How L.A.'s Female Magicians Are Making the Glass Ceiling Disappear
Kayla Drescher became obsessed with magic at age 7.
With its top hats and mustaches and sexy, sliced-up assistants, the world of magic is, unsurprisingly, male-dominated. All the famous magicians that come to mind — Copperfield, Blaine, Houdini, Penn & Teller — are men. Most of the unfamous ones are, too.
At the Magic Castle, Hollywood's iconic, members-only mansion of mystery, around 93 percent of the Academy of Magical Arts' magician-level members are male.
That statistic is one of myriad facts about the Academy of Magical Arts and magic history that 25-year-old Angela Sanchez can pull from her memory as quickly and effortlessly as she makes a bright yellow silk scarf appear out of thin air.
Sanchez is one of the women who make up 7 percent of AMA's magician-level members. She's also a magic historian — her undergraduate thesis at UCLA explored the history of women in magic in depth — and a co-founder of the Women Magicians Association. On Oct. 1, she'll serve as emcee for the Women Magicians Association's latest group magic show at Jen Hitchcock's whimsical Book Show store in Highland Park.
As a little girl, Sanchez was enthralled by the magic tricks her hobbyist father performed for her and was obsessed with the old-world magicians she read about in his collection of magic-history books. She was especially entranced by Adelaide Herrmann, the 19th-century "Queen of Magic," whose promotion from assistant to magician followed the tragic death of her husband, Alexander.
"You really feel for Adelaide," Sanchez says, recalling the photos in her father's book. "You can see how grief-stricken she was. She was also a badass. Her husband died, and she still went on with the show. A giant fire burned all her props and some of her animals, and she still continued. She was the Queen of Magic! That's cool. That's inspiring. Who doesn't want to be like that?"
In January 2014, the Academy of Magical Arts invited Sanchez to present her thesis research on women in magic at the Castle. One of the female magician members in the audience, Lituo Huang, approached Sanchez after the presentation with an idea: There were a lot of women in the audience — maybe they'd be interested in getting together as a group?
Sanchez and Huang gathered names and emails on a sign-up sheet they passed around, and Huang created a Facebook group. The group is now 60 strong, and 10 to 20 members attend monthly meetings.
The Women Magicians Association isn't technically affiliated with the Academy of Magical Arts, but all of its members are magician-level members at the Castle and the AMA allows them to reserve one of its rooms for monthly meetings.
At the meetings, the women practice their "not ready for primetime" magic effects and give one another feedback. They help members with the technical aspects of their craft in a safe, supportive environment and encourage one another to perform. One member, a costume designer, even offers logistical support in the form of costume tailoring.
For 65-year-old retiree and WMA member Dawna Lee (real name Donna Furon), the monthly meetings and the friendships that have sprung from them have been transformative. "This group has done a number of things for me," she says. "The gathering together of women is an extraordinary thing. For me, personally, it has forced me to practice. I'm doing better at magic, and I'm more comfortable wandering into the Castle on my own."
The Women Magicians Association is not the first magic club Sanchez founded. A self-described magic nerd since childhood, she has created outlets to explore her passion at every stage of life. As a high schooler in Glendale, Sanchez co-founded Herbert Hoover High School's first magic club. A few years later, she did the same as an undergraduate at UCLA.
Even in the clubs she founded, Sanchez was always in the minority in terms of gender. "In the groups I founded," she says, "boys were always the co-founders with me. I was always the chick."
Growing up in Connecticut, magician Kayla Drescher had a similar experience. She became obsessed with magic when a random bathroom stop on a family road trip took her into a magic store.
"The only place with an open restroom was a magic shop," she recalls. "I was 7, and the guy behind the counter cut a piece of rope in half and then put it back together. Something clicked in my brain."
Drescher got serious. She convinced her parents to let her start taking lessons from the man who cut the rope in order to prepare for her second-grade talent show. Soon, she was asking her dad to drive her to a town an hour away to attend monthly Society of Young Magicians meetings.
"I was the only girl," Drescher recalls. "The first day I walked in, a small group of boys told me, 'You should leave. Girls don't do magic.'?" She laughs. "I had this personality where that stuff never affected me. I just didn't care, so I stayed. Slowly, over time, more girls came. But it was never an equal number. At most there were three girls to 50 boys."
Drescher is now a full-time magician, and one of the featured performers at the WMA's Oct. 1 show. In college, she earned a degree in environmental science and got a job right out of school. But she realized on her first day at work that she was not cut out for the career she had planned in green energy.
"On my very first day at that job, I knew I couldn't do it," she recalls. "It just was not for me. I couldn't sit behind a desk. So a couple months later I quit and started bartending."
Drescher honed her craft as a magician behind the bar at a Marriott hotel in Boston. A "cool" manager let her put on magic shows when business was slow.
"I would bring cards and rubber bands and stuff, but for the most part, I did magic with things from behind the bar," she explains. "I was doing things with olives and lemons and cherries and money and bottle caps. I could magically produce a beer or use a napkin as a handkerchief."
Soon, bar customers became clients, flying Drescher to Vegas to do corporate events or entertain guests at trade shows. She made a website and branded her product as "Magic in Heels," eventually moving to Las Vegas and then, last year, to Los Angeles.
As a professional magician, Drescher has come across her share of sexism in the workplace. "I find that at magic gatherings and conventions, guys don't know how to treat women," she says. "It can be very invasive and wrong, like, on the level of assault.
"It's the world we live in, and definitely not specific to the magic community," she adds. "How many times do we see videos on Facebook of girls just walking down the street in a T-shirt and jeans getting cat-called? Magic is such a wonderfully supportive and fantastic, loving community, so it is frustrating to go into a place where you feel like you belong and have somebody telling you that you don't or that you're only good for these things."
Sanchez looks at the sexism in magic from a historical perspective. "Being a magician means being privy to information that your audience doesn't necessarily have," she explains. "Information equals power, and women in power have always been threatening to a patriarchal society.
"It's no coincidence that the trope of women as male magicians' assistants came about at the same time that women got the right to vote," she says. "The original inventor of sawing women in half created that illusion a year after women gained suffrage in the U.K." As women found political power, male magicians literally put them in boxes and exerted control over their bodies.
"Is there sexism behind some of the illusions in magic?" Sanchez asks. "Yes, that's undeniable. Do women in our group sometimes bump into cases where they experience sexism? Yeah, we do. But does that define our community? Absolutely not.
"When magic kits are packaged and sold to little kids, they're usually marketed toward boys," she adds. "But my dad bought me magic stuff."
Book Show owner/magic fan Hitchcock agrees with Sanchez: Girls love magic just as much as boys.
Sanchez is sure that more women will get into magic when there's more representation and more visibility.
On Oct. 1, Drescher and her co-performers will take the stage at Book Show, actively increasing that visibility. Along with Hitchcock as host, Sanchez as MC, Dawna Lee and the rest of the WMA as supportive community — and Adelaide Herrmann providing mystical inspiration from beyond the grave — they'll perform one of their most impressive tricks: making the glass ceiling disappear.
WOMEN MAGICIANS ASSOCIATION | Book Show, 5503 N. Figueroa St., Highland Park | Sat., Oct. 1, 8-10 p.m. | $10 | facebook.com/events/521367604719653
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