July 5, 2002
They're Working Their Magic: Female magicians trying to make glass ceiling disappear
By Patricia Kitchen Staff Writer
Magic - it's one business where you would expect the glass ceiling just to go "poof." But, in fact, the career issues for professional female magicians are not at all unlike those of women in other male-dominated lines of work.
With scantily clad female assistants wearing g-strings or getting impaled or sawed in half, the environment can be downright "misogynistic," says Maritess Zurbano, a Manhattan magician who got her start in Las Vegas and now performs mind-reading and sleight of hand all over the world. "It's not unlike other professions, " she says, "but magic takes it to a ridiculous level. There are no subtleties."
Zurbano is one of 1,150 magic professionals and hobbyists - including about 250 women - attending the centennial convention of the Society of American Magicians at the Hilton New York that began this week. The group admitted its first female magic-maker in 1903, and its female membership has grown to 450. That's 7 percent of the total, says George Schindler, past national president. As for the challenges, it can be tough for men, too, he says. "It's show business."
It's no illusion, though, that female magicians face issues similar to those in other predominantly male fields:
·Addressing that lingering stereotype that says women are assistants, not the main attraction.
·Dealing with a dearth of role models. Young women in magic often start off mimicking guys in dress and style before hitting on their own approaches.
·Searching for mentors. This is especially important in a business where professionals are sworn to secrecy, yet the best moves are passed on through one-on-one demonstration.
Zurbano's style could be called urban sophisticate with an edge, which serves her well. Performing at corporate, trade show and university events, most years she earns a six-figure income.
Back in the 1990s, when she was dealing blackjack in Vegas, she was able to link up with a "great community" of seasoned professionals who still meet regularly. "It was me and a bunch of old, white guys every Wednesday ... I miss it," she says.
Some of her other experiences have not been so uplifting. Such as performing in Japan in the same show with three topless dancers. Or being treated like a "street urchin" in magic stores when a "more serious buyer" is there - a 12-year-old boy.
"Magic," she says, "is still firmly in the 1950s," a world where even how-to books still refer to women as girls and include instructions such as, "Have your girlfriend sew you a devil's handkerchief."
Some older material may be sexist, says Billy Naughton, manager of the Magic Shop in Hicksville, but newer material "unisex - magic is opening up a lot more."
For Zurbano, who was born in Chicago and is of Filipino descent, there is also the matter of ethnicity. She still is asked to do performances with an Asian theme. And indeed, for one of her earliest gigs, she did dress in Chinese fashion and perform to Chinese music. "When you're younger, you try to fit into the mold," she says. "But I failed miserably. It wasn't me."
Such stereotyping is not uncommon among people of color in other industries, says Bonnie Wong, president of Asian Women in Business, a group that invited Zurbano to perform at its May meeting in Manhattan. People can have a hard time recognizing that a woman can run a manufacturing business without importing from China or India, she says. And of course, "when you're a minority woman, you have two hurdles."
Not long ago, Julie Sobanski, 33, a magician in Milwaukee, was performing at a festival when the children asked, "Where is the magician?" When she said, "I'm the magician," one boy of about 10 said, "Girls can't be a magician." And after the show the same boy told her, "You were pretty good - for a girl." The sad thing is, she says, this scenario is not uncommon.
"Maybe some people have a hard time seeing women in a power position," says Sobanski, who does about 150 performances a year. She is researching a book on female magicians, so far uncovering information on 250, dating back to the 1800s. "It's a hidden corner of magic that gets swept under the carpet," she says.
To help pave the way for the next generation, the Society of American Magicians sponsors a group for ages 7 to 17. The group, with a workshop and performance during the convention, has 105 girls - 18 percent of its membership.
One young magician in training is Franchesca Reveron, 13, who is learning the craft from her father, Orlando, a performer and merchant seaman from the Bronx. At age 9, she started assisting him in his act. A year or two later, she branched out on her own - performing last week for the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.
"I would like to be one of the first Puerto Rican female magicians," Reveron says. The name of her act: "The Mystical Wonders of Franchesca." Her favorite trick: producing flowers out of nowhere.
Despite the challenges she faces as a young woman of color trying to make it in a man's field, her dad says, "I think it's beautiful ... I have a lot of confidence in my daughter. I have no doubt if she continues, she'll go far."
Interested in public performances Friday and Saturday at City Center in Manhattan in conjunction with the Society of American Magicians' convention? Check www.magicsam.com