I had no idea what to expect when I signed up to attend Ricky Jay’s Congress of Wonders, a “weekend of magic appreciation” held last month in the charming village of Rhinebeck, New York. As I discovered when I got there, neither did our host, Ricky Jay. He might be one of the greatest card handlers and sleight-of-hand artists alive, he may have forgotten more about the colorful history of “variety theater” over the past half-millennium than you’ll ever know, he has kept so many secrets that he might as well be working for NSA, but the very first night he admitted to the audience that he was just winging it.
This declaration came in a q&a after a late-Friday screening of DECEPTIVE PRACTICE, the new documentary of which Ricky is the subject. Director Molly Bernstein and producer Alan Edelstein were also there – more on Alan later – and I’d found the film an odd choice to open the “conference,” since most anyone serious enough about Ricky to pony up the registration fee, including your servant, had already seen it. (For the unwashed few, this flick is the ideal answer to the perfectly legitimate question, “Who is Ricky Jay?” So go watch it already.) Me, I was already having a good time, because I was enjoying one of the weekend’s subtexts: it was a means of connecting people who revel in the ornate ephemera championed and exalted by our host. I had earlier shared a short cab ride and a wonderful dinner with perfect strangers who nevertheless had some important things in common, and similar brain-cell hookups continued, at least for me, over the rest of the event. The conveneers I met were every bit as stimulating as the “talent.”
Now, I did hear, and have since read online, some grumbling. I’ve never been to a magicians’ convention, so I don’t know this from experience, but one can easily infer an atmosphere that I personally would go to great lengths to avoid, and the organizers were way ahead of me. Apparently some magicians (based on my own conversations, I’d say the attendees were overwhelmingly civilian, at least 3 to 1 fans and dabblers vs. past or present pros) were disappointed, even irritated, to read the following note from Ricky to “guests who are practitioners of the Mystic Arts” in order to “make it the best possible experience for the non-magician guests”: “Unlike the traditional magic convention, our focus will be on ideas, not tricks. Therefore I respectfully request that you not perform magic for the registrants. Please keep the cards, coins, bodkins and billets in your pockets…thank you for supporting our venerated Art.” Fine by me. But evidently not by all.
As best I understand, the gathering was produced by an outfit better known for “fantasy weekend” master classes with music notables such as Todd Rundgren and Leo Kottke. They must have asked Ricky if he’d be willing to teach a few sleights, and of course he said absolutely no, never ever, what part of this scowl do you not understand? But somebody on either side must have thought, then what would a Ricky Jay weekend really look like? Hence the Congress of Wonders. If I had to describe it to a Hollywood producer, I’d say it was a series of disparate TED Talks, each with a tendril that reached into the art of magic, plus a buncha Ricky Jay. (That’s a description of what was on stage: the connections within the audience were, as we say down South, lagniappe, though this aspect was almost certainly premeditated as well.)
The event was co-hosted by Michael Weber, Ricky’s partner in their “Deceptive Practices” company that provides “arcane knowledge on a need-to-know basis” to movie shoots and other venues where we just need to know how to achieve this effect on this one day, goddammit! For instance, in the (rather forgettable) film adaptation of Michael Crichton’s CONGO, the ape-head worn by an actress was so stuffed with electronics for movement assistance that it couldn’t abide any liquid. How then could this zillion-dollar “mouth” plausibly drain a martini on camera? Ricky and Michael explained the (cobwebby, as we learned) solution, maybe the only method they freely gave up. My favorite statement of the entire weekend was uttered by Michael: “We don’t keep secrets from the audience. We keep secrets for the audience.”
Michael is a sleight student, like Ricky (in fact, a prodigy, as the Wells Fargo Bank learned one day), and he absorbed a lot from the legendary Charlie Miller, which is how the two connected. I presume you have to be patient to hang with Ricky Jay, because in real life he must grumble a wicked lot. But still, he’s constantly assimilating way-out influences, and to understand more about him, you have to meet some of his friends. Thus this weekend. It was all about creativity, beginning with Michael’s slot on Saturday morning. How to do something impossible? Michael offered three lines of thought that help Deceptive Practices address such a problem: (1) What would we never do?, (2) How might this have been achieved in the past? (e.g., the CONGO gag), and (3) What might be the polar opposite? Yes, these guys know more magic methods (i.e., mind-blowing short-cuts) than we do, but that’s still how they think when they sit down to ponder, as must we all, and to me it was beaucoup profound. Remember, on a big-time movie set nothing is impossible, only cost-prohibitive; you can imagine “unobtanium,” you just can’t afford it.
An Oakes work.
What we got later was this cornucopia of creativity, displayed by people from widely varying disciplines. Ryan and Trevor Oakes are identical twins who have developed a way to draw a concave view that more accurately mimics how our eyes actually work. Brilliant, curious, inventive and well-spoken, the boys have also experimented with matchsticks (when placed together with its pals, the tip of each identical matchstick represents a point on an outer sphere, as they demonstrate in a gorgeous and wry piece), pipe cleaners and corrugated cardboard to make the act of perception beautiful and fascinating. Their current show was at the Museum of Mathematics in New York. (I’d never heard of it: it’s on 26th Street, diagonally across Madison Square Park from the Flatiron Building. The following Friday I stopped by to see the show and checked outside, intending to say hi as they continued work on a Flatiron piece, but no Oakeses. I tried, lads!) As with other speakers, the twins hung around all weekend: it was easy to walk up to anyone and chat.
Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist and New Yorker writer, is the guy who devoted one intense year to learn how to play the guitar, and he explained his process in the bestseller GUITAR ZERO. His lecture began as a slapdown of fellow NYer scribe Malcolm Gladwell’s provocative thought, expressed in the book OUTLIERS, that roughly ten thousand hours of practice are minimally required for mastery in a given field. At least one audience member wanted to scream, but you didn’t attain mastery, mate! No matter; this guy’s game (if a scoche windy), and a q&a (from a “Mr. Weber”) revealed that serious neuroscientists are now being impersonated by crazies who believe magicians actually have arcane neurological secrets that they’re keeping from the rest of us! The pained expression on Gary’s face said all, just before he properly disassociated himself from such bozos. He’s basically Doug Hofstadter Lite, and I’ll never miss anything else he writes.
Steve Cuiffo as Lenny Bruce.
Most of these people were either introduced by Ricky or Michael. I think Ricky must have insisted on the personal perverse pleasure of calling actor Steve Cuiffo to the stage. Steve has developed a body of material based on Lenny Bruce, and he performed about a half hour before the bemused congregants: why the hell are we watching a Lenny Bruce bit? It was the most transgressive, thus courageous, performance of the weekend. Just like Lenny himself. Steve’s impersonation is impeccable, down to the vocal and physical fillips. At least one audience member felt he’d selected bits for this gig that showed off the character at the expense of the funny, but most others were only perplexed. At the conversation afterward with Ricky, Michael, Gary and Steve, the eddies which draw their arts together began to conflate. From the stage, Steve mentioned with fondness the challenge presented by an old friend of mine from Mississippi, John Epperson, who performs as “Lypsinka,” a Joan-Crawfordish drag character who expertly mimes prerecorded tracks, usually from classic movies. John and Steve worked together on THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD, a replication of a 1973 interview, for which both actors had to synch-in. That night I messaged John to tell him he’d been name-checked from the stage and he was delighted, which I was able to report to Steve the next day, just before he was brought back up to perform a flawless “The Homing Card” manipulation to a “Jack O’Diamonds” track by Bukka White. Whew!
Sunday began in the same movie theater where we’d inaugurated the weekend with two episodes of CONVERSATIONS WITH RICKY JAY, a fascinating series featuring Ricky and friends (Tom Waits, Martin Mull, etc.), shooting the shit around a big table at which Ricky will occasionally amaze them with some sleight but usually just grease the conversation. Each ep is called and shot by Jesse Dylan, who came up for a q&a with Michael afterward. At first he seemed reticent, mumbling into his mike. Then began his slide show – he’s a brilliant still photographer, never mind the moving pictures – and he got it out of the way immediately: the first slide showed an adorable little tyke in Woodstock with Bob Dylan, “my dear old dad,” and all of a sudden Jesse was much more grounded and forthcoming. He’s visually gifted but his heart is with the encouragement of creativity in others and its resultant wide-ranging effects. His photographs show the well-adjusted-but-weathered guy inside, talented enough to bring out the best in arty types, frequently progeny with issues – subjects just like Ricky.
Jules Fisher, mensch.
Then we met Jules Fisher, the guru of theatrical lighting and one of my personal heroes. I’d gone up to him the previous day after a session for which I saw him help solve a lighting problem that shouldn’t have ever happened (see below); without introduction, I realized that has to be Jules Fisher. I told him (“I’m Jules”) that I saw the original Broadway production of HAIR, and after the climax of Act I, in which the players spread a giant sheet over the stage and those cast members who want to take off their clothes and then stand in this soft cinnamon light that makes you wonder for an instant body stockings or buck naked?, at intermission I searched in my program for the name of the lighting designer, that’s how affected I’d been, and there he was. This kind, gentle man listened to some blather very much resembling the preceding sentence, and said thanks as if he’d never heard anything like that before. Talk about knowing how to accept a compliment gracefully!
“I deploy light to help tell stories,” said “Jules” to open his presentation, the most thought-out of the weekend. He reminded us that theater begins with a black void. Now comes his task: what does the audience need to see? Besides countless Broadway spectaculars (and movies that need to depict stage lighting, like CHICAGO), he’s lit all of Ricky’s one-man shows, (the primal connection between the two artists), but he’s also made us able to see legendary rock shows, including the Stones and the iconic Mothership landing which begins Parliament/Funkadelic’s still-storied touring extravaganza. He lit Simon & Garfunkel’s famous Central Park concert, in part by hiring FDNY trucks to hoist lighting rigs up way higher than was “possible.” He constantly reminded us how closely related are the theatrical arts and the Magickal. (In fact, many magic effects depend upon strategic lighting…but I must say no more.) He demonstrated the intensity of a “foot-candle” – the wonderful pre-electric measure which lighting designers still use today, as “horsepower” still serves automakers – by lighting a single candle and letting it describe his face from one foot away. He showed us varying reflections of darkness, on white poster cards resting on an easel with identical black squares, realized with paint, then fabric, and finally with – nothing, as he passed his hand through the square-cut hole in the card set against the black velvet background which had always been there while we in the audience were busy trying to decide which card was blacker. Magic!
Michael Weber then took the stage for his own set and regaled us with a story about his youthful publication of a hack of the “Rifkin Safety Sack” bank bag, and an entertaining phone-number illusion, followed by a bemusing discussion of “bad” magic vs. “good” magic, with Ricky at his side, which mainly consisted of YouTube clips which, sadly, we all could have seen elsewhere. Then off to dinner and one final meeting, featuring Ricky Jay.
For our sendoff session, Ricky sampled his only one-man show that hadn’t made it to New York, RICKY JAY: A ROGUE’S GALLERY. A 108-entry grid on the screen behind him triggered ruminations about magic history, stories from his past, whatever – but the actual numbers were picked randomly from the audience, so the sequence would be different every night, and only certain topics would be heard by any one particular audience. At first the numbers were obviously picked randomly – Ricky has a story for every single slot – but then he playfully “forced” them. “If you were at a 99-cent store, what do you think you might buy?” to a randomly-selected audience member. After the answer, “and what do you think it might cost?” We heard great tales – Ricky’s experience at Siegfried & Roy’s Las Vegas party only works vocally, but it has a HOWLING finish – and saw stuff we were obviously intended to see, like Steve Martin’s “The Great Flydini” routine, which Ricky helped him realize. Ricky is a natural curmudgeon, but I think he honestly wanted to thank us for attending, so as his finale he performed the latter bits from his famous playing-cards-puncturing-a-watermelon routine, beginning with the giant scissors – which, ever the showman, he’d been packing all along.
Earlier, Michael Weber – probably smarting from complaints by several who’d been expecting to see a weekend of Ricky Jay card tricks – had pointed out that connections were among the main reason to keep it small and immersive, and that we should all plan to stick around after the evening show and connect. Now, he said that the Rhinebeck restaurant where we’d had dinner had opened its back room for us. So the entire audience decamped, some through pouring rain, to Foster’s Coach House, where we continued to have a wonderful time together – by now, we all had new friends, and the commiseration became even more intense here. After about twenty minutes, the servers at Foster’s brought in trays heaped with slices of fresh watermelon for everyone: Ricky’s stage melon and two “understudies,” to be fittingly devoured by the gang. It just so happened that our table was served with a slice that bore two telltale marks of the deadly playing card.
The defiled melon slice.
A better look at the cowering fruit in a less-bar-roomy setting.
Clearly, this was an icon that had to be saved, and shown to Ricky, the ole card-hurler himself, who arrived to great applause about five minutes later.
Ricky shows up.
I didn’t ask for it, but eventually the slice got transferred to me for safekeeping (nobody, including me, wanted to eat it – the crowd because it was a new spiritual icon, and me because somebody had THROWN TWO FILTHY PLAYING CARDS THROUGH IT). So I asked the waitress if she could wrap it up or something, she asked why, and I tried to explain. It came back in a Styrofoam clamshell. By then, the crowd had thinned somewhat and Ricky himself plopped down at the next table. I pointed at him and said, this is the guy who threw the cards. She, and Ricky himself, looked dumbfounded. I leaned over: “She thinks I’m crazy.” He may well have agreed. But he must have sussed it all out, because half an hour later, when I got up to leave and didn’t take the Styrofoam, he said, “Don’t forget that melon.” Busted by Ricky Jay! Earlier, Alan Edelstein plopped down at my table. We’d been running into each other all weekend after a serendipitous Saturday lunch. He’s a bright-faced, cheerful (Oscar-nominated!) guy who knows a lot about movies, and I’d like to spend some more time with him. As Alan was checking out the next morning, I passed by once again, and said, “See you at the Oscars!” He replied, “Naw, see you at Sundance!” which is much more likely.
You may have perceived that I enjoyed myself, and I did. However, I have some beefs. Whoever devised the A/V for the weekend was so incompetent that they would have been fired from a Kiwanis Club luncheon in rural Iowa. Microphones screeched with feedback. (Poor Jules Fisher was particularly plagued.) Lighting was wrong or nonexistent. Simple calls for video playback were met with two-minute pauses. Nobody had bothered to calculate how many onstage chairs might be needed for the next event. Only when the 108 went up on Sunday night and Ricky was able to call out to somebody named “Coco” was there an instant response. Earlier Saturday, Ricky had just spent valuable oxygen instructing us never to perform unless the environment was correct, but that night he got so thrown by unending poor stagecraft (they moved his table offstage, then had to bring it onstage again and bend it at an angle) that he was unable to perform the simple “Fast and Loose” chain sleight. “Dreamcatcher Events,” I blame you. The only other explanation – and this could be more deflating – involves Ricky and Michael and a laissez-faire attitude which belies their own careful instruction. See, we all thought they were bringing their A game.
However, I have to say that the best part of the weekend was the folks I got to meet informally. (Trevor, Ryan, Steve, Jules, and Alan don’t count.) I can’t name them all because I only got first names. OK, Lance Stokes. But I did get to watch Armando Lucero explain the difference between good magic and bad magic using the example of a sandwich, which he pantomimed gorgeously. I got to watch this at my frickin dinner table the very first night, before Ricky ever appeared. I’d never heard of Armando before, and that first name was all I got at dinner; I looked him up later so I could tell you. Guess you just had to be there. And I hope – not guess, now, but hope – that for Ricky and Michael, whom I still had yet to meet, such moments had been the fine point of it all.
Richard Avedon’s startling image of Ricky.
P.S.: One final bit of magic happened on my way back, when I met a guy on a train.