Roger Ebert | Roger Ebert’s Journal
There is this. The conjurer Ricky Jay is in London appearing in a documentary for the BBC. A journalist for the Guardian is sent to interview him over lunch. Driving to the restaurant, they lose their way, arrive an hour late, and are given the only available table.
The doc is about Jay and the legendary figures who have inspired him since he became, at 15, the youngest magician to ever appear on TV. So he says. You always add “so he says.” He’d spoken of many things, including a 19th-century trick that has defied all explanation. She asked him for more detail. It involved a magician producing coins from under a hat on his table, and then something else.
They had just been seated at the empty table. Ricky Jay propped his menu on the table in front of him. At the end of his story, he raised the menu and revealed a foot-square block of ice, already melting into a puddle. That sounds impossible, but it’s what the interviewer says she saw.
Well? It’s a trick, right? I agree. I don’t believe in magic. But how was it possibly performed? “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay” is a documentary about the famed magician, card manipulator and actor and the people he has learned from in life and history, including the Great Slydini and a bright 15-year-old who is his current protégé.
I first became aware of Jay in David Mamet’s directorial debut, “House of Games” (1987), where he played a man sitting in on a poker game. Jay effortlessly stole the scene from the others. This was a man who knew something. He had additional information. He saw through you. Even in a labyrinthine puzzle thriller, he knew the way through. He didn’t go for effect. He was amused at your assumptions.
This film is a doc about the young man’s devilment. He seems perfectly happy — ecstatic, even — seated at a table in front of a three-sided mirror and practicing card moves over and over and over again. As a kid, he learned moves from his grandfather. He moved away from home in his early teens.
There’s a film of his stage show, “Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants,” devoted largely to his career and his collection of countless books, posters, programs, photographs, props and memories from magicians. It’s of interest primarily to people who like that kind of stuff. I do, up to a point. What I find even more fascinating is Jay’s ability to lose himself in it.
He always holds a card you don’t see. After his show in Chicago I went backstage and said how happy I was to meet him.
“Oh, this isn’t the first time we’ve met,” he informed me. “We met at the University of Illinois. You ran a piece by me in that little magazine you started.”
He named it. He had the title correct. Even I had forgotten it.
“Of course,” he said, “I didn’t sign it with this name.”
“How did you sign it?”
“That you will never know.”
Nor will I. Or whether he really did. Or whether he attended Illinois, which is not listed in any of his biographical material. And the block of ice is nearly melted by now.
RICKY JAY AND HIS 52 ASSISTANTS
F. Kathleen Foley | The Los Angeles Times | November 24, 2006
First produced off-Broadway in 1994, “Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants” returns to the Southland for the first time in a decade. Now at the Geffen’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater through Jan. 27, the Obie-winning show will be cause for rejoicing among Jay’s devoted admirers. For those not familiar with Jay’s work, this is a prime opportunity to learn what all the bally is about.
. . . Kevin Rigdon’s cozy, book-lined set and Jules Fisher’s versatile lighting establish a welcoming atmosphere for this most congenial host, whose loving attitude toward all things magical is manifest throughout. Jay’s “tricks” — and that seems too demeaning a term for these dazzling displays — are accompanied by rich anecdotes and esoteric chatter of a distinctively intellectual stripe.
Don’t look for glitzy mega-illusions here. A burly, bearded, somberly dressed man, Jay has a dry, offhand manner that jibes well with the stripped-down simplicity of his performance. However, that simplicity is deceptive. Jay can do anything with cards, from “false dealing” to throwing a card so hard that it pierces the shell of a watermelon.
Fittingly, Jay ends the show with a segment called “The History Lesson,” a demonstration of the cups and balls — an ancient conjuring trick that hails back to the Greeks.
Directed by David Mamet | HBO
Mark Singer | The New Yorker | April 5, 1993 | print
The playwright David Mamet and the theatre director Gregory Mosher affirm that some years ago, late one night in the bar of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago, this happened:
Ricky Jay, who is perhaps the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive, was performing magic with a deck of cards. Also present was a friend of Mamet and Mosher’s named Christ Nogulich, the director of food and beverage at the hotel. After twenty minutes of disbelief-suspending manipulations, Jay spread the deck face up on the bar counter and asked Nogulich to concentrate on a specific card but not to reveal it. Jay then assembled the deck face down, shuffled, cut it into two piles, and asked Nogulich to point to one of the piles and name his card.
“Three of clubs,” Nogulich said, and he was then instructed to turn over the top card.
He turned over the three of clubs.
Mosher, in what could be interpreted as a passive-aggressive act, quietly announced, “Ricky, you know, I also concentrated on a card.”
After an interval of silence, Jay said, “That’s interesting, Gregory, but I only do this for one person at a time.”
Mosher persisted: “Well, Ricky, I really was thinking of a card.”
Jay paused, frowned, stared at Mosher, and said, “This is a distinct change of procedure.” A longer pause. “All right—what was the card?”
“Two of spades.”
Jay nodded, and gestured toward the other pile, and Mosher turned over its top card.
The deuce of spades.
A small riot ensued.
He has a skeptically friendly, mildly ironic conversational manner and a droll, filigreed prose style. Jay’s collection functions as a working research library. He is the author of dozens of scholarly articles and also of two diverting and richly informative books, “Cards as Weapons” (1977) and “Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women” (1986). For the past several years, he has devoted his energies mainly to scholarship and to acting in and consulting on motion pictures. Though he loves to perform, he is extremely selective about venues and audiences. I’ve attended lectures and demonstrations by him before gatherings of East Coast undergraduates, West Coast students of the history of magic, and Midwestern bunco-squad detectives. Studying videotapes of him and observing at first hand some of his serendipitous microbursts of legerdemain have taught me how inappropriate it is to say that “Ricky Jay does card tricks”—a characterization as inadequate as “Sonny Rollins plays tenor saxophone” or “Darci Kistler dances.” None of my scrutinizing has yielded a shred of insight into how he does what he does. Every routine appears seamless, unparsable, simply magical.
Before getting down to business in my office, we chatted about this and that: water spouters and armless origami artists and equestrian bee trainers, all subjects that Jay has written about. As we were talking, an editor friend and two other colleagues dropped by. I had introduced Jay and the editor once before and—presumptuously, it turned out—had mentioned earlier that morning that he would be coming by for a private performance. Politely but firmly, Jay made it plain that an audience of one was what he had in mind. There was an awkward moment after the others left. I apologized for the intrusion, and he apologized for not being more accommodating. He reassured me that he still had something to show me. My cluttered office didn’t feel right, however, so we headed upstairs to a lunchroom, found that it was unoccupied, and seated ourselves in a corner booth, facing each other. He unzipped a black leather clutch that he had brought with him and removed a deck of red Bee playing cards imprinted with the logo of Harrah’s Casino. . .
. . . Jay has many loyal friends, a protective circle that includes a lot of people with show-business and antiquarian-book-collecting connections and remarkably few with magic-world connections.
Marcus McCorison, a former president of the American Antiquarian Society, where Jay has lectured and performed, describes him as “a deeply serious scholar—I think he knows more about the history of American conjuring than anyone else.”
Nicolas Barker, who recently retired as one of the deputy keepers of the British Library, says, “Ricky would say you can’t be a good conjurer without knowing the history of your profession, because there are no new tricks under the sun, only variations. He’s a superbly gifted conjurer, and he’s an immensely scholarly person whose knowledge in his chosen field is gigantic, in a class by itself. And, like any other scholarly person, he has a very good working knowledge of fields outside his own.”
The actor Steve Martin said not long ago, “I sort of think of Ricky as the intellectual élite of magicians. I’ve had experience with magicians my whole life. He’s expertly able to perform and yet he knows the theory, history, literature of the field. Ricky’s a master of his craft. You know how there are those teachers of creative writing who can’t necessarily write but can teach? Well, Ricky can actually do everything.”
John Gross | The New York Times | November 14, 1986
You can stand on a galloping horse, for example, with your face covered with a swarm of bees, or cram yourself into a crate -by the look of it, scarcely big enough to contain a small child – along with six dozen bottles. Alternatively you can drive a tractor through the streets of a strange town while you are blindfolded. Or perhaps you would find more job satisfaction in lying down, arching your back and supporting a piano on your stomach, while the pianist stands on your thighs and accompanies you as you sing ”Ireland Must Be Heaven ‘Cause My Mother Came From There.”
These are only a few of the strange vocations, and by no means the strangest, that are recorded by Ricky Jay in ”Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women,” a delightful excursion into some of the more exotic regions of show business. Mr. Jay, incidentally, can lay claim to an unusual skill himself – he holds the world record for throwing playing cards faster and farther and harder than anyone else (and he has written what must surely be an unrivaled book on the subject, ”Cards as Weapons”).
Since he is also a leading sleight-of-hand artist, it is not surprising that he should write with particular warmth about conjurers – above all about the great Malini, who could produce blocks of ice from nowhere as effortlessly as he could turn oranges into lemons. Malini, who perfected his skills in a bar on the Bowery, is still a legend among fellow professionals more than 40 years after his death; he first sprang into national prominence in 1902 after accosting the politician Mark Hanna, suddenly ripping a button off his jacket, and then before you could say ”abracadabra” fastening it back on again, without benefit of needle or thread.
Greg Buium | The Believer
THE BELIEVER: Your new book, Celebrations of Curious Characters, seems to present a very powerful contradiction in your work. On the one hand, there’s this real fealty to the facts, to historical truth, to examining forgotten or obscure entertainers and artists. On the other hand, there’s the presentation of contemporary, real-life experiences, either yours or others’. But how do we know what is true and what isn’t? Is it just a writerly conceit? The tale of an eccentric historical character is woven into a story from Ricky Jay’s life to create an effect? To reveal a nugget about existence? To entertain? To create a wonderful illusion? Some of these stories are certainly true. But are they all true? Did, say, a screwdriver really fall from the rafters during the shooting of a Bob Dylan video and lodge directly into your hand?
RICKY JAY: [Silence]
BLVR: Have I got this entirely wrong?
RJ: No, no, no. This is interesting to me on many levels. You are the first nonpartisan reader of the book that I know of, so that’s interesting. But I’m hearing feedback from you that’s fascinating. And I like what I’m hearing. I like what you’re telling me it’s making you think about. [Long pause] Well, I’ll tell you: the stories are real. But I’m reluctant to tell you that. I love the idea that you’re not sure whether the screwdriver in the guy’s tool belt fell on my hand or not. And yet it never occurred to me for a second to make that up. That was a really traumatic experience in my life. But the video [“Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum”] with Dylan is real. He sent me the gold record [begins to laugh], or was it a Purple Heart [laughs]? It was a really traumatic event. But the second you question it, I kind of love the idea that you think it might be fictional. Even though that’s not what I’m trying to do at all. It’s kind of like going to the Museum of Jurassic Technology. It’s so wonderful. But that’s what it makes a lot of people do, it makes people wonder, Is what I’m seeing real or not?
HUSTLERS, HOAXSTERS, JOKESTERS AND RICKY JAY
A documentary about the life and work of sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay, with appearances by Ricky Jay, David Mamet and Steve Martin.
Ricky Jay and Michael Weber | The Los Angeles Times | 30 October 2006
The secret of the magician’s immortality is herein revealed: He assembled 159 sequential photographs of himself producing a rabbit from a hat and created what he believed to be the “first animated film of a performer.” The subject was the great, young conjurer David Devant; the photographer was the pioneer of the British cinema, R.W. Paul.
This classic magic image, the appearance of a rabbit in a hat, implies the ability to create life, fully formed. The metaphor extends to film, which creates the illusion of life, which extends, limitlessly, the life of the illusionist.
Early on, magicians recognized the importance of the burgeoning technology: Among the first films shown commercially in France, England, Australia and the United States were those featuring well-known magicians as subjects or exhibitors.
More recently, the relationship of conjuring, optics and spectral images played a central role in our work on Neil Burger’s “The Illusionist.” And the lives of competitive conjurers seeking to establish superiority dominated our work with Christopher Nolan on “The Prestige.” . . .
Ricky Jay | The New Yorker | subscription
God invented dice. So says Plato, who attributes their conception to the Egyptian deity Theuth. . . The direct precursors of dice were astragali—the heel bones of hoofed quadrupeds, which articulate with the tibia and help form the ankle joint. They are six-sided, with four flat sides; the flat sides alone seem to have been used for gaming
. . . Amid the detritus under the mounds of ash, soot, and dirt excavated at Pompeii and Herculaneum were found dice. Two major gambling histories published in the nineteenth century claim that these dice were “loaded,” weighted to make certain numbers appear more frequently than chance or statistics dictate. Yet, among scores of classical citations, neither tome gives a specific source for this information
. . . The Romans were fond of dice: Augustus, Domitian, Commodus, Caligula, and Nero were all inveterate players. Claudius, a flamboyant gambler, wrote a treatise on how to win at dice, which has unfortunately not survived, but the extent of his passion for gaming may be deduced from a feature of his chariot: a specially constructed board stabilized for play on the roughest rural roads of the empire.
Donna Bowman | The AV Club | 1 July 20o5
Ricky Jay loves history, magic, sideshows, inventions, circuses, typography, and collecting. Perhaps most of all, Ricky Jay loves words. “I love the way they look on the page,” he confesses, contemplating a small 19th-century playbill that heralds “The Giant Hungarian Schoolboy.” “I love the way they roll off the tongue. No matter how much one is mired in the complexities of life… no matter how depressing are the day’s events—these vicissitudes are all assuaged by the presence of ‘The Giant Hungarian Schoolboy.'” In Extraordinary Exhibitions, Jay enthusiastically annotates a selection of broadsides and advertising ephemera from his copious collection, sometimes lapsing into such expressions of personal euphoria. The large-format book with its fine color reproductions is a browser’s delight.
Arranged chronologically from 1618 to 1898, these bills form a timeline both of novelty acts and printing styles. Jay, an illusionist, actor, and writer, seizes the opportunity to comment on any peripheral matter that catches his fancy. An Argentinean playbill for a husband-and-wife animal act, for example, prompts brief reflections on the dictatorship of Juan Manuel Rosas, whose Federalist party demanded the appearance of political slogans at the top of the sheet.
Coleu Lousison | The New Yorker
Your earlier books, like the rare and coveted “Cards As Weapons,” are assemblages of stories, oddball art, and fake news items. They somewhat resemble early issues of McSweeney’s, who published this book.
Yeah. I think it’s a shared interest with Dave [Eggers], this thing of wanting to see the material presented in a really nice way. It’s just been something that I do. For a while I was publishing “Jay’s Journal” as a magazine, actually doing a letterpress magazine with tipped-in colored plates, and needless to say making no money, but when it was collected as a book (“Jay’s Journal of Anomalies”), it was very well-received.
You designed “Curious Characters” with Coco Shinomiya, who designed Bob Dylan’s last album cover. Will you work together again?
I actually just came from a lunch with Coco. We’re having custom wrapping paper made from one of the images on the book—from the story “Blind Faith,” about Margaret M’Avoy [who lost her eyesight from scarlet fever, but could reportedly see through her hands]. It’s the end paper for the book. No matter how bad it gets, if suddenly I’m dispossessed, they can still say about me that he had his own wrapping paper.
For every page of text, there’s a corresponding full-page image from your collection. How much thought went into the visual parts of the book?
It was a very big part of it for me. The art was very seriously considered. Some of the pieces, I was thinking about how to present them visually before I even started writing. One of the things that makes this book so unusual is that it exists in so many weird worlds. In the world of the spoken thing, as they were spoken pieces, and a literary piece, and a visual piece. So I hope that they complement each other.
. . . For better or worse, you’re perhaps best known as the guy who throws playing cards. How does card-throwing fit into the history of magic?
Magicians from the nineteenth century threw cards distances, but I think I’m the first one who made a thing about using them as weapons. But when I was doing college shows I used to talk in my stage act about a book I wrote called “Cards as Weapons” that didn’t exist at all. And then one day it occurred to me it would kind of be amusing to write that book. So I wrote that book, and then people didn’t think that was real. People would get the book and think “This is just a made-up book and nobody actually throws cards at incredible speeds with accuracy, penetrating watermelons and such.” It kept working on levels of disbelief.
The watermelon act is arguably your most famous.
What I was proud of most in that act was the writing. More than the physical act of throwing, it was a written piece of material. A line like “I know what you’re saying, ‘Sure, this man can penetrate the rich, red interior of said melon, but can he penetrate the even thicker pachydermatous outer-melon layer?” That’s the perfect example of a physical action, a written piece, and most importantly the way it all works together. It’s that blend I’m really kind of looking for.
THE RARE BLUNDER