I pen this post on the 90th birthday of a national treasure named Milt Larsen (b. 1931). I had the great honor of interviewing Mr. Larsen in preparation for my 2005 book No Applause: Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous. He was very generous with his time, given that he is what amounts to vaudeville royalty in this country. Larsen is best known as the founder/owner/proprietor of L.A.’s legendary magic venue The Magic Castle, but as you shall quickly learn, there is so much back of that, underneath it, and buried in the basement.
In 1936, Larsen’s parents, William Sr and Geraldine (or Geri), both magicians, founded Genii, The Conjurer’s Magazine, still a going concern, and a frequent resource for this very blog. William (1904-1953) was also a Los Angeles defense attorney who gave it all up to be a professional illusionist at resort hotels. Geri (1906-1998) was the daughter of Sam Conrad, who built magic props and stage illusions in the San Francisco area for two decades. Geri was the first female magician on SF television starting in 1939. Billed as The Magic Lady, she performed on TV throughout the ’40s.
Milt’s older brother William Jr. or Bill (1928-1993) was a CBS television producer, who worked on Playhouse 90 and variety shows starring Danny Kaye and Jonathan Winters. Milt worked in TV too, mostly as a writer on game shows like Truth or Consequences. When William Sr. died in 1953, William Jr. took over Genii and the generational shift began. In 1956 they began producing the revue It’s Magic! In 1961, they acquired the property that would become the Magic Castle, realizing their father’s lifelong dream of creating a clubhouse for magicians. It is a kind of mecca for show biz buffs (you may have seen it in a recent episode of Paul Rust’s show Love).
But Larsen is an expert on much more than magic, hence the title of this post! He has major archives of material related to Ed Wynn, Eddie Cantor, Earl Carroll,, Billy House, and others. Perhaps the most famous item in his collection is W.C. Fields’ trick pool table!
Larsen continued to keep a hand in show business, over and above his regular magic shows at the Magic Castle and elsewhere. In 1971 he collaborated with the Sherman Brothers (Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) on the musical Victory Canteen starring Patty Andrews of the Andrews Sisters. In 1973, he presented another musical, set in a speakeasy, called The Whoopee Kid. (He’d worked on that show with Richard Sherman since 1956). Buddy Ebsen starred in a radio version of that show. He also opened several other variety venues including the Mayfair Music Hall, which we wrote about here, which was open from 1973 to 1980. In 1978, Larsen wrote for The Jim Nabors Show. And he’s turned out numerous books about show biz over the years.
Anyway, you can see why we consider Milt Larsen a valuable human repository of vaudeville lore and knowledge. It is for this reason I wish him another 90 years of health and happiness. He’s a magician, let him figure out how to do that!
To learn more about show biz history please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,