Photos by David Laurell
As the sun dipped into the west, preparing for its nightly escape, close to 400 members and supporters of the Kiwanis Club of Burbank slipped out of their hometown chains and did some escaping of their own — to a Mediterranean-style mansion secluded within lush frondescence on a bluff just off Laurel Canyon Boulevard this past Saturday.
Known as the Houdini Estate, the 3.9-acre property ― which features caves, a grand lawn, grottos, hidden tunnels, stone walkways, terraced gardens, waterfalls and a statuary, with an imposing bust of Harry Houdini ― served as the stage for the Kiwanians’ annual fundraising gala.
Presented under the theme “The Magic of Kiwanis,” attendees braved the evening chill to explore the house built in the early 1900s, and the property, which pays homage to the legendary escape artist, magician, illusionist and stunt performer who died in 1926.
The event, which included a cocktail reception on the grand lawn, gourmet and comfort food stations, a reverse drawing, and the opportunity to bid on items in both silent and live auctions, also gave guests the chance to have their fortunes told and be amazed by the work of illusionists, magicians, prognosticators and diviners from the Magic Castle. Miguel Rangel, Cydney Kaplan, Sirinda Sincharoen, Joe “The Great Joedini” Namsinh, Richard Lake and Raul Fernandez each performed ongoing 15-minute shows throughout the evening.
While taking a tour of the home, a highlight for participants took place in the mansion’s living room where, under the watchful eyes of a portrait of the man of magic who never actually owned the home or property, Houdini historian John Cox provided them with tales of what is and isn’t known.
Along with the main house, originally built in the early years of the 20th century by Ralf Walker, the property also included a four-bedroom guest house. Walker, who was a friend of Houdini’s, leased the guest house to the magician and his wife, Bess, when they came to California in 1919 for him to appear in his two feature films for Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, “The Grim Game” and “Terror Island.”
While, according to Cox, the details are sketchy on how long Houdini actually spent on the property, it is far better documented that after his death, Bess spent a considerable amount of time there throwing parties and holding séances.
After Walker died in 1935, the property changed hands numerous times and was occupied by an evangelist who called it “The Temple of Yahweh,” and an eccentric poet, before both the main house and guest house were destroyed in a 1959 fire.
The property continued to change hands over the years and in 2006 was purchased by José Luis Nazar, who rebuilt the mansion and refurbished the gardens to be used for private parties, weddings, corporate functions, as a bed and breakfast, and for filming.
Last week’s gala, chaired by Cari Pelayo, was made possible by the organization’s president, Eddie Arnold, and the event committee composed of Mary Anne Been, Gary Peterson, Ron Rothacher, Al Leifer, Diane Cripe, Carline Herisse, Juan Guillen, Paul McKenna and Caesar Milch.
Pelayo said the inspiration for the evening’s theme came from a close friend of hers, Robert Guerra, a well-known local magician who succumbed to cancer in 2021.
“He would have loved this, and I’m so proud to have been able to do this as a tribute to his memory,” Pelayo said.
While all attendees had a magical evening, Patrick Kerney, Eric Ramos and Mark Ouweleen had an especially good time. Having been among the first 50 guests who made a $500 donation, the trio’s names were drawn as the winners who were invited to attend a special late evening VIP party and to spend the night at the estate with breakfast prepared by a local chef.
This annual gala is designed to raise funds for the direct support the local Kiwanians provide to Burbank youth. The club works year-round to assist young people by increasing their confidence, finding their self-expression and developing leadership skills.
The organization has a long history of supporting many programs at Burbank schools, such as advising the Key Clubs, donating to art, music and drama departments, sponsoring the Burbank Middle School Speech Program, and producing “Burbank Singing Star,” a singing contest for kids coordinated by Charissa Anderson of Music Junction, which raises thousands of dollars that goes toward elementary school music education.
Burbank Kiwanians also sponsor both a Cub Scout den and a Boy Scout troop, and hold many direct hands-on volunteer work projects with charitable organizations that serve thousands of residents.
While final tabulations were still underway at press time, Pelayo said last week’s gala had already raised more than $97,000, which will allow the Burbank Kiwanis Club Foundation to continue the vital philanthropic work they do for the community.
DAVID LAURELL may be reached by email at email@example.com or (818) 563-1007.
First published in the April 1 print issue of the Burbank Leader.