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Guest Post: Earning My Invitation into the Highly Secretive, Male-Dominated Fraternity of Magicians

Guest Post: Earning My Invitation into the Highly Secretive, Male-Dominated Fraternity of Magicians

Ricky Jay, the subject of my American Masters
documentary Deceptive
(premieres Friday, January
23 at 9 PM on PBS), told me that the field of sleight of hand is one of the
world’s few true meritocracies. He described masters of the art who would
accept students based on their talent and dedication to practice and perfection, regardless of their age, race, sex, nationality, or anything else. He
spent much of his twenties, often daily and late into the night, practicing and
hanging out with his mentors, Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, who were fifty-odd
years his senior. No generation gap interfered with magicians in their twenties being very close friends with mentors in
their eighties and nineties. When traveling in foreign cities in his youth,
Ricky was often welcomed and hosted by magicians he had never met via
introductions from his teachers.

Practitioners of magic and sleight
of hand are predominantly male and always have been. There have been some
female performers throughout the history of the art, such as Adelaide Herrmann
(1853-1932), a pioneer of female conjuring, who performed big stage illusions. But
a more commonly known image of women in the field is the iconic magician’s
assistant, who has typically played a role akin to that of the scantily-clad
“ring girl” in boxing matches or cheerleaders at football games, but
with the added bonus of being levitated or sawed in half. Perhaps not
surprisingly, then, most of Ricky Jay’s colleagues and collaborators in magic
are men.

People often ask me what it was
like being a woman making a film within this secretive, male-dominated
fraternity. When my partner Alan Edelstein (the producer and co-director) and I
were nervous about making our way into Ricky’s world for one reason or another, Alan would sometimes suggest that a task might be easier for me because I’m a woman. But I don’t think my gender made
anything easier or harder. I think I was offered access by Ricky and his
colleagues because of my passionate interest in the subject and my perseverance
as a filmmaker. This was not a passing interest of mine or Alan’s; we spent
over a decade making the film.

It was sometimes a frustrating and
stressful process gaining access to a subject who deceives people for a living
and is devoted to guarding secrets of many kinds. But Ricky is also a brilliant
and passionate historian, and I believe we earned his trust because of our
commitment to the project of documenting his story and lineage, much as he
earned access to his mentors because of his demonstration of serious interest
in the field.

I enjoy the fact that Suzie
Mackenzie, the only woman interviewed in the film, is considered by many to be
its highpoint. A journalist for The
, Suzie was working on a profile of Ricky when he surprised her
with a stupendous effect over lunch in a restaurant. Suzie telling the story of
being fooled by Ricky is a magical element in the film. She brings her
experience of wonder to life in a way that illustrates the strength of Ricky’s
performance of an effect that could never be filmed because of its intimate and
spontaneous nature.

Hearing and seeing Suzie tell the
story on film is possibly more powerful than if one were to witness the actual
effect firsthand. Her skill in reportage here is akin to Ricky’s in his field:
both are superb conjurors. 

Molly Bernstein is producer,
director, and editor of
American Masters — Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice,
premiering nationwide on Friday, January 23 at 9 PM on PBS (check local
listings). She has written and directed documentary profiles of leading figures
in the arts for the Sundance Channel and AMC, and worked extensively as an
editor on documentary films, including the Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning
Masters — Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About.

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