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Home / Joe Furlow

LA magicians conjure change at the Magic Castle

For nearly 60 years, The Magic Castle has served as a Mecca of magicians, both in Southern California, and around the world. But this abracadabra boy’s club also conjured a toxic culture of misogyny, homophobia, and racism.  So Mike Ciriaco met up with a diverse cross section of SoCal’s magic community to discuss the challenges they’ve faced, and how they are making professional magic more inclusive.

Originally the private Hollywood residence of the affluent Lane family, in 1963 the estate was converted into the Magic Castle we know today. It serves as the headquarters for the Academy of Magical Arts, which boasts a roster of approximately 5000 members across the globe. According to Angela Sanchez, a professional magician and magic historian, Southern California’s ascent as the epicenter of eldritch entertainment traces back to Dai Vernon, a venerated magician notable for tricking even the great Harry Houdini.

“Dai Vernon’s title was the professor,” Sanchez said, “and what he did for card magic was basically what Shakespeare did for poetry. To have him come here and say ‘I’m going to retire in Southern California and I’m just going to spend all my days at the Magic Castle,’ that actually was a game changer for the membership at the Academy of Arts. Because that attracted a lot of young and up-and-coming magicians to come here, get their membership, and want to spend time with The Professor.”

Despite the success of this Hocus Pocus community on stage, behind the curtains lurked a shadowy specter of toxic behavior. In December 2020, an LA Times exposé shed light on a culture of bigotry within the Castle, that included sexual assault, sexual harassment, and racism. Although Sanchez hasn’t personally experienced sexism within the Castle itself, she admits misogyny is a problem within magic’s audience base.

“I would say that instances of sexism that I’ve personally experienced has actually come from laymen, meaning people who are not magicians,” Sanchez explained. “And that has to do with the public image of what a magician is supposed to look like. Most people when they think of a magician, they think of a white dude in coat and tails, and he’s using sawing a woman in half, or lighting her on fire. That does need to change.”

Another change that’s needed in the magic community is addressing homophobia. To Michael Gutenplan, a third generation psychic and openly gay magician, this prejudice stems from the heteronormative nature of the field.

“The joke that I make is, for a world full of sequins and glitter, there’s a lot of straight people,” Gutenplan laughed. “I think a lot of the homophobia comes from the insecurities of being in a male-dominated world. Think of it like being in a ‘magic fraternity.’ Its mostly older men at the top and younger guys following in their footsteps. Sometimes the gay joke is something that guys do together.”

More overt than this homophobia is a pattern of racism at the Magic Castle, which according to the aforementioned LA Times article, included members liberally using the N-word. Ice McDonald, a veteran Magic Castle magician with 40 years of experience, knows first hand how ingrained racist vernacular is in this field. 

“Some people thought it was okay to say that as long as they wasn’t saying it to me,” admitted McDonald. “Two guys will be talking at the bar talking about N-word this and N-word that. I heard that a lot. Someone came up to me like ‘We like you and everything, but we want to know if this joke is racist.’ And I said, ‘First of all, if you have to ask somebody if the joke is racist then it’s pretty racist.'”

In response to the allegations in the LA Times article, the Magic Castle has established a Diversity and Inclusion Committee, in which McDonald serves as Chairman. 

“We are an advisory committee to the board of directors,” said McDonald. “We come up with solutions to create a stronger and better atmosphere and a more inclusive Academy, as well as Magic Castle. You must understand, with this being a new diversity and inclusion committee, this is new to the castle. So everyone’s not aware of what that means.”

While the formation of this committee is well intentioned, McDonald’s details of it were vague and its effectiveness is still questionable. More tangibly beneficial is creating safe spaces for minority magicians, as Sanchez did when she co-founded the Women’s Magician Association in 2014.  

“For our AMA community, it really means a lot to be able to have a space for women magicians to come together and be able to share feedback with one another in a space where gender is not the thing that you feel you’re being judged on,” said Sanchez. “So gender becomes a non-issue when we’re all women or, more broadly, when we’re all gender diverse.”

Arguably the biggest change at the Magic Castle was the resignation of former general manager Joe Furlow, who had been accused of fermenting a toxic work environment. He has since been replaced by Hervé Lévy, an openly gay man who has been working in the nightlife and hospitality industries since he was a teenager. Since taking over as the Castle’s GM in 2021, Hervé has implemented a zero tolerance policy towards discrimination.

“There’s no doubt we have no room for sexism here,” said Lévy. “We want to make sure that everybody is able to communicate with us. As soon as we hear any complaints, we just want to talk to everyone involved.”

While Hérve’s tenure as GM has been brief, it has already proven effective. Since the time of these interviews, the review process resulted in a three month suspension for one of these members, and the termination of another. Obviously these two acts of discipline won’t fix decades of bigotry and bias, but holding magicians accountable for their actions is a much needed step in the right direction towards making the Magic Castle, and the field of magic in general, a safer space for Southern California.   

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