Milt Larsen’s parents were both magicians. They owned a magic trick novelty shop back in the 1930s and ’40s, and Larsen recalls spending many childhood hours in the stockroom. He’d open every box, learn the trick and put it back. There was no escaping it — from then on, the young Milt was destined to become a magician.
Now, 55 years later, after becoming synonymous with American illusionary arts through his Magic Castle club, Larsen brings his annual family-friendly magic acts to Lobero Theatre for its third appearance.
With a variety of flashy illusionists, stunning mentalists and hilarious comedy magicians, “It’s Magic!” gives audiences a glimpse of a tradition stretching back to 1956, when Larsen first charmed audiences. The show has since expanded beyond belief.
“All we’re doing is a vaudeville show,” he says. “There is something for everybody. It’s an old formula.”
Larsen and his brother Bill Larsen, Jr., had already made a name for themselves as television writers when “It’s Magic!” debuted. Milt had just barely graduated Los Angeles High School (“I was lucky to get out alive”), and he went straight into comedy writing, eventually grabbing a job on Bob Barker’s “Truth or Consequences” game show.
“Milt is always impeccably dressed, always in good mood, always helpful and always drunk,” Barker once said. Well, he seemed finely sober when we saw him.
Following their father’s longtime wish for a magician social club, Milt purchased a Victorian house and developed it into the now-famous Magic Castle, which currently boasts 5,000 members.
“We had no idea it would become as big as it did,” Larsen says. “It’s like a magician’s convention every night.”
Larsen still fills in when a guest performer doesn’t turn up. And every performer on this weekend’s bill has passed through the halls of Castle. Emcee Tom Ogden was in the circus before joining the freakier show that is Las Vegas and Atlantic City, where he has played The Hacienda, Golden Nugget and Sands.
Les Arnold comes from a long line of vaudeville entertainers — he’s grandson of “The Great Leon” — and tries to maintain his old-school dignity alongside the comic trips and fumbles of his dedicated assistant, Dazzle, in a classic pairing tweaked for modern audiences.
Two more couples — John Shryock and Mari Lynn and The Bornstein Experiment — bring illusion and mentalism, respectively. For the former, Shryock levitates, vanishes and seemingly slices and dices Mari Lynn, but she always finishes whole and with a smile.
The Bornstein couple, Jeff and Kimberly, mix Jeff’s standup comedy with Kimberly’s mind-reading skills. Christopher Hart and Joel Ward round off the list, with numerous television, theater and corporate appearances between them. Hart’s hand may be best known for its role in “The Addams Family” movie and in “Idle Hands,” where it plays a zombie hand with a mind of its own. For this performance, though, it’s attached to his body.
Milt and his wife now live locally in a Mesa house with spectacular views, but he still commutes to Los Angeles every week for Magic Castle. Since living in Santa Barbara, he’s become more invested in the city’s arts, he says, opening his revue “Pazzazz” at The Granada and making our city a stop for “It’s Magic!”
He says that he’s still surprised by magic, even though one would think he knows every trick in the book.
“Unless the theater is burning down, I won’t go backstage,” he says.
Magic, he says, is close to science.
“That’s the theory of magic: You think of something impossible and make it happen,” he says. “And the next thing you know, they’re sending men to the moon.”
When: 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St.
Cost: $24 to $30 general, $75 patrons, $15 children
Information: (805) 963-0761, www.lobero.com