Joe Furlow’s accomplishments in reviving The Academy of Magical Arts have been every bit as eye-opening as the acts that perform in the Hollywood, Calif., club each night—and also worthy of Excellence in Club Management honors.
When he was eight years old, Joe Furlow visited the Magic Castle for the first time. His uncle, a professional magician, had been filming a commercial at the historic Hollywood, Calif., landmark, and needed audience members. Tempted by the “haunted house meets funhouse” vibe of the building, Furlow snuck away from the crowd to secretly explore it (a faux pas, given that the facility had a strict 21-and-over policy at the time).
In 2012, Furlow returned to the Magic Castle, but this time in a different capacity—to serve as General Manager of The Academy of Magical Arts (AMA), a private social order of magicians and magic enthusiasts that uses the building as its clubhouse. Though he still describes himself as a lover of magic, these days Furlow spends more time watching the audience than the magician.
“Some of the best magic I ever saw was what my uncle did at the dinner table on holidays,” says Furlow. “Our guests’ average stay is 4.5 hours. [Being here] transports you back to the first time you experienced magic, and taps into that sense of wonder.”
After Furlow accepted the leadership position at the club, he had to perform quite a bit of magic of his own. Just a year earlier, the club was forced to spend $1.54 million on a fire-restoration project after a blaze on the third floor caused extensive damage to the building. The club “hit an all-time low and teetered on the verge of closing,” says Randolph Sinnott, President. “Pundits in the world of magic were making predictions about the date on which the AMA would run out of money and go out of business.”
But Furlow’s presence has triggered a remarkable turnaround for the club. With the food-and-beverage operation more than doubling since 2012, and a waitlist going into effect for the first time last year, Furlow has found many ways to demonstrate why he is deserving of The Mel Rex Award, through the Excellence in Club Management Awards co-sponsored by the McMahon Group and Club & Resort Business.
The Right Man for the Job
In interviewing prospective new GMs, Furlow says, the AMA Board was seeking a candidate with business acumen, a love of magic, and a background in food and beverage. With experience in clubs and restaurants, and magic running in the family, Furlow fit the bill.
On March 5, 2012, his first day on the job, Furlow immediately began triaging, tending to the areas of the club that were hurting the most. With $190,000 in the bank and a payroll of $95,000 coming due, Furlow first shifted his attention to controlling labor. Within the first six months, 10 of the club’s 14 managers were replaced by people who Furlow believed properly bought into his vision.
To bring that vision to life, Furlow relies on the skills he gained in a previous profession: college football coach. “I’m a motivator,” Furlow says. “We have 14 departments and 165 employees, so I do a lot of delegation and point the team in the right direction to create that ‘wow’ factor.
“To grow from an $8 million to $16 million facility, you need great people,” he adds.
To be sure, the AMA is not your typical private club—90% of those who walk through its doors for food, drinks and entertainment are guests who must be 21 and over, adhere to a strict dress code, and be invited by one of the club’s 5,200 members (divided among 2,700 magician members who must audition and 2,500 associate members, who identify as magic hobbyists, admirers, or even historians).
“The club, quite frankly, had never been known for having good food, beverages, or service,” says Sinnott. “That completely changed under Joe’s leadership. His new Executive Chef, maitre d’ and dining-room staff have turned the quality completely around.”
Further, Sinnott adds, Furlow terminated a previous arrangement with a valet company and hired new in-house staff, turning the valet operation into a “first-class series of initial and final impressions for members and guests.”
Guests who walk through the doors of the clubhouse are also required to dine. Thanks to this policy—along with Furlow’s “ABCD” training for wait staff (focusing on selling appetizers, beverage, cocktail and desserts) and popular weekend brunches—most of the club’s $1.5 million in annual profit comes from food-and-beverage revenue. In turn, that has allowed the club to keep membership dues low (they make up just 13% of the Academy’s overall budget).
|Ideas Implemented Successfully at The Academy of Magical Arts Under Joe Furlow’s Leadership
• Introduced a “hand off” philosophy of service, in which the valet hands off guests to the front door, the front door hands off to the front desk, the front desk hands off to floor managers, and on to
The AMA enjoys another advantage over many private clubs across the country: With so many struggling actors and actresses hoping to catch their big break in Hollywood, staffing is a breeze. Given that many of the Magic Castle’s guests are there for the novelty of the environment, gratuities are often generous, and staff members are well-paid.
The club also offers 12 “buyouts” per year, during which it completely shuts down for events such as celebrity birthday parties or corporate gatherings, charging $80,000 for each event. This further helps to keep dues low.
“Buyouts are an opportunity for us to showcase ourselves,” Furlow adds. “The members don’t love it, but it makes sense financially.”
On With the Show
After dinner at the AMA, the magic begins.
Each week, the Academy brings in 13 professional magicians under contract to perform scheduled shows in three time slots: early-early (5 to 7 p.m.), early (7 to 10 p.m.) and late (10 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.), seven nights a week. (Members are also welcome to perform impromptu magic in the facility at any time in designated areas, allowing them to continuously hone their craft.) Apartments a block away from the Magic Castle are available free of cost for visiting magicians, and a designated vehicle provides local transportation.
Performing at the Magic Castle for a dedicated group of magicians and magician enthusiasts is, for many, a lifelong honor. It was originally built in 1909 as a private home for Rollin and Katherine Lane. In 1963, Milt Larsen, a television writer whose father was a renowned magician, worked with his magician brother and sister-in-law, Bill and Irene, to open the Magic Castle as “25,000 sq. ft. of pure fun.”
The property is currently owned by the Glover family, but after recently signing a first-ever long-term contract (12 years) for the club’s use of the building, Furlow is looking forward to making improvements in the coming years. These would include updates for the kitchen (which still uses a refrigerator that dates back to 1959), an on-site, 3,000-sq. ft. garden with raised boxes and barrels, and potentially converting the third floor into a members-only area.
“The Board understands that now is the time to dig deep and dream,” Furlow says.
But for now, the Magic Castle is a labyrinthine facility, bedecked in photos and memorabilia that honor its past and numerous owl statuettes—including one perched on a bookcase at the facility’s entrance, to which guests must pronounce “Open Sesame!” to gain access. There are also four showrooms, a dining room that seats 142, five bars, a magic library, and numerous areas for impromptu magic. A ghost pianist named Irma even takes requests from the crowd—as long as they ask politely.
While there are plenty of perks for guests who visit the Magic Castle, those with a more intense interest in magic can take classes on the basics at four levels, as well as instruction on coins, cards, or street magic through the club’s Magic University. About 80 students sign up per semester (there are six semesters each year) and upon registering, each student receives membership privileges. The club also offers weekend courses, seminars, and Q&As with visiting magicians.
In late 2014, Furlow took a “huge gamble” when he stopped allowing new members to join the club throughout 2015, in order to drive up demand. The gamble paid off, as new members clamored to join the following year, creating a 500-person waiting list.
Furlow also set up reciprocal relationships with other private clubs (60 globally) to further increase the value of membership, plus members receive 20% discounts on dining at the Magic Castle. Performers, in addition to free housing and a per diem, are allowed to invite guests and future clients to their shows, giving them an opportunity to be seen.
“We’re bringing in magicians who, before, could never afford to work here, and would actually lose money if they came,” Furlow says. “We want to help them make a living as an entertainer.”
The Excellence in Club Management (ECM) Awards were established by the McMahon Group, Inc., the St. Louis-based consulting firm, in 1997 and have been co-sponsored by Club & Resort Business since 2006.
The annual awards are selected through nominations submitted on behalf of qualified candidates by other parties. Award recipients are selected solely on the basis of their achievements at the club they currently manage; “lifetime achievements” are not considered.
Awards in four categories are given each year:
A Selection Committee comprised of a peer group of leading club managers conducts the judging for the ECM Awards; the McMahon Group and Club & Resort Business are not involved in the selection of the winners.
The Selection Committee for the 2016 Awards was chaired by Jeffrey Kreafle, Chief Executive Officer/General Manager of Congressional Country Club, Bethesda, Md. A full listing of judges, in addition to information on past winners and on how to nominate candidates for future years’ awards, can be found at the special website for the ECM Awards, www.clubmanageraward.com.
The deadline for submitting nominations for the 2017 ECM Awards is November 3, 2017.
In addition to in-depth articles in Club & Resort Business that detail the achievements of each ECM winner, individual presentation ceremonies are held at their clubs. All winners are also honored at the Excellence in Club Management Awards Dinner, held each year in conjunction with the Club Managers Association of America World Conference. The 2016 Awards Dinner was held this February at Interlachen Country Club in Winter Park, Fla., and sponsored by ClubCorp, Denehy Club Thinking Partners, ForeTees LLC, Preferred Club, Toro and Yamaha Golf Car.