What is up at the Magic Castle?

Discuss the latest news and rumors in the magic world.

Postby Joe M. Turner » 09/22/02 01:30 PM

For me, a person raised on the other side of the continent from the Magic Castle, and who has not yed had the good fortune to visit there even once, the place exists almost as an entirely mythical ideal.

Sadly, my mythical ideal has been deterioriating over the last decade or so due to persistent grumbling and rumors. Tony Giorgio's and Bruce Sandercock's posts to various mailing lists regarding his lawsuits first garnered attention, then curiosity, then weary apathy from many of those who read them... eventually leading many, rightly or wrongly, to write off the whole thing as the ramblings of some crotchety, disgruntled old goat.

Recently, John Carney's resignation raised issues again and started to give a little more credibility to the other complaints about the institution. And in the most recent issue of The Mandala, the travails of Glenn Falkenstein and Frances Willard are displayed in all their glory.

I'm not a member of the Castle, I've never even visited, and so I really suppose that it would be hard to argue with any member or officer who told me to shut up because it was none of my business. But there seem to be more and more credible complaints about the organization and some of its practices -- and if even a fraction of what Willard & Falkenstein claim is actually true, I'm surprised that the members allow it to continue.

Would any of the members here care to enlighten this curious bystander on your own experiences regarding the topics raised by Giorgio, Carney, and Willard? For those of us watching from the outside, it looks like the dirty laundry is really piling up down on Franklin Avenue.

What is going on?

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Postby Bill Duncan » 09/23/02 09:46 AM

Originally posted by RoniPres:
...don't waste our time with another fight.
I didn't get the sense that Joe was spoiling for a fight, only that he was interested in what was really going on at the Castle.

I too would like to know what's up.? I have always wanted to visit but the one time I was in town I was unable to make the trip.

When people I like and respect like Max Maven and John Carney express concern I take that seriously. But I don't have a personal relationship with either gentleman so I can't just call them on the phone and ask what's going on.

It would be nice to see a terse but unemotional review of what the claims and complaints are...
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Postby Brian Morton » 09/23/02 10:15 AM

Bill Duncan wrote:
It would be nice to see a terse but unemotional review of what the claims and complaints are...
I posted a number of very valid questions back in May that never got answered. Despite the simplicity of the questions, the only response I heard on this board was: people apparently like things the way they are. You don't have enough votes, therefore your issues aren't relevant. Let's have a discussion about something else.

If you'd like to see the questions I asked, here's the link.

brian :confused:
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Postby Joe M. Turner » 09/23/02 11:59 AM

I'm sorry to irritate an old wound. Sometimes it can be hard to rally votes. I can't imagine that it would take many more Mavens and Carneys and Willards to get people mobilized, though. It seems like a new credible voice is coming through every six months or so. Perhaps one day, one of those voices will be charismatic enough to counter the apathy that appears to exist in the voter base.


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Postby Dustin Stinett » 09/23/02 01:33 PM


I'm quite certain that Joe Turner is not looking for a fight. He's looking for answers to legitimate questions, as are the others in this thread. If you feel that such discussions are a waste of your time, I would recommend not reading them. No one here is forcing you into which threads to read. Any time wasting is your doing, not anyone else's. The following is a very long post – so I recommend that you leave it now.


Your questions, as I said above, are indeed legitimate but perhaps only for an AMA member, which is why, I suspect, no one has answered them for you here. I say “perhaps” because I have mixed feelings on this issue. It's a double-edged sword: it's AMA business, and no one else's. But, you should be an AMA member, but obviously you have concerns that should be addressed before you consider joining. It's also obvious that you are not the only person wondering just what the heck is going on. It is, and always has been, my personal opinion that all serious magicians should be members of the Academy of Magical Arts. It's our academy. But there needs to be reasons, other than “I'm a magician,” to join the AMA. There must be a value, and that value is being questioned.

I cannot pretend to know all the answers. Like many I only know what I have been told by only a handful of people (a few directly involved – including Board members – and a few others indirectly so) and what I have been able to take from what I have read and personally seen. The bottom line is this, however: there are very few real answers. There are mostly opinion, rumors, accusations and innuendo.

The problems at the Magic Castle really began after Bill Larsen died. Bill Larsen was a master at resolving problems via his relationships. When a problem came up, he and/or Jean Cantor, his personal assistant (and a very wonder and smart lady), could pick up the phone and fix it. I am of the belief that none of the issues facing the Castle today would have come about – or reached the levels they have reached – had Bill and Jean still been with us. Some would ask, “what about Milt?” Milt is, and always has been (and probably always will be) the “hammer & nails” guy. He built the place while Bill ran it. It was a perfect synchronicity of talents. This is not to say that Milt doesn't have any “relationship” based ties and abilities, but it's nothing like what his brother had.

There are two separate issues that have somehow become interweaved, with the Board of Directors (a body elected by we the membership) being cast as the “bad guys” in both. The first issue has to do with how the Castle is run and the treatment of the members.

It first needs to be understood that the AMA and the Magic Castle are two separate entities that share a common bond – the members. The AMA is a not for profit organization while the Castle is a for profit business. Neither one can live without the other. Without the money generated by the Castle, the AMA would be too cost prohibitive to the majority of its members, and without its members, the Castle would be just a restaurant, because what it pays its performers, no one (no one good, anyway) would work there with any regularity.

After Bill Larsen passed away, and with the economy in the shape it was in at the time, the Magic Castle fell into deep financial difficulty. To this day there are members that simply do not grasp just how close the Magic Castle was to complete failure. The membership voted in a group of very business savvy men into the board of directors. They promised to save the place and they delivered. Many of their policies and decisions have come under some ridicule as of late. Today the Castle is facing the same economic issues that face most businesses today. This slowdown has resulted in the most recent dues increase that has raised even more contention among the rank and file.

The primary complaint is that the Castle business has become more important to the current BOD (which still has a core group of those that saved the establishment back in the early 90s) than the AMA members. Some feel that the BOD is turning the Castle into a restaurant that has magic as its theme. Examples of this are well documented through John Carney's letter and also through some of Max Maven's comments during his campaign to become a member of the BOD. Of course the BOD cries foul whenever these complaints come up. Not about the individual issues – they have admitted where they feel they may have been wrong or where a problem exists, and they answered and/or addressed them (but, of course, not always to the satisfaction of those doing the complaining) – but they cry foul when they are accused of not caring about the members or the performers. The BOD has to play a very precarious balancing act: the Castle is a business that must remain profitable, but the Castle would not be there at all if it were not for the members and those that agree to perform there for an entire week for less money then they can make in a day in some cases. As I am not a performer and cannot relate to what they experience during an engagement at the Castle, I personally cannot address the complaints made by some of them. But it should be obvious to anyone – including the BOD – that these performers should be treated with the utmost of respect and receive as many “perks” as possible during their engagement.

Some of the complaints of the rank and file members have been addressed and successfully so. There have been more magic oriented events (the Doug Henning film night, the Carl Ballantine night and the Strolling Olympics for example), which was a bone of contention that came up when “Monday Night Football Night” was tried. The Castle continues to provide quality lectures and of course the library remains for me the single most valuable perk of AMA membership – as it has been since the day I joined.

The most contentious issue not resolved is that of the dues increase. First of all, the dues have only been raised a couple of times in my 21 years as a member. I find that a pretty good track record. However, there are some cost cutting measures that have been suggested that I think are legitimate and should be considered. One example is the monthly newsletter. I wish to continue receiving it, but the cost associated with it seems to be outrageous. Does it really need to have a two-color cover? I know color is cheaper these days, but black & white only is cheaper still. And the paper it is printed on is ridiculous. The Castle newsletter is not The National Geographic and it certainly does not need to be printed on paper that is as heavy as The Geographic's cover! I say let's go back to the days of plain bond paper that is folded and mailed. Why do we need it in an envelope? That is just another unnecessary cost that we continue to absorb.

The dues increase is also where the member issues begin to blend in with the second primary area of concern facing the Magic Castle and the AMA. The lawsuit brought by Tony Giorgio against the Castle, its BOD and Milt Larsen.

Without question, this is the darkest cloud to hang over the Castle in my 21 years, if not ever in its history. On top of all of the allegations brought by Tony came the rumors, innuendo, and most of the contention that haunts the entire organization. But the saddest part of this whole mess is the simple fact that it all could have been avoided with a conversation that would have lasted fewer than five minutes.

Tony Giorgio was accused of cursing at a supposedly belligerent and/or drunk audience member during a performance. Instead of him being told, “Tony, if it happened, don't let it happen again, okay? If it didn't, we're sorry it came up, and besides, we got rid of the jerk. Now go back to work and have a good show,” his engagement was cancelled and his membership subsequently terminated. Now this single event was not the only cause of these results; subsequent events led up to them, but the root that started weed growing was this single event, and its details are still argued. But the fact remains; it is the flashpoint of the trouble.

Did Tony do it? I don't know, and I don't believe it matters. The situation was handled incorrectly and a respected performer and original AMA member was insulted and humiliated and he sought satisfaction the only way he felt he could. And hence we arrive at another area where the two main issues converge: whose word does the BOD respect more? Do they accept the word of an allegedly drunk/belligerent patron (there to spend the almighty dollar so coveted by the BOD – if you believe the rhetoric), or that of long standing member and performer? The fact that the BOD ultimately landed inside of a courtroom appears to answer that question, and supports the negative position that many people have with some members of the BOD and how they conduct themselves. Simply put, personal egos – on both sides – cost the AMA a tremendous amount of money, and it never should have happened.

The lawsuit in which all of the defendants prevailed in a court of law, nonetheless brought forth questions regarding the finances of the Castle that, to these analyst's eyes, have not been fully answered. The financial sheet passed out at the last meeting I attended was top-line. The lack of detail was noticeable, at least to me – but I am not an accountant, I am a business analyst who works with minute details. I am certain that the BOD met their legal requirements as to what it is obligated to share with its membership. But, there sits another point of contention: where is all that money really going?

One periphery event that has occurred as a result of this entire mess (weeds beget weeds) is the situation involving Glenn Falkenstein and now Francis Willard-Falkenstein.

Glenn, while a member of the BOD, was accused of sharing confidential email with Tony during the opening throws of the lawsuit. As a result, he was asked to resign his BOD position (he didn't – but he also no longer attended BOD meetings, so for all intents and purposes, he was off the BOD). Glenn recently resigned his life membership to the AMA. Because Francis was attached to his membership as his designated “spouse-member,” when he resigned, her membership was terminated along with his. When it took this action the BOD was acting well within the boundaries of the by-laws of the AMA, but the question now is should have they taken that action, or was there another way of handling it so Francis, who was in no way involved in Glenn's alleged actions, could have remained a member? The pot continues to boil over this issue. Again, the issues collide – The Giorgio lawsuit and the treatment of AMA members.

So did Glenn do it? Apparently he did, but only in the hope of defusing Giorgio's lawsuit. Glenn Falkenstein doesn't know me from Adam, but I have had many conversations with him over the years and I can say this with all confidence; Glenn Falkenstein is one of the nicest, sweetest human beings I have ever met, and if he says that is why he shared something with Tony, then that's why he did it.

I love the Magic Castle and the AMA. By posting this in a public forum I may have placed a knife to my own membership jugular, but it is my love for the Castle that I chose to do it. Everything I have written is true to the best of my knowledge. I have only told some of what I know and only that which I can document or have backed up. There is a lot more, but it is unsubstantiated – as are so many of the accusations that are flying about the Castle these days. I have always believed that the entire story should be told and told publicly. Rumors run unchecked when the truth is squelched. Sometimes we don't like to hear the truth, but it is the only thing that can cleans the wounds caused by contentious and mean-spirited accusations.

If the Magic Castle expects to continue and keep its current and gain new members, then it (the BOD and the membership) need to show not only the current generation that are not members, but future generations as well, that membership in the AMA is desirable and a benefit to their growth as a magician, whatever their interests are in respect to the many aspects of the art. Right now, I do not see how the AMA can say that to anyone. Unless we/they are willing to air out and clean the “dirty laundry,” then the Castle will just fade away in significance.

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Postby Scott » 09/23/02 04:56 PM

Thanks! Probably one of the most well written, unemotional, unbiased explanations I have ever read in the magic community.

Thanks for taking the time to do that. Very educational and interesting to read.
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Postby Bill Duncan » 09/23/02 07:23 PM

Thank you so much for taking the time (and possible risk) to illuminate this issue.
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Postby Joe M. Turner » 09/24/02 05:43 AM


That is exactly what I was looking for. I was really uninformed on the basic issues in contention, and you have expended significant effort to educate me. I really appreciate it.

I agree with you... I think I should be a member -- in better circumstances. I wish I could say that the AMA/Castle issues had not dissuaded me from joining, but they have in fact been a major factor in my reticence. For someone who lives on the other side of the country from the Castle, membership perks really don't carry a lot of weight. I don't travel to Los Angeles frequently and my primary membership benefit would be the prestige of being a member. Unfortunately, that prestige is not what it used to be. I hope that one day soon it will regain its previous value.

Thanks again for the effort you put into helping me understand.

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