Monday, November 26, 2018

Collector of Illusions

Once again the news has me finding relevance in the Don Waller archive. This time it's the sad report of the death of Ricky Jay, famous sleight-of-hand artist, and one of Don's faves. He wrote the October 25, 2007, cover story for L.A. CityBeat about Jay and an exhibition of his collection of vintage performance broadsides at the Hammer Museum. Don put himself in the story more than he often did in features; all for the better, methinks.

Anyway, on with the show ...

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

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 word 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 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 …”
Now that I know this, I think it’s even cooler that he did.
Along with all the magic and mystery and the improbable entertainers, the Hammer exhibition showcases a dazzling array of potential amusements under the rubrics of physical anomalies (conjoined twins, for example), the animal kingdom (trained, caged or dead), and museums and marvels (everything from a collection of criminals’ tools to fine-clockwork automatons and chicken incubators).
A careful examination of these broadsides provides a wealth of sociological insights. Some things never change: seats closer to the stage command higher prices (those who wish to “sit in the belly of a whale where 24 musicians performed a concert” pay double), many acts flaunt their aristocratic admirers, and many more offer private performances for a negotiated fee.
Several of these entertainers became so well-known that they could be used as reference points for then-contemporary satire. A 1787 exhibition of “The Monstrous Craws” (three individuals afflicted with large goiters) inspired a political cartoon by James Gillray that depicts the trio as King George III, Queen Charlotte, and the Prince of Wales, filling their enlarged throats with the gold of the royal treasury from a bowl marked “John Bull’s blood.”
These entertainments also were fairly affordable. Many of the 18th-century broadsides include the price of admission, often only one or two shillings. According to the contemporary writings of Samuel Johnson, that same single shilling could be used to purchase either a dinner of beefsteak, bread, and beer (plus tip) or a pound of soap. In 1760, a journeyman tailor would’ve earned two shillings, two pence per day and two shillings would’ve been the weekly rent for a furnished room.
Considering the Hammer exhibition contains broadsides from such far-flung locations as Persia (now Iran) and Mexico City, it speaks volumes as to humans’ infinite capacity for wonder – and our desire to be deceived.
Seeing how such deception lies at the very heart of magic – and Jay’s personal interests extend into such related areas as confidence games, frauds, swindles, and all manner of cheating associated with games of chance – it’s worth noting that seven examples from his voluminous collection of vintage dice are on permanent display at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City.
On the audiotape that accompanies this exhibit, Jay explains that dice, which have their origins in animal bones, began to be manufactured from cellulose nitrate (the first commercially successful synthetic plastic) in the late 1800s. While the substance remains stable for decades, it will suddenly and dramatically begin to decompose, as evidenced by the dice on display here and – thanks to Rosamond Purcell’s sumptuous color photographs – in Jay’s book Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck (Norton, 2003).
 Perhaps far more noteworthy – especially for those who don’t mind an occasional wager – is that for all Ricky Jay’s formidable talents, he refuses to indulge in gambling.
“A lot of people assume that if you’re talented at sleight-of-hand, you’d be a good gambler or a good cheat,” Jay explains. “And that’s certainly not necessarily the case.”
‘Cause you might end up like Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman’s character) in The Hustler?
Jay laughs dryly. “That is the best movie. I just love that. But the skill of playing well and the skill of hustling are very, very different. I am really intrigued by methods used to cheat. On Ricky Jay Plays Poker, I demonstrate various methods of cheating at poker.”
This combination CD/DVD package, issued by Octone/Legacy just last year, features 30 poker-related songs – all selections from Jay’s collection – from artists that span the sonic spectrum: Broadway, blues, country, jazz, soul, and techno.
He also wrote the liner notes and provided the accompanying 68-page booklet’s eye-popping artwork, such as the trio of images depicting groups of Chinese, then African-Americans, then dogs passing cards under the table to confederates with their feet (or paws). The custom deck of playing cards included shows a top-hatted Ricky Jay sitting at a tableful of swells, duplicating this feat.
The 30-minute DVD showcases some of Jay’s most devilish handiwork – including how to cheat an honest man – as well as his genuine love of chicanery. It’s not enough to be able to deal yourself a winning hand; you have to convince the other player(s) there’s almost no chance of losing, too. And the sequence on proposition betting, involving an egg, three cards, a rubber band, and a beer glass, is simply eye-popping, even in slow-motion.
The promotional video for Bob Dylan’s 2001 Love And Theft album, with Jay playin’ the rockin’ role of a crooked card dealer, rounds out the package.
In keeping with his cryptic nature – Jay never entirely explains how any of his tricks, or those of any other performer, are done – when asked if he’s currently carrying a deck of cards, he replies, “There’s a chance.”
As for future plans, he mentions “doing some research on knife throwing,” and acting in a pair of forthcoming films (David Mamet’s Redbelt and The Great Buck Howard with John Malkovich and Tom Hanks). In fact, he’s got to get to a post-production meeting now.
            OK, so what’s his favorite magicians’ joke?
            “I must say nobody’s ever asked me that before. And I don’t … I don’t really have an answer. It’s weird. I can’t … off the top of my head, think of one. I’m just glad you didn’t ask me, ‘Can you make my wife disappear?’”

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