How Magicians Who Work in Los Angeles Perfect Their Tricks in Private ‘Magic Jams’
Call them the Wonder Boys. They are in the business of making the effect.
Derek McKee, Francois Pascali and Zach Davidson may look like a clean-cut twenty-something chilling out in an Arts District loft on a Friday night. They are decked out in designer leisure wear, sipping coffee and passing themselves a nicotine vape, and 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 Magic Castle’s Academy of Magical Arts Junior Society, which mentors young magicians – performs in the United States and have mastered 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 pinwheel in a windstorm, multicolored pieces of plastic flipping and whirring erratically in his 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 house is useful. Development? McKee’s next show.
McKee just wrapped a show, “It’s Just a Trick,” which ran for six months at Hollywood’s Cinegrill Theater Roosevelt. The contemporary style show included new versions of classic magic tricks, with lots of 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 hung out at – and later worked in – a magic shop from 10 years old.
He’s been doing magic all over the world since he was 13, including in Las Vegas and privately for the likes of 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 was a magic talent scout for NBC’s “America’s Got 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, self-described magician, cardist and visual artist, grew up in Glendale and was bitten by the magic virus from the age of 4, although he did not pursue it until he was 7 years old, after seeing a David Blaine special on television. He rebelled against magic for a few years, instead dabbling in skateboarding and video games; with her loose sweater in bright colors and cascading shaggy bangs under a black baseball cap, he still rocks 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 earns his living “piecemeal” to perform in Los Angeles 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, sees himself as an entrepreneur — and with neatly cropped 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 group to have followed a conventional path and graduated from the University – he studied business at USC. He is now the founder of a venture-backed crypto startup called, unsurprisingly, Presto, which aims to “make crypto look 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.
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 occasional practices – 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.
“We spend countless hours doing something that could easily be accomplished with a trick,” adds McKee, “but it’s much more interesting for us to do it just with a solid deck of cards.”
As he speaks, 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.
“The pursuit of wonder,” mumbles McKee under his breath.
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.
A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.
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.