Illusionist's Show Becoming A Pretty Slick Trick

Sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay is breaking in a new show. It's been playing Chicago and will open next week at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. It's even said to be on its way to Broadway. Host Scott Simon speaks with Jay about his new show, "Ricky Jay: A Rogue's Gallery."

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Ricky Jay is breaking in a new show. It's been on in Chicago and Toronto. It's opening next week at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles and is said to be on its way to Broadway. "Ricky Jay: A Rogue's Gallery, An Evening of Conversation and Performance" opens at the Geffen on Tuesday, December 29th and runs through January 10th. Ricky Jay joins us from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. RICKY JAY (Magician): Pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: This show's different, isn't it, I gather?

Mr. JAY: Well, you know, it's quite different than the two one-man shows which precede it. There is a screen involved that shows many images from my collection. I've been collecting material about magic and reprobates and scoundrels and unusual entertainers and circus artists for, oh, I guess close to 40 years now.

So someone might choose a playbill of Daniel Wildman, an equestrian beekeeper from the 18th century. And I would tell you about how Wildman rode on the back of a horse around the circus ring with five swarms of bees covering his face. So he was the only equestrian apiarist of which I'm familiar.

SIMON: I certainly have heard of none other. Now, it's remarkable because this is, it's improvisation in a sense and yet people involved in magic and sleight-of-hand supposedly the last thing they are prepared to do is improvise.

Mr. JAY: I guess it is an odd combination in that way. So it's not unpracticed, it's not unrehearsed. But certainly I have no idea during the course of an evening what people will choose. It doesn't mean that 90 percent of the show is improvised, but a fair portion of it is.

So I come out like any other theater show and I do a piece of sleight-of-hand and I end the first act with one and open the second act with one and end he show with one. So there are the conventions of the theater in that regard. But then the way that it moves from piece to piece, and what happens in that process, does change, which keeps it fresh for me and, yeah, a little unnerving too, if that's what you were getting to.

SIMON: Yeah. We're speaking with Ricky Jay. Has a new show opening next week in Los Angeles.

You know, I don't think I know this story. How did you become so enamored of sleight-of-hand and magic as a boy in Brooklyn?

Mr. JAY: Well, my grandfather, who was a man in Brooklyn, was one of the really accomplished amateur magicians of his day. And among his friends were some of the best sleight-of-hand artists in the world, and also ventriloquists and jugglers. These were just the people that were his buddies.

My grandfather would take me to Lundy's, the great seafood restaurant in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn. And they had coffee creamers there, these little paper coffee creamers, and then I managed to do some sort of cup-and-ball-like manipulation with these coffee creamers at his urging. Then by the time I was four I was actually doing shows.

SIMON: Is an audience fooled or distracted, or am I splitting hairs?

Mr. JAY: You know, I would go, as you said that, to surprised, rather than either fooled or distracted. But I'm sure elements of all three are part of the experience. I mean, I love it when I'm fooled. I mean, it's a great...

SIMON: Someone can fool you?

Mr. JAY: Oh goodness, yes, yeah. Yeah, actually Michael Weber, who plays the warden in this thing, my partner in my consulting firm of deceptive practices, often fools me, as do, you know, other talented sleight-of-hand performers. It's a great feeling.

SIMON: What about people calling for long-distance phone networks or, say, to tell you you've won the Nigerian lottery. Do they fool you or...

Mr. JAY: Well, I can't say they fool me. I am interested in them. And I have a file of Nigerian letters that's more than 1,000 letters with all sorts of variants of it. I'm, as I think you know, Scott, incredibly interested in the workings of confidence men.

And what I think is lovely about the whole world of the confidence man is that these premises just seem to recycle, and God knows at this point there are many likely to happy because of the financial state the country is in. And I would certainly think one should be wary.

SIMON: You almost make it sound like they're participating in a great noble classic tradition.

Mr. JAY: Well, here's what I - on some level I almost do feel that, up until something changes it. And what changes it is that we all love the concept of the con man until we're affected. What's happened now is as a country we've been affected.

SIMON: Con men are not very popular or admirable, but do they occasionally serve a role?

Mr. JAY: They do, that you wouldn't want to live in a world where you couldn't be conned, because that would mean you lived in a world with no trust if you think about it. I mean, that's what keeps you from being conned is you trust no one and nothing. And that's too big a price to pay.

So because we're trusting as people, we open ourselves up for the con. And I think understanding that is important.

SIMON: Could you talk about one more item of memorabilia that somebody might call for in this show?

Mr. JAY: Yeah, I'd love to. Well, since we've been talking about cons a lot, someone might happen onto a picture of Victor Lustig. Victor Lustig was a con man who was most famous for selling the Eiffel Tower twice, which I always thought was a great punch line.

But here's a story about him in Chicago. One day he walked into Al Capone's office.

SIMON: A bad guy to try and con, but go ahead.

Mr. JAY: Which is what makes this, I hope you'll find, an interesting story. And so he said to Capone: Mr. Capone, I need to borrow $50,000 from you and I'll double your money in a month. And Capone had heard about Lustig, and Capone loaned him the $50,000. And exactly on the prescribed day, Lustig returned to Capone's office and looked a little forlorn and Capone sensed this and started to tense up.

And Lustig said, I'm awfully sorry, Mr. Capone, I've had an awful experience. And Capone's hands were now clenching and you could see the sneer appearing on his face. And Lustig reached into his pocket and said, Here is your $50,000 back. My deal didn't work at all and I wasn't able to make you any money.

And Capone, who was greatly relieved, said, well, I appreciate your honesty and your repaying me that money and here's $5,000 for your efforts. But of course, Capone didn't know is Lustig went home, put the $50,000 in a drawer for a month and just returned hoping to get exactly what he did.

SIMON: Oh my gosh. He used it to earn interest off of Al Capone.

Mr. JAY: Yeah, yeah.

SIMON: Oh, that's a great story. Do you think Capone wondered if he was holding back, that he'd actually tripled his money?

Mr. JAY: Well, I mean, you know, the chutzpah to do something like that is quite extraordinary. But...

SIMON: It's kind of hard not to admire a con man like that.

Mr. JAY: Well, that's why I say, until - you know, that's a story where I think it's easy to admire that. But when it happens to you or your family or the country at whole, it's a whole other thing. So I have a wonderful wanted poster of Victor Lustig. That's what inspired that inclusion in the show.

SIMON: Well, Ricky, good luck with the show. Thanks very much.

Mr. JAY: Fun, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: Ricky Jay, his new show, "Ricky Jay: A Rogue's Gallery, An Evening of Conversation and Performance," opens in Los Angeles on Tuesday, runs through January 10th.

You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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