Playing With a Full Deck

An appreciation of the artistry of Ricky Jay

"When the phone rings, I have no idea what it's going to be. It can be a film that wants me to look at a script, another film that wants me to come up with a method of doing something practically -- something that they were planning to do optically -- which will wind up saving them money. It can be a group of policemen who want me to talk about confidence games. It can be Harvard. That's one of the great things about my life; stuff comes out of the blue. What's fun is the broadness of the spectrum."

Currently, there's a show in the Harvard Theatre Collection called The Imagery of Illusion; Jay is guest curator. "It's 19th-century magicians' iconography: playbills, posters, sheet music, tickets and other, more exotic items. They brought me in because they knew I was familiar with their collection."

Jay says that one particular call from that blue has him excited right now, "if it works out. It isn't confirmed yet, but a station that airs films has approached me about hosting a whole series about confidence games."

He may wonder who will be on the other end of the phone but, unlike so many years ago, he doesn't have to wonder whether the phone will ring. "The problem, though, is that three-quarters of the work I take seems to offer me almost no money. What I like doing -- exhibitions at colleges, talks to different kinds of organizations -- isn't a particularly handy way of making a living. So it becomes really important to get a few paying jobs as well."

Along with performing, the other huge love in Jay's professional life is research. His personal library contains several thousand books, and his archive of paper ephemera is legendary. Simply put, Jay is one of the most serious living scholars of both magic and what might best be called unusual entertainment acts throughout history. No musty academic, Jay is an autodidact of the first order, and his knowledge is lovingly on display in his own writing.

Jay's first book, Cards as Weapons (Darien Books), was published in 1977. "It was one of the first martial-arts parodies -- talking about ninjas at a time when people didn't know what that was all about."

The book is cast as a how-to guide for learning the art of card-throwing for fitness and self-defense. Although the tone is largely humorous, the reader can already find Jay passing on anecdotes and information in the vibrant style that would become his hallmark. We get a brief history of playing cards themselves. We meet card-throwing magicians Hermann the Great and the Amazing Thurston, among others. And we also learn that Ricky Jay found his way into the Guinness Book of World Records for throwing cards faster, farther and more accurately than anybody else.

Although he laughingly refers to this book as "a product of my callow youth," Jay's genuine card-throwing feats remain impressive. He includes a few in his current show, including the throw-and-return ("a simulacrum of the Australian boomerang"), the card that decapitates a plastic duck, and, in one of his most famous flourishes, the card that pierces a watermelon (first "the rich, red interior," then "the even thicker, pachydermatous outer melon layer"). All this is done with good humor, but it is actually accomplished.

1986 saw the publication of Jay's watershed tome, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women (Villard Books, reprinted by his current publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Subtitled "Unique, Eccentric, and Amazing Entertainers: Stone Eaters, Mind Readers, Poison Resisters, Daredevils, Singing Mice, etc., etc., etc., etc.," the book is copiously illustrated with photos, posters, playbills and drawings from Jay's personal collection. In the New York Times Book Review, James ("The Amazing") Randi -- no performer/writer/historian-of-magic slouch himself -- said, in his most sincere barker's voice: "Between these covers is the most satisfying array of oddities, marvels, and novelties that has been gathered together in a blue moon." This book is, itself, a marvelous and substantial entertainment, by turns hilarious and genuinely moving. It became a bestseller of sorts, and Ricky Jay's name (if not his later, in-the-movies face) became more widely recognizable.

These days most of Jay's writing efforts go into Jay's Journal of Anomalies, an ongoing fine-press quarterly brimming with material arguably even more idiosyncratic than what's found in Learned Pigs. "Each issue is a separate topic; the latest was 'Dental Deception,' about illusions with the teeth. The issue before that was on 'Fasting Impostors' -- people pretending not to eat. Before that, 'Cheating at Bowling.' The first issue covered performing dogs who stole the acts of other dogs."

Needless to say, these are not articles that he makes up as he goes along. Jay is a book-and-paper hound, known to dealers all over the world for his particular, arcane interests. "Book hound? Oh, God, yeah. And that takes an enormous amount of time, too."

As appealing as the combination of performer and archivist/writer might sound, Jay thinks it worked against him for years "People either thought I was less serious because I did so many things or that I was turning down 'real work' because I was interested in researching some obscure topic.

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