I tried all week to write a piece about actor/magician Ricky Jay and I failed miserably, several thousand words and not one worth keeping. Jay died November 24, 2018 at age 72, and given that his time in the spotlight spans nearly the entirety of my pop culture consciousness, some kind of tribute seemed appropriate.
My first glimpse of the magician came courtesy of Doug Henning, whose 1976 television special Doug Henning’s World of Magic II may have been Jay’s introduction to much of middle America. Henning had his own unique spin on the magician shtick–no top hat and tails, no piercing gaze, magic wand, or doves. Henning was tailor made for the ’70s with his hippie-meets-sequins aesthetic and his “anything is possible in the world of magic” positivity. In other words Doug Henning was a dork, and as such he was very appealing to my third grade friends and me.
And so the anchor of my failed Ricky Jay tribute was that first glimpse rather than some sort of retrospective of the performer’s entire career. I don’t remember anything else about that Doug Henning TV special, but Jay’s performance remains burned into my memory. Jay wasn’t a Blackstone-style magician, either. He sported a full beard and long hair like the big kids who congregated beneath the neighborhood streetlights and hid their funny smelling cigarettes when cars drove past, but he wore a three-piece suit like a modern businessman. He was a big guy, too, so while he was all smiles and sarcasm Jay’s presence was intimidating in a way that Henning’s never could be.
The dude held a Guinness world record for throwing playing cards. Few things were cooler to me in grade school than The Guinness Book of World Records. I couldn’t have been more impressed if Doug Henning trotted those gigantic minibike twins onto the stage. Couple that with the fact that I owned hundreds of baseball cards just waiting to be thrown at high speeds and for great distances, and I was an immediate Ricky Jay fan.
Watching television that evening wasn’t just my introduction to Ricky Jay, but to the grifter archetype–the hustler, the card sharp, the fast talker. Doug Henning’s gags always steered the viewer toward some kind of childlike wonder of the mysterious universe, but Jay’s act was firmly planted in skill and dexterity. I wasn’t looking for the string holding up the floating silver orb or whatever; rather, I knew that what Jay was doing with those cards was pure manipulation, but I couldn’t see the moves. Forty years later, I’ll still stop on the street and watch a Three-card Monte dealer or a shell game for the very same reason.
Yes, and for the next forty years I’d stop and watch Ricky Jay whenever he popped up–television, movies, whatever. I suspect that his success paved the way for acts like Harry Anderson and Penn & Teller, both of whom also played with the grifter archetype. Penn even sported long hair and a three piece suit. I enjoyed them all.
I suspect also that I can draw a line from that evening in front of the television when I was nine years old to my fondness for Jim Thompson novels, Todd Browning’s Freaks, film noir, and Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. Forty years on, it might be hard to understand how Ricky Jay’s performance on Doug Henning’s special could so profoundly affect one’s pop culture tastes, but consider this: Henning’s exchange with Michael Landon represents what television entertainment was at the time. If you can keep that context in mind, Jay’s performance remains a revelation:
And so I tried all week to write a piece about Ricky Jay, and I failed miserably. When a story fights me so hard, it usually means that there’s no story to tell. Maybe there’s a feeling, or perhaps there’s an anecdote, but there’s no story. That’s certainly the case here. Reading about Jay’s passing put me back in front of the television circa 1976 and dragged my shoe box full of bent baseball cards out of the closet. There just wasn’t a story there worth telling.
When all is said and done, artistry is why Ricky Jay mattered. I’d like to say that we’ll never see the likes of him again, and while I suspect that’s true in a sense I also realize that somewhere right now a kid is watching a street hustler deal Three-card Monte, and he’s enthralled by the art of it all. I hope that moment conjures in that kid a love of sideshows, grifters and carney trash greater than mine.