Debating L.A. polling places: Magic Castle or Dodger Stadium?

I haven’t voted yet. I have to admit, I’m still undecided.

Not about how I will vote in this pivotal election but about where I will vote, and about the butterfly effect that my one tiny choice could potentially have on the outcome.

Would it be a home run if I voted looking out over the diamond from the top deck of Dodger Stadium? Would it do the trick if I put my cards on the table at the Magic Castle?

Should I vote with the safe future of this city I love foremost in my mind by performing my sacred civic duty at one of these sacred spots? Or maybe another might be more auspicious. The Hollywood Bowl? Union Station? The Palladium?

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla checks out a voting booth on display at Dodger Stadium.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla checks out a voting booth on display during a tour of the Dodger Stadium Vote Center.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

I could go farther afield and stand up in defense of our stalwart service women and men by voting at the War Memorial Building in South Pasadena.

I could even opt to ferry across the blue Pacific to do the deed in the ballroom of the Catalina Casino. Would that strike a helpful note of hope, to vote where others have jitterbugged and foxtrotted many a dark night away?

Those of us who live in Los Angeles County can now vote at any of the county’s vote centers. At last check, there were 765 of them. Some will be open starting Oct. 24, most starting Oct. 30. And among them — beyond the usual schools and recreation and community centers — are many of our region’s most beloved gathering sites, where no gathering lately has been possible.

Had we had no pandemic, Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre would have been packed now, in the thick of a long run of “Hamilton.” But the theater had to close eight hours before the first performance of the show’s second stay in our city, said its general manager, Jeff Loeb. Eager to do some civic good, the Pantages has been using its lobby for monthly blood drives. Loeb offered it up as a vote center after someone on a national theater task force he is on said it would be great if as many theaters as possible nationwide became polling places.

The Pantages perfectly fit the bill when the county was scrambling for spaces big enough to be safe in the middle of a health crisis for in-person voting.

“I like to say that since we can’t celebrate the founding of our democracy on stage, we are lucky to be able to actually support democracy through voting in our lobby,” Loeb told me.

“And we’d like to think that our grand lobby will provide one of the most gorgeous backdrops in all of L.A. County for people to exercise their civic duty.”

The Pantages is a five-minute walk from my house. And with its chandeliers and its 65-foot-high ceilings, it certainly offers an extraordinary upgrade from the drab retirement-home rec room where I used to have to go on election day, back when in-person voting happened on one day only and at one assigned site per voter.

I’m hardly alone in being obsessive lately about making sure my vote counts — given the daily threats being made to the sanctity of the process and a collective dread of what would happen if the outcome of our presidential election is murky or unaccepted by one side or leads some to rage and violence.

People stand outside the Pantages Theatre

People arrive for the preview performance of “Hamilton” at the Pantages Theatre on Aug. 11, 2017.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

We’re much luckier in our voting options than many a state. Since all 21 million of us Californians got ballots in the mail, I don’t really have to go to any vote center at all.

Still, I’m nervous, given all the recent mucking about with the U.S. Postal Service, about putting my ballot, even early, in a mailbox. At first, I thought I’d instead slip it in the slot of a drop box — not any old box someone puts outside somewhere with a sign taped on the front but one of the 400 bolted-down official ones that can be found, among other places, outside all of our libraries, in many of our parks and at some transit stations (including the Gold Line station at Mariachi Plaza, perhaps a good place to cast a vote in favor of humane immigration policies).

The drop boxes are emptied regularly by election workers. And we can all track our ballots, whether mailed or dropped off, by signing up online through the secretary of state’s office.

A lot of people are taking selfies at the drop boxes. I would have been one of them too by now — before I learned about other choices.

A couple in a wide-open room with wood floors and high beamed ceilings

The Mountain Mermaid’s Bill Buerge and Gail McDonald-Tune will host an L.A. County polling place in the great room of the 7,000-square-foot home.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Before I learned, for instance, that I could drive out to Topanga and vote at a place called the Mountain Mermaid, whose rich history, recounted to me by its owner Bill Buerge, could cover a lot of different voting moods. Buerge told me that the 1930 building started life as a country club but later became one of gangster Mickey Cohen’s gambling dens (prostitutes upstairs, slot machines and gaming tables in the basement) and then a gay bar called the Canyon Club, run by an ex-vice cop. Men could slow dance at that bar at a time when doing so could lead to arrests — but Black people apparently were not welcome, Buerge said.

The building was practically falling in on itself when he bought it 30 years ago, with horse manure on the floor and almost no plaster on the walls, he told me. “People were afraid to be in there. The slightest tremor would have taken it down.”

The Mountain Mermaid's Bill Buerge looks at a monarch butterfly in his butterfly house.

The Mountain Mermaid’s Bill Buerge looks at a monarch butterfly in his butterfly house in Topanga Canyon. Buerge may offer tours of the butterfly house for voters.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Buerge turned it into a friendly, all-welcoming place, popular for filming and weddings and overnight stays, with a lush garden full of native plants and fountains that is a waystation for monarch butterflies and a wildlife habitat certified by the National Wildlife Federation. Those who come there, he said, will vote in the Mermaid’s great room, with hardwood floors, a big fireplace, a grand staircase and arched windows looking out on greenery and mountains.

As they do, they might think of the building’s history and the need to fight for justice for all. Or they might just think of rolling the dice and placing a bet where lots of bets have been placed. Or they might focus on protecting the environment. He’ll even open his butterfly house, he said, for post-voting enjoyment.

Buerge told me he’s going to need to move a fair amount of furniture to get the place ready for voters — a lot of chairs and antiques, a Monterey table and another table converted from a 1920s hydraulic hospital gurney. But “I’m very happy to make the contribution,” he said.

When I asked him what this election meant to him, he said, “Everything. It’s huge. I think the future of American democracy is at stake.”

 Interior of the Magic Castle in Hollywood.

Angelenos will be able to cast votes this year from the Magic Castle in Hollywood.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

I worry about that myself these days — which led me to another possibly promising place to vote: the Magic Castle, much closer to my home.

Joe Furlow, general manager of the Academy of Magical Arts, the association to which all the club’s members belong, tried to tamp down my expectations. “There’s not going to be any magic, you know,” he said. “It’s just a polling place.” And voters who come won’t be able to enter through the “Open Sesame” door or walk past the Palace of Mystery or the Parlor of Prestidigitation.

Still, in the castle’s Inner Circle, which they’ll enter through a side door, they’ll see display-case homages to famed magicians: Mark Wilson and his assistant, wife Nani Darnell, who introduced a national television audience to magic with “The Magic Land of Allakazam,” and Cardini, “probably the world’s best card manipulator of his time.”

Furlow told me that the club, which in the pandemic went from 198 employees to nine, and now is hosting virtual magic shows and offering its beef Wellington and prime rib to go, wanted to do right by Hollywood and the city and so gladly agreed to be a vote center. Like the blood drives it has also been hosting, it wasn’t about anything more than doing the right thing. Still, he’ll be thrilled, he said, if people come out to vote in order to see inside the castle. “I think all the voters are going to create the real magic this year.”

Loeb from the Pantages expressed much the same sentiment — and said he thought using landmark locations in the city would help.

“There’s an energy, I think, in any of these older spaces — be it the Magic Castle, be it the Palladium, be it Dodger Stadium, be it the Hollywood Bowl — where thousands of people have gathered to witness great sporting events, great concerts, great theater, and the energy that accompanies those moments still lingers in all of those spaces,” he told me.

Right now that’s fitting, he said. “This is the national stage. You’re no longer voting in your neighbor’s garage.”

Oh and one more thing he told me, which may make me head to the theater. Those who do will get a special “I voted” sticker, paying homage to the show that can’t be shown there right now.

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