David Minkin then turned the illusion into reality -- he conjured water out of thin air, standing a few feet away from his awestruck audience.
It took Minkin, an accomplished close-up magician, four years to develop this signature piece. The rain trick was inspired by a Temple Ahavat Shalom weekend retreat, where the 12-year-old Minkin sat among other Jewish adolescents and learned to mimic the sound of water falling from the sky with his hands.
"The sound was magical," said Minkin. "And it always stayed with me."
The rain trick, more complex and wondrous than can be adequately described in words, is the grand finale of Minkin's mesmerizing magic performance, "Evening of Enchantment," which he will reprise at Malibu's Beau Rivage restaurant on Aug. 24. The evening combines wine tasting and magic in an intimate setting where seating is limited to 28 guests per show, an ideal venue for the magician to perform his highly personal and nuanced repertoire of close-up magic tricks.
The soft-spoken, self-assured Minkin plunged into the world of magic relatively late in life but has already succeeded in levitating to the top of the field, winning first place in the International Brotherhood of Magicians' Gold Cups Competition in 2007 and a gold medal in the Magic Castle's Strolling Olympics in 2002. He was in the midst of earning a master's degree in physical therapy at Cal State Northridge in 1997 when a classmate and part-time magician awed him with a Chop Cup routine and inspired him to hit the books -- well, the magic books.
Minkin learned the craft the old-fashioned way, from titles such as "The Mark Wilson Course in Magic" and "The Royal Road to Card Magic," and fine-tuned his inherent knack for creating illusions by practicing them anywhere he was permitted, and not permitted. He once strolled into a Chili's restaurant unannounced and rehearsed a new coin trick on table after table until he finally had it perfected.
"Twelve years of college education down the drain," joked Gary Minkin, the magician's doting father and an avid fan, at a recent Sunday evening performance at Beau Rivage. In addition to physical therapy, Minkin also studied music and business and took up real estate for several years before turning his growing passion for magic into a full-time career.
"I'm unusual, and lucky," said Minkin, dressed in an elegant black suit and sipping a mojito. "I had to develop social skills before I learned magic." Many magicians and amateur hobbyists get into magic as young boys, he explained, perhaps even using their hobby as an outlet for their social awkwardness. Hence the stereotype of magic enthusiasts being shy, reclusive and even nerdy.
Minkin, however, is hardly a geek. Nicknamed the "rock star of magic" by fellow illusionists at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, Minkin is in his late 30s, handsome and exudes a subtle confidence in and out of the spotlight. He injects his performances with an easy-going charisma. His sleight-of-hand coin and card tricks are interspersed with witty banter, personal anecdotes and playful interaction with audience members.
"Until an audience likes you, they're not going anywhere with you," he said. Minkin takes audiences time traveling, using a marble that he turns into an hourglass filled with sugar; into a world of lucid dreams, where driver's licenses become butterflies flitting through the air, or through summer rainstorms in the middle of a cozy wine cellar.
Minkin's theory is that there is a hierarchy to magic -- a puzzle is at the very bottom, then a trick, a mystery, and finally transcendence. A magic routine that reaches transcendence reflects the human experience, touching upon concepts such as the passing of time, immortality and dreams.
"I want to make people think and feel a range of emotions -- wonder, surprise, nostalgia, delight," said Minkin, who strives to create a one-of-a-kind experience for each audience by improvising, playing off their unique energy and using their differing reactions to change the flow of the show.
Minkin prefers the face-to-face contact of close-up magic and cozy settings such as Beau Rivage's cramped wine cellar or the Magic Castle's intimate close-up theater. He says he doesn't aspire to perform in the cavernous theaters of Las Vegas or marketing himself to achieve superstar status.
"I really just want to focus on performing," said Minkin, who has been invited to appear in upcoming conventions in Italy, Sweden, England and Israel. His audience has included Hollywood celebrities such as Johnny Depp and Rob Reiner, politicians, Fortune 500 executives and even one Saudi Arabian prince.
Minkin got a taste for working in television in 2007 as a writer and performer on the MTV horror-prank show, "Room 401." In the first episode, Minkin brought an unwitting crime-scene cleaner to tears as he rose, ghostlike, from a murder victim's body. Minkin is hoping to pitch a series of television specials featuring original magic done on location with real people and everyday objects.
Whatever the medium, Minkin strives to elevate his magic to an art form that is both entertaining and enlightening. He is constantly reworking his act, developing new material and putting his theories about magic on paper, which he hopes to develop into a book. For Minkin, magic is an ancient and noble craft that is in danger of losing its luster in an age where people don't believe in much of anything anymore.
"Regardless of what happens or doesn't happen in reality," he said, "the effect on people is magical."
The next "Evening of Enchantment" is Aug. 24 at Beau Rivage, 26025 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu.