The Magic Cellar... Reminiscing by Gerry Griffin
Let me tell you about my days at the Magic Cellar nightclub. It was located at 630 Clay Street in San Francisco. “Earthquake McGoons” was the name of a famous jazz nightclub located at that address and there in the basement was housed the collection of Carter the Great, the famous magician. A little history to go with this first and the story I am about to tell you is as amazing as the Magic cellar was itself. Back in the 1950s two brothers, Peter and Cedric Clute had purchased some old cars and had them stored in a building where they were planning to fix them up. During this time the owner of the building told them they needed to move the cars out as soon as possible. While the brothers hastily prepared to remove the cars they accidentally broke through one of the walls, it was a false wall and on the other side they discovered packing trunks. In these trunks was the collection of the great magician Charles Carter, known to the world as Carter the Great. In all there was approximately 20 tons of memorabilia. There was apparatus, posters, costumes and large illusions that Carter had used as he traveled the world performing.
The Clute brothers were able to purchase this collection of memorabilia from the building's owner. Our story continues and the plot thickens. Turk Murphy was the leader of his own famous jazz band and he had a nightclub that opened around 1963. This nightclub was called “Earthquake McGoon's.” The nightclub was located at street level at 630 Clay St. in San Francisco and Carter the Great's collection of magic was moved to and stored in the basement of the building, which was quite large.
Peter Clute was the piano player with Turk Murphy in his jazz band. Cedric Clute, Peter's brother, decided it was time to do something with Carter the Great's collection of magic. His collection was put on display, the stage was built, and the Magic Cellar nightclub was born in the basement of “Earthquake McGoon's” nightclub in 1970.
Now the location at 630 Clay St., in San Francisco is just one block from the Transamerica Pyramid building and one block approximately from Chinatown. This was the old location of the William Tell Hotel, an old three-story building. Located around the back of the building on Merchant Street, was a very famous posh restaurant, at the time, The Blue Fox. I always wanted to go there, but never made it. Now, Alfred's Steakhouse is in the building where the Blue Fox once was located.
I first heard of the Magic Cellar in 1975, the year I graduated high school, and went there for the first time in the fall of that same year. Of course the Magic Cellar had its own little entrance, a window marquee just to the left of the door, and a little awning above the door that said “Magic Cellar Saloon” on it. When you entered the doorway you descended down a staircase, on the wall just above you was a very large poster framed of the magician Carter the Great. The staircase turned to the left and there you were in the Magic Cellar. A little desk was there to the left where you paid to get in and an old Wurlitzer Juke box to the right playing old songs from the roaring '20s, and a little further just ahead was the bar. If you were standing looking at the bar and then turned around you would be looking at the nightclub theatre itself. Surrounding the walls were memorabilia of magicians. Thurston, Blackstone Junior, Harry Houdini and many more, but mostly the collection of Carter the Great. There was a “Sawing in half” illusion, and near it was the “Million-dollar Mystery” as presented by Howard Thurston in his big show. A little further ahead was the “close-up magic” table, just to the left of the stage. If you continued past the little stage, there was a spirit cabinet, the kind used by the Davenport Brothers. Next to that was the large “Iron Maiden” illusion. I remember there being a poster of Nicola the magician performing the Iron Maiden illusion, a young lady placed in the cabinet and big iron spikes driven through her, only for her to exit the cabinet unharmed only moments later. There were a number of display cases surrounding the walls with smaller magic props in them and on the walls very large full color lithograph posters, theatrical playbills you might call them, some as large as 9 feet tall and 9 feet wide.
In the center of the room where the small tables and chairs which faced the stage. Behind them stacks of packing trunks, still unopened and filled with treasures. When you arrived for the evening, these tables are where you would sit, grabbing a chair at one of the little tables getting ready for an evening of delightful miracles. The first time I went to the Magic Cellar, I remember seeing magicians Matt Corin perform at the close-up table and on stage magician Martin Lewis. Martin Lewis performed great magic, I remember him finishing off with the Chinese Ring Mystery, or as it is more commonly known The Linking Rings. During the years that I visited the Magic cellar, the magician in residence was a gentleman named Arthur Murata (I think I spelled his name correctly). Arthur did he a lot of card magic, which was right up my alley. I can remember seeing him many times. Let me see if I can remember the magicians that I saw perform at the Magic cellar, first as I mentioned, Arthur Murata, Matt Koren, Vic Kirk, Harry Anderson, Tony Slydini, David Roth, Rich Marotta, Prof. Lee, Tom Ogden, Danny Korem, Paul Svengari Nahmen Nissen, Daryl Easton and quite a few more whose names escape me for the moment.
Tony Slydini I was able to see two times. Each time he came to town he did a magic lecture on the Saturday afternoon at the Cellar. And of course that evening he performed two shows, both close up magic and his stage magic. I was even lucky enough to be chosen to sit in a chair on stage and be part of his famous flight of the paper balls. It was absolutely wonderful! I went to the Magic cellar pretty much every weekend, sometimes Friday and Saturday nights both on any given weekend.. Driving there from Antioch, where I lived, was a bit of a longer trip in those days, but it was worth the trip every time.
One of my all time favorites was magician Vic Kirk. I saw him perform both close-up magic and stage magic many times at the Magic Cellar. On a side note, I got to know Vic Kirk very well over the years and he became a very close friend. In 1977, on April Fools' Day, I opened my first magic store in Antioch, California, then in 1980, I moved my magic store to Pleasant Hill, California. The Magic Cellar had closed around the end of 1977, so, I had not seen Vic Kirk for a number of years. But then in about 1981 into my magic store walks Vic Kirk. We hit it off right away, especially, with reminiscences of the Magic cellar and those days back when. I must say, in all my years doing magic and being around magicians, I learned the most from my good friend Vic Kirk. But I've gone off on a tangent.
An evening at the Magic cellar, would go about like this, you arrived about 7 o'clock, the close-up magic show would be performed once in the evening, so you didn't want to miss it. We would gather our chairs and surround the little table where close-up magic would be performed. We sat in eager anticipation waiting for the magician scheduled for that evening. The bartender would step over to the table, turn on the light above the table, and introduce our performer and the close-up magic began. That performance was probably about 20 minutes long, I never kept track of the time. After that, we would move our chairs back into the center of the room and get ready for the show on stage. Of course, it was time to buy drinks and the cocktail waitress would be around to visit. Now, I was only 18 years old, so my big drink for the evening was a cherry coke, excellent. There were two shows on stage, one about 8:30pm and another about 10:30, and of course I would stay all night, so sometimes we would see the same performer do the same show twice. Now I can remember my friend Vic Kirk telling me about performing at the Magic Cellar the first time. When he came out to do the second show of the evening, he saw many of the same faces in the audience that had been there for the first show. He was doing the same show for much of the same audience twice. He quickly realized he needed an entirely different show for the second performance and he was one of the few performers who always did a different second show, that was wonderful. I must say, naturally I didn't mind seeing the same show twice, at least for me, being interested in magic as a hobby I could watch it over and over again and loved every moment of it.
Well, as our evening at the Magic Cellar would continue, sometimes on stage there would be two performers which was even better, one of the stage performers might perform at the close-up table and then, of course, be on stage. The rest of the evening was spent visiting with my magic buddies at the time, and waiting with baited breath to see who in the world of magic might just happened to show up that evening. These were some very special times for me in those early years of magic, and my inspiration as it would become for the California Magic Club, dinner theater and magic shop.
There are many more tales to tell and I will be continuing this very soon… Gerry Griffin