Behind the curtain: How L.A.’s working magicians hone their tricks in private ‘magic jams’

Three men at a table covered in playing cards.
Derek McKee, from left, and fellow magicians Franco Pascali and Zach Davidson hone their sleight-of-hand skills during a “magic jam.”
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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Call them the wonder boys. They’re in the business of manufacturing the effect.

Derek McKee, Franco Pascali and Zach Davidson may look like clean-cut 20-somethings kicking back in an Arts District loft on a Friday night. They’re decked out in designer leisurewear, swig coffee and pass a nicotine vape between them, and the reminiscences and laughter come quick and repeatedly.

“Dude, we have so many good memories!” Davidson says, slamming his hand onto the marble dining table they’re gathered around.

Except the vast tabletop is scattered with about 17 decks of playing cards — some of them unused and still plastic-wrapped, others well-worn — and as they talk, each nonchalantly wields an open deck in his hand, manipulating the cards into extravagant, almost sculptural arrangements.

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Davidson, McKee and Pascali are highly trained working magicians, and the moves they’re performing are called “cardistry,” a visually dynamic, kinetic art form that’s part juggling and part “card flourishing,” the latter referring to how magicians manipulate playing cards to give their acts oomph when performing tricks.

Magicians hone their sleight-of-hand skills during small gatherings called “magic jams.”

Cardistry, however, needs no tricks; it’s an art form unto itself. McKee, Pascali and Davidson — who met more than a decade ago through the Magic Castle’s Academy of Magical Arts Junior Society, which mentors young magicians — perform around the U.S. and have mastered some of the most difficult cardistry moves.

There’s the judo flip, spinning and flicking the cards with one hand; the flower fan, achieved by bending the cards lengthwise while spreading them out to create a three-dimensional fan; and L-cuts, a glorified shuffle achieved by sliding cards upward with one’s pinkies.

To watch them all go at it at once feels a bit like sitting inside of a pinwheel in a windstorm, bits of multicolored plastic flipping and whirring erratically across one’s field of vision.

“We’re always in the pursuit of wonder,” McKee says, cutting a deck over and over again with one hand, his fingers rapidly crawling over the card edges as the segments become increasingly slimmer. He’s blasé about it, slunk down in his chair and eyes directed elsewhere, as if subconsciously tapping a pencil on the tabletop while talking.

A magician fans out cards.

“It’s psychology and sleight of hand,” Pascali says of magic. He flicks the cards into the air with one hand so they form geometric, three-dimensional shapes. Poof: suddenly, a Cubist-looking flower!

“It’s a creative, intellectual endeavor,” adds Davidson, swiftly fanning the deck out on the table, then wiping it closed with one quick swoop.

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Tonight’s get-together is what magicians call a “magic jam.” It’s a chance to connect with other like-minded magicians and share tips while honing skills. Often magicians will work through a challenging trick at a magic jam, or get feedback on a line of dialogue for a show.

At bigger jams, often held in the backrooms of bars or restaurants, there might be more than a dozen magicians, at different stages of their careers and of varying skill levels, in attendance, with legendary performers mentoring up-and-comers.

But magicians are nothing if not protective of their secrets, and newspaper reporters — particularly those with photographers in tow — are generally not welcomed at such events. Tonight’s more intimate jam, at McKee’s home, is purposeful. The focus? McKee’s upcoming show.

These Los Angeles magic shows and venues will leave you mystified and enchanted.

McKee has just wrapped up a show, “This Is Only a Trick,” which ran for six months at the Hollywood Roosevelt’s Cinegrill Theater. The contemporary-style show included new spins on classic magic tricks, with plenty of audience participation and a hip-hop, EDM and pop soundtrack. He’ll be debuting a new iteration of the show at Art Beyond Survival gallery in the Arts District on Oct. 28.

But first, he must figure out how to reformat the material, which played to an audience of 80, for a more intimate crowd of 40.

Performing a card trick.

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“I think I can still do card manip there,” McKee says.

“Have you thought about cups and balls as the start of Act Two?” Davidson asks.

“Yeah,” McKee says. “I’d love to do this very beautiful, sitting-at-a-table cups, set to the Willy Wonka song, to close out the show.”

Three men with cards at a table.
Derek McKee, center, and fellow magicians Zach Davidson, left, and Franco Pascali hone their sleight-of-hand skills and work out reformatting challenges for McKee’s upcoming show, to be held in an Arts District gallery.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

McKee, 28, has a young Leonardo DiCaprio-like, brooding golden boy look to him. He grew up in Littleton, Colo., where he hung out at — and later worked in — a magic shop from age 10.

He’s been performing magic internationally since age 13 — including in Las Vegas and privately for the likes of Elton John and one Dubai prince, who flew him to the United Arab Emirates for a show when he was still in high school. He served as 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 decks, he says, since 2013.

The 25-year-old Pascali, a self-described magician, cardist and visual artist, grew up in Glendale and was bitten by the magic bug as early as 4 years old, though he didn’t pursue it until he was 7, after seeing a David Blaine special on TV. He rebelled from magic for a few years, occupying himself with skateboarding and video games instead; with his baggy, brightly colored sweater and shaggy bangs cascading from under a black baseball cap, he still has a skater look to him.

But then he got serious about magic at 14, and it’s been “nothing but full-throttle, increasing exponentially passion” since. Pascali now makes a living “piecemeal” from performing at L.A. 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 manufacturing playing cards through his company, Cartelago.

Davidson, 24, considers himself to be 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 who followed a conventional path and graduated from college — he studied business at USC. He’s now the founder of a venture-backed crypto startup called, not surprisingly, Presto, which aims “to make crypto feel like magic.” But Davidson still performs magic at private events two to three times a year.

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“Zach is easily the most adult one of us!” Pascali says.

“That’s not true!” Davidson protests, laughing.

“There are so many different paths of making magic in life,” McKee adds. “I’d argue that it’s not my profession, it’s my lifestyle. Everything revolves around magic.”

Franco Pascali performs cardistry, a kinetic, visually dynamic art form he’s spent years mastering.

Magic has clearly been the binding force in these men’s lives, whether that’s meant hours spent perfecting tricks — McKee and Pascali say they still practice a minimum of five hours a day, 10 to 12 if there’s an upcoming show, whereas Davidson practices on a spot basis — time spent performing onstage or, simply, time spent engaging in magic as a social adhesive like tonight.

Close friends mean that much more to this group, they say, because to get to their skill level, they — most working magicians — spent hours upon hours, entire days, as kids sitting alone with a deck of cards, practicing tricks in front of a mirror with sweaty, calloused hands.

Mariachis have become a tradition at Dodger Stadium, with performances during games. The team’s effort to connect with Latino fans has sparked pride.

It’s paid off: These guys are purists, they say, meaning no gimmicks or devices to manipulate cards or two-sided coins to aid their tricks.

“We’re like, ‘Gimmick? We’ll do it for real!’” Pascali says.

“We spend countless hours doing something that could easily be accomplished with a gimmick,” McKee adds, “but it’s way more interesting for us to do it just with a solid deck of cards.”

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As he talks, slipping playing cards between his fingers, McKee’s hands tremble 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,” Davidson says.

Cards trick galore.

Which is evident in tonight’s grand finale.

“Name a number between one and 52,” Pascali says, his face sparking with expectation. I choose 32.

He begins dealing cards, face down, on the table and asks me to say “stop” at any point. When I do, I’m given a card that he hasn’t seen. (Jack of diamonds, don’t tell.) I place the card back into the deck. A round of cutting and deck shuffling ensues.

As Pascali performs, McKee and Davidson are beaming and nodding their heads encouragingly. They continue to swirl, fan and flip cards in their hands while watching Pascali — it’s like an unconscious cardistry tick.

“The pursuit of wonder,” McKee mutters under his breath.

At the trick’s mind-boggling climax, Pascali has me pick up another, open but untouched box of playing cards elsewhere on the table. He asks me to remove the deck, face down, and turn the cards over, one by one, until we’ve reached the 32nd card. Which — poof! — is the jack of diamonds.

Column One

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I fall back into my chair, speechless. The Times photographer is so baffled, he jokes that it’s time for him to depart.

All three magicians burst into ebullient, synchronistic laughter so fresh and boyish, it’s as if they’ve just seen the trick for the first time; there’s collective pride over its success.

“In this world, now, there’s not many things you can point to where it’s, ‘Wow, that really gives me a sense of awe,’” Davidson says. “Magic, for me, has always been the throughline. Even amidst all the chaos in the world, there’s still this one thing that provides a sense of wonder. I think that’s very human.”

And with that, the wonder boys start up again, and the cardistry will continue into the wee hours of the morning.