Microbubbling: A Fate Worse Than Death
“Quod, ut dicitur, si est homo bulla, eo magis senex” the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BC – 27 BC) wrote in the first historical references to bubbles which means “If man is a microbubble, all the more so is an old man…” Ok I’ve translated “bulla” into its micro form. Perhaps that wasn’t the true meaning, but it seems true that life isn’t just a bowl of cherries, it’s also cluster of microbubbles. When one pops someone has vanished. We pinch ourselves to see if they are truly gone.
The scholar and magician Ricky Jay lived in a very rare magical microbubble. When he passed away late last year it was easy to think it was another trick. After all – his sleight of hand defied logic and physics. Anyone who attended his Broadway show “Ricky Jay And His 52 Assistants,” the assistants being a deck of playing cards, has seen how abjectly brilliant and impossible he was to fathom. Jay could hurl a joker up to 90 miles per hour from ten paces and cut an apple in half. He also wrote perhaps the most valuable text on magic chicanery Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women, a compendium of eccentric acts, cons, and freak shows.
Ricky appeared in a great number of films. He made an appearance at some point in every David Mamet film as well as such diverse films as Boogie Nights and notably as a techno-terrorist to counter Pierce Brosnan’s 007. The X-Files created a magician character “The Amazing Maleeni” for Ricky, who literally lost his head.
Ricky and I crossed paths more than a few times. The first time I booked him as part of a wretched comedy variety show I produced in New York. We were a bit of a freak show ourselves with a local weatherman for a host. When we were desperate for bookings, I convinced the producers to interview the “Lucky Strike Girl.” Only there wasn’t actually a Lucky Strike Girl she was a model who appeared on a Lucky Strike Cigarette Billboard. At one point or another we booked famous comedians like Richard Belzer and Ellen DeGeneres before they were successful.
My favorite booking was Ricky Jay. The producers considered Ricky even more suspect than the Lucky Strike Girl. At that time Ricky used a menagerie of wind-up toys as part of his act. I helped him make sure they were ready to go. He hurled his cards at the fast advancing army of tin monkeys, drumming pigs, and roaring tin bears inflicting a variety of disabling injuries. Ok it wasn’t exactly magic, but it was so strange, no one had seen anything like it.
Later I produced a tumultuous pilot for a live two-hour show entitled It’s a Big Country. One of those many crazy projects the networks spent millions on that never went further than a pilot and never aired. We built a one-hundred by one-hundred-and-fifty-foot 3D Looney Tune version map of the United States complete with a facade of Graceland that flew up revealing a turntable with a red Chevy, a replica of Mount Rainer with “snow,” Cape Canaveral with a rocket, and more. The high concept was that we were “the only show where you could go anywhere in America without ever leaving the studio.” We also had a high school marching band playing Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” a Boy Scout troupe that showed you to your seat and – this is where Ricky came in – unconventional correspondents reporting from around the country in live segments with Chris Issak and Paula Poundstone as hosts. In Ricky Jay’s segment he roamed the country exposing con artists, fakes and frauds in amazing street segments.
The last time I ran into him a year before he died he was in Santa Barbara at the Granada David Blaine performance. Ricky had been advising Blaine on his stage show, but he seemed pretty down. I wasn’t alarmed at first as he was usually dour, but hilariously so. I asked him what was up or down considering his mood. He told me that he had broken both of his wrists. I knew he had accidentally slipped in the winter of 2016 but I didn’t know he broke both wrists. Being the optimist, I remarked that putting out his wrists to stop his fall (commonly termed a FOOSH) probably saved his life because otherwise the fall may have been fatal. He didn’t agree. In fact, he looked down at his wrists and adamantly disagreed. “When a magician breaks his wrists, it’s a fate worse than death.” His words hung in the air with a foreboding and irrefutable truth. It stunned me to silence.
Ricky Jay was the real deal of fakery. At 72 he knew his ability to hurl a joker into a wall was gone. Even pulling a coin from behind a little child’s ear would likely be impossible. I sensed he felt the walls of his microbubble closing in.