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MAGIC : It's Just Magic. Really. : Ricky Jay--conjurer, historian, collector of exotica and David Mamet's personal Merlin--is riding high with a sold-out Off Broadway show and new stature in the world of entertainment

February 06, 1994|LAURIE WERNER | Laurie Werner is a free-lance writer based in New York

"So much of sleight of hand is cumulative, it's taking what's happened before and then taking it in a new direction," he explains. "That's the way I got interested in the art; I was initially looking for material that people had forgotten about."

From his years on the road opening for such pop acts as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (a job he inherited from friend and sometime collaborator Steve Martin), Jay has canvassed antique and curio shops around the world for rare books and vintage toys. They line the walls of his Spanish-style Hollywood apartment, so he had a few moments of panic after the recent quake.

"My first thoughts were about my friends," he says. "But the books were a quick second. Fortunately, they're all right. I just lost a few shelves."

Mixed in with his books on magic are other, more curious books. He's a passionate devotee of "unusual entertainments," collecting anything having to do with, among many other subjects, equestrian beekeepers, Swiss bell ringers and armless calligraphers, a subject he discussed as part of a chapter on accomplished men and women who lacked various limbs in "Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women."

"I probably have the largest collection of artifacts by armless calligraphers," he says, his dark eyes twinkling as he grins, enjoying the fact that it's just so much more esoteric to collect that than, say, vases or stamps. "At least, I know how strange that is. Some collectors are just so serious."

One collection Jay briefly had under his supervision was the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts in Los Angeles, a collection of magic journals and artifacts amassed by John Mulholland, a magician, editor and friend of Harry Houdini.

In 1990, however, magician David Copperfield bought the collection for more than $2 million and tried to bring Jay in as an adviser. His first visit to Copperfield's display area in Las Vegas was so jarring, however--to get to the collection, he had to go through an antique lingerie display and push a mannequin's breast for entry--that Jay doesn't want to discuss it. He says simply "no" when asked if he's ever been back to visit it. And when asked to describe the technique of flashy Vegas performers like Copperfield, he answers plainly: "I don't describe it."

Unlike the lights-and-costumes approach of Copperfield and Doug Henning before him, Jay's style is more closely akin to the great sleight-of-hand artists of decades ago, men like Nate Leipzig and Max Malini, who could work wonders vanishing objects.

As a young boy in Brooklyn, he was told about these masters by his grandfather, Max Katz, an accountant and all-around curious person. Katz was a good-enough amateur to hang around with the best magicians, such as Slydini, Francis Carlyle and Dai Vernon, described by Jay as the "greatest sleight-of-hand artist of the century."

Surrounded and influenced by these venerable men, Jay performed his first trick at the age of 4 at a Society of American Magicians outing.

"Oh, I'm sure I was dreadful," he recalls. (His trick was multiplying coffee creamers.) "I was some goofy little kid doing magic. At some point young boys growing up all have some experience with magic, and most stick with it for a month or two. The only difference was that I stayed with it."

He studied with these "transcendent" magicians and performed on a few children's TV shows. Then, at 13 while performing an act producing doves and dressed in a toreador costume made for him by Slydini, he had a meeting with a booker for the "Ed Sullivan Show."

"I wanted to pretend that I was from South America," he says, "which I knew gave me a better chance to go on the Sullivan show than being a kid in high school from New Jersey (where the family had moved). I was going to mumble and speak through a translator." His family, however, refused to go along and he didn't get to go on the show.

Ironically, though, he now shares an office with the producer who bought the "Ed Sullivan Show" library and, ever the student, he takes advantage. "It's great to go through the office and say I'd like to see Channing Pollack's sensational dove act or Rene Levon, the one-armed magician. It's wonderful that I have access to all the footage that used to excite me as a kid."

By the time he was 18, he had moved away from home and was performing in Upstate New York, in Lake George and, later, Ithaca, putting in some time as well at Cornell's School of Hotel Management. He tended bar in clubs, performed, started his own clubs in Ithaca and, when the comedy club boom started, talked his way in there.

At 20, he made his national TV debut on the then-New York-based "Tonight Show With Johnny Carson."

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