He may dazzle sellout crowds nightly, but the magic behind actor/illusionist Jay's con is really meant for the pros

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated June 21, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

Ricky Jay: On the Stem

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I’ve spent exactly five minutes with Ricky Jay and so far he’s introduced me to the world’s greatest living tightrope walker, a troupe of Swiss jugglers, and Moby.

We’re all packed into Jay’s dressing room at the Second Stage Theatre, where he’s unwinding after another sold-out performance of his one-man Off Broadway show Ricky Jay: On the Stem. And even though tonight’s curtain has been down for nearly half an hour, Jay’s still sweating like Shaquille O’Neal in triple overtime.

When his bizarre posse is finally ushered out of the room, Jay flops onto a threadbare sofa. Just then, three members of his inner circle of fellow magicians walk in to rehash the show. It went well; there isn’t much to discuss. So the four of them start swapping stories. Weird stories.

Jay sits silently, nodding his approval after each one. Then, as the last of their tales is unspooled, he grins like a poker player holding an unbeatable hand. He stands up, moves to the center of the room, and launches into a gem.

”So I’m in Vegas, standing in Siegfried and Roy’s living room…”

Since the story involves the humiliation of one of their mutual friends, the details are off-the-record. But let’s just say it involves one of Siegfried and Roy’s tigers, projectile urinating, and a man in an expensive white suit.

And it kills.

Still, it’s not the surreal details of the tale that stand out. Nor is it the deadpan delivery. What’s most amazing is that Ricky Jay is the kind of fella who hangs out with jugglers, tightrope walkers, and techno hipsters—and has a Siegfried and Roy story to tell.

Who is this guy?

The short answer is that Ricky Jay is a magician. But stopping there is like calling da Vinci a doodler. Jay is more like the eccentric bastard child of Harry Houdini, Spalding Gray, and Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy—all stuffed into the portly frame of an insurance salesman. He’s a character actor who regularly pops up in the films of David Mamet (House of Games, Heist) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia). He’s a author and scholar of the arcane whose L.A. home is crammed with yellowing texts about conjuring and rare circus memorabilia. He’s a raconteur whose oddball stories are a connection to a colorful past populated with snake-oil salesmen, con artists, and quacks. And he’s a sharpshooter with a deck of cards who can pierce the skin of a watermelon with the ace of clubs from 10 paces.

It’s just after 11 P.M., and Ricky Jay is in the mood for dumplings. In a deserted and dimly lit Chinese restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, we make our way to the back booth. I slide in, facing the room. Jay is unhappy.

”Do you mind if we switch sides?” he asks, still standing. ”A superstition. I prefer to not have my back to the room. Too many years of playing cards. It’s one of the many reasons people think I’m strange.”

We switch sides. Jay pours some tea and spots the ”juicy little sticky buns” he’s been hunting for on the menu. I ask him about his childhood in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.

Episode Recaps

Ricky Jay: On the Stem

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