Five things theater can learn from The Magic Castle.

My inner “Magic Nerd” was resurrected last night when I paid a visit to the hallowed halls of The Magic Castle in Los Angeles.  (Yep, it’s true, I was one of those kids who walked around with a deck of a cards and a Magician’s Insurance Policy – and I wondered why Tracy Simpson didn’t want to “go out” with me in sixth grade.)

But even if you don’t know what a Chinese Linking Ring is and therefore had a normal pre-teen social existence, you’d still have a blast at The Magic Castle.

The coolio Castle is also home to The Academy of Magical Arts (Neil Patrick Harris is its current President), and is a private club (restaurant and hotel) where some of the best magicians in the world hang out, trade secrets, and perform for you.

Admit it, your inner Magic Nerd just got a little tingly too.

Of course, while there, I couldn’t help but pick up a few tips that the theater world could learn from this fine and prestadigalicious establishment.


The Magic Castle is exactly what I said above.  It’s a private club.  Members only.  You can’t roll up off the street and walk in the doors.  You have to know a member to get in (Thanks, Robert L!).  Of course, that kind of exclusivity makes you want to get in even more, and makes you feel more special when you’re inside.  While there aren’t many theaters in the world that could operate on a “members or guests of members” only policy, there could be “inner circle” audiences that are provided special privileges that could be member-only.  Or discount clubs.  Or what if . . . could a super small, Off Broadway or Off Off Broadway show try to only allow people in that were invited?   How cool would that be.  I want to go and I don’t even know what the show is!


The Magic Castle has a strict dress code:  jackets and ties for the men and “evening wear” for the ladies (even the ones who are getting cut in half).  Of course, all theater used to be this way, and it wasn’t even demanded.  It was just done.  While too many shows are too desperate for any butt in their seat to insist that the butt be draped in a certain way, walking around the castle in my suit and seeing others in similar dress did make me long for the days when the theater was given that respect.  Having to dress up makes the experience seem more high end, more luxurious, and more important . . . and therefore worth the ticket price.  I’d love to see a fancy play (the next superstar-driven Pinter, for example) insist on a dress code.


Every magician we saw could have been a stand-up comedian working at Carolines.  They knew, like we should too, that audiences want to laugh at some point in the evening no matter what type of entertainment experience they sign up for.  Comic relief is even more important in the serious dramas (what would Les Miz be without the Thernardiers?) as it provides a release for the audience and allows them to work up those big emotions again.  If you don’t have fun(ny) in your show somewhere, then find it and quick.  Or it just might disappear.


You know what the most popular room in the castle is?  The Close-Up Room.  You know, where people are inches away from the performer and their skills.  And they don’t need super spectacles.  They just need master performers working their craft right in front of your eyes.  And they want to watch them work.  Same is true in our biz.  Location could be even more important than price to our consumers.  Everyone knows our tickets are expensive.  They don’t like it, but they know it.  And they also know they want to sit close.  Maybe that exclusive club I talked about in #1 is a “close-up” club?


Everyone who watches magicians wants to know how they did it!  Used to be that “a magician never revealed his or her secrets,” right?  Not so true anymore.  I saw a couple of magicians who were happy to show me just a sample of how to do one of their tricks.  It’s as if they are saying, “I’ll show you this secret, because I’ve got a ton more.”  And it just got me more excited, and made me feel like I was smarter than the person next to me, which made me want to tell people all about it (hello, word-of-mouth). Giving people a glimpse backstage, behind our curtain and into our magic world is a sure-fire way to do the same.


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  • Jared says:

    I am 100% behind you when it comes to a dress code for the theatre. Going to see a show where people are wearing shorts, tees, and sandals does not seem as worth $140 to me. I’m not saying Broadway needs to be a black tie affair, but is a nice shirt and pants that don’t have holes in them too much to ask?

  • Too late, gents, it ain’t gonna happen. Dress codes are a relic of a bygone era when theater WAS special. Now, it’s discount city. Line up for half price tickets, bring your soppy view to your seats, and don’t let them see you texting through the show.

    Dress codes are anathema to the young audiences that are the only hope Broadway has. Discouraging them would not be a smart move, but hey, smart is not a requirement on Broadway these days, is it?

  • That should have read “sippy cup”, not soppy view. Damn you, autocorrect.

  • JM says:

    Of course LOVE the Magic Castle. Been many times. Had my Bachelorette party there. Irma is my favorite. Trivia: I used to work for Milt Larsen @ his place downtown LA–The Variety Arts Center–in the 70’s and 80’s. I was the ‘House Choreographer’ if you will…

  • Marc Zegans says:

    Great piece Ken. The Magic Castle is a superb example of continuously running immersive theatre beginning from the moment you drive up the hill, and once you’re inside the hours melt away. One reason it works so well is that you move from room to room, show to show all within a self-contained world, shows within shows. I’m with JM, Irma’s fantastic. Loved the close-up room too.

  • Todd says:

    I love the idea of an invite only “Theatre club” if you will. People love exclusivity if done well. I know it happens with secial events, Galas, etc. I wondered if has anyone tried that idea on a regualr basis?

  • Ben Bailey says:

    Its very sad that when My wife and I dress up for the theater, we feel like we are the ones who don’t fit in. I remember the day I could afford seeing my first show by a touring company in my city, I all but rented a tux. Going to the theater is an experience, much like going to a nice dinner. Your there to eat and get full, but you also enjoy the atmosphere, elegance, and conversation. Of course it shouldn’t be a requirement I suppose, but it would be nice if more people participated in the fantastic tradition of dressing up for the big show.

  • Sarah L. says:

    I like the “club” or “loyalty” concept. I work in non-profit (social work) and do not have disposable income to buy premium seats or usually even regular priced seats. But I am a long-time resident of Hell’s Kitchen and the primary reason I still live here after 26 years is so I can see theater. I see every Broadway musical each year and at least 70-80% of the plays with TDF, rush, lottery, pre-sale discounts, standing room, TKTS and every other promo known to mankind. You may think you don’t want to pander to me since you won’t get a lot of money from my ticket but if I like a show I will be a repeat customer (BOM 16, Kinky 10 so far…)and I will go back again and again to introduce friends to my favorites. And they have friends and they have friends…. None of my friends or family sees a show without checking with me first. I am their first call when they are coming in from out of town, arranging a special night, etc. And they pay full price for that. There should be a “loyalty club” for us avidly devoted theater geeks who may not be wealthy but will be the ones to spread word of mouth like wildfire when we love something. I don’t know how it could work but maybe if there was something for those who have attended a certain number of plays or musicals in a season to be able to get the ability to buy rush tickets the night before instead of the next morning when the box office opens. I don’t need the best seats – you can reserve them for the big bucks peeps – but guarantee me a cheap seat somewhere. And please stop the youth/student trend for rush – there are a lot of us who are no longer that young or in school who are still desperately trying to budget theater into our lives on limited incomes. I am sure it’s too complicated to pull off universally (different producers and house owners, etc)but if I were a frequent flyer or supported any other industry as frequently as I support Broadway, I would be getting some serious perks.

  • Yesterday, while I was at work, my sister stole my iphone and tested to see if it can survive a 25 foot
    drop, just so she can be a youtube sensation. My iPad is
    now destroyed and she has 83 views. I know this is entirely off topic but I had
    to share it with someone!

  • Wow that was odd. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Regardless, just wanted to say fantastic blog!

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