Magic Castle Trial: ‘America’s Got Talent’ Magician Charged With Revealing Secrets

On the East Coast, all eyes are on Donald Trump and his criminal trial over alleged hush-money payments made to porn actress Stormy Daniels and others.

And on the West Coast, another hearing is happening. Yet it, too, involves a beautiful, blond woman and a charismatic showman with a penchant for pulling the wool over people’s eyes.

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But this tribunal is unfolding within the insular walls of the Magic Castle — the legendary private club for magicians set inside a foreboding Victorian mansion, formerly a private residence, perched upon a Hollywood hilltop and established in 1963.

The defendant is Murray the Magician, aka Murray Sawchuck, a veteran stage illusionist and comedian who for years has held a residency at the Tropicana in Las Vegas. (The Tropicana shuttered April 2 and is expected to be demolished later this year — but Murray will be touring the world with his act until he installs himself at a new home on the Strip.)

An affable 50-year-old with a platinum blond pom-pom for a hairdo and a thick Canadian accent — he hails from Burnaby, British Columbia — Sawchuck offers no outward clues that he could ever stand accused of being a dark arts felon.

But Murray also has a P.T. Barnum-esque knack for publicity.

He was quick to notice the power of reality TV and found ways to harness it — first on an episode of Blind Date, where he impressed his date with tricks; then as the resident magic historian on Pawn Stars; and later advancing to the semifinals on America’s Got Talent in 2010.

He adapted swiftly amid the rise of YouTube and social media, churning out hundreds of sticky videos in which he pranked cops and security guards with magic, or gifted a homeless person with $1 that turned into $100.

“We did billions of views on that,” says Sawchuck, who amassed an audience of 1.8 million subscribers on the platform.

The troubles began in late January, when he and his showgirl wife, Dani, cooked up a new video, inspired by the bickering of Lucy and Desi Arnaz, in which he’d perform a series of tricks for the camera — mostly basic illusions one could purchase off of Amazon. She, playing the role of unimpressed wife, reveals how they’re done.

A bouquet of flowers, for example, is shown to be sucked into the base of the trick table on which it stands. A sword-swallowing act is rendered all the less impressive when she flicks the blade — and it coils up like a measuring tape. The whole thing took 10 minutes to make. Then they posted it to YouTube.

“About five hours later, my video producer calls me and goes, ‘It’s up to 2 million views.’ I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,'” he says. “We were shocked.” The videos went on to rack up 65 million views — by far the most popular videos ever posted to his channel.

The comments started piling up, too — 20,000 in all. Most were positive. But a minority, from a faction of outraged magicians from around the world, were decidedly not. They lambasted Sawchuck for breaking the cardinal rule of magic: Never reveal the secret to a trick.

Then on March 5 came a letter, printed on The Academy of Magical Arts stationery, as if issued from the Hogwart’s Dean of Admissions Office itself:

“Dear Mr. Sawchuck,” it read. “You have been suspended pending an investigation by the Committee of Member Conduct regarding complaints that you are violating our rules by exposing magic online.”

It went on to inform him that a “meeting” regarding the matter would be held at a future date. “In the meantime,” it closed, “you are not allowed to enter the Magic Castle.”

The Academy of Magical Arts Letter
The Academy of Magical Arts letter

The gathering occurred at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday. It was held around a round table inside the Castle’s Houdini Séance Room.

“Everything in there is Houdini artifacts,” Sawchuck explains. “His metamorphosis trunk. His handcuffs. His straitjacket. It’s a really cool room. You have your dinner and then somebody comes in to conduct a seance. And as it happens, the walls move, the paintings change. Things appear, things disappear. It’s a very cool experience.”

But on this night, nothing was moving except the pens of six Magic Castle board members — five men and a woman — taking studious notes as Sawchuck argued his case.

And what was his defense? Sawchuck read from a document containing 11 bullet points explaining why he did what he did. Among them:

  1. “Exposing MAGIC shouldn’t be ‘Black and White’ as written in the by-laws many years ago before the internet was invented. If magic is being exposed to enhance a performance making it more enjoyable and NOT vindictive or directed as mean or personal, it really should be considered accepted as a performance piece.”

  2. “If you are TEACHING MAGIC, you are EXPOSING MAGIC.”

  3. “Now more than ever there is no secrecy for magic … it also forces magicians to be more entertaining and charismatic. The day the internet was given to us common people to use, we lost the ‘code of secrecy’. We lost a lot of things, not just in magic but in life. Brick and mortar buildings, middle men in distribution. Every business either gained or suffered from the internet.”

  4. “Penn & Teller Reveal tricks and made a name for their first 20 years and now have helped more magicians get on TV than anyone with Fool Us. Houdini wrote a book on it, Unmasking of Robert-Houdini, along with going to LIVE shows in disguise and debunking mind readers and spiritual healers and he was the President of The Society of American Magicians from 1917–1926. Amazing Jonathan exposed Black Arts nightly in his show. All four artists are honored at the Magic Castle. Houdini even has his own Séance room which the Magic Castle makes a fortune booking out nightly for the experience.”

The hearing lasted 90 minutes in total. Sawchuck left the panel with a copy of his notes and a thumb drive containing video of popular magicians exposing tricks — some of whose photos adorn the walls of the Magic Castle, Penn & Teller among them.

He says he noticed no dirty looks as he walked in or out of the Magic Castle.

But there was one notable interaction. He showed up an hour early and had a glass of wine at The Owl Bar, also known as the Dean Martin Bar, because it used to be part of the set on The Dean Martin Show. “It was Milt Larsen’s favorite place to hang out,” he explains. “He was the one who created the Magic Castle along with Bill, his brother.”

While sipping his cabernet, a member since 1983 took a seat beside him.

“I said, ‘Hi, I’m Murray,” Sawchuck recalls. “He said, ‘I know who you are. I have to be honest with you: I’ve seen your videos online. And I think they’re hilarious. They’re really fun. I know you get a bit of heat for it, but I haven’t laughed that much in a long time.'”

“I said, ‘Well, that’s what it’s about. It’s just fun,'” Sawchuck says.

The Magic Castle board is currently considering the case but has not yet issued a decision.

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