Charles Reynolds, A 'Magician's Magician'

NPR's Robert Siegel talks to magician Ricky Jay about the work of fellow magician Charles Reynolds. Reynolds died late last week at age 78. Jay says Reynolds brought sophistication to the world of magic — and dispelled the image of magic nerds practicing alone in their basements.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A moment now to mark the passing of a man who helped magicians fool audiences in innovative ways. His name was Charles Reynolds, and he died late last week at age 78.

Reynolds spent a good deal of time working on Broadway. For a show called "Merlin," starring magician Doug Henning, Reynolds created a way to make a horse and rider disappear. He was also a scholar of magic. Mr. Reynolds collected and wrote books on the subject.

He was the 2004 Magician of the Year, and Magic magazine named him one of the 20th century's most influential practitioners of the craft.

For Ricky Jay, an author, actor, historian and one of the world's great sleight-of-hand artists, it was not the technical side of Reynolds' tricks that made him stand out but his erudition. Mister Jay, welcome. And what was it about Charles Reynolds' personality that you think set him apart?

Mr. RICKY JAY (Author, Actor, Historian): I think for me, you know, growing up in New York and knowing Charlie from the time I was quite young, when I finally was really able to appreciate him, it was going to his wonderful brownstone in Greenwich Village.

He had this narrow, three-story brownstone that was - you would open up the door, and you would see this sarcophagus, this magnificent sarcophagus case, and a place lined with books from floor to ceiling.

And as you walked up the stairs, you would see these posters of magicians, and you realized that he and his wife Regina(ph), instead of being the people that one normally associated with magic, these goofy guys who had blinking rabbit in the hat and top-hat pins on their jacket lapels, was in fact some bright, urbane, witty, literate man. And it was marvelously refreshing.

SIEGEL: So he conferred some class on this trade of yours is what you're saying.

Mr. JAY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, this was a fellow who knew Diane Arbus and who would talk to you about Josephine Baker and James Joyce. It was delightfully refreshing.

SIEGEL: Now, he was not the magician we would see perform onstage, but he helped other magicians do tricks onstage.

Mr. JAY: Right. He was a consultant for, you know, two of the major magicians of the time, for Doug Henning and for Harry Blackstone, Jr.

SIEGEL: Are you going to tell us how he made the horse and rider disappear?

Mr. JAY: Oh, I have no idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Maybe they just vanished into thin air.

Mr. JAY: Apparently so, yeah. That's the way I saw it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Does this appeal of magic to a more educated and more sophisticated audience, is that accurate, or are most people practicing magic perpetuating the, let's say the, you know, the rabbit in the hat flashing lapel pin image?

Mr. JAY: Well, I do think, unfortunately, most people get into magic to cover up severe social deficiencies. Fortunately, that was not Charlie's approach and not the approach of the people we admire, those of who are in magic for a profession.

SIEGEL: Well, Ricky Jay, thanks for talking with us about Charles Reynolds, magician, consultant, who died late last week at age 78.

Mr. JAY: Well, thank you.

SIEGEL: Ricky Jay, author, actor, historian and one of the world's great sleight-of-hand artists.

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