Montecito’s Magic Man Passes On

By James Buckley   |   June 13, 2023
Milt and Arlene at their Mesa home (Courtesy photo)

As MJ reported last week, Milt Larsen passed away on Sunday, May 28, after what had been a whirlwind week for the 92-year-old founder of Hollywood’s Magic Castle. The Sunday before he died, Milt and his wife, Arlene, attended a production of their longtime touring production, “It’s Magic!” in Cerritos, California. They watched the entire show before heading back to their place on the Mesa in Santa Barbara, where they had lived for the past 18 years.

After leaving a successful legal career, Milt’s father, William Larsen, Sr., created a magic family traveling act – an early source of magical inspiration for Milt (Courtesy photo)

Before that, Milt and Arlene had spent 16 years of their charmed life in a ramshackle but cozy cottage at the end of Eucalyptus Lane in Montecito. The three-quarter-acre property boasted 200 feet of oceanfront shoreline and could justly be described as “magical,” as indeed their lives had been. 

On Monday, May 22, Milt was in Hollywood, dealing with a problem with the elevator at the Magic Castle. On Thursday, May 25, he was honored at the annual Academy of Magical Arts awards show in Hollywood where he received a nearly five-minute-long standing ovation. He was recipient of a Golden Hammer for the many wonderful things he’d built during his career. Friday, May 26, it was lunch at the Magic Castle with friends, acquaintances, and business partners.

Sunday, May 28, was a day of rest. Arlene talked with Milt two or three times a day – she in Santa Barbara and he in Los Angeles. During their last conversation, she sensed he was tired so suggested he “put your feet up and relax. I’ll talk to you tomorrow…”

“And that was it,” she recounts. “He went to bed.” 

Arlene learned of Milt’s passing at noon the next day and by 5 pm had a press release drawn up and delivered to their friends, relatives, and the press.

That’s the way I want to go,” she says, “partying up to the last moment.” She mused that “he loved his martinis and old-fashioneds,” and was pleased to note that he “did everything he wanted to do before he left.” 

Arlene is 15 years younger than Milt, and they had planned his early departure well ahead of time, so she – and he – were prepared. The couple spent 54 years together, beginning in 1969, when she signed on to work as a costume designer for the hit TV show Truth or Consequences, for which Milt had become a writer.

Milt was a writer for the classic game show Truth or Consequences – it was also where he would meet his future wife, Arlene, a costume designer for the show (Courtesy photo)
Milt with his longtime collaborator, classic Disney songwriter Richard [A Spoonful of Sugar] Sherman (photo by Don Seth)

Their wedding was held at their beachfront property in Montecito on August 27, 1989; it was a first marriage for both. He was 55, she 39. They had agreed to marry some months before but kept putting it off, afraid they’d spoil what had been a great 20-year friendship. Milt decided, however, that the marriage should happen and that they should throw a party where they would announce their engagement and a wedding day.

DAWGS! The Musical is one of many of Milt’s endeavors that epitomized his love for laughter and entertaining others (Courtesy photo)

What Arlene and nearly all the invitees didn’t know was that Milt had decided the actual wedding would take place at the party.

His days as chief writer for Truth or Consequences – whereupon the subject would be kept in the dark – played into his plans, and it all worked out, even though his Best Man – Milt’s brother – never showed up and hadn’t been told of the wedding arrangement. Instead, Milt’s longtime friend Richard Sherman (the two met as teenagers) served as Best Man. Sherman and his brother Bob were the Sherman Brothers songwriting team, whose successful tunes ranged from Disney World’s “It’s a Small World” to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and the score for Mary Poppins, The Parent Trap,and many others in between.

In 1974, Milt opened the Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica, and went to England to gather the material he used to build the inside of the theater, that included a half-circular bar, ornate structures galore, and even the chairs. He,Dick Sherman, Arlene, John Shrum (Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show art director), and Toni Kaye (choreographer for The Carol Burnett Show), worked together to put on Music Hall-type performances featuring old English songs, and specialty acts (including a doctor-with-a-seal routine that never quite got itself together).

The Mayfair Music Hall is gone now but it lives on in two movies: Harriet & Walter Go To New York (starring Elliott Gould, James Caan, Michael Caine, and Diane Keaton), and Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks’s send-up of gothic horror that starred Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Gene Hackman. Dr. Frankenstein’s hilarious “Puttin’ On The Ritz” medical re-animation demonstration takes place at the Mayfair.

Milt and Arlene at the Magic Castle Cabaret opening (photo by Don Seth)
Milt with Carol Marie, his longtime bookkeeper, at the Magic Castle Cabaret (photo by Don Seth)

One of the last things he did before his death was to write a song that he’d promised to both his wife, Arlene, and his “bookie” wife, Carol Marie (she kept the books). It’s called “My Two Loves” and it’s been professionally recorded; Richard Sherman put it to music; Arlene was too emotionally broken up to play it or read it for me.

Milt’s only frustration, Arlene says, is that he couldn’t help her more with the Magic Castle Cabaret the couple created in the former Café Del Sol location on Los Patos Way in Montecito.

The couple’s motto in life was “If it’s not fun, we don’t want to do it,” and they absolutely lived by that maxim.

There will be a private memorial held at the 1,238-seat Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles in due time. The theater is the first location where Milt ever performed his magic, some 64 years ago (1959).

Milt Larsen’s legacy (of which Arlene is a major factor) includes Pazzazz! The Musical, Hollywood’s Magic Castle, the “Smash Flops” collection of humorous songs with Richard Sherman, Victory Canteen with Patty Andrews of the Andrews Sisters (script by Milt Larsen and Bobby Lauher, songs by the Sherman Brothers), the Variety Arts Center, DAWGS! The Musical, It’s Magic!, Caesars Magical Empire at Caesars Palace (replaced by Celine Dion’s theater) and much, much more. Milt Larsen’s entire vaudeville collection has been donated to and is now housed at UC Santa Barbara.  


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