Playing With a Full Deck

An appreciation of the artistry of Ricky Jay

Over the phone from the set of Magnolia, a new movie directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), author/historian/archivist/actor and sleight-of-hand-man extraordinaire Ricky Jay is thrown only momentarily when asked if St. Louis figures in the rich history of the conjuring arts that he's spent so many years researching.

"You want some St. Louis lore, huh? Yes! There was a very important illusion show on the Exposition fairgrounds created by a man called Roltair. It was called 'Creation,' a kind of ride through the creation of the world. He was actually a very successful creator of illusions. I hadn't thought of that before, but yeah, that happened in St. Louis."

More historical lore: One day now lost in the 1970s, I saw Ricky Jay open a show for headliners Cheech & Chong. I don't recall many specifics; post-'60s wisdom has it that to remember too much about any of that time is akin to admitting you weren't really there. But I do remember that Jay had a way with playing cards: He threw them. With a vengeance.

End of flashback. These are the waning days of the '90s, and Ricky Jay has arrived, unforgettably. The one-man show that he's bringing to Washington University's Edison Theatre for a 10-day run, Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants (a deck of the aforementioned cards), usually sells out wherever it's playing before opening night. He's directed by his friend, writer David Mamet. And the stoned humor of "Dave? Dave's not here" is no longer part of the evening's entertainment. Now, audiences are much more concerned with how the four queens got from here to there.

Jay's show is, literally, a magical night in the theater. One of the hottest tickets in New York when it opened off-Broadway in 1994, 52 Assistants received rave reviews -- the kind of notices it continues to garner wherever Jay's performed it over the last five years.

"I really don't know what accounts for the popularity," he told me. "Very little of the audience comes from the magic community. I imagine some people are attracted by Mamet's name as director. And some people are fans from other things that I do -- either the writing or the acting -- so they're curious. Whoever they are, I want them to leave having had a good experience." The show's scale and intimacy are throwbacks. There are never more than 150 audience members, and the single set -- a kind of fin-de-siecle gaming room -- provides all the backdrop that Jay needs. When the show debuted in New York, Jay told Time magazine: "The trend toward overelaborate theater led me to this. The kind of thing where people think more about helicopters than actors. The idea of walking onstage with a deck of cards and entertaining for an evening seemed a lovely way to go against the trend."

Since then, it's remained invigorating: "Fortunately, I don't go from city to city. I do other things in between, whether it's writing or film or other kinds of performances: lectures at colleges, setting up gallery shows. And because of the audience participation and the nature of the show, it's different every night."

Jay's show also bucks the trend of the Vegas-size glitter-magic perpetrated by the likes of Siegfried & Roy and the razzle-dazzle hashed and rehashed in the current cavalcade of nonspecial network "specials." What Jay wrote about Max Malini, a lesser-remembered contemporary of Houdini and Thurston, applies as well to Jay himself: "Malini was the embodiment of what a magician should be -- not a performer who requires a fully equipped stage, elaborate apparatus, elephants or handcuffs to accomplish his mysteries, but one who can stand a few inches from you and with a borrowed coin, a lemon, a knife, a tumbler, or a pack of cards convince you he performs miracles."

Jay's love of language, too, is everywhere in this show. His running commentary-as-oral-history locates individual effects in the context of conjuring history. His script ranges from the streetwise patter of the three-card-monte dealer to the flamboyant stylings of a W.C. Fields or a Shakespeare. Jay is a superbly theatrical performer, and his fervent belief is constantly on display: Conjuring is a living art, not a parlor game. Both his words and his actions speak loudly, clearly to that notion.

And this artist's show is, in no small part, an homage to the tradition in which Jay so splendidly takes his place. Nineteenth-century illusionist Johann Hofzinser (whose "Everywhere and Nowhere" effect is dizzyingly re-created by Jay) called playing cards "the poetry of magic." If so, then Jay is its Walt Whitman; he contains multitudes. Dai Vernon, renowned 20th-century sleight-of-hand exponent and one of Jay's personal mentors, said that cards are "like living, breathing human beings and should be treated accordingly." Jay is more than up to that kind of relationship.

He's pleased to see up-and-coming performers with a sense of the tradition: "There are plenty who don't have a clue. But there really are some who are terrific, who have a sense of history and get it, who are also original themselves. Which is encouraging, particularly in view of the fact of that silliness you so accurately described earlier -- what's trying to pass as magic." When he's not performing onstage, Jay stays plenty busy. In the past 12 years he's appeared in several films, including Boogie Nights, Tomorrow Never Dies and the Mamet-directed House of Games (my all-time favorite confidence-game movie), Things Change, Homicide and The Spanish Prisoner. As founder of Deceptive Practices, a consulting company offering "arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis," he's provided his special brand of deception expertise to other films and to the Broadway production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America: Perestroika.

"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.

"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."

In 52 Assistants Jay cites George Bernard Shaw's contention that "every profession is a conspiracy against the laity." Ricky Jay's profession is his art -- its rich history and practice. The illusion operating here is his seeming effortlessness as graceful exponent of both -- in his lively, evocative writing and in those two hours onstage that seem to pass in a fraction of that time. But make no mistake about it: appearances are deceiving. A colorful lifetime has gone into honing these skills. Yes, Jay possesses stage presence galore, but the man's got unbelievable chops.

And in relation to this consummate professional -- the passionate purveyor of the magical arts and endearingly cockeyed entertainments -- we are surely the laity. But Jay proceeds so unassumingly that we never really feel conspired against. Instead, we almost feel like part of the conspiracy -- as if we're actually in on some huge It. As if he's taking us with him, in whatever direction he's heading, into his confidence. If that's how it appears, then he's got us exactly where he wants us now. So step right up. Go right in. That's one of Ricky Jay's most amazing effects: It seems as if we've been there all along.

Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants is performed at 8 p.m. March 11-13, 15 and 17-20 and 7 p.m. March 14 and 21 at the Edison Theatre. Call 935-6543 or 534-1111.