American Masters http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters A series examining the lives, works, and creative processes of outstanding artists. Thu, 29 Jan 2015 23:28:57 +0000 http://wordpress.org/?v=2.8.4 en hourly 1 August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand: Biography and Timeline http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/august-wilson-the-ground-on-which-i-stand/biography-and-timeline/3683/ http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/august-wilson-the-ground-on-which-i-stand/biography-and-timeline/3683/#comments Wed, 28 Jan 2015 18:22:05 +0000 knightc http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/?p=3683 AW-Wilson-CUPortrait-610

August Wilson (1945 – 2005) was an award-winning American playwright whose work illuminated the joys and struggles of the African-American experience in the United States during the 20th century.

August Wilson’s Childhood

AW-August's-House-440wWilson’s rise from humble beginnings to Broadway was unlikely. Born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945, in the Hill District community of Pittsburgh, he was the son of Daisy Wilson, an African-American cleaning woman, and Frederick Kittel, a German immigrant and baker who was mostly absent from Wilson’s life. His mother raised Wilson and his siblings in a two-room, cold-water flat. Though bright and creative, he found student life difficult. Racially bullied at one school, bored at the next and accused of cheating at another, he secretly dropped out of high school in his early teens.

For the next several years, Wilson educated himself at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh during school hours, unbeknownst to his mother. He learned to love the blues, buying old 78 rpm records at a local thrift store. There he discovered the sound of Bessie Smith’s voice, which proved to be a revelation.

A voracious reader from a young age, Wilson began his artistic life as a poet. He also sought out the poetry in everyday life. He spent time in restaurants, barbershops and on the streets of “The Hill,” listening to the residents’ voices and stories. Wilson would later draw on these voices and histories to create unforgettable characters in his plays.

August Wilson’s Artistic Development

Lloyd Richards (left) and August Wilson (right) met in 1962. Photo: The Yale Repertory Theatre.

Director Lloyd Richards (left) and August Wilson (right) first met in 1962. Photo: The Yale Repertory Theatre.

Wilson had begun writing plays — one a musical western — before relocating to Minneapolis. There he was given a fellowship to the Minnesota Playwrights Center, which led to his acceptance into the National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut.

During the conference — an intense collaboration of artists testing new works — Wilson would meet Lloyd Richards. Richards was an African-American director who served as the dean of the Yale University School of Drama and the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. He was a legend in dramatic circles, especially in black theater, and would become a father figure and mentor to Wilson. Together, the two men would make a bold new statement on the Broadway stage.

August Wilson’s Century Play Cycle

AW-JTCG-playbill-580wWilson’s greatest contribution to American culture would be his defining 10-play cycle, one for each decade of the past century. All but one — Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — set in the city of Pittsburgh:

1900: Gem of the Ocean (2002)
1910: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1986)
1920: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984)
1930: The Piano Lesson (1989)
1940: Seven Guitars (1995)
1950: Fences (1985)
1960: Two Trains Running (1990)
1970: Jitney (1982)
1980: King Hedley II (2001)
1990: Radio Golf (2005)

The cycle of plays combines historical fact, comedy and gritty realism with spiritual and supernatural elements of African and African-American cultures. The result is a series of dramas that entertain as well as inform.

Over the course of his life, Wilson would be honored with many awards, among them the Tony, two Pulitzers and seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards. Even the Carnegie Library graced him with its only honorary degree.

August Wilson’s Legacy

AW_August-Grave-440wIn the late 90s, with a career spanning nearly two decades, Wilson married his third wife, costume designer Constanza Romero. The two had a daughter and moved to Seattle, WA, where Wilson continued to work on the last plays in the cycle. In June 2005, Wilson was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. He died Sunday, October 2, 2005, in a Seattle hospital. His funeral service was held in Pittsburgh and he is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, not far from his mother Daisy.

Wilson’s plays gave voice to both the mundane and extraordinary aspects of black life. Characters and dialogue could be weighed down with the bitterness of the streets or elevated with the mysticism of a ghostly ancestry. His work helped to propel and cement the careers of a legion of actors, directors and artisans. The characters and conflicts in Wilson’s plays reflect the external influences as well as his own history: the struggles of a biracial child who experienced racism and who grew up without a father, and the undying belief that nobility was not defined by skin color and circumstance. The result is an unprecedented collection of extraordinary dramas.

August Wilson Timeline

August Wilson's childhood home at 1727 Bedford Ave., Pittsburgh. It is on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo: WQED Pittsburgh.

August Wilson's childhood home at 1727 Bedford Ave., Pittsburgh, PA. It is on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo: WQED Pittsburgh.

April 27, 1945 – Frederick August Kittel is born in Pittsburgh, PA, in the city neighborhood known as “The Hill.” The Hill is Pittsburgh’s Harlem, a hub of creativity and commerce, and in 1945, still racially mixed. His mother, Daisy Wilson, was African-American, while his father, a German immigrant named Frederick Kittel, was white. He is one of seven children that will eventually be born to the couple, though Frederick would be absent for most of his children’s lives.

1959 – A student at the predominantly white, private Central Catholic High School, young Frederick is the victim of constant race-based bullying and abuse. He leaves Central Catholic for Connelly Trade school, where he feels unchallenged. He later transfers to Gladstone High School in the neighborhood of Hazelwood.

1960 – Now a 10th grader, he is assigned an essay on a historical figure. After being accused of plagiarizing his paper on Napoleon Bonaparte, the 15-year-old drops out of Gladstone High. He becomes a voracious reader and educates himself by spending his days at the nearby Carnegie Library.

1962 – He enlists in the U.S. Army but leaves after a year.

1963-1964 – He works a variety of jobs and begins writing poetry, purchases his first typewriter and discovers Bessie Smith and the blues.

1965 – To honor his mother, Frederick August Kittel changes his name to August Wilson. His biological father dies.

1968 – Embracing a heightened black consciousness, August co-founds the Black Horizon Theater with colleagues Rob Penny, Sala Udin, Maisha Baton, Claude Purdy and others.

1969 – August marries Brenda Burton. His stepfather, David Bedford, passes away.

1970 – August’s daughter, Sakina Ansari Wilson, is born.

1976 – Kuntu Repertory Theater, directed by Dr. Vernell Lillie, produces Wilson’s first play, The Homecoming.

1977 – He writes a western musical play, Black Bart and the Sacred Hills.

1978 – August leaves Pittsburgh for St. Paul, MN., with the help of his friend Claude Purdy. He is hired as a writer for the St. Paul Science Museum.

1980 – While in Minnesota, the respected Minneapolis Playwrights Center grants August a fellowship.

1981 – August marries Judy Oliver.

1982 – Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Repertory Theatre stages Jitney. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a play about the legendary blues singer, is accepted by the National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. August Wilson meets Lloyd Richards, an African-American director who serves as the dean of the Yale University School of Drama and the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. The two men forge a friendship that results in Lloyd directing August’s first six Broadway plays.

1983- August’s mother, Daisy Wilson, dies.

1984Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom premieres at the Yale Repertory Theatre to critical acclaim, quickly moves to Broadway and wins August his first New York Drama Critics Circle award.

1985Fences, the story of a frustrated former Negro League baseball player, premieres at Yale Repertory.

1986Joe Turner’s Come and Gone premieres at the Yale Repetory Theatre.

1987Fences opens on Broadway. August wins his second New York Drama Critics Circle Award and his first Pulitzer Prize. The play goes on to gross $11 million during its inaugural Broadway season.

1988 – August Wilson adds a second production running on Broadway when Joe Turner’s Come and Gone opens. It wins the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. August returns to Pittsburgh to lecture at Carnegie Institute and appears on Bill Moyers’ World of Ideas.

1989 – Yale Rep premieres The Piano Lesson. He is named 1990 Pittsburgher of the Year by Pittsburgh Magazine in his former hometown.

1990The Piano Lesson opens on Broadway and wins August his fourth New York Drama Critics Circle Award and his second Pulitzer Prize. Two Trains Running premieres. His second marriage ends and August Wilson moves to Seattle, WA.

1992Two Trains Running opens on Broadway and wins New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play.

1994 – Hallmark Hall of Fame produces a teleplay of The Piano Lesson starring Charles Dutton, Alfre Woodard and Courtney Vance; it is filmed in Pittsburgh. August marries costume designer Constanza Romero.

1995The Piano Lesson is broadcast on national television (CBS). Seven Guitars premieres.

1996Seven Guitars reaches Broadway and August is awarded his sixth New York Drama Critics Circle Award. He writes “The Ground on Which I Stand,” his controversial essay on the need for black cultural separatism.

1997 – Wilson participates in a contentious and widely publicized debate with theater critic Robert Brustein on the funding of black theater, color-blind casting and other topics. August and Constanza’s only daughter Azula Carmen Wilson is born.

1998 – August teaches playwriting at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

1999 – The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh awards August with its first ever high school diploma.

2000Jitney is produced in New York, Wilson’s first play to be staged in an Off-Broadway theater. He is awarded his seventh New York Drama Critics Circle Award.

2001King Hedley II opens on Broadway.

2002Gem of the Ocean premieres in Chicago. London’s Olivier Award names Jitney the year’s best play.

2003 – Whoopi Goldberg appears on Broadway in a revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

2004Gem of the Ocean opens on Broadway.

2005Radio Golf, August’s last play in the Century Cycle, premieres at the Yale Repertory Theatre. In June, he is diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and dies Sunday, October 2, in a Seattle hospital. His funeral service is held at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, not far from his mother Daisy.

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American Masters — August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand premieres Friday, February 20 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Wilson’s birth, the 10th anniversary of his death and Black History Month.

When did you experience the work of August Wilson? Were you surprised by any details in this biography? Share your comments and thoughts, below.

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Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice: Watch Full Film: Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/ricky-jay-deceptive-practice/watch-full-film-ricky-jay-deceptive-practice/3680/ http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/ricky-jay-deceptive-practice/watch-full-film-ricky-jay-deceptive-practice/3680/#comments Sat, 24 Jan 2015 06:53:57 +0000 knightc http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/?p=3680 (View full post to see video)
For the first time, the American Masters series profiles a magician: the inimitable Ricky Jay, considered one of the world’s greatest conjurers, capable of creating a profound sense of wonder and disbelief in even the most jaded of audiences. He is also a best-selling author, historian, actor and a leading collector of antiquarian books and artifacts.

Narrated by Dick Cavett, American Masters — Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice weaves together new interviews with Jay, his friends and collaborators, including writer/director David Mamet, and rare performance footage from his one-man shows and classic TV appearances, among them a hilarious turn with Steve Martin on Dinah Shore’s 1970s program. Filmmakers Molly Bernstein (editor, American Masters — Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About) and Alan Edelstein (Oscar-nominated producer, The Wizard of Strings) explore the arduous demands of the magician’s craft, the use of language and storytelling central to the art, and this ancient tradition’s future.

Read more about the film.

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Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice: Art Spiegelman and Ricky Jay in Conversation: Web Exclusive http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/ricky-jay-deceptive-practice/art-spiegelman-and-ricky-jay-in-conversation-web-exclusive/3649/ http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/ricky-jay-deceptive-practice/art-spiegelman-and-ricky-jay-in-conversation-web-exclusive/3649/#comments Thu, 22 Jan 2015 20:44:24 +0000 knightc http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/?p=3649 View full post to see video)

Cartoonist and author Art Spiegelman (Maus, In the Shadow of No Towers) and sleight-of-hand magician Ricky Jay spoke in conversation at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles on the occasion of the exhibition Extraordinary Exhibitions, featuring over 80 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century ephemeral advertising sheets known as broadsides, from Ricky Jay’s own collection. The magical attractions promoted in these broadsides include unusually talented animals and insects; gadgets that defy science; and conjurers with strange talents. The event Hammer Conversation with Ricky Jay and Art Spiegelman took place November 17, 2007.

Learn more about Jay’s scholarship and fascination with history in American Masters – Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice, airing Friday, January 23 at 9 pm on PBS (check local listings).

Hammer Conversation with Ricky Jay and Art Spiegelman, 11/17/2007, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. This web-exclusive video is produced by Molly Bernstein & Alan Edelstein, Hopscotch Films.

Selections from Ricky Jay’s Broadside Collection


Isaac Fawkes, “Dexterity of Hand,” c. 1729. Collection of Ricky Jay.

RJPhoto-Fawkes

Mathew Buchinger self portrait, c.1724. Collection of Ricky Jay

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Ricky Jay is fascinated by the German conjurer Mathew Buchinger (1674–1739) who was 29 inches tall, did not have arms or legs, and was also a musician and calligrapher. “He’s my flat-out favorite,” says Jay. “I’ve been collecting material on him for more than 30 years.”

Mr. Williams, Conjurer from Barbados, c. 1750. Collection of Ricky Jay.

RJPhoto-Williams760x1024

Daniel Wildman, Equestrian Apiarist, c. 1770. Collection of Ricky Jay.

RJPhoto-bees

The First Elephant in America, 1797. Collection of Ricky Jay.

RJPhoto-Elephant

Toby the Sapient Pig, c. 1830. Collection of Ricky Jay.

RJPhoto-TobyPig684x1024

Professor Faber’s Euphonia, c. 1846. Collection of Ricky Jay.

RJPhoto-Talking

J.H. Anderson, “The Wizard of the North.” 1857. Collection of Ricky Jay.

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Bertolotto’s Industrious Fleas, c. 1876. Collection of Ricky Jay.

RJPhoto-Fleas

American Masters – Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice, airing Friday, January 23 at 9 pm on PBS (check local listings).

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Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice: Biography of Ricky Jay http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/ricky-jay-deceptive-practice/biography-of-ricky-jay/3578/ http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/ricky-jay-deceptive-practice/biography-of-ricky-jay/3578/#comments Thu, 22 Jan 2015 15:37:33 +0000 knightc http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/?p=3578 Ricky Jay. Photo: Myrna Suarez/Film Society of New York

Ricky Jay. Photo: Myrna Suarez/Film Society of New York

While Ricky Jay has long been considered one of the world’s great sleight-of-hand artists, his career is further distinguished by the remarkable variety of his accomplishments as an author, actor, historian and consultant.

His one man shows Ricky Jay & His 52 Assistants, Ricky Jay: On the Stem, and Ricky Jay: A Rogue’s Gallery — all directed by David Mamet — were award-winning critical and commercial theatrical events.

As an actor Jay has been seen in David Mamet’s films: House of Games, Homicide, Things Change, Spanish Prisoner, State and Main, and Heist. He has appeared in many other movies including Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Last Days, Tomorrow Never Dies, The Prestige, Red Belt, and The Great Buck Howard. On television he has hosted numerous programs and appeared regularly on the series Deadwood, The Unit and Flash Forward.

His consulting company, Deceptive Practices, has supplied “Arcane Knowledge on a Need to Know Basis” for more than a score of films, including Forrest Gump, The Illusionist and Ocean’s Thirteen.

He is the author of Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women, and Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, both The New York Times “Notable Books.” Among his other works are Dice: Deception, Fate and Rotten Luck; Extraordinary Exhibitions; and most recently Celebrations of Curious Characters. He has defined the terms of his profession for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Cambridge Guide to American Theater.

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Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice: Comic: Waiting for Ricky Jay, by Peter Kuper http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/ricky-jay-deceptive-practice/comic-waiting-for-ricky-jay-by-peter-kuper/3657/ http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/ricky-jay-deceptive-practice/comic-waiting-for-ricky-jay-by-peter-kuper/3657/#comments Wed, 21 Jan 2015 21:08:34 +0000 knightc http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/?p=3657 Cartoonist and illustrator Peter Kuper played a pivotal role in the genesis of the film Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice. Kuper met Ricky Jay after sending him this three-page comic, the result of Kuper’s futile effort to get tickets to Jay’s sold-out show in New York City. Kuper eventually helped connect his friend director Molly Bernstein to Jay’s manager.

Click on the three-part image to enlarge, then read Bernstein’s own back story to this adventure.




Filmmaker Molly Bernstein: After seeing Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants, I told my old friend Peter Kuper, a cartoonist and illustrator from Cleveland, that this show was not to be missed. It was the fastest-selling show in off-Broadway history and impossible to get tickets. One could only wait in a long line and hope there would be some no-shows at the last minute, when the theater would sell a few more tickets. The lines went around the block through the whole run.

So Peter and his wife, Betty Russell, queued up on a Sunday night in the midst of a huge snowstorm, thinking there was a good chance that there would be lots of ticket holders who wouldn’t be able to get there. They stood in line in the freezing cold with a bunch of other determined New Yorkers for over three hours but did not get in.

While in line, Peter drew a comic about all of the characters in line called “Waiting for Ricky Jay.” The next day, Peter dropped the comic off at the theater for Ricky, and a few hours later, he got a call from his manager saying, “Thank you very much, he loved the comic. There will be two tickets waiting for you tonight, and please come backstage after to meet Mr. Jay.”

Peter and Betty went to the show and met Ricky; Peter brought him some of his work, which Ricky admired. A short time later, Ricky needed an illustration for a “Jay’s Journal of Anomalies” piece he was writing about a performer who crucified himself as a form of entertainment. He hired Peter to do an illustration; they became friends. I then asked Peter to introduce me to Ricky and ask if I could contact him about the idea of making a documentary.

Thanks to Peter Kuper for permission to share his comic. Bernstein originally shared this story in a longer interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

American Masters – Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice premieres Friday, January 23 at 9 pm on PBS.

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Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice: Ricky Jay’s Encyclopaedia Britannica Conjuring Entry http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/ricky-jay-deceptive-practice/ricky-jays-encyclopaedia-britannica-conjuring-entry/3658/ http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/ricky-jay-deceptive-practice/ricky-jays-encyclopaedia-britannica-conjuring-entry/3658/#comments Wed, 21 Jan 2015 18:25:07 +0000 knightc http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/?p=3658

Ricky Jay is the author of the Conjuring entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Photo by Lara Jo Regan.

Ricky Jay is the author of the Conjuring entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Photo by Lara Jo Regan.

By author Ricky Jay and by courtesy of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., copyright 2011; used with permission.

Conjuring, also called magic, prestidigitation, or sleight of hand, the theatrical representation of the defiance of natural law. Legerdemain, meaning “light, or nimble, of hand,” and juggling, meaning “the performance of tricks,” were the terms initially used to designate exhibitions of deception. The words conjuring and magic had no theatrical significance until the end of the 18th century. Descriptions of magical demonstrations were recorded in Egypt as early as 2500 bce. Such accounts reflect an inevitable mix of fact and fantasy, a quality they share with even their most modern counterparts.

One of the tenets of magic—indeed, one employed and exploited by some of its foremost practitioners—is that spectators cannot perceive correctly the miraculous effects they have witnessed. Perhaps conjurers have always understood that when viewers are in a state of amazement, their capacity for accurate recall is diminished. The use of psychology, therefore, is one of the principal techniques of the conjurer, especially in the practice of misdirection, in which a spectator’s attention is directed to a specific point determined by the performer. The knowledge of scientific principles, the implementation of ingenious mechanical devices, and impressive physical dexterity are also essential tools of the successful magician.

Although several previous references exist, the printed literature of magic dates in earnest from the mid-16th century and encompasses thousands of texts. Descriptions of the art can be gleaned from widely divergent categories of literature: refutations of witchcraft that find it necessary to expose magicians’ tricks; books of secrets, which may include not only recipes for salves, japanning metals, medicines, and artists’ colours but also a few simple conjuring effects; the literature of lowlife, which may offer explanations of cheating maneuvers used by picaresque characters; works on hydraulics and optics, which discuss scientific principles used by conjurers; works of mathematical recreations; and books of tricks sold for the purpose of teaching, or at least disclosing to the curious, methods used by magicians. The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot and The First Part of Clever and Pleasant Inventions by Jean Prevost, both published in 1584, in London and Lyons, respectively, are the seminal texts on magic. These early descriptions reflect performances of conjurers that probably took place decades or even hundreds of years before they were recorded, and these books provide the basis for much of the sleight of hand still in use.

In spite of a fondness for taxonomy within the literature of the profession, no universally accepted list of illusions defines the conjurer’s art. S.H. Sharpe (1902–92) presented a representative classification of six basic effects: production (e.g., a coin appears in a hand previously shown to be empty); disappearance (a woman is covered with a cloth, and when the covering is whisked away the woman has vanished); transformation (a dollar bill is changed into a hundred-dollar bill); transposition (the ace of spades is placed on top of a glass and the three of hearts under the glass, and the cards change places); the defiance of natural sciences (a person is levitated and appears to float in the air); and mental phenomena (mind reading).

Many sources, beginning with the earliest works on magic, describe the attributes common to the best practitioners of the art and detail the skills they must cultivate. Hocus Pocus Junior: The Anatomie of Legerdemain; or, the Art of Jugling … (1634) suggests the following:

First, he must be one of an impudent and audacious spirit …
Secondly, he must have a nimble and cleanly conveyance.
Thirdly, he must have strange terms and emphatical words …
Fourthly, … such gestures of body as may lead away the spectators eyes from a strict and diligent beholding his manner of conveyance.

The great French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805–71) stated: “To succeed as a conjurer, three things are essential—first, dexterity; second, dexterity; and third, dexterity.” But he also stressed the study of science and the application of mental subtleties. Harry Kellar (1849–1922), the most famous American magician in the early years of the 20th century, suggested more-unconventional qualifications for the successful conjurer: “The will, manual dexterity, physical strength, the capacity to perform things automatically, an accurate, perfectly ordered and practically automatic memory, and a knowledge of a number of languages, the more the better.”
Although some conjurers are cited by name in the early literature, accounts devoted to particular magicians are fragmentary until the 18th century. Isaac Fawkes (d. 1731), the English fairground conjurer, and Matthew Buchinger (1674–1739), “The Little Man of Nuremberg”—who exhibited the classic cups and balls effect although he had no arms or legs—were the best-known performers in the first half of the century. By the 1780s the Italian wizard Chevalier Pinetti (1750–1800) had introduced magic in a theatrical setting, liberating it from centuries of itinerant performance in street fairs and taverns.
Two great conjurers emerged in the 19th century: the previously mentioned Robert-Houdin, a watchmaker who combined a scientific approach to conjuring with the social graces of a gentleman and who is considered the father of modern magic; and the Viennese enchanter Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser, a master of both inventive apparatus and original sleight of hand, especially with playing cards. Both men performed in small, elegant theatres and elevated the art to its highest levels, making the performance of magic as viable for the beau monde as a trip to the ballet or opera.
At the turn of the 20th century, magic was a successful form of popular entertainment. Elaborate stage shows such as that offered by Alexander Herrmann (1844–96) in the United States or John Nevil Maskelyne (1839–1917) and David Devant (1868–1941) in London became the rage. In 1903, Okito, T. Nelson Downs, the Great Lafayette, Servais LeRoy, Paul Valadon, Howard Thurston, and Horace Goldin, a veritable all-star team of renowned conjurers, appeared simultaneously in different London theatres. At the same time, Max Malini (1873–1942) traveled the globe giving impromptu performances in private settings for members of high society and nobility. In the United States, Harry Houdini specialized in a single aspect of the art, escapology—extrication from restraints such as handcuffs or straitjackets—to become magic’s most famous practitioner in the vaudeville era, while Kellar, Thurston, and Harry Blackstone, Sr. (1885–1965), conducted large and popular touring shows. After a considerable slump in the popularity of stage illusion, Doug Henning revitalized the art by appearing on Broadway in the 1970s and paved the way for the success of the magic show of David Copperfield and the Las Vegas extravaganza of Siegfried and Roy. What may have been the most lasting contribution to the magic art in the 20th century was the advancement of close-up or sleight-of-hand magic in intimate performance. The greatest exponent of this branch of conjuring was the Canadian-born Dai Vernon (1894–1992), who revolutionized the art and whose legacy is shared by professional performers and by thousands of amateur enthusiasts around the world.
Magic is a universal art form. Although it may reflect specific features of nationality, ethnicity, or religion, it thrives without regard to them, and it has developed independently in various cultures. It has survived hundreds of years of exposure and trivialization. No matter how often and how egregiously its secrets are revealed, the passage of years, a change of context, and the power of a splendid performer can rekindle an old principle to create a performance miracle.

The great French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805–71) stated: “To succeed as a conjurer, three things are essential—first, dexterity; second, dexterity; and third, dexterity.” But he also stressed the study of science and the application of mental subtleties. Harry Kellar (1849–1922), the most famous American magician in the early years of the 20th century, suggested more-unconventional qualifications for the successful conjurer: “The will, manual dexterity, physical strength, the capacity to perform things automatically, an accurate, perfectly ordered and practically automatic memory, and a knowledge of a number of languages, the more the better.”

Although some conjurers are cited by name in the early literature, accounts devoted to particular magicians are fragmentary until the 18th century. Isaac Fawkes (d. 1731), the English fairground conjurer, and Matthew Buchinger (1674–1739), “The Little Man of Nuremberg”—who exhibited the classic cups and balls effect although he had no arms or legs—were the best-known performers in the first half of the century. By the 1780s the Italian wizard Chevalier Pinetti (1750–1800) had introduced magic in a theatrical setting, liberating it from centuries of itinerant performance in street fairs and taverns.

Two great conjurers emerged in the 19th century: the previously mentioned Robert-Houdin, a watchmaker who combined a scientific approach to conjuring with the social graces of a gentleman and who is considered the father of modern magic; and the Viennese enchanter Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser, a master of both inventive apparatus and original sleight of hand, especially with playing cards. Both men performed in small, elegant theatres and elevated the art to its highest levels, making the performance of magic as viable for the beau monde as a trip to the ballet or opera.

At the turn of the 20th century, magic was a successful form of popular entertainment. Elaborate stage shows such as that offered by Alexander Herrmann (1844–96) in the United States or John Nevil Maskelyne (1839–1917) and David Devant (1868–1941) in London became the rage. In 1903, Okito, T. Nelson Downs, the Great Lafayette, Servais LeRoy, Paul Valadon, Howard Thurston, and Horace Goldin, a veritable all-star team of renowned conjurers, appeared simultaneously in different London theatres. At the same time, Max Malini (1873–1942) traveled the globe giving impromptu performances in private settings for members of high society and nobility. In the United States, Harry Houdini specialized in a single aspect of the art, escapology—extrication from restraints such as handcuffs or straitjackets—to become magic’s most famous practitioner in the vaudeville era, while Kellar, Thurston, and Harry Blackstone, Sr. (1885–1965), conducted large and popular touring shows. After a considerable slump in the popularity of stage illusion, Doug Henning revitalized the art by appearing on Broadway in the 1970s and paved the way for the success of the magic show of David Copperfield and the Las Vegas extravaganza of Siegfried and Roy. What may have been the most lasting contribution to the magic art in the 20th century was the advancement of close-up or sleight-of-hand magic in intimate performance. The greatest exponent of this branch of conjuring was the Canadian-born Dai Vernon (1894–1992), who revolutionized the art and whose legacy is shared by professional performers and by thousands of amateur enthusiasts around the world.

Magic is a universal art form. Although it may reflect specific features of nationality, ethnicity, or religion, it thrives without regard to them, and it has developed independently in various cultures. It has survived hundreds of years of exposure and trivialization. No matter how often and how egregiously its secrets are revealed, the passage of years, a change of context, and the power of a splendid performer can rekindle an old principle to create a performance miracle.

Ricky Jay

American Masters – Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice premieres Friday, January 23 at 9 pm on PBS.

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Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice: Ricky Jay on Ways of Learning: Books and Teachers http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/ricky-jay-deceptive-practice/ricky-jay-on-ways-of-learning-books-and-teachers/3617/ http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/ricky-jay-deceptive-practice/ricky-jay-on-ways-of-learning-books-and-teachers/3617/#comments Wed, 14 Jan 2015 23:13:02 +0000 knightc http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/?p=3617 View full post to see video)

Ricky Jay is an author, scholar and collector of books, art works and ephemera that delve into the long and international history of magic, conjuring and sleight-of-hand work. Though he has collected thousands of books on magic technique, Jay still believes that the personal mentor relationship is most important in learning his craft.

“It’s almost like the sensei master relationship in the martial arts–that the way you want to learn is by someone that you respect showing you something,” says the sleight-of-hand artist. Learn more about Jay’s mentors and watch a film excerpt on Jay’s relationship with magician Charlie Miller and a film outtake with Jay speaking about magician Dai Vernon.

Old Magic Reference Books

These are some important books on magic that Ricky Jay has studied and written about.

  • La Premiëre Partie des Subtiles et Plaisantes Inventions (The First Part of Clever and Pleasant Inventions) by Jean Prèvost. It is the earliest known major conjuring book, printed in Lyons, France in 1584.
  • The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot, London, 1584.
  • A Candle in the Dark: Or a Treatise Concerning the Nature of Witches and Witchcraft, by Thomas Ady, 1656. It includes an important 17th-century account of an English magic performance.

Jay spoke about these books, his mentors and more in April 2014 at the New York Public Library, whose holdings include rare books of magic history.

Ricky Jay’s LIVE from the NYPL talk with host Paul Holdengräber:

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