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The Passing of an Artist

The great Ricky Jay died about a month ago—on November 24, 2018, to be exact. He was 72 years old, but for awhile after he passed, various news outlets stated his age as anywhere from 70 to 74. That's how private and secretive he was: no one was sure of the year of his birth.

Ricky Jay was, in the last couple decades of the twentieth century and the first couple of the twenty-first, among the world's top sleight-of-hand magicians. He was able to command a stage for a good-sized audience with just a deck of playing cards. He didn't need anything but that.

I saw his one-man show, Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants, at Studio Theater in DC about ten or twelve years ago. For ninety minutes he kept the audience in a dreamlike state with only a deck of playing cards and a presentation that assumed we were all intelligent adults. At the end of the show pierced the rind of a watermelon with a playing card that he threw from about thirty feet away.

Ricky Jay presented close-up magic on an artistic plane that many magicians strive for but that few achieve. He treasured the history of magic, and his presentations often shared that history with his audience. He was a disciple of the great Dai Vernon, widely considered the greatest close-up magician of the twentieth century. He took the lessons of "Professor" Vernon and exalted them to a level of even deeper mystery.

Ricky was a renaissance man. He had a considerable career as a television and film actor. He was a prolific author and an expert in the history of the variety arts. He understood the connection between carnival sideshows and the legitimate theater.

Ricky Jay didn't do the Internet. For the past couple of decades, as the online world has created communities, magicians have often wondered how to get in touch with him. But he didn't even have email, as far as anyone could tell. He didn't mix with the online crowd.

After the shock of his death, magician-Twitter was abuzz with tributes, the vast majority of which contained a link to only one biographical profile: this twenty-five-year-old piece by Mark Singer in The New Yorker. Ricky Jay protected his privacy so much that he sat for only one major interview in the last twenty-five years of his life.

Ricky Jay is the quintessential role mode for anyone who wants his or her art to be taken seriously. If we approach our art with a tiny fraction of Ricky Jay's commitment and dedication, we will rise above the pack.



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