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Extraordinary Oddities

Ricky Jay offers a ‘Rogue’s Gallery’ of eccentric entertainers in new show.

by Tom Teicholz

December 3, 2009 | 7:48 pm

Ricky Jay<br />
Photo by Jesse Dylan

Ricky Jay
Photo by Jesse Dylan

Ladies and Gentlemen, are you seeking a spectacle that will amaze, entertain and educate you? An evening in which you will encounter some of the most remarkable figures from the history of entertainment, such as Cinquevalli, “The King of the Jugglers,” or George Anderson, “The Living Skeleton,” or perhaps a learned goose, a sapient pig or a singing mouse? A night in which the choice will be yours: to spend time with the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng, or perhaps the less well known but equally well connected Millie-Christine? Then better hurry, hurry to order tickets because for 10 nights only (Dec. 29, 2009-Jan. 10, 2010), Ricky Jay is bringing his new show to the Geffen Playhouse, a show titled “A Rogue’s Gallery: An Evening of Conversation and Performance.”

Jay will offer up a selection of images from his own collection of memorabilia of astonishing performers, remarkable attractions and visual deceptions, both famous and infamous, little-known and celebrated. Each night the audience will select from among the proffered images, jukebox-like, to set the play list for the evening’s entertainment. No two evenings will be alike, and all the material will be new to Los Angeles. This combination of narrative and performance, Jay told me recently, “is the thing that I’ve always wanted to do.”

I’ve met Jay before. He and I once spent a very companionable week together, visiting the various movie studio lots and executive offices in Hollywood pitching a remake of a 1930s gem of a movie about a family of con artists. Although we never sold that pitch, I came away with a deep appreciation for Jay’s love of narrative, his pleasure in polysyllabic complications and orotund phraseology and his encyclopedic knowledge of the habits of obscure dog breeds — a plot point involved a dog, which Jay embroidered in each telling, always changing the breed, at times offering up the antics of a Neapolitan Mastiff, a Portuguese water dog or even a Hungarian Vizsla.

Good times, they were ... good times. But where was I?

Ah yes, Ricky Jay.

Jay — actor, sleight-of-hand artist, cultural historian and deception consultant — is not overly attached to his personal history. His Web site defers to a 1993 profile by Mark Singer in The New Yorker, which, Jay claims, “tells you more about me than I know myself.” Some of the facts gleaned from that lengthy opus and other sources are that Jay was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., as Richard Jay Potash, and that his maternal grandfather was Max Katz, an accountant who was at one time the president of the Society of American Magicians and who supported Jay in his love of magic and the lore of those who practice it.

At the age of 4, Jay performed his first trick for an audience, and he continued to perform throughout his childhood, appearing on occasion on TV. He logged many hours at Flosso’s magic shop at 34th Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan. Jay so loved Flosso, whose given name was Albert Levinson, that at Jay’s request, Flosso performed at Jay’s bar mitzvah. What’s more, when David Goyer recently wrote a role for Jay on his TV program “Flash Forward,” Goyer named the character Flosso (more reference than tribute — it should be noted — as Jay’s character was a killer). Flosso remains a touchstone, and Jay confided that he might project some rare video of Flosso as part of “Rogue’s Gallery.”

Jay attended many colleges, and although he never matriculated he did graduate to appearing on “The Tonight Show” as well as performing on the bill with various music acts, including Ike and Tina Turner and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. In Los Angeles, he performed at McCabe’s in Santa Monica and the Magic Castle in Hollywood. His film and TV career is extensive and includes appearing in a James Bond film, as well as several of Paul Thomas Anderson’s works, and iconic series such as “The X-Files” and “Deadwood.” He has created and starred in several TV specials and written several books, including “Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Noonday Books, 1986), “Cards as Weapons” (Warner Books, 1988) and “Jay’s Journal of Anomalies” (Quantuck Lane Press, 2003). He is currently working on another TV project and considering a book based on his KCRW radio pieces.

However, Jay’s most fruitful creative relationship may be, in his words, his “wonderful association” with David Mamet. Jay has appeared in many of Mamet’s films, and Mamet directed Jay’s celebrated stage shows, “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants” and “On the Stem.” When we spoke, Jay said that he values Mamet’s thoughts and suggestions “enormously” and values Mamet’s acumen, particularly for the new show, which because of its nature — part conversation, part performance — made it more challenging to stage. For “A Rogue’s Gallery,” Mamet is credited as “Director of Prison Operations.”

At the time of Singer’s New Yorker profile, Jay was the curator of the Mulholland Library of Conjuring and the Allied Arts — a collection of magician-related tomes, artifacts and ephemera — his tenure ended with the owner’s bankruptcy (not caused by Jay) and the auction of the collection (which was acquired by David Copperfield).

“One of the strangest things about that whole episode,” Jay said of the sale, “is that it resurrected my performing career.” It also caused him to start collecting again.

In 2007, the Hammer Museum organized a show called “Extraordinary Exhibitions: Broadsides From the Ricky Jay Collection,” a selection of more than 80 handbills from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries that advertise a mix of what the catalogue referred to as “sensational, scientific, satisfying, silly and startling attractions” also featured in Jay’s book “Extraordinary Exhibitions” (Quantuck Lane, 2005).

That exhibition, in part, inspired the upcoming Geffen performances — “seeing it so wonderfully mounted made me wonder if there was some way to actually use this in a theatrical manner,” Jay said.

Beyond his scholarship, what distinguishes Jay’s performances is their narrative, literary quality. Jay’s talent at sleight of hand and card throwing are extraordinary, but it is also his verbal acuity, his love of language and his ability to construct a narrative for each set-piece that make his performances so distinctive (and so enjoyable).

“What I am after is being able to entertain an audience,” Jay told me, “by a combination of my interests in the art form and displaying what skills I have, and how I am able to write these pieces [in a manner] that leaves some mystery.”

A tall order and no easy task: sounds like magic to me.

“Ricky Jay: A Rogue’s Gallery — An Evening of Conversation and Performance,” Dec. 29, 2009-Jan. 10, 2010. For ticket information, visit geffenplayhouse.com.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears here regularly, and his blog can be found at jewishjournal.com/tommywood.

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