These days, the strip mall on the south side of Ventura Boulevard at Tujunga is best known for a sad event, the fiery auto crash earlier this month that left three people dead and caused major damage to Reno’s Pizzeria & Restaurant. Drooping flowers, melted candle wax and photographs still mark the spot.
But on a visit to the area earlier this week, workers were busily putting Reno’s back together for the re-opening; life goes on. And in the wake of such tragedy, it’s easy to forget that this mall is full of wonderful things – among them the recently re-located Kung Pao Bistro (yum) and Great Nails Salon (great because they fan-dry between coats, instead of leaving nails that look shiny-dry but are actually a goopy mess that gets wrecked when you dip into your purse for the car keys). Oh, and U-Wash-Doggie, which needs no explanation and takes dirty cats, too.
There’s even a little bit of magic here. On Tuesday, Heidi and I decided to pay our first visit to the Magic Apple, “The Magic Store on the Second Floor.” We’ve been meaning to do it for a long time, certain that we would find something special behind its doors.
We did. There are all kinds of fun stuff to buy here: rubber chickens, trick card decks, magic wands in bulk (65 cents apiece), velvet top hats, fake vomit, “Smoke In A Can.” But the real treasures are the magicians who hang out here. On this particular day, we met card magician Howard Hamburg and Leo Kostka, the resident medium at Hollywood’s Magic Castle, who conducts séances at the legendary magic club.
Owner Brent Geris says the Magic Apple is the only magic shop in Southern California, besides the one at Disneyland. He says that these days most magic supplies are sold online instead. But here at the Magic Apple, which also hosts lectures and events, “some guys come here and spend hours on end,” says Geris, who prefers close-up magic and performs everywhere from kids’ parties to corporate events. “It’s more than just a shop.”
Hamburg did a card trick for us involving the mysterious ace of clubs and a portrait of the late, great Dai Vernon on the wall. Vernon, a Canadian sleight-of-hand artist, lived out his final days at the Magic Castle. Fifty-two red roses, representing the 52 cards in the deck, lay undisturbed onstage in the Magic Castle’s Palace of Mystery at his memorial service. But back to the trick, which is too complicated to explain but if you happen to go to the Magic Apple and Hamburg is there, maybe he’ll do it for you, too.
Hamburg and Kostka also told heartwarming stories of the many times Geris has handed out magic equipment to cash-stripped magicians, trusting that they would pay if they can after their show. That’s just the way magicians are, Hamburg says. Kostka agrees. “Magicians are my family,” Kostka says.
Magicians are also Heidi’s family now – sort of. I wasn’t about to leave the Magic Apple without shooting some pictures, but when I pulled out my point-and-shoot camera I discovered that my batteries were dead. “Are there any batteries for sale here?” I asked Geris. Dumb question. Of course they don’t have batteries. They don’t need batteries. They’re magicians.
So I decided to make a dash to the 7-Eleven across the street to get my double-A’s, and asked Hamburg and Kostka to watch Heidi while I was gone. It did not occur to me until I was on the other side of Ventura that, if you leave your dog with magicians, when you come back she might be a rabbit. Or perhaps sawed in half in lieu of the usual lovely assistant.
When I returned Heidi was still in one piece, and still a dog – but a profoundly hurt, shocked and offended dog because I had dashed off and left her with strangers. She let me have it when I got back, wailing and whining and bouncing up and down, getting more theatrical by the second about her abandonment issues and my poor mothering skills. It took all four of us to finally get her to relax. OK, I’m a bad dog parent. But at least I got my pictures, including one of Heidi reluctantly trying on a magic top hat.
Speaking of magic hats: On the counter inside the Magic Apple is a top hat where you can drop your donations to help with the rebuilding of Reno’s Pizzeria & Restaurant, which Geris confirms is a place where countless magicians have sat and talked while making beer and pizza disappear. Now that’s magic.