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More Like Hassle: A Night at the Magic Castle

I need to take my pants off.

Rather, an elegantly goateed, probably professionally patient bald man is asking me to take my pants off.

He has explained that I have back pockets. Or patch pockets. It’s hard to say. I don’t think patch pockets are a thing. Regardless, my recently acquired lower wear is a deal breaker for the airtight, highbrow sensibilities wafting just past the ornate façade in front of me. If I want to cross the gaudy threshold into this heralded labyrinth of bro-tastic first dates, HBO darlings, and whimsically inclined adult children, I need slacks. And fast!

Supposedly my friends are already seated at dinner, sated by an earlier show and two-plus bottles of champagne. The friendly muscle at the door suggests I try a Marshall’s or a Zara several blocks away. I start walking and make a phone call. Hopefully phones are allowed inside. It seems like they might not be.

They sure are.

“They won’t let me in.”

“Why?”

“It’s my pants. They don’t like my pants because of the back pockets.”

“…”

“Right. So I’m walking to a Marshall’s.”

“Phil says he’s coming down to talk to them.”

I start walking back up the hill. As I catch sight of the valet booth and patch of red carpet, the trepidation sets in. I can just turn around. I can go buy some slacks. I don’t have to triumphantly make this buoyant bouncer’s job more difficult. But he sees me crest the hill, and he smiles, so I keep walking towards him.

“Hey, I’m, uh, my friend’s going to come down and talk to me for a second.”

He nods because this is no big deal. I have the sinking feeling of telling on someone in Kindergarten; the realization that you’re in over your head and ought to abscond, but understand it’s not feasible.

I linger at the entrance’s outskirts until Phil comes down. David and Luke are with him. At least one of them has immediately noticeable back pockets. That’s why you never go anywhere late and alone, I guess; no respect for presumably sad loners in medium-sized ties to be had out there. The impassable pants roadblock is patiently re-explained. And, in heroic fashion, Phil has a solution: extra slacks in his car. Some people think of everything.

A valet leads us to Phil’s car. I sigh through some complaints. Phil outwardly seems to understand, but I get the feeling that a bad attitude will have no place in the twisting corridors of the Academy Of Magical Arts. I try to trail off.

David and Luke assure me that my original pants looked “great.” Of course, they’re absolutely right. But it’s only a small comfort once I’m in a low-lit bathroom, gently lifting Phil’s godsend past my legs. The billowing fabric makes very little contact with my skin and, because I’m also belt-less, visions of a nightlong struggle to keep this pair of Admit-One-To-Wonder-And-Spectacles properly cinched. I take a long look in the mirror and try to send a Snapchat of my outfit that I’d foolishly promised earlier. But it’s too dim. It can wait. I made it. I’m in the Magic Castle.

Let’s get enthralled

I check my offending pants at the front desk. Phil tells me to say the password into a red-eyed rat nestled ominously in a bookcase. Turns out, it only looks like a bookcase and is, whimsically enough, actually a sliding door.

We ascend to the dining room, and, even though the chronic hitching-up-of-pants has begun in earnest, the night is looking up. We walk past several tables of varyingly beautiful people. So this is the big time; the Hollywood that dreams are built and subsequently dashed upon.

I sit down with the group, take off my jacket, and awkwardly hang it on the back of my chair. Thankfully someone has already poured me wine. My first sip is a gulp. Remembering that the dinner expense was the most daunting, I temper my consumption and order $34 scallops and pasta.

I am sitting between Luke and a co-worker of Phil’s. Phil is sitting between his co-worker and Lauren and has a red tie tucked into his shirt. Crissy is sitting between Lauren and David. Lauren has a cool dark lipstick on and I compliment it. David is next to Luke, who is wearing a tweed jacket and khaki chinos. No one can hear anyone very well.

Observational monotony is broken by the news, to me at least, that Sarah Sutherland, of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ daughter in Veep fame, is in the building. “They’re just like us,” I might’ve said aloud.

We finish the second bottle of wine, which tastes like $15, but cost $46. $12.99 is the right price for wine. We split the bill seven ways. It’s almost time for magic.

Unfortunately, the earlier show is full so we stay at the bar. I order a double Bulleit neat and casually surrender my debit card to the tune of $26. This shimmering dream simply refuses to end. Either Crissy or Lauren finds a loophole in the system and orders an $11 Gin Martini, dirty with olives. The magic-to-cost ratio is getting out of control. Phil’s pants are swishing in and out of my lower consciousness and the castle-goers are beginning to blend together. Then we see Thomas Middleditch from HBO’s Silicon Valley. He’s also drinking what appears to be a double whiskey and is noticeably less meek in person.

“I guess we’re all pretty glamorous,” I maybe say under my breath.

Satisfied that I’ve leveled the playing field, I take a smug, but inconsequential drink and look around the room. I feel restored. Some of the group has apparently wandered off to be wowed, so Lauren and I pursue them down a narrow, carpeted, possibly green staircase. It opens onto an intimate showroom. There are three rows of chairs on each side and a magician standing behind a table in front.

Luke is sitting in the second row on the far side and David and Crissy in the row behind him, near the wall. Crissy comes over and sits next to Lauren and me. After a few stabs of conversation, she goes back over to David. Lauren voices her concerns about my attitude. There’s precedent, but outside of the pants fiasco, I’ve been a model Magic Castle guest. I explain this to Lauren.

The magician calls on Luke to participate. This is the second time he’s been singled out by a performer this week. Kristen Schaal saw him eating tacos at the foot of stage right at the Virgil on Monday and consigned him to a stage left stool for much of the evening. Or so I heard.

Lauren and I leave the show and run into a couple wandering the halls. We find an empty barroom and introduce ourselves. The guy is shorter than me, and the girl is much taller, although, to be fair, she’s wearing impossibly high heels. He’s been here before. She hasn’t. He leads her down another corridor. We fall into line behind them. Lauren is much more enthusiastic about being shown around than I am. The couple seems to be on an early-stage date, though probably not their first. I finish the first half of my whiskey and pull up Phil’s pants again.

The other couple peels off and we’re left in a narrow, crowded room. As is the case throughout the Castle, the walls are covered in portraits: presumably pinnacles of the Academy, past and present. A roving photographer pushes past us and coaxes two men in cloaks to pose together. We walk past the bar and stand around a table, catching the end of a card act.

El Ropo

A tall, pot-bellied performer in a cowboy hat saunters to his place behind the table. We take seats and settle in. The man’s style is deft and apathetic. Every drawling flutter of his fingers seems pinned to a predetermined, well-paved path. The smooth, methodical pace of his act is practically taunting us; daring the audience to try and keep up with even this reserved a pace. He quips ironic about his inadequate social graces, and scolds me for placing my drink on the table.

He’s brought out an array of ropes and, after tying a variety of knots in mid-air, he adds a flat red plastic ring to the mix. Lauren is sitting closest to him and he recruits her arm strength. She grips the ring and they mock a tug-of-war. Somehow, someway, even after demonstrating how intricately and tightly tied rope is to ring, he releases the knot and leaves Lauren holding an empty circle.

For his next trick, he’s rolled a number of aluminum foil balls and proceeds to play his “version of the cup game.” It turns out there are even more aluminum balls than we could’ve imagined. And they increase in size as the trick unfurls. The last touch is a tip of his ten-gallon, which reveals, yes, another ball.

He stands up and straightens his bolo tie. “They call me El Ropo,” he mutters and tosses a dozen glossy business cards on the table.

Lauren asks if he’ll keep performing for us, but El Ropo, ever a man of his people, shakes his head. “You’ll get to suffer through this next act. You’re in good hands.” Magicians, you see, often use their hands.

We decide this is not the move and leave El Ropo’s replacement to conjur his own rabid fan base.

Lauren orders a glass of water from the bar and I say how much I enjoyed El Ropo. She seems surprised and says “See?” or something like that. I tell her not to take me so seriously, but I don’t think she hears. It’s almost time for the main event and I look around for our group. The room has thinned out and Phil’s pants are fairly stable. I’m suddenly very tired and I don’t feel like having another drink. Somewhere to my right, there’s an astonished gasp.

The Final Act

Across the crowd, Crissy sidles into the main theater. We walk in thirty seconds after, but she’s disappeared into the rows of the eager, half-drunk audience. Luckily, Phil gets our attention and Lauren and I find two seats next to each other in the second row. The rest of our group is in maybe the fifth. The view is obscured by the side stage and curtain, but proximity to the illusions seems critical for optimal amazement, so it’s fine.

The lights go down, the crowd grumbles to silence, and a woman wearing an archaic, vaguely theatrical ensemble and face paint steps to center stage. She stumbles through an overacted introduction in which she picks up and drops an affected approximation of a third party imagining of a New Orleans speech pattern. Finally, our entertainment, the man we were all waiting for, Jonathan (or, as his hypewoman gummed with a flourish, Jon-a-ten) Pendragon, bursts into view.

Jonathan Pendragon is Martin Short in a topcoat. He beams with intensity and there is clearly so much joy in what he does up there. He transfers manic charm from stage to audience to his three or four assistants, all twenty-something girls trying, with some degree of success, to match Jonathan’s smile tooth-for-tooth.

A table is being wheeled out and Liberty Larsen, an especially high cheek-boned and eye-browed assistant, lies down. We’re told that Pendragon is going to cut her in half. My attention, wandering during the preamble snaps back into focus because I’m going to see someone cut in half.

“The box is clear,” Pendragon explains, alleviating any lingering doubts as to his craft’s veracity. When the top section of said box is placed over her torso, she starts drumming her fingers on the side. I am very nervous for Liberty. Liberty’s fingers seem to concur.

And he does it. He slides metal plaques into her middle and pulls the table in two. I look at Lauren; Lauren looks back. Magic is apparently real. Pendragon peacocks around the stage, arms outspread to display his unfathomable deed.

The show goes on.

It seems like Pendragon should’ve saved the splitting apart (you know, the real magic) for last. He melodramatically recreates Ariel’s release from The Tempest to an unsettling version of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” as voiced by two, not-Liberty-Larsen assistants. Liberty, to her credit, sings a song about a spider queen, which reminds me of The Spider Woman, though I couldn’t quite think of the name at the time. Crissy tells a heckler to “shut the fuck up,” and I’m half with her and half mortified.

There are swords stabbed through baskets and razors swallowed and strung, in-mouth, along a thread. The odious hypewoman gets her own introduction from Jon-a-ten, as “the woman who saved [his] life: [his] wife of [some] years.” Touching as this information is, she clouds the moment by lingering on stage and engaging with the crowd while her adoring husband takes a break. The rest of the show goes off theatrically and without a hitch and never approaches the heights of the opening sequence.

We meet up with the rest of the group and, as luck would have it, El Ropo is once again manning the table. Everyone else takes a seat, but I was watching the after-show congratulations and have to stand. I wait for a couple of minutes and then walk through the crowd until I’m removed, if only a few feet, from the fringe. I sit and look around and play with my phone a little. I’m very tired. I barely notice the pants anymore.

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Originally published at ohitsathing.com on May 8, 2015.