“How the fuck did we wind up doing what we do?” A lifelong friendship laid bare; the story of a journey through the years with one of America’s most storied magicians…
by: Alan Swyer
A week after my oldest friend’s death, I got a call from an enterprising journalist.
“Several people have told me,” she began, “that you knew Ricky Jay in ways no one else did. True? And if so, why?”
“Found anyone else,” I inquired, “who attended his Bar Mitzvah, wedding, and memorial service?”
“That’s some trifecta!” she exclaimed. Then she asked if, back when Ricky and I were kids, I had any clue that he would not only become America’s greatest magician, but also an author, actor, and historian, as well as the master at debunking cons, hoaxes, and scams.
“You bet,” I stated, stating what she wanted to hear before regaling her with anecdotes. I spoke about Ricky’s adoration of his amateur magician grandfather, who became his first mentor. Next his early appearances on a local television show called “The Magic Clown.” Then his frequent visits to Lou Tannen’s Magic Shop on 34th Street in Manhattan. Finally, his lessons from a prestidigitator known as Slydini.
“Is it fair to say that even as a kid Ricky was beyond cool?” asked the writer.
“Absolutely” I asserted, again supplying the answer she hoped for.
The truth, though, was that like Hemingway, who as a child was dressed in ginger frocks, or Norman Mailer, who as a youngster was the quintessential nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, Ricky, who went from being known as Richard Jay Potash to Tricky Ricky then finally Ricky Jay, became a study in self-reinvention.
The call brought to mind a book-signing, where I was introduced to John Dean of Watergate infamy. Upon informing him that we shared a mutual friend — Ricky — John beamed. “I’ve known him forever!”
“Define forever,” I countered, informing him that Ricky and I first met in 4th grade.
Just like the writer who later reached out to me, John sighed. “I bet he was the coolest kid even then.”
The truth, which I chose not to share with either of them, was that though many terms could be used to describe Ricky as a kid — bright, funny, gifted, and offbeat — cool was far from the top of the list.
In those days Ricky was, depending upon the situation, two distinctly different people. As a performer — first, doing what magicians call close-up, which means cards or cups & balls; later, illusions like a floating cane — he was a showman. In everyday life, however, his tendency was to be shy.
Ricky’s foremost impediment in those days was his home life, which was neither supportive nor serene. Worse than not understanding him, his parents feared that his obsession with magic — he was rarely without a deck of cards — would derail their dream of having him become a doctor, lawyer, or dentist.
Retaliation was inevitable. Knowing that his father brushed his teeth each morning with Colgate, then greased his hair with Brylcreem, Ricky surreptitiously switched the tubes. Jubilantly, he called me to announce that his father, after brushing his teeth with hair gel, rubbed toothpaste on his head.
Revenge against his mother took another form. Her pride and joy was being the first in the neighborhood to have her house refinished with aluminum siding, which meant a guarantee of no repainting for at least ten years. Each time Ricky and I shot baskets in his backyard, he would suddenly fling the ball against the aluminum, causing his mother to scream, “Stop denting my beautiful house!” The kicker came some years later, when I read Albert Goldman’s book about Lenny Bruce. Calling Ricky, I informed him that the top “Tin Men” in our part of New Jersey were two comics with day jobs — Joe Ancis, a key influence on Lenny Bruce, and Jack Roy, who went on to become Rodney Dangerfield. Each of their sales pitches included a dare to include something off-color. So, in addition to their warranty, the Potashes likely heard cunnilingus or fellatio in their sales presentation.
Those incidents were only a prelude to what transpired during our high school years. To enter clubs in Manhattan, where the drinking age was eighteen, each of us at sixteen bought a driver’s license — me from a guy named Todd Gallagher, Ricky from a neighbor named Dickie Pollis. To subsidize evenings in Greenwich Village, where we saw the likes of Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie, we put together bags of catnip, oregano, and twigs, which we sold to wealthy kids coming in from Long Island.
Invoking Ricky’s asthma, his mother would invariably try to discourage him from going, claiming, “The night air isn’t good for you,” which repeatedly fell on deaf ears.
Then came a Saturday when, as we were about to head for the bus to Port Authority, Ricky’s fake contraband was spotted by his father.
“No way you’re going out with that!” he screamed.
“Try and stop me!” Ricky dared.
When Sam Potash started to take off his belt, Ricky grabbed a heavy adding machine and flung it down the stairs. Cackling as it exploded into a million pieces, he then grabbed some matches and ran toward his father’s prized stamp collection.
“Back off,” Ricky yelled, “or it’s time for a bonfire!”
The standoff only ended with the arrival of the police, who led Ricky away.
The next day a small article in our local paper had an attention-grabbing headline: ELMORA YOUTH GOES BERSERK, RAVAGES HOME.
At school, Ricky was no longer quite so anonymous.
To avoid more blow-ups, Ricky spent most nights towards the end of our senior year at the home of a classmate of ours named Marty.
Thanks to a tentative truce after graduation, he moved back into his room, then left in September for the University of Illinois.
With no cell phones or internet then, our communication was mainly through the mail, with Ricky’s letters quickly changing from enthusiastic to miserable.
A visit home for the holidays led to even more histrionics, resulting in a withholding of funds for the second semester.
Once again it was to Marty that Ricky turned, relocating to Ithaca, New York, where our classmate was a freshman at Cornell.
Forced to be self-sufficient, Ricky supported himself by doing sleight-of-hand at coffee houses, then playing in all night poker games
That led to a summer job doing magic, and playing lots more poker, at a vacation spot in the Adirondacks called Lake George.
After two years of college, I took off for France, writing the Paris section of a Simon & Schuster travel guide for the youth market. Snobbishly, I shunned Americans, with one exception: a blonde exchange student named Shelley. No matter where the two of us happened to go — a movie, a museum, a club, or a cafe — Shelley was stunned that we inevitably bumped into someone I knew.
“One of these days,” she said on a stroll through the Luxembourg Gardens, “you’ll have to visit me in Berkeley, where I’ll be the one who knows everybody.” That became a running joke, though at that point I had no plans of traveling to California.
That changed after a stint in New York, when I decided my future lay in Los Angeles. But first I flew to the Bay Area to spend time with Shelley. After a couple of days at her place, she drove us to the Berkeley campus. As we got out of her car, Shelley announced that on her turf, I at last would know no one.
“But I know that dog,” I said, spotting a brown-and-white mutt.
“That’s ridiculous,” she maintained.
“Here, Stoney!” I called. To Shelley’s dismay, the dog immediately ran over and licked my hand.
“I don’t believe this!” Shelley protested.
“Where’s Marty?” I asked the pooch, who led us to the steps of Sproul Hall. There, Ricky was serving as the barker for a string band called The Busted Toe Mudthumpers, with the dog’s owner, Marty, on harmonica.
“Un-fucking-believable!” gasped Shelley.
When Ricky arrived in LA some months later, hoping to soak up knowledge and lore from sleight-of-hand legends Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, he was amused to learn that I had gotten an entry-level job in show business thanks to our shared roots. Interviewing to be Jerry Lewis’s personal assistant, the comic instantly took note of my accent. “Jersey?” Jerry asked me. When I nodded, he asked which town. “Born in Newark.” “Which hospital?” Hearing “Beth Israel,” the comic beamed. “Me, too!” The position was mine.
As the first long-haired magician in those early hippie days, Ricky was performing at Hollywood’s Magic Castle when he was spotted by a former member of the Stone Poneys, the group fronted by Linda Ronstadt. Since Bobby Kimmel was booking acts at a Santa Monica club called McCabe’s, the encounter yielded not only Ricky’s first gig at a music spot, but also a female companion. Bobby’s girlfriend Tracy left him for Ricky.
At McCabe’s, Ricky dazzled the audience, including Tracy and me, not only with card tricks and comedy, but also with his skill in throwing playing cards. Amazingly, in addition to throwing an Ace or a Queen over ninety miles an hour, enabling it to pierce what he termed the “thick pachydermatous hide” of a watermelon, Ricky could also have it travel 190 feet, which allowed cards to sail over the top of the building housing McCabe’s.
That gig led to two breakthroughs in Ricky’s career. In addition to being named the opening act on a Cheech & Chong tour, he also became the first magician to share bills with rock & roller stars, including New York’s Electric Circus, where his performance was sandwiched between Ike & Tina Turner and LSD guru Timothy Leary.
His card-throwing prowess soon resulted in TV talk show appearances, which in turn created a buzz for Ricky’s first literary offering: an illustrated coffee-table book called “Cards As Weapons.”
In addition to shooting baskets together at local parks whenever the two of us had free time, Ricky and I took to meeting for lunch at LA’s myriad ethnic restaurants, but with one exception. Despite his complaints about the lack of a topnotch Jewish deli, he refused to drive all the way to my favorite place: Langer’s on Alvarado. Still it was always fun to catch up on the good — and not-so-good — of our two-steps-forward-one-step-back careers. When I got my first writing credit on a film, Ricky insisted upon treating me at a Vietnamese place. Midway through the meal, he started to laugh. “Do you realized,” he said, “that we’ve just talked about Thomas Pynchon, basketball, boxing, Ray Charles, and Samurai films?”
“And not for the first time,” I responded.
Ricky gazed upward momentarily, then shook his head. “How the fuck,” he then began, “did we wind up doing what we do?”
“We were very lucky,” I responded.
In the years that ensued, Ricky’s career continued to blossom in unexpected ways. As other books followed, he became known as a serious historian not merely of magic, but also of strange and esoteric performers, plus a collector of magic-related posters and artifacts. Then came the first of his one-man shows, “Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants.”
That yielded an anecdote he called me about late one night. After a Tuesday night show, he was flattered when one of his idols, an ex-late night talk show host, came backstage and invited him to dinner. The next evening, the same gentleman, who during their meal together had spoken almost nonstop about himself, extended another invitation, which Ricky again accepted. But when the talk show host showed up a third time, Ricky, determined not to hear the same tales yet again, had an assistant claim that he had a prior commitment.
It was during that theatrical run that Ricky called me to ask a favor. Because a woman he was seeing was heading to LA, he wanted me to invite her for a meal, which I took as a request to vet her. After a breakfast with Chrisann, I promptly phoned him. “She’s the one!” I stated.
“Really think so?”
“I know so,” I insisted.
Ricky was thrilled when a powerful producer named Joel Silver made an offer for the TV rights to his show, even promising to accede to Ricky’s demand for creative control. Ricky, who had been building a reputation as the great debunker of scams, received an unfortunate Hollywood education when he learned that he himself had been conned. Despite a handshake agreement, there was no mention of “final cut” in his contract. The experience, therefore, was far less than he’d hoped for.
As days turned to months, then months to years, each of us continued to find new professional avenues. Ricky was named to oversee a magic collection — the Mulholland Library — then added lecturing and acting to his resume. Best yet, his relationship with Chrisann grew more serious, with the two of them dividing their time between her apartment in Manhattan and his in LA.
I, meanwhile, worked on a film about a Harlem playground basketball legend, then served as showrunner on a series set at the beach. As penance for the latter, I flexed my activist muscles by creating — together with the Presiding Judge of Juvenile and the Chief Probation Officer — the LA County Teen Court, which enabled first-time juvenile offenders to face a jury of their peers.
When, after an extended hiatus, Ricky and I reunited for a lunch, he grew pensive. “You’re probably wondering,” he began, “what’s up with Chrisann and me.”
“I’m afraid it’s over,” Ricky said sadly. “Because of the ‘K’ word.”
Ricky nodded glumly.
“She wants ’em, but you don’t?” I asked.
“After my family life?” mumbled Ricky. “So what’s this Ray Charles stuff I heard about?”
“I was asked to write something about him.”
“Hope you hollered yes.”
“Only after being promised I could tell the truth and have serious access to Ray.”
“And do you?” Ricky asked.
“Not just Ray,” I announce with a smile. “But all sorts of others as well.”
“Including, if I heard correctly, my favorite, Solomon Burke.”
I nodded. “He calls me every single day.”
As before, Ricky gazed upward, then shook his head. “How the fuck,” he said once more, “did we wind up doing what we do?”
Out of the blue, Ricky called on a Thursday evening to set up a Sunday dim sum brunch, then smiled proudly when he arrived with Chrisann.
Only midway through the meal, when Ricky excused himself to go to the bathroom, did I ask Chrisann about what had gone unsaid.
“What about kids?”
“I decided,” said Chrisann with a playful shrug, “that Ricky would be my kid.”
My delight when a wedding invitation arrived from Ricky and Chrisann was followed by a phone call from her.
What could be done, she wanted to know, to make the wedding special? Though my response was that she was making it special, Chrisann persisted. “You’ve known him the longest. What would really thrill him?”
“What if I get Solomon Burke, who’s a bishop in his church, to perform the vows?”
“Actually, the marriage will be performed in the morning by our lawyer, with the party, with our closest friends — including you and Ronni — to follow.”
“Then what if Solomon reconfirms the vows at the party?”
When Chrisann asked what that would mean to Ricky, I realized that she had no idea who Solomon — the legendary singer for whom the term Soul Music was created — was.
“Let’s play a little game,” I said. Tell Ricky that Ronni and I may be late for the party.”
“And when he asks why?”
“Tell him I’ll be going with Solomon to hear a mass choir.”
“B-but –” murmured Chrisann.
“Just indulge me.”
Ten minutes later, Chrisann called back. “I’m so embarrassed,” she said.
“Ricky wants to know if he can join you.”
“I take it that’s a yes.”
The wedding party, on a bluff in Malibu overlooking the ocean, was a study in cliquishness, with people interacting only with those they knew. Then I received glares when I answered a cell call. It was Solomon, alerting me that he had just turned off of Pacific Coast Highway. Quickly, I went to the CD player and jumped ahead of the compilation Ronni and I had burned to play his “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love.”
Moments later, up came a black limousine, from which stepped 350-pound Solomon in purple and gold bishop’s garb, complete with a staff.
Ricky, the king of cool, turned into a nine-year-old, with his lip quivering, as Solomon formed a circle with himself, plus the bride,and groom, in the center.
In the aftermath, all cliquishness was gone. Best of all, Ricky seemed almost giddy.
Though Ricky, who even argued with his GPS, had a history as a grumbler, his bliss grew even stronger when a documentary about him that was many years in the making — to the point where he had accepted the likelihood that it would never be completed — was finished at last. Though he feared it might be consigned to some obscure network, to his delight it received a limited theatrical release, plus glowing reviews.
Aside from being a wonderful encapsulation of his career, it also was a breakthrough in being the first time that Ricky went public with certain aspects of his personal life.
Then came a Wednesday morning when Ricky surprised me with a call. Chrisann, he explained, was having a medical procedure near McArthur Park, so he wanted to know where he could find something to eat besides tacos.
“Meet me in a half-hour at the southeast corner of 7th and Alvarado,” I instructed.
“See you in a half-hour,” I stated.
When he joined me in front of Langer’s Deli, Ricky sneered. “This better be good!”
So enthralled was he from his first bite, that even after becoming a vegetarian for health reasons, he insisted on indulging himself with pastrami and chopped liver every subsequent birthday, together with Ronni and me plus ten other friends.
Over the years, Ricky and I had often joked about about the worst conceivable timing in the arts. One possibility, pre-internet, would be to have a play open in New York during a newspaper strike. Another would be to have a a TV show premiere opposite the Super Bowl. Later we added having a movie open on either Pearl Harbor Day or September 11, 2001. The antithesis, we agreed upon, would be for a book to get a rave review in the New York Times Book Review three weeks before the holiday season, which would clearly boost sales during the height of gift-giving. Miraculously, not only did Ricky’s wonderful coffee-table size “Learned Pigs & Fireproof Woman” get that cherished spot, but it did so on the front page.
Despite his innate cynicism, Ricky allowed himself to be pleased, all the while acknowledging that there was still time for something to go wrong. When I asked what that could possibly be, Ricky immediately countered. “Bubonic plague? Civil war? With my luck, even a nuclear holocaust?”
Though none of those cataclysms ensued, fate did intervene in the form of printing and shipping problems. As a result, Ricky’s book failed to hit bookstores until early in January, eliminating the hoped-for holiday sales.
At our next lunch, even as Ricky tried to be philosophical, he couldn’t help but wonder what professional problem, or problems, might surface next. Sadly, what did arise proved to be personal rather than professional. His occasional difficulty breathing, which was exacerbated by excess weight, sapped him of his energy more than ever before.
Signed to write a memoir, he took to calling me from time to time to ask about an event from our childhood that he either couldn’t fully remember, or had somehow blocked. Then, more often than not, he would complain about ever-increasing fatigue.
The only hope, he felt, was something I’d never heard of before, a rare from of surgery.
Still a huge boxing fan, one of the few things that seemed to excite him was that I had started making a documentary about the Latinization of the sport, both in the ring and in the stands.
Exhausted as he was, Ricky would call me to ask about interviews I’d done with Oscar de la Hoya, Sugar Ray Leonard, Julio Cesar Chavez, and others, plus his friend Boom Boom Mancini.
Once the film was finished, I offered to send Ricky a link. But he was determined to see it on a big screen together with an audience. When it played a festival in LA, sure enough he and Chrisann came. Even more surprisingly, he mustered enough energy to join us for Thai food afterward.
Then came a period in which it seemed Ricky might not survive the extended wait for his impending surgery. Tired and depressed, he was often almost inconsolable.
Everything changed when the news he’d been hoping for: he was finally scheduled for surgery.
Through the painful recovery, which involved not merely the physical healing, but also an ever-changing array of medicines, I kept making a promise. “Whenever you’re ready –” I would begin.
“If I’m ever ready –” he would interrupt.
“We’ll do something special.”
“We’ll talk when you’re ready.”
Months and months went by during which I had moved on to my next film about an experimental program in the judicial system. All the while I did my best to monitor Ricky’s progress.
Then one Monday afternoon, a call from him took me by surprise. “I’m ready as I’ll ever be,” he announced.
“To travel?” I asked.
“Not to the moon, but to someplace closer.”
“Car better than plane?”
“Let me work on it.”
Because of the connections I’d made while filming my boxing documentary, it was toward Las Vegas that Ricky and I set out on a Friday morning. After checking into hotel rooms, Ricky the fight fan was aglow when we joined a bunch of boxing writers for dinner.
Saturday, we drove to what I consider to be the world’s ugliest mall for lunch at my all-time favorite Thai restaurant, then lounged until the HBO pre-fight dinner, where I was able to introduce Ricky to Larry Merchant and Jim Lampley, as well as Sugar Ray Leonard, Canelo Alvarez, and other fighters.
When we entered the arena where Manny Pacquiao was to fight Juan Manuel Marquez, Ricky was stunned that our seats were in the second row.
“Can I see a ticket?” he asked.
Peeking at the astronomical price, Ricky laughed. “We should have sold the tickets and hired a bunch of hookers.”
“Which probably would have killed us.”
“Me for sure,” he acknowledged ruefully.
When the main event ended with a knockout that made both of us fear that Pacquiao would never get up, I thrilled Ricky even more by getting us into the post-fight press conference.
For weeks thereafter, Ricky gushed about our amazing road trip. Though we vowed to be diligent about continuing to get together — with our wives for dinner, as well as the two of us for lunch — each of us wound up busier than expected.
Still we assumed, or hoped, that there was no rush. Sadly, that proved not to be the case. Still I made time when Ricky, working on his memoir, needed me to fill him in about an event from our shared past, though it was clear that he was fighting against ever-increasing exhaustion. Despite medical intervention, Ricky was fading.
The end came soon after.
At Chrisann’s request, I burned a CD of favorite R&B songs — by Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, Irma Thomas, Joe Tex, and others — that was played at the beginning and end of the memorial service.
At the gathering for close friends that followed, it was fitting that pastrami sandwiches from Langer’s were served in Ricky’s honor.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera, plus a new one called “When Houston Had The Blues.” In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel The Beard was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.