Tuesday, November 27, 2018

A loving tribute to Ricky Jay

Ricky Jay passed away last weekend.  He was... too young.  I loved Ricky Jay but never knew him.  My good friend Tracy Newman did and graciously offered to write her own personal, very heartfelt loving tribute to this exceptional man.   Ricky had a huge impact on her life as you will see.   It's a wonderful profile, filled with links so you can experience his brilliance first hand.  Thank you, Tracy, for sharing your precious memories.  Ricky Jay really did live up to the name "Amazing."

by Tracy Newman

This past Saturday night, I was at Musso & Frank’s having dinner with a friend. For some reason, we were trying to figure out who the late actor Vic Morrow had been married to, so I Googled it. That’s when I found out that my old friend, magician Ricky Jay had passed away. I was stunned and overcome with sadness. As soon as I got home I sat down at my computer and stared at it for a while, then I went to YouTube and started looking at videos of Ricky, reading about him and writing about him, trying to deal with this loss.

I met Ricky in 1972 or so, through our mutual friend, bass player, Bobby Kimmel. Bobby was one of the Stone Poneys, Linda Ronstadt’s trio when she recorded her first hit, “Different Drum.” He worked at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, started the prestigious concert series there and booked the shows. I played there a few times back then. He was going to book Ricky and wanted me to see him perform, so he took me to the Magic Castle. Ricky was working in the close-up room. The way the schedule at the Castle works is they clear the room for a new audience about every 20 minutes, but I was so blown away, I managed to stay in my seat for the entire evening and watch all five 20 minute shows.

Then, I came back the next night and the next night, for several nights. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Even though I had hung out at the Improv in New York in the mid-60s where many great comics were honing their acts, and was a founding member of the LA improv group, The Groundlings and had seen many brilliant performers, I had never seen anyone like Ricky Jay. The wit, the relaxed manner, the charm, the confidence and the ability to amaze! The Amazing Ricky Jay is what we all called him. He was and still remains the best overall performer I've ever seen. When you see Ricky Jay live, you’re sitting on the edge of your seat through the whole show!

I completely fell for him. We started dating and eventually lived together for a year or so, during which time I picked up on how to manipulate a deck of cards. I don't mean in a casual way; I mean I really learned how to perfect fans, cuts, shuffles, sleights, etc. There were cards all over the house, under and over everything! I would try a one-handed shuffle and they would spring out of my hands. I’d pick them up and do it again, hundreds of times a day. Ricky was practicing new tricks and throwing cards at everything. Honestly, it was crazy, but so much fun and exciting. By the way, I never learned how to do any card tricks. I wasn’t interested in that. I just loved the flourishes and anyway, I was completely incapable of misdirecting an audience's attention. I was only able to briefly surprise people with card fans and the like, enough so that I began actually working and making money, doing female hands in card games on TV and in movies! Now and then, I did Sally Fields’ hands in “The Girl With Something Extra.”

In 1974, I did Dyan Cannon’s hands in a poker game on a Bob Hope Special at NBC in Burbank. It was a take off on the movie “Paper Moon.” At rehearsal, Johnny Carson heard there was a female card handler on the Bob Hope stage, so he actually came over to meet me, with his make-up bib on! I did flourishes for him and he loved it. I went home and wrote a sketch for Ricky and me to do on the Carson show. I took the sketch in a big envelope to the NBC stages on the day of the Bob Hope shoot, and headed for where they shot the Carson show, when a golf cart came barreling toward me with Carson in it! I jumped in front of it, and handed him the sketch and as he was swerving to avoid hitting me, and I yelled, ”Remember me? The girl with the cards?” He smiled and drove off -- with the envelope! (If I tried that today, I’d be shot!) Anyway, two weeks later, Hank Bradford, Johnny's head writer at the time, called me and said they had rewritten the sketch for Johnny and me to do together! I was both bummed and excited. Ricky was pissed at first, but then was pretty excited for me and helped me prepare. (Ricky had done the Carson show a few times already, so it wasn’t that big of a disappointment.) Here’s the sketch:

After Johnny and I performed the sketch, I was told to wait behind the curtain during the commercial break, and if Johnny wanted to talk to me, he would introduce me and I would walk out and join him. Johnny worked with cards, too, so it turned out he was pretty interested in what I was doing:

Here’s one of the many things I learned from Ricky: You can really perfect something if you’re willing to do the work. Duh, you say? Well, that may seem obvious to some, but I didn’t really know that. I knew you could get something to be really good with hard work, but I thought you were wasting your time trying to perfect it. I played guitar, and my playing was good, but it certainly wasn’t perfect. When I first learned how to do a card fan, I managed to make it look really good, but it wasn’t perfect. The distance between each card varied, but when Ricky did it, the distance between each card was exactly the same. So I began the long journey of making a perfect fan. It took months and months. I got to where I could stare at the cards and imagine they were thicker, like cardboard, so I could see what I was doing wrong. My card fans became almost always perfect, and eventually so did some of my shuffles and cuts. That’s when I started getting hired for paying gigs. And I wasn’t nervous because I had the goods. That’s what Ricky had. He always had the goods. Here he is on Doug Henning’s World of Magic:

And here is a cool video about false dealing that will thrill some of you. I just saw it for the first time today. The quality of it is not great, but it’s good enough:

There's a lot more I could say here, about the many shows at theaters and parties where Ricky’s friend, Spencer Troy and I watched him completely amaze all sorts of audiences hundreds of times. He usually didn’t allow children at his shows, if he could control it, but sometimes he couldn’t. I remember once he was working a party and he asked the guests to sit in a big circle - there were about 15 people there, including a child of about 8 years old in her nightgown, who watched for a bit, but then fell asleep in her chair. After a few tricks, Ricky asked the person sitting directly across the circle from the child to take a card, and went through the usual routine of putting the card back in the deck, then losing it, and not being able to find it, and getting irritated, like this was all real or something. He asked the party goers to look for the card on themselves, in their pockets and the like. Suddenly, one of the guests screamed and pointed to the card, which was draped in plain sight, on the stomach of the sleeping child! I kid you not.

Besides the fact that Ricky was perhaps the best sleight–of-hand artist in the world, and a scholar, historian, and collector of curiosities, he was a sweet, sweet person. I mean, he had his moments like we all do, but he was basically so good and kind, and became more so as the years went by. He was so lovable, so loved, and even though he was a master of deception, he was just so honest. A good guy with great long time friends. It will take a while to get used to a world without Ricky Jay in it.

I find that writing about Ricky, reading other posts on Facebook about him and looking at so many videos I hadn't yet seen... all of this has been a good way to work through my feelings. I love Facebook for this. The interaction is helpful to me. Also, since Saturday night, I'm working with a deck of cards again, trying to get back a little of the strength it took to do various flourishes. Here’s an old picture of me doing a pretty darn good fan:
I have only one picture of Ricky and me, and I love it so much. It shows the fun we had together. He was so funny and adventurous. He was a great friend and taught me to "go for it" all the time. Here is that picture, from the early 70s:
He truly loved entertaining and surprising people and engaging. He was definitely a genius. My deepest condolences to Ricky’s wife, Chrisann Verges. We will all miss the twinkle in Ricky's eyes.

(By the way, Vic Morrow’s first wife was actress/screenwriter Barbara Turner. Their child, Jennifer Jason Leigh.) Thanks for reading this.

Tracy Newman
Runalonghome.com (Tracy’s CDs for kids!)


stephen catron said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cory said...

I knew very little about his magic, but I do remember him from Deadwood. That was a rare TV show where everyone on the show was so good, you quit thinking of the actor and BELIEVED the characters, setting, and plots. He stood toe to toe with acting powerhouses and was JUST as good as they were.

Now, I am seeing all of these links to his magic and it's like finding a whole new person. I am sad he is gone, but grateful for the people who are introducing me to his work.

Kosmo13 said...

I'm sad that Ricky Jay passed away at such a young age. I'm relieved at least that his head didn't fall off this time as it did when he was on The X-Files.

Unknown said...

Beautiful, Tracy. He was an incredible talent and his absence will be felt.

Don Graf said...

What a terrific tribute. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Very nice tribute. Thank you for putting it up here Ken.


Janet Ybarra said...

Although I wasn't aware of Ricky until his passing, I feel I got to know him and his craft, first on Mark Evanier's blog the other day and now this heartfelt tribute.

I've also been watching DEAR JERRY lately, the tribute to Jerry Garcia.

I think Ricky and Jerry seem to have a lot in common, in that they are characters who each would ply their respective art to touch his fellow human being.

I think, sadly, we are losing too many of these folks and they are being replaced by people who think the kinds of magic that Ricky or Jerry could offer could be somehow replicated by a computer program or digital copy.

Too much "magic" and music is being made on computers and it's just not the same.

What Ricky and Jerry and others like them offer us is a gift of their hands and hearts and we shouldn't forget that.

I would rather hang out with a Ricky or Jerry over Steve Jobs or Bill Gates any day.

E. Yarber said...

I loved his book Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women. Thanks for sharing the personal side of such a marvelous craftsman.

E. Yarber said...

There's a wonderful improvised scene in BOOGIE NIGHTS where John C. Reilly pretends he's dazzling master sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay with an awful performance of a dime-store magic trick. Jay stares incredulously at him for a moment, then explodes in laughter.

Max Clarke said...

Outstanding, one of the best essays I've read at Ken's site.

The first time I was aware of Ricky Jay was his narration of the Paul Thomas Anderson movie, Magnolia. Very good job, especially introducing the three stories which begin the film.

Ricky did a very good job with the movie, Heist, by David Mamet. First time I saw him perform in a movie.

Deceptive Practice was an astonishing documentary. His card work at the table with the volunteers from the audience was the best I've seen.

Thanks, Tracy, for taking us behind the curtain to know Ricky Jay a little better.

Sad to see him go. And just a few days ago, William Goldman.

Pete Grossman said...

Superb storytelling. Wonderful tribute. Thank you, Ms. Newman.

DBenson said...

Second that. The book alone should earn him some immortality.

ODJennings said...

He had such a great screen presence. There's another scene in Boogie Nights where Wahlberg "performs" for the first time and the whole room is shocked by his endowment, but Ricky stole the scene as the jaded camera man who can't believe what he's seeing through the lens.

MikeKPa. said...

I only knew him from David Mamet's THE SPANISH PRISONER. Amazing what he could do with a card in flight. It's a shame these tributes always come after the death and not during the life of the person being remembered.

Unknown said...

Beautifully written and deeply felt. I'm so glad you turned me on to him and I got to see him perform live.

sanford said...

Nice essay. If you haven't read it look up the very long story written 1993 by Mark Singer. Really excellent

Mr.Magic said...


Janet Ybarra said...

FYI, while we are paying tribute, I wanted to mention that Stephen Hillenberg, creator of SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS passed away today.

YEKIMI said...

In your radio travels, did you ever work with this guy? Not sure why, but his name is ringing a bell with me and your blog is the only place I can think that I may have seen it. http://ramp247.com/programming/remembering-dave-roberts/?fbclid=IwAR3qOgEGPa5JEpNI9tacI8Orq2H4waVYwGZ7ZS2_x3kERiCOnoOEGAObHPk

Dana King said...

There is a video out there (either YouTube or Amazon Prime, I forget) of "Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants," his one-man show. It's beyond brilliant.

I rarely think more than a few times when a celebrity dies. They were people I didn't know. I didn't know Ricky, either, but his loss hit me hard. I've developed an appreciation for excellence over the years, and no one in any field was ever better at what they did. As I read somewhere after his passing, anyone can get a standing ovation. Ricky Jay left people in slack-jawed amazement.

Unknown said...

Lynne Stewart I thought Stephen Catron comment (the first one) was a real "turd in the punch bowl" thing to say.Tracy Newman gave us a wonderful inside look at what it was like to know , live with and learn from this brilliant man.Of course she is going to be talking about herself. It is about the wonderful gifts she received in her life from knowing him.

James said...

Thank you for posting this.

Brian said...

Thank you Tracy. I enjoyed reading your tribute and watching the videos.

JR Smith said...

As a former NBC Burbank Page (1977-1979) who worked many a Carson show, this was really interesting! Thank you Tracy and Ken!

scottmc said...

The NY Times has published a tribute to Ricky Jay written by David Mamet. One great line:
"He was the truest friend, and practiced in the best friend’s best response: “You bet.”
Mamet mentions the play he directed 'Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants'. I saw that,it was a memorable evening at the theater. Mamet writes that he had invited Jay and Jay's wife to Thanksgiving dinner. His wife said Ricky wasn't feeling well.The piece is vintage Mamet,it's heartfelt but also has elements that make him easy to mimic(parody).

R Aguayo said...

Great piece, TN! In a time when I was learning how to be a performer I learned a lot by watching Ricky Jay perform because he showed what was possible. He was able to honor the old conventions of magic presentations, even as he had irreverent fun with them, and throwing in his knowledge and love of doo-wop to boot.
The part about not wanting children at his shows reminded me of what a fearless performer he was. I once saw him at a show where he came out and discovered a child in the first row, and after announcing that he usually didn't perform for children, he told a story about how as a child he had pigeons he kept for his act and how one day he was horrified to discover four of the five pigeons covered with blood. After nervous laughter he leaned down and spoke directly to the child and repeated, "Did you hear what I said? Four out of the five pigeons were covered with blood!" After a big laugh, he proceeded with his usual brilliant show.

Kevin Burton Smith said...

Thanks, Tracy. It brought back memories of our own Ricky Jay moment at Butler's. I was amazed you'd even heard of him, and gobsmacked to know you'd actually known the man!

Of course, I never met him, but his appearances on a variety of (mostly Canadian) talk shows back in the 70s inspired/corrupted me as a kid in ways I'm still trying to sort out. Something about his irreverent charm, and the sly way he had of implying that "I'm going to con you and we'd both going to enjoy it." Plus the man had a mean way with slicing fruit.


Unknown said...

Wow Tracy, you are amazing. Thank you for introducing me to Ricky Jay and showing me his wonderful talent.
What a gift. Thanks Justine

Unknown said...

Oh Tracy, I'm so glad you shared all this. I do remember an evening with you when we went to the Magic Castle to see Ricky perform somewhere in the 70's and how exciting it was. It has been said but cannot be overstated that he was a genius and such an orator! You were quite something yourself! Can you still do those tricks? I am so glad I have his DICE book and Learned Pigs. I tried to get his last book but not available! Keep in touch on him. Much love, Marty

Marty Gwinn said...

It has been said but cannot be overstated that Ricky was a genius. Thank you for this tribute Tracy. I am happy to say that I remember us going to see Ricky at the Magic Castle sometime in the 70's and having my life altered! I have his DICE book and Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women and now want to have them all! Please keep in touch on anything to do with Ricky. Can you still do those tricks Tracy! xoxo, Marty