By Darlene Donloe
When Jack “Goldfinger” Vaughn goes to work, he knows it’s going to be a magical day.
That’s because the moment he steps inside the Magic Castle, Abracadabra!, Vaughn, who goes by his stage name “Goldfinger,” is transported into the magical world he always dreamed for himself when he was a wide-eyed kid enamored with the wonderment of magic.
The Magic Castle, the clubhouse of the Academy of Magical Arts, is an exclusive, private club in Hollywood with dining and, of course, magic shows. Full of rare memorabilia and posters, only members and their guests — and those who receive courtesy invitations — are allowed entry into the legendary venue, which is frequently sprinkled with celebrities like Jenifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, who visited recently.
Visitors to the one-time mansion, located on Franklin Avenue, can witness up close and personal magic shows as well as full-stage illusions.
The “mecca of magic,” owned by Milt Larsen who opened its doors on Jan. 2, 1963, also boasts a full-service dining room and several unique bars, each with its own personality.
Goldfinger, who was given the moniker in 1964 after he used the soundtrack from the movie of the same name for his magic act, is the director of entertainment for the Academy of Magical Arts at The Magic Castle.
That means “Goldfinger,” who started as a magician at The Magic Castle in 1970, is responsible for hiring the 15 to 20 magicians who work in its five showrooms each week. Anyone who wants to work at The Magic Castle must first go through him.
A magician of the highest order, who has performed all over the world, Goldfinger, at one time known for his signature blinged-out turban, truly loves what he does and is perpetually excited about where he works.
“This is a great place to work,” said Goldfinger, a Vietnam veteran, who joined the USO to entertain the troops. “You’re never any place you’re not supposed to be. And you’re never anywhere you aren’t needed.”
Born in Cleveland, Goldfinger, a father of three, is married to his performance partner, Dove, half of the international, award-winning, magical duo “Goldfinger & Dove.”
His love of magic came at an early age.
“In Cleveland, there was a Black man, named Chandu Hunter, who was a magician,” said Goldfinger, who studied under world-renowned magician Channing Pollock. “I read in the paper he was giving community classes. A week later I was teaching the classes at age 12 or 14.
“He was a professional magician. He got me into shape. Taught me a lot. In another class, one of the guys had been to The Magic Castle and came back with pictures of the place. I said, ‘I’m going there.’ It happened. I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world. You’re looking at luck personified.”
Goldfinger, 73, with a twinkle in his eye and something magical always up his sleeve, is one of the most personable and memorable people you’ll ever meet.
I recently spoke to the handsome, well-coiffed and elegant magician, affectionately dubbed “The Godfather of Black Magicians,” as he sat in The Magic Castle’s William W. Larsen Memorial Library of Magical Arts.
DD: What are your duties as the director of entertainment for the Academy of Magical Arts?
JV: I listen to magicians every day. They say book me, book me, here at The Magic Castle. There are five degrees of magic: novice, student, disciple, master and grand master. All these levels of professional magicians are what I deal with. It’s global. They come from Asia, Europe, South America and North America.
DD: How do you decide who performs?
JV: I don’t look for good or bad, skilled and unskilled. There is a hidden language. If they are a professional, they are here to showcase. No one is turned away. It’s not denied, it’s delayed.
DD: Why are you called the Godfather of Black magicians?
JV: Being in the right place at the right time. They came up with that.
DD: Why don’t you accept it?
JV: Artificial highs create artificial lows. That’s their prerogative.
DD: What does magic do for you?
JV: It’s not hard to find magic. What’s shared is to find something that’s not. I was doing magic at the age of 6. I didn’t know what I was doing. They said, what are you doing? Are you a magician? I was in kindergarten. Snyder’s magic shop had a cut-out bin. I got clear glasses, a dark suit, a white shirt, a red tie and a colorful multi-color tie. I get to make people happy.
DD: Describe magic. Is it trickery, art, science or reality?
JV: A religious person would say “me, and God and company.” There are places that won’t accept magic because of their religious beliefs. Tell them I’m not a magician. I’m a master of surprise.
DD: What was the first magic trick you learned?
JV: Vanishing milk.
DD: Is that when you pour the milk into a paper funnel and make it disappear?
DD: What percentage of working magicians are Black?
JV: There are a lot. They aren’t hiding. There’s Presto, Fetaque Sanders, Frank Brents and more. I’m not the first. I’m not that guy. Ice McDonald is on the board of directors here. He’s highly respected and a former president of SAM, the Society of American Magicians.
DD: Are you bringing along any young Black magicians?
JV: We help everyone. We have something called the Junior Society, a division of the Academy of Magical Arts. You have to be 13 and over. It’s for young people who can’t come here at night. They can use the library. There are meetings once a month. Justin Wilmington will lecture. Participants have to audition. We hold auditions twice a year. We take 50 kids at a time. We only take 50 because there is limited space. Neil Patrick Harris was in it before he got “Doogie Howser.” Dues are $50 a year.
DD: What makes The Magic Castle so special?
JV: It exists. This is the epicenter, the hub, the point. There is something called The Magic Circle in England that is pretty prestigious. But people want to be here. For me to be in this position, I have to love magic. We have at least 13 performers a week, 52 weeks a year that I’m responsible for.
DD: What is your signature magic trick or effect?
JV: If someone does something and you can’t do it, it’s an effect. Mine is the Towers of Thor. I have the Towers of Thor on me right now. Most of the time you’ll see a card trick. It’s a nice a-ha moment. (He performs the trick)
DD: Does magic still fascinate you?
JV: I see so much. I miss so much. My middle name is gullible. Yes, I am still fascinated. That’s what keeps the whole thing flowing.
DD: Are the best magicians born or taught?
JV: The Magic Castle only has the best until the best shows up.
DD: Has anyone ever caught your sleight of hand? If so, what did you do?
JV: Constantly. If you’re on stage, the first learning curve is don’t have wheels under the prop. It could roll away. I’m greeting the audience and I have someone tied up on a prop and they’re gone. They rolled away.
DD: Do you ever go into the room when magicians are performing?
JV: I sit in on shows. My responsibility is to make sure the evening or week is running smoothly. I want to make sure they aren’t duplicating.
DD: What’s the best magic trick you’ve ever seen?
JV: I haven’t seen it yet. It changes day-to-day, performer-to-performer.
DD: Can regular, non-high profile magicians make a good living?
JV: Yes, they can make a good living. It’s priceless. What is the price of happiness? Your happiness is an inside job.
“The Q&A” is a feature of Wave Newspapers asking provocative or engaging questions of some of L.A.’s most popular newsmakers or celebrities.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.