KETR

Magician Ricky Jay Dies At 72

Nov 25, 2018
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The world got a little less magical this weekend. Master Magician Ricky Jay has died at the age of 72. In stage shows, with titles like Ricky Jay And His 52 Assistants, he amazed audiences with card tricks and magic. He also helped Hollywood make the impossible seem real in films from "Boogie Nights" to "Tomorrow Never Dies." A while back, critic Bob Mondello looked into a documentary about Ricky Jay's life. It was called "Deceptive Practices: The Mysteries And Mentors Of Ricky Jay" (ph). And, today, we are revisiting that piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Card artist Ricky Jay keeps up a constant stream of chatter in his act onstage, everything from gambling poems to stories about The Great Cardini. And it's all very entertaining.

RICKY JAY: If I could go back in history, and I can...

(LAUGHTER)

JAY: ...The performer I would most like to see would be Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser, the famous Viennese card magician who thought...

MONDELLO: But the patter is designed to distract you from what he's doing. In the movie, where you're not just watching his hands every second, it's OK for him to digress with video, including of him, age 7.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DECEPTIVE PRACTICE: THE MYSTERIES AND MENTORS OF RICKY JAY")

JAY: Here, I have an empty cannister. Keep your eye on it...

MONDELLO: But I caught Jay's act on stage a few years back and was lucky enough to get plucked from the audience to sit right at his elbow as he performed his little miracles. And there, I tried like crazy not to listen to what he was saying and concentrate instead on the cards.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARDS SHUFFLING)

MONDELLO: Sure, Jay's feats with what he sometimes calls his 52 assistants would amaze patrons who sit a few feet away. But I was really close, wearing brand-new prescription glasses, my powers of observation heightened by years of, well, observation. So when he started showing us three-card monte, I knew to ignore two of the bent cards and concentrate on the third one. In the movie, they filmed a woman doing exactly what I was doing - sitting next to Jay, putting her face down on the table to see under the cards as he blabs away, while turning red queens into black twos and back again.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DECEPTIVE PRACTICE: THE MYSTERIES AND MENTORS OF RICKY JAY")

JAY: Put a big X on one of the queens, and you have to find...

MONDELLO: He shows three queens.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DECEPTIVE PRACTICE: THE MYSTERIES AND MENTORS OF RICKY JAY")

JAY: Then, a little later, they thought it was better to play with black cards.

MONDELLO: Same cards. All three are now black twos.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DECEPTIVE PRACTICE: THE MYSTERIES AND MENTORS OF RICKY JAY")

JAY: Red pencil and made a big circle so you could see it.

MONDELLO: You'll hear the audience laughing as he does this again and again. The woman's nose maybe 5 inches from the cards. And it's clear she's got nothing. Subatomic rearrangement of the card faces maybe? Mass hypnosis? And what's killing her is that, from where she's sitting, she can see that the usual explanations about marked cards or shaved cards - the ones that make perfect sense when you're sitting in the front row - don't hold water.

I was allowed to touch the cards, hold them, turn them over. And the shuffles, while they must necessarily be rearranging the deck in trickily deceptive ways, look to be genuine mixes of two stacks of cards. He talks about that in the film, too, about sending eight or 10 or 12 hours a day practicing.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DECEPTIVE PRACTICE: THE MYSTERIES AND MENTORS OF RICKY JAY")

JAY: You can just get into a rhythm where it just feels so wonderful that you do it without really spending an awful lot of time thinking about doing it.

MONDELLO: Which leaves the thinking to the rest of us, of course. "Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries And Mentors Of Ricky Jay" films its title character talking quite a bit about celebrated magicians who have taken tricks with them to the grave. And don't expect him to explain his own tricks. He'd be the first to tell you his talent is for misdirection. He's a bamboozler. One BBC journalist talks on-screen about how he reduced her to tears with a trick he did just for her, an audience of one. Great story. Though, I have to say, here at NPR, we're made of sterner stuff. After sitting at his elbow that day, I can tell you how he manages the tricks I saw really close up. It's not mysterious at all. It's magic, pure and simple.

I'm Bob Mondello.

MARTIN: That was a piece Bob Mondello did in 2013 about the magician, Ricky Jay, who died yesterday at the age of 72. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.