Seventies’ Tulsa was the era of musical gurus and barefoot mystics. It was the boomers’ golden era and time has given it a nostalgic glow.
One of many important watering holes of the ‘70s was The Magician’s Theater, located at 1643 South Boulder. It was a significant component in the hangout map in those days, somewhere between recording sessions, school (or skipping it), coming of age, and being part of something greater than any one of us. In its place sits a parking lot.
The Magician’s Theater is a barely documented, unforgettable time according to the people who experienced it. Because of the lack of hard evidence, its legend would be near extinct if those people and their memories weren’t still alive. A few photos linger, mostly from the owner’s personal collections. A Google search brings up one website—a few people sharing memories about great musicians past.
Hear the story of another legendary Tulsa hangout, Nine of Cups.
Mentioning Magician’s Th eater in conversation with those who were around to experience it is like watching a magician pull a never-ending scarf from his sleeve. Different colors emerge, dark ones, bright ones, and patterns of spiritual enlightenment and hideous allegation. The Magician’s Theater exists now only as a Pandora’s box of stories, the building itself demolished—or vanished.
Those who experienced it recall the memories a certain way now, some rose-colored, others are gritty, with foggy dates they long ago buried. Don Duca, the man who owned it, lives in France now.
“One word: funky,” he described Magician’s. “It was such that, when in operation, the only light in the room was from the bar and the stage. The furniture was cheap Formica top tables and leatherette chrome chairs and bar stools.”
A single exterior photo of Magician’s shows a black door with a white arrow pointing down a staircase. The door reads, “Magician’s Theater, Serving food all day, dine in or carry out, Hours: Mon. – Thurs. 11AM-2AM, Fri. 11AM-3AM, Sat. 6PM-3AM, Private Club BYOL.”
Magician’s Theater wasn’t a Theater, it was a basement club. A private club, in fact, one that required patrons to bring their own liquor and buy pours of it from the bartenders. These were the days of liquor by the drink, officially, “liquor by the wink,” unofficially. Patrons also were required by law to be card-carrying members of the private club; some of the business card sized membership cards are still floating around today.
It all began in a building with a cellar, six musicians, and a leather cowboy boot full of cash.
“The building had been a bar for a long time, the Cellar Club,” Duca wrote me in an email. “It had had over 18 proprietors in the previous year before we leased it. Some didn’t last a week. The building was owned by Tulsa Vending. They didn’t care what went on there so long as the building was open and their vending machines and pool tables were making money.”
Among the musicians was Larry Moss, an organ player who had achieved commercial success in 1969 with the band Smith and their million-selling single, “Baby It’s You.”
“We played Woodstock, all the festivals,” Moss said. “We were on TV a lot, did the Ed Sullivan Show, did commercials and said, ‘Don’t do drugs,’ ” he added with a laugh.
A few years later, Moss found himself back in Tulsa, hatching plans for a dream venue with several friends, including Jeff Blair, Mike Hollin, Valentino Pina,` and Duca, a friend he’d had since junior high school at Edison.
Moss remembered first approaching him with the idea. “I called Don on a Saturday morning and told him, ‘Man, let’s just open our own place. We’ll create a place for us to play and our friends can come play and we’ll make a living doing it.’ He was like, ‘Uh, yeah!’ ”
“The club was founded by the six members of the Larry Moss Band, each with an equal share,” Duca explained. “Larry’s concept was a nightclub by and for musicians. It was a good one.”
I asked Larry where the name Magician’s Theater came from. “Oh, it was just a name,” he replied.
“Actually, we had thought about having a magician come down there about once a month and do a show.”
“I had a boot full of money,” Moss explained. “So I put up the money to get us into business. So that’s how we got that going.”
Magician’s opened in January 1975, the year Vietnam ended and Saturday Night Live began.
“Since I booked all of the acts, I know for a fact who played there,” Duca said. The list is a roster of usual Tulsa Sound suspects and touring bands: Eric Clapton, J.J. Cale, George Harrison, The GAP Band, Leon Russell, Little Feat, Average White Band, Gary Busey, Jamie Oldaker and Carl Radle.
“Many, many more made memorable unannounced sit-in performances,” Duca said. “It was the unexpected drop-in appearances that made it all fun. You just never knew who would walk through the door on any given night.”
“It’s probably more like, who didn’t play there?” said Larry Moss’s wife Karena Hardt, whose father, Joseph Hardt, was one of the founders of Tulsa’s Oktoberfest.
In 1974, Tom Petty’s band Mudcrutch signed with Shelter Records, Leon Russell’s label. While in town, Petty found the Magician’s Theater but laid low. “Tom Petty used to lurk around, alone, in dark corners,” said Duca. “No one knew who he was at that time. It was presumed he was a narc, but he was actually in town cutting his first record at Shelter.”
“The times were completely different, you know?”
Karena Hardt said. “We were just coming out of the psychedelic times and the things that it was developing into were not just all love. I think people today can’t really understand it, but it wasn’t totally criminal or anything like that.”
“After Magician’s, that pretty much finished up my playing in nightclubs,” Moss said. “When I got done, I was done. I never got to be on the other side of the bar, none of us had. We had always been playing.”
“When Larry finally threw in the towel after about five or six months,” Duca said, “I was left holding a bag I had never intended. I was fortunate to meet Ron Harry, who took over security and box office operations. We instituted a zero tolerance policy toward violence. If you started trouble, you were forever banned. It worked. The policy was vigorously enforced.”
Duca’s crackdown on bad behavior prolonged the life of the Magician’s Theater. “Troublemakers were maced or stun-gunned and handcuffed to a pole in the alley to await pickup from the Tulsa Police Department and a night in jail. If they plead not guilty, our staff would testify to the facts of the incident at their trial. As a result, the police began to respect us. Most club owners just wanted to get the fights broken up by the cops and then would not cooperate further.
“We wound up with a nice, off-duty police clientele as a result. We took very good care of them and their presence kept the really twisted psychos away. We were only six blocks from the police station and courthouse, so we had a mix of attorneys and a few judges thrown in for good measure. It was an oasis watering hole where the lions and wildebeest coexisted peacefully.”
The Magician’s Theater may not have been a giant moneymaker, nor did it have a spotless reputation.
But the music was near unbeatable for a little club which will never be on the historical registry, though it likely would have, had the building remained.
“The original Magician’s Theater building was sold right out from under us in 1981,” Duca said of the end. “The new owner paid stupid money for it to build a daycare center. The old Magician’s format did not translate well to south Tulsa and lasted only a few months. The fundamentalist religionists, who had kept Oklahoma dry for so many years, were realizing that they were going to lose the next referendum and had decided to control the direction of legalized liquor by the drink with repressive taxation and regulation.
“I had had enough by that time and folded the tent on club ownership for good.”
Magician’s Theater had a lifespan of seven years, three more than Leon Russell’s Church Studio, which had some of the same customers.
“Moved to ill–fated South Peoria location in 1981. Closed after only a few months of operation there,” Duca wrote to me of the end days. “As time passes we tend to forget the petty hassles and focus on the good times. The backed-up toilets, the ancient air conditioning that fails just before opening on the hottest night of the year, the help that phones in sick on a big night— all gets forgotten in the end. What remains are the memories of those nights when the music hit such levels of cosmic greatness that my hair stood on end.”