This is a nice trick

Times Staff Writer

JASON LATIMER is standing the magic world on its head, and he’s doing it with one of the oldest tricks in the book. He performs cups and balls -- a sleight of hand that uses three cups to mysteriously switch the locations of three or four balls -- only he does it with clear cups.

Two and a half years ago, Latimer’s version of the 2,000-year-old trick so impressed judges at the triennial International Federation of Magic Societies World Championship that he beat 150 magicians from 47 countries to win three categories: invention, best in close-up magic and best overall. Saturday, the reigning “World Champion of Magic” will be one of several illusionists performing at Magic Aid, a benefit for victims of Hurricane Katrina at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. The performance marks the first time the castle will be open to the public.

“I like that one moment when everybody kind of tilts their head to the side and says, ‘Well, that’s not right,’ ” said Latimer, who, at 21, was the third American to win the world championship and the second youngest.


Las Vegas superstar Lance Burton was the first American to win (in 1982), and also the youngest at 21. He was the first to leave a message on Latimer’s answering machine after the most recent championship was announced -- a sign of the close eye magicians are keeping on Latimer.

Now 23, the Agoura Hills native is decades younger than top-tier magicians such as David Copperfield and Penn & Teller, but he represents more than just a different generation. He represents an entirely new style and approach to magic. For starters, he’s Asian American and doesn’t wear a tux, and he creates his effects with a team -- one that draws on physics, psychology, structural engineering and optics experts.

“There’s usually two ways to do magic. One is to find something that no one’s ever found before and make it a magic trick. The other way is to come up with an idea of what you want to capture and then figure out how you’re going to get that idea to work. This is the way I prefer to do it,” says Latimer, who was an undergraduate studying mathematics, economics and physics at UC Santa Barbara when he won the world championship and was offered a world tour.

He accepted the tour without forfeiting school, going to classes Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and flying to Europe on the weekends to perform. The touring schedule was so intense that he was forced to drop physics, but UCSB offered Latimer the chance to pursue independent studies in the psychology of misdirection and the geometry of large-scale illusion, among other magic-slanted topics.

“I had a number of people say, ‘Just go for your dream [and don’t go to college],’ ” says Latimer, who often performs at universities and science conventions. “I’m sure that works, but by going to college I became a better magician. I went in as a high school student doing a couple card tricks, and I came out a full-stage illusion designer with a team.”

Latimer has been performing magic since he was 8, the age at which he first saw local magician Dan Birch perform the “Out of This World” card trick on a cruise ship. The trick, which involves the prediction of red and black cards, is a magic standard, but Latimer was so amazed that he and his father started regularly attending Birch’s shows.

Birch eventually began teaching the boy some tricks, and at 12, Latimer enrolled in the junior program at the Academy of Magical Arts, also known as the Magic Castle. By age 17, Latimer was a headlining performer.

That’s when Magic Castle president Dale Hindman first saw him.

“His stage act was so different, it rang bells in my head saying, ‘This kid thinks outside the box.’ It’s not your standard ‘Put the lady in the box and cut her up,’ ” says Hindman, who was so impressed with Latimer that he now manages him. “What magicians do is fool the logic. We misdirect. We give you something that seems to be illogical. For many years magicians have done that with the prop or the girl. What [Latimer is] doing now is applying scientific principles -- math and psychology and visual perception.... It’s a different approach to magic than ‘How can we take the same trick and make it look different?’ ”

Early next year, Latimer will launch a traveling stage show with large-scale illusions that “you would only expect to see in a movie or on TV because it just wouldn’t seem possible in real life,” he says.

In one trick, for example, he will “levitate” a woman above the stage. What will make the trick unusual, Latimer says, is that the audience will be able to see what the effect looks like from 360 degrees.

“It’s kind of like the movie ‘The Matrix,’ ” Latimer says, “except instead of rotating the audience, I rotate the stage.”


Magic Aid

When: Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: The Magic Castle, 7001 Franklin Ave., Hollywood

Cost: $100-$350

Info: (323) 851-8946, Ext. 301