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'Fresh Air' celebrates master magician Ricky Jay


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, sitting in for Terry Gross.

On today's show, we're going to listen back to our interviews with master magician Ricky Jay, who died in 2018 and was known in his time as the greatest living sleight-of-hand artist. He also was a scholar of con games and of the human oddities and exotic performers who worked the freak shows and traveling carnivals. During his life, he collected rare books, pamphlets, posters, handbills, broadsides, objects and apparatus documenting the histories of magic, circuses and eccentric characters. This week, Sotheby's auctioned off part of his 10,000-item collection. When Jay worked with a deck of cards, it's as though he lived in a different dimension than we do, a place where the laws of physics have been altered. He made cards disappear and reappear and move to different places in ways that are just impossible. He also played strange and sinister characters on screen - a con man in David Mamet's film "House Of Games," the camera operator who shoots the porno films in "Boogie Nights" and a card sharp on HBO's "Deadwood."

Terry Gross interviewed Ricky Jay a number of times over the years. Let's start with an onstage conversation recorded in 1998 at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, at an event co-sponsored by FRESH AIR and City Arts & Lectures of San Francisco. They kicked off the evening with a clip from the film "House Of Games." Lindsay Crouse plays a psychologist who's being introduced to the underworld of con men. Her guide is a con man played by Joe Mantegna. He's brought her to a poker game. But Mantegna has just lost a lot of money in this game. And he's accusing Ricky Jay of cheating him.


JOE MANTEGNA: (As Mike) What the [expletive] you doing with a flush?

RICKY JAY: (As George) That beat trips where you come from? Give me the [expletive] money.

MANTEGNA: (As Mike) We lost.

LINDSAY CROUSE: (As Margaret) I have gathered that.

MANTEGNA: (As Mike) I...

JAY: (As George) And if you think I'm leaving here without that check, you're out of your [expletive] mind.

MANTEGNA: (As Mike) Hey, look.

JAY: (As George) I'll look later. Now, give me the money.

MANTEGNA: (As Mike) OK, OK, OK. Give me a moment, will you?

JAY: (As George) Because I won that money from you, baby.

MANTEGNA: (As Mike) I'll give it to you when I get to it. Now, don't get pushy.

JAY: (As George) Pushy, Jim, pushy? - you don't know what pushy is. Now, give me my $6,000.


TERRY GROSS: Please welcome a man you don't want to play cards with, Ricky Jay.


GROSS: Now, you not only know a lot about cards, you know, a lot about the history of con games.

JAY: I'm interested, yeah.

GROSS: Now...


GROSS: ...In the movie we just saw, in "House Of Games," Joe Mantegna, when he's teaching Lindsay Crouse about cons, he says, people think a confidence game is when you give the con man your trust. But a confidence game starts when the con man gives you his trust. Is that true?

JAY: I think it's a lovely subtlety. I've never seen that particular point mentioned by anyone but Mamet. But I think it is a lovely thing, that you want to be able to do that. You want to be able to trust someone. I - a couple of times have been interviewed about cons specifically. And the point that comes to me, and it's hardly profound, is that I don't think any of us would want to live in an atmosphere where we couldn't be conned because we would be so skeptical of everything in life that it would be a horrible way to live. So on some level, we have to do that. And the confidence man, you know, is able to inspire that by acting in kind, you know? It's very important.

GROSS: Tell us a con game that you find - a con that you find particularly interesting.

JAY: I'll - again, it's nice, you know. Just your questions are making me think of things. And (laughter) I'll tell you a story from "House Of Games." There's a moment in "House Of Games" where Mike Nussbaum, who plays the older con man - wonderful actor - is showing Lindsay a hustle. It's one of a variety of hustles called laying the note, which deal with short change in various ways. And in this particular case, the idea's a man comes over to a cashier. And he says that he wants to send his mother $20 because, you know, she needs it. And I actually think Joey Mantegna says in the film - another wonderful Mamet line - make her your aunt; it sounds more pathetic.


JAY: And he has a bunch of signals. And so he says, you know what? Here, count them out. They're 20. And meanwhile, he's given a $20 bill in return. And when the cashier counts them out, he realizes they're only 19. Meanwhile, you've seen the con man very clearly take the $20 bill and seal it in an envelope. And now the cashier said, you only gave me 19. And the con man takes the 19 singles back. He hands the cashier the envelope with the 20. And he says, I must have left one in the car. Hold on, I'll be back. And the cashier isn't worried because he's a dollar ahead of the transaction at this point. And the con man goes out to his car and never comes back. And when the cashier does open the envelope, where very plainly there was a $20 bill a moment ago, there's only a piece of newspaper. And so he's been conned. And when David wrote his version of this initially, which had nothing to do with an envelope or these bills, there was something - he said to me, how is that? And I said, it's very good. And he said to me, that bad?


JAY: And I said, well, you know, there's some verisimilitude. Anyway, we had a small problem with that moment. And he asked me if I would come up with a solution. So I was in a difficult position. As someone who loves the con and still have friends who actually make their living laying the note, I didn't want to betray something that they would do. And so as a consultant, I did what I'm often asked to do, which is to think of a method that would be appealing for the context in which it was used - in this case, a film. And I came up with a method of stealing the $20 bill that's shown in the film. And it worked for us in this context.

The film came out. It seemed to do well. People liked the scene. About six months later, a friend of mine who investigates bunco stuff for the police sent me a clipping from Denver which said, a con man arrested - learned technique from "House Of Games."


JAY: And so here - I mean, this is an amazing case of art imitating life imitating art. I mean, I'm purposely using a method that wasn't real - coming up with a method, you know, that I think was original and putting it in a film. And a man who was an insurance salesman - this is the funny thing - this wasn't a crook - but he saw it, and he really liked it. And he thought, well, can I do this? And he went out and he did it eight or nine times in Denver. And he was only caught - he was never caught in the transaction. Once a woman was explaining what happened to her to a policeman. She said, you know, two weeks ago, a guy - there he is. And they ran and grabbed the guy.


JAY: And I wrote - I remember sending this clipping to Mamet with a note saying, this is clearly the only practical thing I've ever done in my life.


GROSS: So what is your code of ethics as someone who knows a lot about con games? It sounds like part of the code is to protect the con men (laughter).


JAY: I guess I did just imply that, didn't I?

GROSS: Would you ever run a con on somebody? Have you ever done that?

JAY: Would I? Oh, heavens no.


JAY: No, no, not I. I have a company which consults on film that's called Deceptive Practices. And our motto on the card, it says Deceptive Practices. And then underneath it says, arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis.


JAY: And that is, in fact, the way that I deal with people in the film world or the theater world or the television world if I'm consulting, which is that if a director has to know how a piece works to shoot it better, I'll tell them unhesitatingly. Well, I'll tell them hesitatingly, but I will tell them. I don't have to know, you know, I'm just not interested in the gratuitous exposure of this kind of material at all, so I won't tell them.

GROSS: Now, you, as I mentioned, you're an expert on the history of really odd and eccentric performers. And you were in a carnival yourself...

JAY: That's true.

GROSS: ...Briefly as a barker. And I had asked you to do this on FRESH AIR. I'm going to ask you again to just give us a sense of what your rap was.

JAY: Oh, the pitch I used as...

GROSS: The pitch, yeah, when you were a carnival barker.

JAY: Yeah. It's called the ballay (ph) more technically on the platform. Yeah, I ran a 10-in-one show for...

GROSS: What is a 10-in-one show?

JAY: It means 10 attractions under a single tent.


JAY: So you pay one admission and you get 10 acts, so there could be a five in one or a 10 in one. I wish you would have asked me about this earlier so I could have thought about it, but I have a feeling once I start, it'll probably come back, so.

Showtime, circus time. See the magician, the fireman apalater (ph), the girl with the yellow elastic tissue, the electrode lady. Yes, the electrode lady. At the age of 7, she and her sister were struck by lightning. Her sister died, but she lived to tell the tale - 20,000 volts of electricity through the young girl's body. The doctor said she lived because she was immune to the shock of electricity. See the monster child. The monster child from Johannesburg set out - I got a monster child with one head, two bodies, three arms and four legs. You read about in the leading periodicals. You read about it in The National Enquirer. See Adam and Eve, boy and girl, brother and sister, all in one, one of the world's three living morphodites who will expose itself, not to be rude to vulgar, but to show you one of Mother Nature's corious (ph) mistakes. Showtime, circus time. Let's go. Be going. They're all on the inside. They're on the inside.


GROSS: Did you write that yourself?

JAY: No. Far from writing it, it's very much part of an oral tradition, including the mispronunciation of words like morphodite for hermaphrodite and corious for curious. And, you know, often, you know, the guys I knew doing the ballay were illiterate, you know, didn't read. I mean, they learned the pitch. They were handed down. And yet pitches were topical. For instance, one in one year might have been the giant rat of Sumatra during the Vietnam War would become the giant rat of Cambodia, you know. Or a deformed animal might be presented as having come from near the nuclear testing site in Los Alamos, N.M., or later Hershey, Pa. You know, I mean, so that was the one thing I loved about the pitches is that they would vary depending on topical news.

GROSS: Now, didn't you do an electric chair act with a woman?

JAY: I did, yeah, as part of that carnival. The electric chair was basically a woman sat in a chair, and you would walk up to her and hold an electric light bulb or fluorescent bulbs to various parts of her body, and they would light. The finale was usually that she would hold out her tongue and you would light the bulb on her tongue.

GROSS: And so it would look like she was getting electrified?

JAY: Well, it was never really specified. I mean, you know, it - And then there was another thing that we did with the girl afterwards, which was called the blow off, which is you then put the girl in a box. You put her in this box and then take her dress off while she's in the box, proving she has yellow elastic tissue because the box would seem to be too small for her. You would put swords in the box as well, take them out, then take the dress off.

And for an extra 25 or 50 cents, you would allow people to come up. Please come up and look at the box, but realize the lady lives entirely on the proceeds from the box - which she didn't, by the way. The owner would take far more of the proceeds than he ever gave the girl. And then the sad blow off, as it was called, is you would come up. And she would, of course, be wearing a bathing suit. You know, so it was, you know, yet another con on top of the con.

GROSS: So how did she light up when you when you would hold a light bulb on her?

JAY: I'd say that that was arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis.


BIANCULLI: We're listening to an interview from 1998 with master magician Ricky Jay, who died in 2018. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's conversation with master magician Ricky Jay, recorded on stage in 1998. He died in 2018.


GROSS: You were introduced to magic, I think, by your grandfather when you were a kid. What was his magic act like?

JAY: Well, he didn't so much do an act. At times he did - during the Second World War, he did perform for servicemen. He did USO shows. And so I imagine he did an act then, but that's before I was born. He was an amateur in, I think, the best sense of the word. He was a lover of magic, and he was just interested. And he took lessons from, you know, remarkable people and was a very patient and good teacher. And so it certainly inspired me.

GROSS: And did he teach you things?

JAY: Oh, yes, absolutely. Yeah, very specifically and absolutely. And then not only did he, but he got the great people of the day who were also his friends and his teachers to spend time with me as well.

GROSS: Like Slydini.

JAY: Like Slydini.

GROSS: Who was Slydini?

JAY: Well, Slydini - Quintino Marucci - was an Italian man who lived in the city who did this wonderfully poetic magic and was a wonderfully artistic fellow. I mean, he actually made me in those years - he was a wonderful tailor. And he made suits that were like Spanish toreador outfits where every flower was dyed by hand and put on with sequins. And these were - and that's what I actually performed in when I was a young boy, 13 or 14 and, you know, with penciled-in sideburns.

And - but Slydini was wonderful, and he was considered a master of misdirection of the art of - well, I always like to deal with the concept of misdirection positively rather than negatively. The idea was to direct an audience's attention exactly where he wanted it directed. But Slydini was a man who did miracles. He would take a cigarette from someone, a lit cigarette, and clearly break it in half, you know, and show you both halves of the cigarette and roll it between his finger and hand back a perfectly restored cigarette. I mean, it was as close to real magic as you could hope for.

GROSS: How did you end up in the carnival?

JAY: Wow. I ended up in the carnival. I was - in my very poor academic career, I was at Cornell. And every year, a fair would come to Trumansburg, which was very close to Ithaca. And a bunch of buddies went out to the Trumansburg fair. And there was a magician performing in this ten-in-one. And he wasn't very good. And as buddies will do, particularly in those years, they go, show him something, Ricky. Show him something, you know, which is terrible. I would never in a million years do this to anyone's act, no matter what level it was on. But this guy picked up on it and started going, yeah, show me something, Ricky. Show me. And I just said, no, no. This is - you know, please, continue. I'm very sorry. I apologize for this. And he just wouldn't get off me, you know? Show me something, Ricky. Show me, you know? And this was a guy with gold lame hair. And I - this was...


JAY: Anyway - so the show finished. And even after the show, the guy came out approaching me again. He just wouldn't let this drop. And at that point, I did take the cards and did something for him. And he was surprised. And he said, if you ever want to come out on the road with me, you know, it'd be - you know, I would love to have you work in the show. And I was - it was a summer. And I was tending bar in a bar in Ithaca, doing some sleight of hand behind the bar. And...


JAY: That was the job description, I might add.


JAY: Conducting turtle races, all the usual stuff. I got a call one day from this guy. I mean, he tracked me down to this bar and said that someone had dropped out of the show, and would I come join the carnival? - which was then in Canandaigua or one of those little Finger Lake communities. And that's how it actually happened.

GROSS: Now, when you started doing magic professionally, I think it was in the 1960s or '70s. And it was during what was in part, you know, like, the LSD. Or a lot of people in your audience were probably hallucinating while you were performing...


GROSS: ...This sleight-of-hand stuff. It must have been a pretty strange time, in a way, to be doing magic.

JAY: Well, one of the jobs - I mean, I was doing it professionally quite young, doing TV and stuff.

GROSS: That's true. You were 7, I think, when you started performing.

JAY: But in the '60s, I did get a job in the Electric Circus, which was the great psychedelic nightclub in New York in the '60s. And I literally performed sleight of hand in between Ike and Tina Turner and Timothy Leary lecturing on acid. That is true.


JAY: And I daresay, you know, most of the people who were watching it were blazed out of their minds.


JAY: And it was a very peculiar experience.


JAY: I'm not unhappy that I did it. And I cherish the memory.


GROSS: But they must have just read all of this stuff into what you were doing.

JAY: Yeah. It was strange. I mean, I had people throwing punches at me and grabbing rosary beads and running out of the club. And - I mean, it ran through the gamut of emotions, sure. And...


JAY: Probably, it's the experience in my life where I had least to do with the reaction that was, in fact, happening. I don't...


GROSS: Now, a lot of what you've learned, you've learned from actually knowing con men. How did you find them?

JAY: Well, I guess it was that ad in The New York Times.

GROSS: You know, exactly. Exactly.


GROSS: I mean, a magician performs, you know where to find them.

JAY: Yeah, that's true.

GROSS: What about a con man?

JAY: No, I mean, people who are - I don't know how to - I really don't know how to explain that. I mean, you meet people - I want to say with like interests. But I...


JAY: I will say that. You meet people with like interests somehow, and then you do.

GROSS: So - but where? I mean, carnivals? Carnivals?


GROSS: How can I find a con man (laughter)?

JAY: Oh, one will find you.


GROSS: Would I be a good mark? Would I be a good mark, do you think? Or are there certain people who are good marks?

JAY: I - you know, it's a difficult question to answer. I think we're all susceptible to being marks unless, as I said before, we're so calloused and so jaded that we trust no one in their lives. And I imagine that you are trusting. And so you probably are a good mark.


GROSS: Isn't there a part of you that instead of just not telling how you do things really wants to say, this is how I do it. This is how I figured out how to do it. Like, isn't there a part in magicians that would really like to kind of brag about how they do what they do instead of hiding it?

JAY: Absolutely is the answer. Absolutely. There are times where you're crying to tell someone, whoa, look what I just - you know, you really want to do that. You absolutely do.

GROSS: But you can't?

JAY: But you can't. I think - yeah, I think you can't. You go home and tell your friend, you know, your best friend, you know?

GROSS: Who's also a magician?

JAY: Oh, yeah. Clearly, that's the implication - right...


JAY: ...Who's also a sleight-of-hand artist. Yeah, this is what happened. Yeah, you really do. And here's another funny thing. There are a number of effects in the panoply of magic where the method is really better than the effect, where, you know, it's - something happens. I wish I could give you a good example for radio, but I don't think of one at the moment, where what's happening behind the scenes is 20 times more interesting than what you're actually seeing. And you're dying to say to the audience, boy, if you could just see what's - and you really can't, I mean...

BIANCULLI: Ricky Jay speaking with Terry Gross in 1998 at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. He died in 2018. More with Ricky Jay after a break. Also, we remember comic actor Peter Scolari, best known for his TV roles in "Bosom Buddies" and "Newhart." And John Powers reviews the new Netflix movie "Passing." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Let's listen to some of Terry's 1987 interview with master magician and author and actor Ricky Jay. He had just published his book, "Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women." Jay died in 2018. This week, Sotheby's auctioned off part of his collection of rare books, objects, posters, broadsides and more from the world of magic, circuses and eccentric characters.


GROSS: Now, you're also interested in con games. Do you consider magic a conning act?

JAY: Well, you know, I, at times, feel that I have to draw the line. I mean, here we are talking about freaks and cons and all sorts of fields with some sort of pejorative connotation. And yet, I believe that many of the people I write about in this book were great artists and that somehow, one doesn't preclude the other. There can be people who are absolutely wonderful artists, whether they're in this sort of netherworld area or not. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's very exciting.

GROSS: Are there interesting swindles going on on city streets today?

JAY: Yeah, sure. I mean, the things - one of the observations that I try to make in the book - and I don't spend a lot of time doing that. I mean, mostly, I'm just presenting facts about people. But it does seem to me - and I mentioned in the introduction that I believe people are swindled the same way now that they were in the Elizabethan times 400 years ago. They're fooled by the same things, and they're delighted by the same things. Very little has changed. There are swindling and cheating techniques done with cards and dice that are absolutely explained in detail in books from the 1550s that are still being done now.

GROSS: Things like Three-card Monte?

JAY: Three-card Monte doesn't go back that far. That's a fairly recent origin. But the three-shell game, which is a version of thimble rigging, goes back to - I've been trying to trace it back to the 17th century. And I haven't been able to, but I've certainly been able to trace it back to the very early 18th century. By 1714, there are clearly references to swindlers using a pea under a thimble. And that game has changed very, very little in the ensuing years.

GROSS: Have you ever gone up to swindlers or conmen and try to beat them at their own game?

JAY: It's a very dangerous thing to do. It's a very bad thing to do. I think there are some people in this field who think that if they're magicians and know something about this, this is a great opportunity for them. One has to make the distinction that these people are, for the most part, criminals. And even though I have, like I say, this respect for what they do and some great feeling, you can be in a very bad situation if you see somebody playing Three-card Monte on the street and want to go up and say, I know something about cards, too. I know how to do this move and make the queen go into the middle when it doesn't look like it's there.

So no, I don't do that. But I have some friends and have had friends for many years who are on that side of the fence and still maintain my connections with them. But I don't walk up to people in the midst of a game and point out the queen, even though I can do that. It's not healthy.

GROSS: (Laughter) What kind of venues have you come up with to perform your magic act in? Where did you start establishing yourself?

JAY: Well, I've really run the gamut. I mean, early years where I would just do close-up magic, I rebelled against being on a stage. And I would wear - I think when I did the "Tonight" show the first time, 20 years ago with hair down to my waist, wearing a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, I mean, that was a very strange way to be presenting it. But I hated that classic image of a magician then and refused to work onstage.

Then I went through a period where I may have been the first magician to ever work consistently with rock and roll bands. I used to go on tour for almost 10 years of my life opening shows for a wide variety of music acts. I worked carny freak shows. I worked on the street. I worked in theater. I worked every opportunity I could, and the venues were as different as they could possibly be because that was a learning experience.

But particularly, the most difficult thing of all of those was working close-up. Now the concept of close-up magic has gained a great deal in popularity. In most major cities, somewhere in a good restaurant or hotel will have a magician who comes to your table and does magic. But when I first started, I don't think there were more than a half a dozen people in the country who made a full-time living doing that.

GROSS: Is close-up magic more difficult because the person's eyes are that close to you?

JAY: Well, technically, it probably is. It's also why it gives me so much pleasure. Yeah, it's usually done with sleight of hand, rather than with some tricked boxes or odd apparatus, you know? And as you say, if you're doing it surrounded with people, you know, right on your coat sleeves, you have to be good. And you know, that just made it more fun.

BIANCULLI: Ricky Jay, speaking with Terry Gross in 1987. Terry spoke with Ricky Jay again in 2002, after the publication of another of his books, which was called "Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck."


GROSS: You quote your grandfather, who said that - he was a magician. And he said he never played with cards because if he lost, he was thought to be an incompetent magician, and if he won, he was suspected to be a cheater. I was figuring that would probably be true with dice also.

JAY: Well, it is. I think I actually mention it in that aspect in the book because of the same thing - of people being suspected of being cheaters if they simply won. I mean, that bears to mind one of, I think, the most interesting anecdotes in the book. In 1544, we find the first serious account of cheating with dice in the English language. And of all places, it appears in a study on archery called "Toxophilus" by Roger Ascham. And in it, he talks about what, I think, is just a truly diabolical method of a cheater gaining his advantage.

So he says in this particular game, a man that the cheaters want to take for their money is actually winning honestly. So what they do is to switch false dice into the game. Let the honest man throw the dice once and accuse him of cheating, and then take his winnings. That's in 1544. I mean, the level of duplicity is just wonderfully minor.

GROSS: (Laughter) How are loaded dice made? Like, what makes - what's the principle there?

JAY: Well, the principle is that a foreign substance is placed into the dice at some specific spot to make it favor the throwing of certain points. So - I think that that's a reasonably accurate analysis of this - so that if it's heavier on one side, it'll make - that side would tend to be thrown to the bottom so that the opposite side would surface. And various materials could have been used over the years - lead, gold, quicksilver, mercury. And then the placing of these loads within the dice became more and more sophisticated.

GROSS: Before you became a master of the con game and a historian of the con, were you ever taken - I mean, when you started to really love this stuff, before you knew how it worked, did you play Three-card Monte and lose all the time? Did you play dice with people who were cheating, but you didn't quite know how, so you were losing?

JAY: Let me say that I have been in card games and games of chance in which people were moving. That's the correct term. People were absolutely moving. And sometimes you can determine it while it's happening, and other times, you might have to go back after the game and recall, aha, that must have been what happened in this situation. I think anybody who thinks that they can't be cheated in a game is the perfect person for you to play against.


JAY: Because they're clearly suckers. Anybody can be cheated.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JAY: I mean, there are just levels and new work that's being done all the time.

GROSS: Well, Ricky Jay, a real pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

JAY: Terry, thanks very much indeed.

BIANCULLI: Ricky Jay speaking to Terry Gross in 2002. He died in 2018. He left behind a trove of rare books, posters, pamphlets, broadsides, objects and more from the world of magic, carnivals and eccentric acts. This week, Sotheby's auctioned off a portion of his 10,000-item collection. Coming up, we remember comic actor Peter Scolari, who died last week at the age of 66. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUDY ROYSTON'S "BED BOBBIN'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.