Today David is Master in Residence at the Conjuring Arts Research Center, the nonprofit magic library in Manhattan, where he works on a variety of projects related to the organization’s mission preserving and providing access to an extensive collection of materials documenting magic.
David Roth has a unique perspective on the personal and professional sides of Ricky Jay, and we're grateful he spent some time reflecting on his friend for Herb’s Magic.
Herb: How did you first meet Ricky?
David: It’s very funny you should ask, because more than once Ricky and I have sat down and tried to remember the first time we met. And we know it was over forty years ago because it was before I was twenty years old. Irv Tannen got me a job as a magic demonstrator in Las Vegas at a magic shop in Circus Circus casino. It was a real working casino, but it also had a midway, like a circus, so you could bring the kids, in other words. The parents would be on the main floor and next door was like a midway, and there was a magic shop. So Irv Tannen got me a job there. But I already knew Ricky because he wanted me to meet Mike Skinner. The two of them drove seven hours from L. A. To Vegas so that Ricky could introduce me to him. That was wonderful. I’ll never forget that. Mike and I ended up becoming very close friends. We became roommates.
So I knew Ricky before I was twenty, but we can’t remember a specific event, or a party or a show or a meeting where we met. But it was a long time ago.
He was older than you right?
Yeah by about five or six years. I thought that he was 71, but I’ve been reading all over that he was 72. I also read that he was 70. I always thought that he was five years older, but apparently he was six.
At the time approximately when you met, where was he in his life at that point?
Well, he was with the very long hair. He was on the road. He basically ran away from home when he was young and never looked back. He did all kinds of things. He ran a ten-in-one show, he opened for a lot of rock bands. He worked at the Electric Circus when it was here on Eighth Street. He was doing things like that. He looked the part because of his very long hair and he was a lot skinnier then and he had a much higher energy level. You can see that if you watch him on TV shows when he still had the long hair. Dinah Shore adored him. He was on her show at least 20 times.
I remember in the 1970s when he started appearing on all these shows and one of the things that was interesting to me was that he had the long hair and the beard, but he was also wearing a three-piece suit. It was discordant, if you know what I mean. I wanted to think, ‘here’s this guy from the hippie generation who’s representing the next generation of magic,' but you couldn’t figure out what he was all about in a way.
Yeah. I think he did that intentionally. It was an interesting look. That’s right. And he was able to pull it off And he was making the rounds of talk shows. She in particular just really thought he was great and had him on a lot.
Do you remember in those earlier years sitting down and hanging out and doing magic?
This might help date it. We knew each other a while by then. When Doug Henning was doing The Magic Show he had a party in his apartment. The producers got him a very nice place near the theater. And he had a party and he hired me and Derek Dingle and Ricky to do a show. And I’m just glad Ricky went on last. I wouldn’t have wanted to follow him. But that was a while ago. That had to be in the 1970s.
Then he moved out to L. A. and when I got out to L. A. he had this terrific apartment in Venice. He lived in Venice which is a very nice area, kind of a spot for artists. [interview continues-click "read more"]
I know just what he did at that party. He did one of his signature pieces. He did the same effect he opened 52 Assistants with, "The Exclusive Coterie," the queens. He did it with the Victorian patter, and boy, that’s a great trick.
I’ve noted recently that he drew a lot of that patter directly from Erdnase.
That’s true. A lot of it is from Erdnase and a lot of it is not. But if you really watch the routine, he doesn’t start the Erdnase routine right away. He does something else first. He produces the queens. That’s very clever. It looks great and it’s very, very clever and at the end of it he’s light years ahead of the audience. The main trick hasn’t even started yet, and it’s very impressive. He really personalized that trick.
At that point he was obviously already known in the magic community, right?
Yes, very much so. And he was already a collector back then, so he was getting a reputation as a collector and a historian and a scholar without a degree.
The first impression I had of him was related to throwing cards, because that was something I was interested in, and I bought Cards as Weapons, which is an unusual book. But that was what first called him to my attention, the card throwing.
That was a big start for him. I think he got into the Guiness Book with that and he did throw them extremely well. He used to do something all the time that I wanted him to do in the show. He didn’t think it was one hundred percent, but I never saw him miss. I would just say “do the thing with the three cards,” and he would take any three cards and show them and square them up so that it looked like one. He did this openly Then he would throw them out about 10 feet and they would separate in mid-air and come back to him and when they came back he would drop to his knees and catch one in each hand and one in his mouth.
He used to do this on cue.
I saw him pierce a lamp shade in my apartment with a playing card. Most magicians when they throw cards, they throw them like a frisbee. He threw them like a baseball. He threw them hard. I once held out my hand and said throw them against my palm, and I could feel it. If he hit you in the eye, it would hurt.
Do you think he was picking that idea up from reading about people like Thurston and others like that who were doing the card throwing?
I’m not sure how much of an influence Thurston was. I think he just liked it and it let him get into the melon and the toys on the shelf, and cutting them with a scissors when they returned. He really turned the card throwing into more than just card throwing. And that’s why it was so great. It became a real feature. Most people just go for distance. They’re not going for accuracy.
In those days did you talk to him about practicing or ever practice with him or see how he practiced.
Actually there were times when we were doing the show when he and I would be in his dressing room and Matt [Matthew Silver], the stage manager, who travelled with us, would knock on the door and poke his head in and say something like “15 minutes,” and he’d see Ricky and I sitting so close to each other our knees were touching and there would be a book on our thighs, like a table, but it was a book, and we’d be doing magic. And he would just laugh. We could not be any closer.
Once - and in fact I talked about this with Steve Freeman, because he’s also an old friend of Ricky’s and mine - when Ricky was doing the show in Irvine, California, Steve came down from where he lived. We had a session, the three of us had a session, in Ricky’s hotel room. And it was a real great knock-down, drag out session, just doing stuff for each other. And we had such a good time that Steve actually took a room in the hotel, stayed over and we did it again the next day. It was absolutely great.
Ricky was a preeminent card magician. You built your repuation on coins. Do you think that had any effect on the way you guys related, that you were doing different types of magic? Maybe that enabled you to work together because you weren’t focused on the same type of magic?
I think the fact that I did coins helped me be on good terms with lots of magicians because I wasn’t a threat. I mean people like Marlo, magicians would go out to Chicago to meet him and they would do stuff for him and he wouldn’t do anything in return. They’d come back a little bit miffed, but Marlo and I got along great. I’m sure if I had done a card trick all that would have changed. And I think it was the same with a lot of card guys. I wasn’t a threat. So it was sort of an unintentional in. So, knowing all these guys, Ricky helped me with my card magic, just like Darwin did, Mike Skinner and Pat Cook. I was very lucky the way that these guys helped me with my card magic.
You were sort of inside and a friend of Ricky’s, but what would you say about his personality? From the outside he seemed a little distant. Obviously he was distant from most of the magic community. On the other hand I’ve seen quotes in many articles saying he was the nicest guy and so warm and generous. I’m wondering at that point what his personality was like.
Well, maybe I do have a different take, because he was just a lot of fun to hang out with. And very good to work with in terms of the way he treated the crew. He realized that they were important and that they made the show. He was not a prima donna at all. I always thought that was very professional. He’d come in early every single day and go over the card material. He actually did it all before he went on stage.
The thing is that he hated mediocrity and there is a lot of mediocrity in magic and he couldn’t stand that, in any field. At that same time, if he saw something he really liked, he’d get amazingly enthusiastic and jazzed about it. And he just didn’t like the politics of magic clubs and magicians and he had a very small handful of people he hung out with, me and Weber and Carney and Steinmeyer, Steve Freeman, and not too many others. He became very friendly with Mamet. That was terrific. They just hit it off. And they became very close.
You met him in the 1970s and 52 Assistants was in the 1990s. In between those years were you seeing him and hanging out.
Yeah, whenever he was in the City. When Doug Henning had his very first TV special, he hired Ricky to be a guest magician. And for what it’s worth Ricky was so strong that Henning never had another guest magician on after that. What people don’t know is that Ricky wasn’t just on the show - because I was in the studio audience - Ricky was doing magic during the commercial breaks for the whole audience, doing great card throwing stuff, stuff that he didn’t usually do. Like somebody holding up a sheet of newspaper and he’d throw the card and it would go through the paper, and that’s ok. A lot of people can do that, but he’d take a second card and throw it and it would go right through the slit of the first card. So, he was accurate.
You know that old stunt with the banana. He did that on the Tom Snyder show. He was on, amazingly, with John Scarne, and Scarne did a trick, signed card to wallet and Ricky did this ancient trick, but Ricky had a great spin on it. He gave Snyder an unpeeled banana and told Snyder to hold it by the end so the banana was straight up. And Ricky took four playing cards. He took one between thumb and index, one between his index and second, one between his second and third, and one between his third and his pinky. Maybe stood six feet away or so, maybe a little more, and he wound up and threw them, and they all hit the banana and bounced off. Snyder looked a little disappointed. And Ricky looked at him and said peel it. And this is an old stunt where you can cut a banana in four pieces without peeling it. The way he framed it, as a card throwing stunt, was terrific.
What came next? Was it the show?
The show was in ’94, so there is a big gap. Ricky was doing his stuff, I was doing my stuff. I was doing lectures and conventions. And I did ten years at FAO [David worked at FAO Schwarz] and during that time I was doing lectures and conventions because the store let me come and go as I please because the counter was very popular. They were very lenient with me. And whenever he was in the City we would hook up. His girlfriend, who he later married, had an apartment on the Upper West Side, so he’d have a place to stay. Whenever he was in town for whatever reason, a show, or an interview or some other project, we would try to get together.
In the show Ricky makes this joke about how he was incapable of getting married.
Yes, Chrisann hated that joke. He kept it in because it’s a funny line. And the way he sets the line up…he names some old time performer who announced that he would make his wife appear under one of the cups and then Ricky says “practice though I have, so far I’ve been unable even to get married.”
But she was ok with it.
I didn’t know if that was a personal revelation about his struggles with women or if that was just a joke.
It was just a joke. He went out with another woman I met. She was a card manipulator. And he was going out with her in the 1970s. I think I ran into the two of them at the Castle. She was very interesting.
So, about the show, how did that all come together?
I really liked doing that show. Not because it was a hit show, but because it was a good show and it was great to see the audience go nuts night after night. It took him 16 years to get that show produced. It’s a lesson. You have to keep plugging away. Then he became an overnight success story. Yeah…either the venue wasn’t right or the money wasn’t right or the director wasn’t right or something wasn’t right. He had that whole show 16 years before it was produced.
Where did he do it before?
He didn’t do it before. A lot of shows do open out of town but not 52 Assistants. He had done components all his life, the card throwing, the gambling routine, the Cups and Balls. He’d done those at private parties. He was very familiar with the material, and he had a very clear vision of how he wanted the show to look. And it was terrific.
The fact that he got David Mamet to direct it gave it a wonderful cachet. And people showed up. And once it’s a hit then the celebrities go to see it. And, it was a very small venue. It was 108 seats. So, if there were any celebrities in the room, you could see them. They were there every night. It was a big hit. It was a phenomenon. They were all very gracious. The would come back stage afterwards and greet him and tell him how much they liked the show.
The night that I saw the show, I waited in line to get a ticket, and sat in one of the last two rows. In the audience were Steve Martin, Woody Allen and Soon Yi, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, and Mike Nichols.
They all came back stage too I believe, except Woody Allen, but I remember that Tom Hanks was as nice as people say he is. When Ricky introduced me to him, because Ricky was very good that way, Hanks actually said, “Hi, I’m Tom Hanks.” Very down to earth and we talked.
And, I remember, this was a thrill for me, Lauren Bacall and Jerome Robbins came by. They loved the show. And Al Pacino and everybody came by. It was very exciting.
Could we go back to how you got connected to it and what your actual role was?
I can talk about it up to a point. Ricky always told us, me and Matt and the crew, that he didn’t care what we said about him, but he didn’t want us to reveal any secrets. So we always respected that.
He told me when he was doing the show that he finally got this thing produced and David Mamet was directing it. He said listen, I really need somebody backstage, who I trust, who knows magic. It’s a standard two month run and we both go back to doing what we were doing. And I said, “I’ll do it.” It was here in the City, and I wouldn’t be in a hotel - two months. We didn’t know that it would be such a big hit. That he would get all those amazing reviews. Once you get the review from the Times, that’s it. The other papers don’t really count that much. When Ben Brantley liked the show, that was it. Everybody renegotiates their contract, the run is extended, everything changes.
Did you work with him during the rehearsal period?
Absolutely, from day one. I just had to keep track of all the props and work with them during the show and maintain the props. A lot of people thought that he just walked out on stage and picked up a deck of cards and started to do stuff, but that’s not what it’s like. There are all kinds of cues and spike marks. The set has to be in the right place and all those knick-knacks on the shelves.
Do you remember what a great looking set it was? In the first run - we never did it again - we couldn’t afford it, but in the first run, everything on the stage was a rented antique. Everything was real. It gave a tremendous look. I wish the audience was allowed to file on stage. After that the stage manager and I took photographs of everything, detailed photographs of how things, not just the shelves, but how everything was placed, exactly. You’re not allowed to change anything without the set designer’s permission.
So I was there from the beginning. I found it fascinating to watch the show take shape. Just absolutely great to watch the crew and little by little you learn to do what you have to do. Everybody worked very, very hard. We worked until 10:00 every night.
During the rehearsal period?
Yeah, every night. And then you go home and we’d be there again at maybe 9 a.m. We all worked very, very hard and so did Ricky.
What would you say Mamet’s contribution was to it?
Well, he gave suggestions. But he could see that Ricky knew how he wanted the show to look, and I remember that at one point at the beginning during rehearsal Ricky was onstage saying something out to the audience, there was nobody there, but we were there and Mamet said, don’t stand right in the center of the stage. Stand six feet to your right. Just a little bit off center. It makes it a little bit more interesting. And so he did. Little things like that. Theatrical things. He’s certainly not going to tell him how to do a trick, but just things to make it play better.
I know the show was extended in New York. Do you remember how long it ended up playing in New York.
Well, certainly another couple of months, and then we went right on tour. We went to Chicago and did 9 weeks at the Steppenwolf Theatre. And that was great, because the Chicago magicians came by and that’s a good crowd. It was the Marlo crowd, Steve Draun, Simon Aronson and Dave Solomon and they just loved the show. That was great. It was a good theater, they treated us well. And then we went from place to place because you want to take advantage of the momentum.
Was it an actual tour or was it like you would go to one city and come back and the go out again?
It was more like one city for a long time, like two months or so or nine weeks. And then come back and go out again somewhere and come back. I don’t think Ricky wanted to do a tour. The producers would have loved it, but he just didn’t want to do it that way.
Approximately how long in total were you involved with that show?
Twenty years. That show played on and off for twenty years. We ended up in Australia at the Melbourne Arts Festival. It was the hit of the festival because everybody else was a dancer or a singer or a musician, and there’s Ricky doing his show.
If the show was changed slightly, you can’t call it by the same title. Ricky made the decision not to ship the automaton to Australia because it was too delicate. Because that was cut out of the show we couldn’t call the show Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants. It would almost be fraudulent. So they called it An Evening with Ricky Jay.
But we did do the automaton everywhere else. But it was very delicate. Because it was built like the real thing. It wasn’t electronic. You cranked it. And if you opened it up and looked inside, it was all gears and pulleys and string. It was really amazing that the thing could move the way it moved, and it did that terrific card trick, the torn and restored card trick. It was a very nice piece and it also gave Ricky a chance to rest for a few minutes. With a one man show, it’s all you. You don’t have 5 seconds off.
I don’t remember the automaton from the show.
Well, you know what else, they cut it out of the HBO special. I guess they thought it slowed things down. They certainly could have left it in. It wasn’t a time thing. But it was a charming part of the show and Jules Fisher made a special template. You know Jules Fisher, seven Tony awards for lighting, right? And an amateur magician. He used to book me for Broadway cast parties. He made a special template for the automaton, put it over the lights and it just put this wonderful pattern over the stage. It was a nice piece, but they cut it out of the special and we didn’t do it in Australia.
Now there were other shows, later on, like On the Stem. Were you involved in them also?
Absolutely. I was even called the 53rd Assistant in On the Stem. That was my billing. Because it was the same producers. And they thought it was funny, and so did I. On the Stem was terrific, a bigger show. And we didn’t tour with it because it had a lot of set pieces. It would be hard to tour. Not impossible. Bigger shows have toured. But not like 52 Assistants. But that was a good show. It was very different. That had its own automaton, the orange tree.
I didn’t see On the Stem, I’m sorry to say. That was more about con games and charlatans, right?
A little bit. It was more about old New York. That implies con games and swindles, but there was a wonderful device in the show that fooled everybody, even magicians. And it was never mentioned in any of the reviews. It was never even hinted at. And it was used several times during the show. It was a very ingenious thing. Imagine two torah scrolls that are 10 feet high and 30 feet apart on stage. And wrapped around both of them on canvas was a panorama with drawings of old New York. And when the two Torah scrolls turned, the panorama moved, wrapped around the poles. And it was a wonderful effect, and the guy who painted it was a very cool guy. Peter Larkin. He was an older guy. He was in his seventies and he would show up in the theatre in a black, leather motorcycle jacket. And he was a very interesting guy because he designed the set for the original Peter Pan on Broadway, which is really kind of cool. That was a wonderful show. He painted this scrolling panorama. It was fantastic. It was a great theatrical device.
Ricky made a comment at one point about the audience at 52 Assistants and said something like “there are some very big card cheats in the audience tonight.” Was it in fact true that he hung out with those kind of guys?
It is true. He mentions it in the show. He says something like “con men, hustlers, swindlers. These people are my friends.” It was true. And he would do what Vernon did. He would seek them out. He would hunt them down.
Were you ever around when any of these folks came by?
They never came by to see him in the green room. They were very low profile. But I have no doubt that they were out there.
Do you think he ever used his skills in gambling?
No, I don’t think he did. I think in that sense he was absolutely ethical. He wouldn’t do that. I don’t know if you know this, but most professional gamblers, if they even bother to think about magicians, and card tricks and gambling routines, if they start to thing about it - because I’ve met a couple of gamblers that are into magic, they’ve even shown up at lectures. They think that magicians are morons. Their attitude is, 'I can’t believe you, you’ve got the skill. You could be making a fortune and all you want to do is make four aces appear in a pile.' It’s a different mindset. They don’t get it and the fact that some of these magicians are very skillful, this really drives them crazy. ‘What a waste. Look how well you’re doing this thing and you want to do a card trick.’
Vernon told me a great story where he met a gambler - he tracked down a gambler, and the gambler was showing him all this fantastic gambling stuff, cheating techniques, and Vernon really didn’t have anything that good that he could show back to the guy gambling wise, cheating wise, so he did a card trick. He just did a really good card trick.
And he finishes the trick and the guy says “that’s pretty good. How do you use it?”
And Vernon says “what do you mean?”
And the guy says “how do you use it?”
And Vernon says “you don’t use it.”
“What do you do?”
“You just do it.”
“It’s a mystery.”
“What do you mean?”
“How do the aces get over there?”
“Who cares how the aces get over there!?”
He just didn’t get it. So, that’s why Ricky’s not going to cheat at cards.
It was pretty well known that Ricky had this contentious relationship with his parents because he pursued magic over whatever they had in mind for him. Do you know if he ever reconciled with them?
I think they might have been on speaking terms, but basically, I don’t think so. They never came up, very rarely.
That must have been very difficult.
I don’t think it was hard for Ricky. I think he made the choice he wanted.
I want to ask you about his literary pursuits. I think that his output as a writer was maybe almost as significant as his work as a magician. He brought forth a lot of information that we wouldn’t otherwise know about.
Yes, he was kind of a scholar without a degree. The book he wrote on Buchinger - he was the world’s authority on Buchinger.
Did you ever see his books, his collection?
Absolutely. He was always into books. He always had books. When he had his apartment, it was really cluttered. Just books everywhere. When he finally moved into the house, the movers told him that they’d never seen an apartment as cluttered as his.
He always collected the books and the posters. It was something aside from the magic and he had this interest in unusual performers. That’s where Learned Pigs came from.
Do you think that he was content with where he was? It seemed as if things went really well for him in the end all things considered.
Yeah, he carved out a little niche for himself. He grew into…I don’t think he could have done 52 Assistants with long hair. He was too young for that character, so he was the right character with the right hair length and a little bit portly at that point. It was much better for the character. It all just came together. And meeting Mamet is what helped a lot.
Because he ended up getting all those acting roles?
Yes, that’s true and Mamet does tend to use a lot of the same people.
Once Ricky showed me something and we thought it was really funny. He’d actually made enough films, a lot more than what he’d done with Mamet, that there was actually a 10-day Ricky Jay film festival in Thailand. He showed me the postcard advertising it. He has a following. He’s been in like forty movies over the years. Never gigantic roles, not like the Mamet roles, but just the same. I was surprised when I found that out. There were enough movies that they had a Ricky Jay film festival.
What was your relationship like with him in recent years. Were you in touch with him much.
Well, yeah. Because he loved to come to the Library when he was in town, and when I was out there, I stayed at his place, cause he had a terrific guest room and Chrisann was such a great hostess. I remember she said to me at night, ‘“here’s a bottle of water, you can play the TV as loud as you want, we can’t hear you upstairs, and if you get hungry there’s a cold chicken sandwich in the fridge.” She was just terrific. So, I stayed there. He didn’t go to the Castle just because he didn’t like the Castle, so I’d go with other people. Yeah, so when I was out there I would stay there and if he was here, we’d get together,
He was so influential to so many people. I’m wondering if you have a perception about why that was. What was it about him that people really grabbed onto?
I think that when he talked magic, similar to the Professor, a certain sincerity came through. It was, I don’t know if contagious is the right word, but it was effective. And he was always such a great storyteller. And part of it maybe was, not hanging around magicians, which drove them crazy.
But so many people are commenting online about how influential he was to them, that he inspired them to do magic, that he played an important part in their lives even though they’d never met. Was it just his skill? Was it his originality?
I think it was the skill, the look. Dominique Duvivier told me that Ricky was an influence on him and Duvivier grew his hair long like Ricky. He was a big fan of Ricky’s.
He was just different. He didn’t march to the same drummer as the other magicians. He turned down the Magic Castle’s highest award. He didn’t show up. He wasn’t interested. He didn’t like their politics. And I won an award that year and it would have been nice to have been on the stage with him.
Well, he definitely was an original. In looking back at what he’s done, that’s what stands out to me. If you look at 52 Assistants he did it in a style that was kind of archaic, but what he did was generate excitement in a contemporary audience by drawing on the classical foundation of magic. So he was regenerating this for a new era, a new audience.
That’s absolutely right. The show was almost like a lecture on the history of magic punctuated by some magic effects. He brought the audience up to his level. Sometimes during the intermission I would mingle to hear what people were saying. A lot of people thought the names that he mentioned were made up names because they are so colorful, like Matthias Buchinger and Carl von Pospischil and Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser. They thought he made them up, but we know it's all true.
Let’s end, David, with some thoughts about what he meant to you and to magic.
Well, he was somebody who really thought about his magic and it shows in his presentation. Plus his knowledge of old magicians, vaudeville, magic history. Really interesting. Always fun to hang out with. Doing the show with Matt and having two meals a day together, the three of us, plus doing the show, we never got into a fight, never argued. He was always very professional, moreso than other people. Like I said, he showed up early, never missed a performance. Very serious about it, because he wanted it to be a good show.