Playing With a Full Deck

An appreciation of the artistry of Ricky Jay

"Even back when I was on tour with Cheech & Chong (for more than a year), my ritual would be to get to the city and go out to either the museums or the bookstores or the print dealers -- usually a combination thereof, depending on the size of the town -- go back and take a nap, then do the show. The next day, we'd be in another city. We'd do 28, 30 days. It was grueling, but that was always the ritual.

"I wasn't really writing much in those days, but that was when I began to compile all this kind of information that served as the basis for Learned Pigs. Whenever I travel now, I still do my version of that ritual, absolutely. Flat-out."

As if the research, movies, consulting and performing don't keep him sufficiently occupied, I ask Jay if he has any current book project. "I do owe my publisher another book; it's a mildly sore topic, and they've been incredibly nice. So you can see that I'm still trying to find time for all of this."

Jay was finishing up Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women when he was offered the curatorship of the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts. John Mulholland had been a celebrated magician, historian, writer and editor of The Sphinx (the leading magic journal of its day) whose personal collection contained some 10,000 volumes relating to magic and unusual performing arts. So, by 1985, Jay had a steady curator's salary, a small staff and a large acquisitions allowance. In the five years he was there, he nearly doubled the size of the collection. As he told writer Mark Singer in a definitive 1993 New Yorker profile, "This was the only thing I ever did that I spoke of myself as doing into the indefinite future."

But the businessman/owner of the collection, who'd wisely installed Jay, fell on a complicated version of hard times. And at what was, essentially, a liquidation auction, stage illusionist David Copperfield bought the library for $2.2 million and moved it to a Las Vegas warehouse. Jay wasn't happy about the purchase; a friend of Jay's, who also knew Copperfield, told writer Singer, "David Copperfield buying the Mulholland Library is like an Elvis impersonator winding up with Graceland."

Jay's a tad less emotional about the subject today. "After the sale and move, I made my one trip there to see it. I don't really know what's become of it since. For a while a librarian was taking care of it, but that person's no longer there. So I think it has very limited access -- if any access at all -- at this point. It's clearly a completely different operation.

"It's interesting, though, the way things work in life. At that point, tending to the collection was the focus of what I was doing. I was performing very little, and so, in many ways, losing that was probably what got me to start performing again. And that part was great."

Jay's traveled a long way to appear in St. Louis these next 10 days. It's a long way from Brooklyn and, later, New Jersey, where a young Ricky Jay first had his interest in sleight of hand stoked by his grandfather, Max Katz -- one of the dedicatees in Jay's first book ("my grandfather, who taught me, and taught me what to look for"). A long way from the 7-year-old magician who made his television debut on Time for Pets; appearances with Carson, Griffin, Cavett and Dinah Shore would come a bit farther down the road. By now, a fairly long way from his move to Los Angeles to be closer to Dai Vernon -- his grandfather's old friend and, along with Charles Miller, one of Jay's most affectionately remembered mentors and compatriots. From his fleeting days as a carnival barker, although such spieling still shows up, fondly, in 52 Assistants. And, yes, even from those hazy Cheech & Chong days -- for Ricky Jay and for many others of us.

But what's remained constant is Jay's love of the story, narrative momentum, the very real drama of whatever the human moment -- grand, or otherwise. And for Jay, language is an integral part of the delivery system -- both as writer and performer. He's a natural actor, an entertainer in the business of deception and illusion; his work is theater of the highest order, more so than many conventional plays. His collaboration with director and fellow deception fan Mamet has been inspiring.

"David's had so much to do with the success of the show. It started with me bringing a lot more material than we winded up needing, and talking about what to put in different places, and what segues would give it context, until we came up with a whole that was more satisfying than any one part. Some of the parts I'd been doing since you saw me with Cheech & Chong, and some of them were brand new for the show.

"There's that feeling of confidence, too, when people work together a lot. We didn't agree on every single thing, but we agreed enough, I guess, that we're going to try to do a new show next year -- another one-man show, directed by David, with entirely different material. That's a challenge I'm starting to think about."

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