by Karen Lindell
Milt and Arlene Larsen have worked their magical touch on Montecito.
Milt, co-founder of the Magic Castle in Hollywood, and Arlene, a costume designer, have brought their love of magic, old-school entertainment and show-biz memorabilia to a new venture in Montecito: the Magic Castle Cabaret, an intimate, members-only social club that offers classic European-style cabaret shows.
In 2016 the Larsens, who have a home in Santa Barbara, bought the former Cafe del Sol restaurant, which had been turned into an event center, then transformed it into an old-fashioned nightclub filled with unique collectibles and glitzy, elegant furnishings, both vintage and new.
“We thought it would be nice to have a small club as a way to introduce magic to our friends and neighbors,” Milt said. “I love vaudeville, magic and music, and it’s a combination of all that, based on the old days of cabaret when the grand opera singers and theater people would get together after a show — entertainers entertaining each other.”
Like nearly every other live venue where people gather together indoors, the Magic Castle Cabaret, which opened in February 2019, has been temporarily closed since March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
During “normal” times, members can bring guests or offer a guest pass to friends. The performances feature professional magicians from the Academy of Magical Arts along with singers, dancers, ventriloquists, comedians, jugglers and mimes.
Magicians who performed at the venue before the coronavirus include Lance Burton, Steve Valentine, TC Tahoe, Lucy Darling, Mark Collier, Chuck Jones and Shawn McMaster.
Although the venue hasn’t returned to offering live shows, it’s been open for small private parties, and the club’s tiny but teeming gift shop, run by Arlene, is open to the public through Dec. 31 for the holidays.
The Larsens decorated the interior of the building, which has a view of the Andrée Clark Bird Refuge, to invoke an imaginary European “Palace of Gold” on a Spanish lake.
“Everything has a history,” Milt said. “The whole place is based on the idea of, wouldn’t it be fun to go back 100 years to a different time and place and celebrate the performers?”
Milt, 89, is a longtime collector of vaudeville materials that date back to the 1890s, including 78 rpm records; performers’ correspondence and personal items; scripts and comedy sketches; photographs; and theater programs and scrapbooks. It’s not junk; he’s donated part of his collection to the UC Santa Barbara Library, which makes the materials available to the public for research.
Milt co-founded the Hollywood Magic Castle, a private club that’s also home to the Academy of Magical Arts, in 1963 with his late brother, Bill Larsen Jr.
The siblings are from a truly magical family. Their parents, Bill Larsen Sr. and Giselle Larsen, were both performing magicians, and founded Genii, the Conjurors’ Magazine, in 1936. The entire family once toured and performed magic at West Coast resorts.
“Staying in fancy hotels probably led to my love of creating ornate places,” said Milt, who also founded and refurbished the former Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica and Variety Arts Theatre in Los Angeles.
Milt’s long career includes many years as a writer of jokes and sketches for the game show Truth or Consequences. With his best friend Richard M. Sherman (part of the Sherman Brothers duo who wrote the music for Mary Poppins and other Disney ventures), he co-wrote lyrics for the satirical albums Smash Flops and Banned Barbershop Ballads, and the musical Pazzazz!, which premiered in Santa Barbara in 2008.
Milt also hosts a show on CRN Digital Talk Radio called “Hear Them Again — for the First Time” (crntalk.com/miltlarsenhearthemagain/) where he plays vintage records.
When their father died at age 48, Milt and Bill Jr. pledged to create a clubhouse for magicians. Milt, from his TV office in Hollywood, had a view of a former 1909 mansion-turned-apartment building on a hill that he and his brother leased, renovated and turned into the Magic Castle. It’s now known worldwide.
Milt emphasized that the Magic Castle Cabaret in Montecito is NOT a replica of the Magic Castle in Hollywood, either in size or purpose. The larger Hollywood private club has 5,000 members and truly looks like a fancy chateau or castle.
The Magic Castle Cabaret is much smaller in size and scope.
“We don’t want it to be world famous,” Arlene said. “At our age, we just had no place to go to enjoy the evening.” Santa Barbara has excellent places to dine, “but they can get crowded and loud,” she said. The Magic Castle Cabaret does offer food (including filet mignon tidbits, caviar deviled eggs and soft-serve ice cream), but Arlene said they aren’t trying to compete with local restaurants. Instead, they hope people might eat dinner at a local eatery, then visit the Magic Castle Cabaret for dessert and a show, and to talk “without being drowned out.”
Arlene loves to entertain, and said she hopes the atmosphere is “like coming to my house, but I don’t have to clean it afterward.”
Celebrity members include Steve Martin, Lance Burton, Leonard Maltin, Fred Willard, David Copperfield, Penn & Teller, Michael Feinstein, Bob Barker, Jeff Bridges, Tippi Hedren and J.J. Abrams.
Director Abrams, Arlene said, visited once with his parents, but failed to follow the venue’s strict dress code, which is “business or evening attire that is conservative, formal and elegant.”
“J.J. had a T-shirt on,” Arlene recalled. “I gave him a dicky — a shirt with a tie attached — and said, ‘‘You know better.’” Abrams was apparently a good sport about it. “He sent us cookies afterward,” Arlene said.
That was, of course, before COVID-19 shut down the live entertainment scene.
The pandemic isn’t the only obstacle that has stalled the club during its short history. Before a scheduled grand opening in 2018, the building was closed temporarily because the Larsens didn’t realize they needed a permit to make changes to a porch they wanted to transform into a veranda. They’ve since been working closely with the city to get the proper permissions.
During the pandemic, the Larsens have been making the venue more virus-safe for when they eventually reopen. They lowered seating capacity, added invisible plastic curtains (with lace trim at the bottom) to the stage, installed air purifiers on every table and spread hand sanitizer dispensers everywhere.
The Magic Castle Cabaret gift shop has been a bright spot, able to stay open during the pandemic. The boutique is chock-full of eclectic items including masks and face shields, candles, jewelry, holiday decorations, fancy coats and jackets, fascinators, hats, hair accessories, Milt’s books and albums, magic tricks and novelties, and leftover giveaway items from the Magic Castle in Hollywood.
Arlene embellishes the masks with rhinestones, ribbons, sequins and other trimmings.
“With all the masks everyone has to wear, we found the perfect niche,” she said.
Arlene became interested in costuming as a teenager. Her dad owned a machine shop, but she hated working there, so she knocked on the door of a local theater and offered her services. “They hired me for every job, and I really liked doing wardrobe,” she said.
She later started her own costume company, outfitting everyone from rock musicians to TV actors in theater and TV. She met Milt while creating costumes for Truth or Consequences.
When more than just the gift shop is open again, guests can spend most of their time just admiring the venue’s memorabilia and antique furnishings.
Many of the objects are from Milt’s collection, such as Broadway posters, hats worn by celebrities, and tabletops made from old radio transcription discs. Some fixtures are salvaged from the Hollywood Magic Castle, including stained glass windows, wood paneling, drapes, a tin wall and an authentic Bavarian beer pump. Other pieces were donated by Magic Castle Cabaret members.
“I pride myself in finding ways to use castoff materials again and again,” Milt said. “I saved old landmarks by using building materials from grand mansions and buildings that were being torn down.”
Despite its embrace of the past, the Magic Castle Cabaret, thanks to its eco-friendly furnishings, is very modern — and Santa Barbara-esque.