Four nights a year, a small garage in Fremont becomes a theater for magicians – including a family that performs regularly in the Los Altos area.
The Magic Garage is a place where illusionists come together to showcase new tricks for friends and family. Among the more than a dozen magicians gathered, one stands out for his age. James Chan hasn’t even started middle school yet.
The 11-year-old performs with his father Dan, mom Katherine and sister Grace, 10. High-tech executives in Los Altos Hills and professional sports teams throughout the Bay Area have hired them to entertain at parties and corporate events. The Chans also have worked as street magicians at the Los Altos Farmers’ Market and other events in the area.
One recent night in Fremont, however, young James was in the spotlight as he worked out new material. He performed sleight-of-hand tricks for the adults, while his dad did a small set for the kids in attendance. Dan said he wants James to learn the value of money and the skills needed to be an entrepreneur at a young age. James started juggling with his dad at age 4, and after a few tears and challenges, Dan said his son has worked his way up to being a paid performer for Dan’s magic company.
James will soon be seen on a different stage – TV.
“In the fall, James is appearing on ‘Kids Say the Darndest Things’ on ABC,” Dan said earlier this month. “We just filmed about two weeks ago.”
Dan’s journey to becoming a professional magician also involved TV; as a boy, he liked to watch master illusionist David Copperfield.
“I learned one rubber-band trick that was done by Copperfield on television,” he recalled. “And when I knew I could do the same tricks, I was, like, ‘Hey, I’m getting super good at this.’”
Dan became a street performer in the Bay Area after graduating from UC Riverside. His first paid gig was in 1999, when he received a $10 tip for twisting balloons at a party. After seeing the magician performing that day earn $250 for an hour of work, Dan said he believed he could do it better.
Tricks of the trade
Early in his magic career, he became a regular at Misdirections Magic Shop in San Francisco. Joe Pon, the proprietor of the shop, recalled Dan stopping in approximately 15 years ago.
“He didn’t know anything really (at that time),” Pon said. “He was really just a juggler.”
Dan slowly transitioned to performing full time. He’d pick up new tricks and skills as he worked odd jobs such as sailing instructor, lifeguard and ski instructor. During this period, he’d also attend magic conventions and lectures at Misdirections to learn how to grow his repertoire of tricks.
“He’s always eager and he’s always excited to learn magic,” said Pon, noting Dan’s commitment.
When it comes to mastering a trick, Dan said he used to just learn tricks he thought were interesting but did not really develop a taste for the magic he wanted to perform. Now as a more experienced magician, he looks at his magic from the angle of a story, a narrative to compel the audience to feel invested in what he is doing beyond the magic itself.
To become a more well-rounded performer, Dan attended the Clown Conservatory in San Francisco under the tutelage of founder Jeff Raz.
“It took him a while to open up to other styles,” Raz said. “I remember that’s what I pushed him a lot on.”
After years of working events from street shows to small venues and large parties, Dan is now even turning down gigs in favor of helping other magicians. He usually doesn’t pass on the bigger opportunities, such as performing for the founder of Google Inc.’s Android, one of his favorite shows. But at this stage in his career, Dan said he wants to step back a bit more.
“I just started turning away a lot of events and training other people, and saying ‘Hey, can I teach you some magic?’” the Fremont resident said. “I send people out, and then I take the higher-end events.”
Dan often performs with the entire family. He taught wife Katherine how to become a balloon artist and said she’s now better at it than him. Son James is known for his card and mind tricks. Grace is still learning the ropes.
Magic as a full-time job requires long days and late nights, according to Dan, who is often busy scheduling shows and working on new tricks when he’s not performing.
As for the future, Dan dreams of having a residency at a venue, possibly in Los Altos.
“I want to have a ticketed dinner show where people come to see me and getting to a point where they always sell out,” he said.
For more information on the Chans and their magic shows, visit danchanmagic.com.