Collector of Illusions
Ricky Jay is a master of cards and a historian of chicanery. His exhibition of ancient ‘broadsides’ is a window into the deceptions of another time
~ By DON WALLER ~
Photo by Steve Appleford
~ In search of anomalies: Ricky Jay ~
“Paul Cinquevalli was unquestionably the most famous juggler of his day. And on the first Royal Command Variety Show in 1912, he appeared before King George and Queen Mary on a bill with the most famous vaudeville artists in the world.
“This is an unusual broadside because of the distinctive type being placed on the diagonal instead of a more traditional format. It calls Paul Cinquevalli ‘The King of the Cannonball,’ and he did a number of stunts in which he caught cannonballs with his neck and balanced them in various poses.
“But perhaps he was more famous still for being called ‘The Human Billiard Table.’ In a tight-fitting costume, he had a number of pockets placed in specific pouches and he was able to roll balls across his neck and shoulders making them land in the pockets of his choice.
“He was so famous at this time that it was said that his name and fame as a juggler is a household world throughout the universe …”
Permitting himself a crooked smile, the barrel-chested, bearded gentleman standing on my right snaps his cell phone shut and, speaking in the same parched, professorial tone heard on the taped audio tour, says, “That’s pretty cool. That wasn’t working when I was here before.”
The two of us are standing in the Hammer Museum in Westwood, looking at the initial trio of more than 100 items that make up Extraordinary Exhibitions: Broadsides from the Collection of Ricky Jay, which runs through November 25.
Jarred from his momentary reverie, the gentleman extends a friendly paw. “Hi, I’m Ricky Jay.”
“Pleasure to meet you, sir,” I respond with a reciprocal hand. “I know you don’t do a lot of interviews, so thanks for taking the time to conduct a personal tour. It’s a great honor.”
His nose wrinkles slightly, eyes narrowing. “Aw, c’mon, man. It’s just a gig.”
“No! Well, yeah … But it’s always nice to combine business with pleasure.”
“Oh, well, I always try to do that myself.” He brightens. “So where do you want to start?”
How ’bout with some background? Born in Brooklyn in 1948, Ricky Jay is one of the world’s foremost sleight-of-hand artists, a child prodigy of sorts, who made his television debut at age five. He came to prominence in the ’70s, when he almost single-handedly revived the practice of card “scaling” (throwing ordinary playing cards at speeds of up to 90 mph over great distances, such as over the roof of Hollywood magicians’ club at the Magic Castle, or repeatedly firing them into the rind of a watermelon from 20 paces), which is when I first encountered him, performing the latter routine on some forgotten late-night talk show.
He divulged the “secret” methods behind this and other stunts in a “how-to” manual, entitled Cards As Weapons, first published by Darien Books in 1977. Long out-of-print, the book continues to be in such demand among aspiring prestidigitators that copies routinely sell on eBay for upwards of $225, which begs the question, how does he feel about this particular turn of events?
“I’m asked to reprint it fairly often, and I’ve turned it down.” Jay shrugs. “To me, it’s the work from another period. It’s the first book I wrote. It’s literally 30 years ago. I’m pleased that there’s so much interest in it. I’m actually going to see someone about it next week.”
Aside from his live performances – notably the 1996 OBIE Award-winning one-man show, Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants, directed by his longtime friend and collaborator David Mamet – Jay has been a prolific writer, including defining the terms of the conjurer’s art for The Cambridge Guide to the American Theatre and the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The Hammer show reflects three of Jay’s more recent authorial efforts: Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women (Villard Books, 1986), a compendium of eccentric entertainers that stretches from stone eaters and armless dulcimer players to sapient animal acts and master wind-breaker Le Pétomane; Jay’s Journal of Anomalies (Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2001), a similar collection of essays on equally bizarre acts that was first published in 16 volumes of a fine-press journal between 1994 and 2000; and Extraordinary Exhibitions: The Wonderful Remains of an Enormous Head, the Whimsiphusicon & Death to the Savage Unitarians (Quantuck Lane Press, 2005). The last of which was published in conjunction with the initial exhibition of Jay’s broadsides at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts that same year.
“I started gathering vintage materials relating to not just magicians, but unusual entertainers of all types, when I was touring around America and Europe more than 30 years ago,” Jay explains. “Because when you’re on the road, working at night, there’s not a lot to do during the day. So I spent my time going to bookstores, antiquarian shops, printsellers, and libraries, researching these people and collecting these artifacts.”
For several years, Jay served as curator for the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts, until the owner’s reversal of business fortunes resulted in the library being sold at auction for $2.2 million in 1990 to … David Copperfield, who deposited the contents behind his collection of lingerie in a Las Vegas warehouse.
Partially as a reaction to this loss – and presumably to feed his own collector’s habit – Jay now devotes a fair amount of his time to acting in, or serving as a technical consultant for, a variety of films and TV shows: Mamet’s House of Games, State and Main, Heist, Things Change, Homicide, and The Spanish Prisoner, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, the James Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies, and the first season of Deadwood, for openers. And it’s these character roles that’ve made his rather saturnine visage most recognizable to the general public.
Now, on with the show …
“One of the best things about doing a museum show such as this is that we’re able to expand on the book itself,” says Jay. “For example, let’s go over to the section on Mathew Buchinger. Here we have the broadside from 1726 that’s reproduced in the book, which calls him ‘the greatest living German’ and in the form of a poem details his act, which included magic, swordplay, doing trick shots in bowling, playing several musical instruments, and calligraphy. All the more remarkable when you consider, as you can see by the woodcut illustration, that he was born without legs or hands and was only 29 inches tall.
“And here we have a pair of his actual drawings. In the self-portrait on the right you’ll find seven psalms and the Lord’s Prayer inscribed within the curls of his hair, but you need a magnifying glass to read them.
“I’m a great admirer of ‘the Little Man of Nuremburg,’” Jay continues. “I know from another illustration that I have in my collection that he did the cups-and-balls routine. Now, when you do that, you generally use one hand for misdirection and the other to move the cups. But because Buchinger needed both of his appendages to move the cups, you have to wonder how he did it. So I studied it for three or four months, and I think I know. But we really can’t be sure ’cause there’s no photographic evidence …”
Measuring 10x13 inches, the lavishly illustrated Extraordinary Exhibitions book is devoted exclusively to broadsides printed between 1618 and 1898, which were created to promote specific performances – as opposed to posters, which touted the entertainers themselves – and were intended to be as disposable as the punk-rock flyers or Thai take-out menus of today. But there’s nothing like seeing the actual artifacts. Not just in terms of scale, but in the quality of the printing and their various states of preservation.
Plus, as Jay alluded earlier, the Hammer exhibition spotlights literally twice as much material as the book, adding everything from a children’s board game based upon a famous educated horse, to magician Alex Herrmann’s personal stationery (complete with a logo composed of cavorting red devils), to a doorway-sized lithograph heralding a celebrated female ceiling-walker that sports colors so rich you could eat them with a parfait spoon.
“It’s not just the art, it’s the language,” Jay enthuses. “Because most of these broadsides are almost exclusively text. I love the vocabulary they use. Like this warning not to approach the elephant with ‘papers of consequence’ as he has been known to destroy them. What are ‘papers of consequence’?
“And the hyperbole,” Jay continues. “As has been said, when it comes to show business publicity, there’s neither virtue nor advantage to be gained from being truthful.
“Here we have the name Miss Jenny Lund – one of the most famous singers of her time – in huge type, but underneath that in fine print we see ‘she will not appear but will be represented by Miss Woolford.’” Jay smirks.
“And then there are all these neologisms, such as ‘the Whimsiphusicon.’ What was that? Who knows? Probably just something the performer made up to convince people they’d be seeing something original.
“I suppose one of the benefits of being a professional versus an academic is that I’m more likely to be able to decipher from these fanciful descriptions just what that trick is and how original it was. Who stole and who didn’t and why they were able to get away with it. Of course, the skill is the selling. Like how people are invited to bring their own stones to the stone-eater. Not much different than me allowing people to bring their own deck of cards to my shows.”
So, metaphorically speaking, what’s more important in magic, the singer or the song?
“It’s both,” Jay retorts. “Absolutely. The material and the performance. I don’t think you get anybody who’s great, who divorces one from the other.”
One of Jay’s greatest strengths as an entertainer is how he brings the depth of his historical knowledge to the stage. Witnessing his performance of Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants at the Geffen Playhouse last winter, I had no idea that the patter he used during his rendition of the classic four-aces trick – he did it as four queens – was quoted verbatim from The Expert at the Card Table, written by a professional card cheat under the pseudonym S.W. Erdnase in 1902 (and which has never gone out-of-print). To wit: “Ladies and gentlemen, I shall endeavor to illustrate, with the aid of this ordinary deck of cards, how futile are the efforts of plebeians to break into that select circle of society known as the Beau-monde, and especially how such entrée is prevented by the polite but frigid exclusiveness of its gentler members …”