The Magic Castle Conjures Up A New Black Lives Matter Response

Robert Ramirez, Magic Castle member who organized a protest at the venue, stands in front of it on Thursday, June 4, 2020. (Lexis-Olivier Ray for LAist)

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Amid nationwide protests against police brutality and racism, the Magic Castle has come under fire for offering its parking lot as a staging area for law enforcement. Last week, the legendary Hollywood restaurant and nightclub for magicians posted a response to the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests, sparking complaints from members.

The original statement expressed support for the protesters, while stating that the Magic Castle does not support violence.

"Many members didn't feel [it] took a strong enough of a stance on the issue, or failed to address the issue at hand — and, perhaps most egregiously, did not use the phrase 'Black Lives Matter,'" Magic Castle member and performer Dan Donohue told LAist.

"I think it might have been overly cautious — well-intentioned, but overly cautious," Erika Larsen, former Magic Castle board president and daughter of the venue's founder, told LAist.

Some members were unhappy that the venue offered the LAPD the option to use its parking lot.

The entrance to the Magic Castle's parking lot. (Lexis-Olivier Ray for LAist)

Members also expressed their unhappiness on social media after the Magic Castle Hotel, which is adjacent to but run separately from the club and restaurant, shared a photo showing National Guard members being given candy bars by a manager outside the hotel, early last week. The post has since been deleted. (The Magic Castle Hotel declined to comment for this story.)

Those concerns led to a small protest of around a dozen people outside the venue last Thursday.

The board of directors addressed the issues in a second public statement, issued Friday afternoon.

"At the outset of the demonstrations, it seemed that offering those groups the use of our empty parking lot would help ensure the safety of our building and the irreplaceable items inside, as well as the security of our neighbors. Subsequent actions brought that decision into question. It was interpreted by some as a statement of support for bad actions, which was never intended."

The board's new statement also explicitly stated "black lives matter" and included an offer to match donations by members to social justice organizations, up to a total of $50,000. Larsen said she was much happier with the board's second statement.

Protesters in front of the entrance to the Magic Castle on Thursday, June 4, 2020. (Lexis-Olivier Ray for LAist)

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That statement strikes a different tone than messages sent by the venue's general manager. Donohue said that he had complained to the Magic Castle via email after reading about the venue's offer to the LAPD in a private Facebook group for members. Joe Furlow, the venue's general manager, responded to him by defending the use of their property, according to messages Donohue shared.

"If staging first responders in our parking lot, which is centrally located to Hollywood Blvd., and near our neighbors behind us or in the Hollywood Hills, helps save a house or business from being ransacked, then it was worth it," Furlow wrote.

In the same message, Furlow expressed his disapproval of "looting [and] rioting" while noting that it was happening alongside peaceful protests over what he described as "the senseless murder of George Floyd and many others."

Magic Castle members and other community members gathered on Thursday to show their support for Black Lives Matter as protests across the city continued. (Lexis-Olivier Ray for LAist)

After Donohue shared Furlow's response on social media, Furlow threatened legal action — a response that Donohue also shared publicly.

Prior to the board's original statement, Donohue had sent an email to the Magic Castle's board of directors expressing his thoughts:

"I'm concerned about the Castle. I love the Castle. If a police officer stationed at the Castle parking lot attacked or killed a peaceful protester or journalist, it seems to me that that would be severely more harmful to the Castle's long-term reputation and business plan than would looting," Donohue wrote in that email. "The Castle should be staging magic tricks, not tanks."

Outside the Magic Castle Hotel. (Lexis-Olivier Ray for LAist)

Larsen defended the character of the hotel's manager, Darren Ross, describing him as "a real humanitarian." She said he went down to the corner near the venue to give snacks to the National Guard and tell them about the Magic Castle.

"And then he took a picture. And now he realizes yeah, that was bad — that was bad optics," Larsen said.

She said that the photo was taken before police had responded with brutality to protesters, and happened while looting was being seen around Hollywood.

The whole experience has shifted how the board and members are thinking, according to Larsen.

"I think before, there was this attitude of, 'We're a magic club. We like to talk about magic, we're not going to talk about that,'" Larsen said. "But since this put us in the middle of it, it began a discussion among members, and I think that's been very healthy."

A neighbor outside a modest protest at the Magic Castle asks protesters to move down the sidewalk on Thursday, June 4, 2020. She said that it's been difficult with so many protests passing through the Hollywood area. (Lexis-Olivier Ray for LAist)

Opened in 1962, the Magic Castle, located near Hollywood and Highland, isn't a typical restaurant or performance space. It's technically a private club and you have to be a member — or know someone who is — to get in.

Magic has a problematic history, several members noted.

"Taking a stand in supporting Black Lives Matter, and in supporting diversity in an artform that has a troubled past, doesn't cost anything, and the people that it will offend should think about why they're offended," working magician and member Michael Gutenplan told LAist.

Working magician/member Aiden Sinclair told LAist that he's been pushing for diversity, and said that he'd heard another member describe it as "when you become a member, you buy into white privilege, because that's what a private club is."

While magic is popular internationally, it hasn't taken as much of a foothold among diverse communities in the United States, according to Larsen. Donohue pointed to statements from two magic retailers last week that addressed the historical racism within magic, as well as other problematic issues that persist.

The Magic Castle itself, in its second statement, also referenced these concerns.

"We admit our own past shortcomings in this area," the statement read. "We will work steadfastly for a more diverse and inclusive club in our membership, our performers, our staff, and our outreach."

Larsen hopes the controversy can lead to further discussions between the Magic Castle and the LAPD, and noted the venue had always had a good relationship with law enforcement.

She's also hoping to be able to improve relationships with the black community.

"The art of magic has never been a big part of the African American community," Larsen said. "I would love to be able to offer access to information about magic to any kids who want to learn it. And this is not us giving to them, this is them giving to us."

In a comment on the Magic Castle's members only page, Larsen added, "Just as other art forms have been greatly influenced by African Americans, I look forward to the art of magic being the recipient of the same profound impact."

This story includes contributions from Lexis-Olivier Ray. The story has been updated.