow his wife’s conversation, and at Fred, a friend of my boyfriend’s. While they discussed detective novels, my boyfriend was deep in a music conversation with David, Fred’s husband, and I was feeling a little left out. The feeling was short-lived; my boyfriend leaned in to give me a kiss, Tanya led everyone in a toast, and I opened my present from Galina, a beautiful crystal vase that she brought from Russia. It was “an empty vase to be filled up with wonderful things,” as she hoped my life would be too. It felt really good to have all of them there, and once I moved to a shelf the creepy, crystal ball marking the medium’s place next to me and pulled away his or her chair, I relaxed completely.
The dinner was very good: lobster bisque, shrimp cocktail, Caesar salad, followed by a choice of beef tenderloin flambe with morel mushrooms, cognac cream sauce, a ragout of summer vegetables and roasted potatoes; or salmon with scallion risotto, Mediterranean salsa, and summer vegetables. The server told us flat out not to order the vegetarian dish. For desert was banana’s foster flambe and a little brandy. Wine was plentiful, though there wasn’t really time for sipping and chatting; the wait staff was rushing us so that we would fit dinner and the seance in before the Palace Mystery Magic Show.
After dinner, we were asked to leave the room for 20 minutes or so; the staff wanted to clean up our table for the seance. We headed downstairs. The Magic Castle exterior really is castle-like, sitting high on hill above Hollywood. The interior is lush and elegant, glamorous and haunted, all velvet and candelabras, the way Poe’s House of Usher would have looked before it fell. The piano bar purportedly has the ghost of Aunt Irma who can play any song requested, if you ask her nicely. I was delighted to hear “Heart and Soul” – not a tough one if I can play it, but then, she had to play both parts by herself. We thought we’d stump her with a Russian song, but she did know “Moscow Nights” (Moskovniye Vechera), as did Fred, surprising us all with his hidden knowledge of Russian.
When we returned, the heavy crystal ball was back in its place between me and my sister. Our medium had arrived, a balding man with glasses and neatly trimmed goatee. He stood behind his chair in a black tuxedo and welcomed us all to the seance. I was completely on edge, and it wasn’t until we reached the end of the seance, all of us holding hands in utter darkness listening to a spooky recording of spirit voices and thunder crashes, that I realized we were partaking in a magic show, not an actual experience with the occult. I was a little disappointed, not only because I was curious, (if not terrified), but also because a couple I am friends with had bowed out, uncomfortable with the supernatural aspect of the evening. Oh well. The magician put on a wonderful show, and at least half of us were able to actually participate in the performance, which was a lot of fun. For one of the tricks, the spirit of a woman who had lived with Houdini as a little girl was supposed to contact one of our group, and my boyfriend swore he was tapped twice on the back. The magician was very knowledgeable about Houdini and related several interesting anecdotes about his life. He answered all of our questions and explained the artifacts in the room, including the only pair of handcuffs that Houdini couldn’t unlock and his famous milk can.
Following the seance, we all got in line for the Palace Mystery Magic Show. The performance had a little of everything – comedy, great magic tricks, even a juggler. I think it was about an hour. Audience members near the front rows were chosen to participate. Our two Ketel One vodka cranberry cocktails came to $30, but otherwise there was nothing to complain about. On the way out of the theater, we saw Natalie Portman in line for the next show, looking just as fresh and cute as she does in her movies. One of The Magic Castle staff members, a young guy in his twenties, confided in me that he was going to ask her out. I advised him to join the circle of admirers soon or he might miss his chance, but he said he was waiting for just the right moment. I wished him luck.
A few of us stayed after the big magic show to check out one of the intimate magic rooms that seated about 12 people. We were all crammed in right up next to the magician, a woman with a deep booming voice and thick eyebrows, who I think was really a man. Even that close, the sleight of hand was absolutely imperceptible. I was really impressed with the professionalism and high quality of all the magicians we saw.
In short, the Houdini Seance Evening is great for special occasions. For more ordinary nights out, dinner and a few shows at The Magic Castle, sans seance, is much less. The trick is to be sponsored by a member, but just about everyone in LA knows someone who knows someone who is a member. The Magic Castle also offers brunch on the weekends at a reasonable price.
No spirits, no grandmothers, no messages of support or encouragement – or were there? Who’s to say that my deceased grandmothers weren’t passing on their blessings through my friends and magical experiences? At any rate, it was a wonderful night out and very special birthday.