Chances are good that you’ve seen Ricky Jay‘s work, maybe even his face, whether or not you have any clue who he is. With his company Deceptive Practices (their motto: “Arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis”), Jay has consulted and served as technical advisor for stage and screen alike, working on such films as Forrest Gump (he designed the wheelchair which made Gary Sinese look legless – there was no CGI, just smoke and mirrors), David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner, and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, starring in both films as well), among many others.
Beyond that, Jay may be the world’s foremost sleight of hand artist, a renowned historian of magic and the art of the con, and the preeminent archivist and academic of human oddities, as explored in his Jay’s Journal of Anomalies. He can also throw a playing card so hard and fast that it pierces the rind of a watermelon, “that most prodigious of all household fruits,” as he refers to it.
Last December, Jay held court in the Mamet-directed one-man show “A Rogue’s Gallery,” billed as a more personal and improvisational performance, at the Royal George Theater in Chicago for a limited one-week engagement. Jay was good enough to share a few minutes of his time after he had just walked off a sound stage in Los Angeles, wrapping a long day on the set of ABC’s Flash Forward, whose cast he had recently joined. In his words, Jay plays “a menacing character,” aptly confirmed by a clip he later showed at the Royal George, a sort of introduction, in which he guns a man down at close range, then saunters off in all his bad-assitry.
(Jay’s actual physical stature does not necessarily intimidate or inspire fear, but on stage, even on the phone, there can be a gravitational force to his delivery and attitude that confirms all suspicions: If Ricky Jay can’t kick your ass, he’s probably got a staff which would be happy to do so.)
grippinglyauthentic: Is “menacing” a stretch for you to play?
Ricky Jay: Hardly. Watch it!
We here at grippinglyauthentic! have heard stories of how gruff and elusive Jay can be and what subjects he famously avoids; expecting less than welcoming, we simply asked how he was doing, just to test the water. “Honestly, I’m thoroughly and completely exhausted, meaning that I will be like putty in your hands.”
He was not entirely putty, as there were times when hesitation crept in to the conversation, when a long pause would announce itself after a potentially sensitive question. Aside from those few brief moments, however, Jay’s charm, which invigorates his live shows, was undeniable. He seemed happy to let topics stray wherever they might.
“There’s a fair amount of the show revolving around audience participation, and it differs from night to night. I have been reluctant,” Jay said, “to talk about personal stuff over the years, but to some extent “A Rogue’s Gallery” can be more autobiographical, and if that’s the route selected, I’ll go down that route. I suppose that’s one of the things that makes this show different, and I hope interesting. If it happens to become more personal, on that level I suppose there’s some intimacy. But I’m much too menacing to be intimate.”
Regarding David Mamet’s direction of the show, Jay had only this to say: “I occasionally reveal intimate things to David and he occasionally tells me what to do with them.”
Jay explained that he was to take the stage before a backdrop of more than one hundred images of playbills, broadsides, and photographs he’s collected over the years, his own rogue’s gallery. The audience will be encouraged to choose images, which Jay will then speak about in as much detail as he pleases on a given night, intermingling sleight of hand with stories of magicians and tricksters, as well as strange and almost unbelievable figures like Matthew Buchinger, one of Jay’s favorites.
“Buchinger was born in Anspach, near Nuremberg in 1674,” Jay told us, “and was incredibly accomplished as a calligrapher and a musician. He played more than six instruments, he danced the hornpipe, did trick shots with bowling balls and pins, played cards and dice, and the punch line is that he was 29 inches tall and had no arms and legs. He’s one of the world’s great overachievers.”
Jay went on with a certain awe and maybe even a bit of envy; yes, envy toward a limbless 29-inch-tall man from the 1600’s. That’s Ricky Jay for you.
“I collect writings and imagery in maybe three or four areas,” he continued, “and Buchinger was prominent in two of them. He’s often mentioned in magic history but it’s usually a cursory description of him, not much detail, and that interested me. He’s also mentioned in compilations of remarkable characters, which is a collectible genre that started in the middle of the 18th century, and you can always find him there. However, I started doing more and more and more research and at this point, I think, I’d be surprised if anyone has devoted as much time to him as I have. It would be great if someone has, to share! I usually put him in everything I’ve written, at least a page or two, you know? I just like to talk about him. He’s great.”
Jays walls are lined with Buchinger works, among many other objects d’art, and he often mounts exhibitions from his vast collection for various institutions. He went on to call himself extraordinarily lucky to have acquired so many of Buchinger’s actual calligraphic pieces, which the diminutive overachiever created to earn a living. Buchinger also performed as a magician, but sold what were often family trees and coats of arms printed in ink on velum for his primary income. A significant measure of disbelief surfaces when one sees Buchinger’s art and happens to be in full possession of the knowledge that it was created with what were essentially Thalidomide limbs, but the man was too well-documented and even rendered in lithographic prints to dispute either the authenticity of his physicality or his work.
Jay is considering mounting an exhibition at David Wilson’s fantastical Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, also one of Jay’s favorites.
To hear the warmth in his voice as he shares these strange tales is as engaging as his many effects. The stories themselves seem otherworldly, nearly fictional or plucked from a buried side-show lore, and it’s not hard to imagine that Jay is one of few people who actually carry such arcane bits of history around, while his effects or magic or prestidigitation or legerdemain – whichever name you feel fits the bill – are equally unbelievable. His focus and self-control inspire awe, both exhilarating and exhausting audiences as thoroughly as Jay seems to be exhausted by the end of a performance.
“It’s very hard to single out any one sleight as the best. There are various techniques in the arsenal of the gambler that are considered really terrific, you know, like being able to deal a card perfectly from the bottom of the deck and making it look like it came from the top, or from the center of the deck, things like that; false dealing or false shuffling. I mean, in general there are gambling deceptions that are particularly wonderful because of the additional scrutiny that might be accorded while witnessing them in action.”
As a kid he was always around and involved in sleight of hand. His grandfather introduced him to the art and some of its finest practitioners, who Jay eventually grew to study under. “I used to look in old books for material initially, for things that I might be able to perform that no one else was doing. The more I searched, however, the more I became incredibly excited by the history itself, and eventually did lots of reading and writing about that history, which had nothing to do with my performance. That’s actually one of the things that makes this new show exciting for me, because it does tie in both. There’s historical material and that turns into performance material, both in the telling of stories and in the exhibition of sleight of hand.”
Through his early exposure to sleight of hand came an equal exposure and appreciation for the con; the misdirection, patter, and craft of pulling the proverbial wool over one’s eyes, often with illicit intent and for personal gain. (Not that Jay ever hustled anyone.)
ga: Do you gamble at all, or is that something you can’t answer?
RJ: Well, I’ve shown great interest in it at times in my life.
We shared some of our own experiences seeing various cons played out in public places, particularly on the subway trains, in which a man steps on with a green felt or Astroturf-covered board and three bottle caps, then dives into his lightening-paced patter about how easy it is to win by finding the ball beneath the cap. He shows onlookers where the ball is by lifting a bottle cap – usually a plastic twist-off top from a two-liter of soda – and commences to shuffle caps back and forth until the whereabouts of the ball are unknown. As soon as a “mark” – or victim, or sucker – expresses interest by pulling out a twenty (the bets are always in increments of twenty) someone else on the train (the “shill” or accomplice) starts clapping, spurring on the mark. The mark is usually allowed to win the first bet, perhaps because the man running the con slyly allows them to see which cap the ball is under. Once this first bet is won, a second shill throws down some money and wins, further accompanied by escalating clapping from shill #1. Encouraged and feeling confident, the mark dives back in, betting forty dollars this time, and gets taken.
Your grippinglyauthentic! correspondents have witnessed a trio working this hustle more than once, always the same way, always on the same train. One mark was a middle-aged Hispanic woman who must have just been paid that day – it was a Friday – as she pulled more and more money from an envelope in her purse. Despite the fact that people on the train around her began pleading and shouting for her to stop gambling, she seemed unable to resist. She lost 200 dollars by the time the hustlers left the train.
“It’s actually the highest form in the sleight of hand artist’s repertoire. The actual trick with cups and balls is perhaps the earliest sleight of hand trick recorded, and what you’re seeing is probably some version of the three shell game, which has some similarities and differences to the performance with the cups and balls, most obvious is that one is presented as entertainment and the other is a method to take money from people. It’s a basic con,” Jay said.
“I find that in a lot of cities, for instance in New York, there are places where the con – the three card monty usually more than the shell game, or the thimble rig as it was called in 19th century England – is more prevalent, and it keeps changing. When I first came out to L.A. I saw people playing monty on buses out here, and the thing is that almost no one is on a bus in L.A. Everyone has cars. Another thing I find interesting is that the language is ever evolving as well. These people may be called a shill in one period and a stick in another period of time, and in England you might have the dog ear and the whisperer, so it’s interesting in terms of language as well as in terms of sleight of hand and perception. There’s a whole history, and the con in general I think is cyclical, it just keeps getting reshaped in different generations.”
ga: What turns a card trick into something greater?
RJ: Well, I suppose there’s got to be some aspect of it that’s transcendent if you’re going to wind up calling it great. It might simply be an extraordinary method, an extraordinary secret technique, an amazing plot, some incredible patter, but in general, it is a performance and that’s the way that I approach it, so it’s usually some amalgam of all those things.
Magic and sleight of hand and card play have been evolving for centuries, which led us to wonder if, in fact, there are any new tricks, or if what currently exists might simply be variations on what existed back then? Jay’s opinion is that there are some new tricks, but since it is a very old art, on some level what we see performed in a show of sleight of hand is not very different from what one might have seen three or four hundred years ago, perhaps even longer. “In one of my books I say that we’re fooled in the same ways; it’s something that applies to both the con and the performances, but it is magic that we’re fooled in the same way by the same kinds of things that fooled us that many years ago. I don’t think that there’s any basic cognitive difference in the way that we respond to that sort of stuff.”
Jay’s expertise for his art and deep understanding of the strange history of magic paints him as a sort of custodian of this highly specialized and often secret knowledge, which seems to be passed from hand to hand, mentor to apprentice. An entire tradition has been offered to him, and through his prolific writings and performances it may be that he will in turn pass along that tradition, though he’s not directly mentoring anyone at the moment.
“There are people who live in remote areas and are excited just from reading,” Jay continued, “who maybe haven’t experienced hands-on training from anyone else. Jerry Andrus, a magician and very good sleight of hand artist who just died – I think he was about 90 – really came up with absolutely original approaches because he was in Albany, Oregon, secluded from where sleight of hand really garnered attention and was being regularly performed. But most people who get to be good have had some sort of apprenticeship, which is just better in terms of hand-on. That’s why I moved to Los Angeles, to learn from two great sleight of hand artists. I actually think they were the best guys in the world. And I came out here for what I thought would be a short period of time, but I was lucky enough spend a couple of decades with these people.”
Jay opened “A Rogue’s Gallery” by reciting a poem that his friend Shel Silverstein wrote for him, in which Jay defends himself against a gun wielding sore-loser with only his playing cards. By the end of the evening, the idea of Jay fighting crime with cards seemed not only entirely possible, but paled in comparison to some of his other feats.
Through random and sometimes haphazard processes, Jay selected audience members to join him on stage for various mesmerizing sleight-of-hand effects in which he somehow managed to inscribe a book to someone before knowing her name, made cards seemingly teleport from one place to another, and blindly charted the course of a knight across a chess board without ever landing in the same space twice, while reciting Shakespeare and spontaneously calculating square roots to one million. (We can’t really believe it either.) He also shared clips from some of the many films he’s been in and consulted on, and generally made people laugh tears with his remarkable stagecraft and wit. It sounds strange, and it was; but the kind of strange that causes every part of you all the way down to the cellular level to wonder how?
There were vintage images of Mexico’s answer to Houdini chained to a cactus, tightly bound brothers inside a cabinet who managed to play several musical instruments at once, a magician who draped a woman in sheets and made her levitate seven feet in the air before she disappeared completely, great prognosticators and manipulators, and so many other rare pieces of art yielding even rarer stories that the very breadth and width of Jay’s memory seems a magical feat in itself.
He even told of attending a party at Siegfried and Roy’s (David Mamet refused to meet them because he was terrified of what their street clothes might look like) at which a guest was urinated on by a tiger.
The crowd was rapt throughout, though some of that attention might have been due to the fact the at least a few audience members were also sleight of hand artists. At the intermission we saw people pull out cards and do tricks for their dates while sharing theories as to how Jay worked his magic. How? We have no clue. But we’re pleased to be amazed.