LOS ANGELES — Call them the Wonder Boys. They are in the business of making the effect.
Derek McKee, Franco Pascali and Zach Davidson look like they might be in their twenties relaxing in an Arts District loft on a Friday night. They’re decked out in designer leisure wear, sipping coffee and passing themselves a nicotine vape, and the reminiscences and laughter come quickly and repeatedly.
“Man, we have so many great memories!” Davidson says, clapping his hand on the marble dining table around which they are gathered.
Except that the vast tabletop is strewn with about 17 decks of playing cards – some of them unused and still wrapped in plastic, others well worn – and as they talk, each casually brandishes a deck open in his hand, manipulating the cards wildly, almost sculptural arrangements.
Davidson, McKee and Pascali are highly skilled working magicians, and the moves they perform are called “cardistry”, a visually dynamic and kinetic art form that is part of juggling and “card blooming”, the latter referring to how magicians handle playing cards. to punch up their acts when performing tricks.
Cardistry, however, doesn’t need tricks; it is an art form in itself. McKee, Pascali and Davidson — who met over a decade ago through the magic castle Academy of Magical Arts Junior Society, which mentors young magicians – performs in the United States and masters some of the toughest cardistry moves.
There’s judo flip, which flips and flips cards with one hand; the flower fan, made by folding the cards lengthwise while spreading them out to create a three-dimensional fan; and the L-cuts, a glorified shuffle achieved by swiping the cards upwards with her little fingers.
Watching them all go at once is a bit like sitting inside a windmill in a windstorm, bits of multicolored plastic flipping and whirring erratically in its field of vision.
“We’re always in pursuit of wonder,” McKee says, chopping a deck over and over again with one hand, his fingers crawling rapidly around the edges of the card as the segments get thinner and thinner. He’s jaded about it, slumped in his chair and staring away, as if unconsciously tapping a pencil on the table as he speaks.
“It’s psychology and sleight of hand,” Pascali says of the magic. He throws the cards in the air with one hand so that they form three-dimensional geometric shapes. Pouf: suddenly, a flower with a cubist look!
“It’s a creative, intellectual endeavor,” Davidson adds, quickly spreading the deck across the table, then wiping it down with one quick sweep.
Tonight’s date is what magicians call a “magic jam.” It’s a chance to connect with other like-minded magicians and share tips while honing their skills. Often, magicians will work through a difficult trick at a magic jam, or get feedback on a line of dialogue for a show.
At larger jams, often held backstage in bars or restaurants, there can be more than a dozen magicians, at different stages of their careers and of varying skill levels, with legendary performers mentoring the newcomers. .
But magicians are nothing if not protective of their secrets, and newspaper reporters – especially those accompanied by photographers – are generally not welcome at such events. Tonight’s more intimate jam at McKee’s is useful. Development? McKee’s next show.
McKee just wrapped a show, “This Is Only a Trick,” which ran for six months at hollywood roosevelt Cinegrill Theatre. The contemporary-style show featured new versions of classic magic tricks, with strong audience participation and a hip-hop, EDM and pop soundtrack. He will debut a new iteration of the show at Gallery Art Beyond Survival in the Arts District on October 28.
But first he has to figure out how to reformat the material, which played in front of an audience of 80, for a more intimate crowd of 40.
“I think I can still do card manipulation there,” McKee says.
“Did you think of the bilboquets as the beginning of act 2?” Davidson asks.
“Yeah,” McKee said. “I would love to do these really nice cups sitting at the table, to the Willy Wonka song, to close the show.”
McKee, 28, has a brooding young golden boy look a la Leonardo DiCaprio. He grew up in Littleton, Colorado, where he attended — and then worked at — a magic shop from the age of 10.
He has been practicing magic internationally since the age of 13, notably in Las Vegas and privately for artists like Elton John and a prince from Dubai, who took him to the United Arab Emirates for a show while he was still in high school. He served as a magic talent scout for NBC “America has talent” for three seasons. He also produces playing cards through his company, Pure Imagination Projects, which has sold more than 250,000 sets, he says, since 2013.
Pascali, 25, a self-proclaimed magician, cardist and visual artist, grew up in Glendale and was bitten by the magic bug from the age of 4, although he only pursued it in age of 7, after seeing a David Blain TV special. He rebelled against magic for a few years, instead dabbling in skateboarding and video games; with his brightly colored baggy sweater and shaggy bangs falling under a black baseball cap, he always has a skater look.
But then he got serious about magic at age 14, and since then he’s been “just full throttle, increasing his passion exponentially.” Pascali now makes a living “piecemeal” performing at LA venues, such as the magic castle and Black Rabbit Rose, as well as at private events, teaching magic on Zoom, doing consulting and freelance work for other magicians and magic companies, and making playing cards through his company, Cartelago .
Davidson, 24, considers himself an entrepreneur – and with neatly cut hair, black pants and a fitted black t-shirt, he looks the part. He grew up in Westwood and is the only one of the bunch to follow a conventional path and graduate from college – he studied business at USC. He is now the founder of a corporate-backed crypto startup called, unsurprisingly, Presto, which aims to “make crypto feel like magic.” But Davidson continues to perform magic at private events two to three times a year.
“Zach is by far the most adult of us!” says Pascali.
“That’s not true!” Davidson protests with a laugh.
“There are so many different paths to doing magic in life,” McKee adds. “I would say it’s not my profession, it’s my lifestyle. It’s all about magic.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
Magic has clearly been the compelling force in these men’s lives, whether it’s hours spent perfecting tricks – McKee and Pascali say they still practice a minimum of five hours a day, 10 to 12 if there’s a show coming up, while Davidson is training on-site base – time spent performing on stage or, simply, time spent engaging in magic as a social adhesive like tonight.
Close friends mean so much more to this group, they say, because to reach their skill level they – most working magicians – have spent hours and hours, whole days, like children sitting alone with a playing cards, practicing tricks in front of a mirror with sweaty, calloused hands.
It pays off: these guys are purists, they say, which means there are no gimmicks or devices to manipulate cards or two-sided coins to help their tricks.
“We’re like, ‘Gimmick? We’ll do this for real!’ says Pascali.
Slipping playing cards between his fingers, McKee’s hands are shaking slightly from having consumed so much caffeine. Coffee is the magician’s drink of choice, everyone agrees. “It keeps you awake and alert and on your game,” says Davidson.
Which is evident in tonight’s grand finale.
“Name a number between one and 52,” Pascali said, his face sparkling with expectation. I choose 32.
He starts dealing cards, face down, on the table and asks me to say “stop” at any time. When I do, I’m given a card he hasn’t seen. (Jack of diamonds, don’t say it.) I put the card back in play. A series of cuts and shuffles of decks ensue.
As Pascali plays, McKee and Davidson beam and nod encouragingly. They keep swirling, fanning and flipping cards in their hands while watching Pascali – it’s like an unconscious ticking.
At the breathtaking climax of the round, Pascali asks me to take another box of playing cards, open but undamaged, from somewhere else on the table. He asks me to remove the deck, face down, and turn over the cards, one by one, until we have reached the 32nd card. Who – poof! – is the jack of diamonds.
I fall back in my chair, speechless. The Times photographer is so bewildered that he jokes that it’s time for him to go.
The three magicians burst into an exuberant and synchronous laughter so fresh and childish that they feel like they are seeing the trick for the first time. there is collective pride in its success.
“In this world now, there’s not a lot you can point to where it’s, ‘Wow, that really gives me a feeling of awe,'” Davidson says. “Magic, for me, has always been the guideline. Even amidst all the chaos in the world, there’s always that one thing that brings a sense of wonder. I think it’s very human.
And with that, the Wonder Boys begin again and the cardistry will continue until the wee hours of the morning.