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The Wizard of Odd - Ricky Jay

The Wizard of Odd - Ricky Jay

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Published by: geraintp on Aug 16, 2009
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THE WIZARD
of 
ODDTHE WIZARD
of 
ODD
in the newtvwestern
“Deadwood
 ,
Ricky Jay plays acraps dealer and con man named Eddie Sawyer, and woe tothe greenhorn who bellies up to his table. Not since theWorld War IIhero Audie Murphy played a World War IIhero has a role been so cunningly cast. Jay is perhaps the world’s greatest sleight-of-hand artist as well as a leadingscholar of prestidigitation and illusion. The latest of his fourbooks, published last year, is
 Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck
. To write the history, Jay drew on his own collection of thousands of dice, some centuries old and many loaded,shaved or otherwise altered for cheating. That “Deadwood,”set in an 1870s gold-mining camp in what is now South Dako-ta, would make keen use of Jay’s arcane knowledge is no ac-cident; he’s also one of the scriptwriters. Jay has a devoted following, and if his fans thrill to him in“Deadwood,” which wraps up its first season this month on
HBO
, many also worry that the series and his movie careermight cut into his stage performances, which are already asrare as a royal flush and usually the toughest ticket in town.His breakthrough show in New York City, 1994’s
 Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants
—it was a solo gig directed by DavidMamet, with the “assistants” being a deck of cards—sold outallperformancesand won an Obie before he took it to citieson five continents. Eight years later, his off-Broadway show 
 Ricky Jay:On the Stem
, also directed by Mamet, played beforea packed house for six months. It was a paean to the old-timeconfidence artists along Broadway, or the “stem,”in hucksterparlance, and in it Jay performed truly unbelievable feats of card dealing, card throwing, mnemonics, pickpocketing andmany other lost or dying tricks of the bamboozler’s trade.“The idea of crime based on wit is kind of wonderful,” Jay told me. “There’s not much admirable in a guy who comes at you with a gun and says, ‘Give me your money.’ But a guy whomakes you sign a piece of paper, and then you find out you’vebought the Brooklyn Bridge—the con is enormously ap-pealing. And it’s theatrical. The con—the big con, especial-ly—is an entire theatrical orchestration for an audience of one. It’s both lovely and diabolical at the same time.”While other magicians rely on smoke and mirrors or leggy assistants or computerized pyrotechnics to distract, the essenceof Jay’s artistry is its disarming directness. In
On the Stem
, Jay routinely invited an audience member onto the stage and askedhim for a credit card. Jay pulled out his own wallet and displayedits contents—cash, theater tickets, a photograph—then placedthe credit card in a small yellow envelope, put the envelope inhis wallet, wrapped a rubber band around it and gave it to theman, who put it in his pocket. Pause. Now check the wallet, Jay  would instruct. The man took out the wallet, removed the rub-ber band and opened it:empty, except for the envelope. Jay then reached into his own jacket and retrieved the cash, the-ater tickets and photo. The man opened the envelope to findthat it contained only a “Brooklyn Bridge Ownership” card. Justthen, an associate of Jay’s would run from the back of the the-ater toward the stage calling out the man’s name and shouting“Telegram!” He would hand the man his credit card.Afriend of Jay’s, the cinematographer Caleb Deschanel
The Passion of the Christ 
,
The Black Stallion
,
The Right Stuff 
 ),
Illusionist Ricky Jay, a keeper of magic’s secrets,conjures up a dirty deal in TV’s “Deadwood”
by neil a. grauer
photograph by theo westenberger
THE WIZARD
of 
ODD
People are fooled today by the same things that fooled them500 years ago,says Jay, maybe the worlds greatest conjurer.
 
says Jay has perfected a kind of psychological subterfuge: “Ithink a lot of why we are fooled by the things Ricky does isthat he’s able to use our natural instincts against us, so that you look one way when you should be looking in another.”Deschanel recalls the time Jay worked wonders with a pieceof paper. “As he folded and tore the paper, it took on theshape of a butterfly—and then magically the butterfly flew away. It was in fact a real butterfly. It is one of the most amaz-ing things I have ever seen. His magic is like great storytellingthat brings life and reality to the level of myth. You don’t feelit’s a trick well done. You feel he is operating on another levelthat goes to the core of human instinct.” Jay’s work is so astonishing that even magicians sometimescan’t believe it. Responding to a magazine account of a pokertrick Jay performed privately, a magician wrote that the re-porter must have been mistaken:the feat could not be car-ried out. Jay, not one to shrink from a challenge, went on toperform the trick every night in
On the Stem
. “This is thefunny thing with magicians,”Jay says. “At one level, it’s awful-ly flattering to be able to create a piece that people justthought was the result of some guy in the press being hood- winked. But it’s also why I don’t spend a lot of time with ma- gicians.”
 Professional 
magicians, anyway; among Jay’s friendsare many amateur magicians. Jay, who appears to be in his late 50s or early 60s, recently married his longtime partner, Chrisann Verges, a movie and
TV
producer. They share a Los Angeles-area house and also aNew York apartment. He writes, including the
 Encyclopaedia Britannica
’s entry on magic. He delves so deeply into the his-tory of bizarre entertainments, like singing mice and mind-reading pigs, that the
 New York Times
once referred to Jay andMamet, his frequent collaborator, as the “wizards of odd.” Hedoes a weekly public radio show, “Jay’s Journal,” and his con-sulting firm, Deceptive Practices, advises moviemakers onploys and special effects, such as Gary Sinise’s “amputated”legs in
 Forrest Gump.
He has acted in 16 movies in as many  years. He insists he can continue to do it all. Still, he did hintto me that performing
On the Stem
, not to mention practic-ing for it hours each day, was exhausting. “It’s a hard show todo,” he said at the time. “It’s live theater. There is no televi-sion editing here. Every night. Most people don’t have the lux-ury of coming back. They’ve got one shot at seeing me do ashow. They’re coming because they’ve heard I do a good show.I’ve got to give them a good show. Night after night. There’snever a night to relax, never a night to let up. Never. Never.”Such talk makes some Jay watchers anxious that the manthey say is the greatest conjurer of the last century may beslowing down. In fact, admirers have for years been payinghim the ominous tribute of casting his performances as his-toric. “Some people can tell their grandchildren that they saw Muhammad Ali box,” political pundit Charles Krauthammer wrote in a 1998 column that urged readers to catch Jay’s act.“You’ll be able to tell yours that you saw Ricky Jay deal.”
 jay’s earlyyears are
famously sketchy, andone can only speculate whether it’s more natural for an illu-sionist to be disinclined to discuss the mundanities of child-hood or for a child with a difficult home life to become an il-lusionist. He was born in Brooklyn, but won’t say when,though some sources put it at 1948. He grew up in Elizabeth,New Jersey, but won’t identify his parentsand declines to di- vulge his surname. “Ricky” and “Jay” are his given first andmiddle names. He first left home at age 15 and broke with hisparents a few years later. Jay says his greatest influence was his maternal grandfa-ther, Max Katz, a native of Austria, who was an amateur ma- gician and such a serious student of chess, billiards and other games that he coaxed the finest players to teach him theirmoves. “He was a guy who took his passions seriously,” Jay recalls. “And so he had an influence on me far beyond justmagic.” When Jay was 4 years old, Katz introduced him toDai Vernon, a Canadian-born master magician and sleight-of-hand artist (who would become Jay’s mentor). The setting was a family barbecue, and little Jay performed for the greatconjurer—multiplying packets of coffee creamer. Jay first performed magicon television at age 7. By 1962,an adolescent “Tricky Ricky” was being touted in one magicindustry magazine as America’s youngest magician.After leaving home, Jay attended four or five colleges, butnever graduated. ACornell University classmate was quotedin a 1993 article on Jay in the
 New Yorker 
as saying that Jay “sat in his room and practiced card tricks” about ten hours aday. Back then, Jay also worked as a bartender, sang in a doo- wop group called the Deaf Tones, sold encyclopedias, did ac-counting work on Wall Street and performed magic at re-sorts in the Catskill Mountains. He performed twice on the“Tonight Show” as a guest of Johnny Carson, himself an ac-complished magician. On the road, Jay served as an openingact for the likes of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.In Jay’s sort of magic, there are no shortcuts. “To succeedas a conjurer,” said one of his heroes, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the 19th-century French master of illusion from whom Harry Houdini took his stage name, “three things areessential: first, dexterity; second, dexterity; and third, dex-terity.”Jay is best known for his uncanny way with playingcards. According to the
Guinness Book of World Records,
 Jay has thrown a card farther, higher and faster than anyone. Hecaptured the records one day in 1976; one card he threw trav-
 NEIL A. GRAUER,
 a Baltimore-based writer and caricaturist, isthe author of 
Remember Laughter: ALife of James Thurber.
 Photographer 
THEO WESTENBERGER
is based in New York.

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