Ricky Jay and the Magic Frog

In the summer between my junior and senior year at college, I traveled across the country, playing guitar with The Busted Toe Mudthumpers: Walt Koken on banjo, George Dorian, fiddle, and Marty Lebenson harmonica. Along for the ride in our VW bus, was the now famous magician Ricky Jay, a friend of Marty’s since childhood, and co-conspirator with the Thumpers at various events, mostly at Cornell in Ithaca NY, from which George had just graduated and where Ricky had been enrolled for a while. Ricky had ended up at my apartment through circumstances typical of those free-booting times. Supposedly, he had replied to a ride share offer posted on some bulletin board in Ithaca that should have taken him to Philadelphia just in time to do a show at some civic organization. Alas, while Ricky was asleep, his ride share host/driver for some unknown reason decided to alter her course and head to Cambridge. Ricky awoke to find himself on the outskirts of the wrong city with no prospect of getting to his gig on time. No gig, no money, there he was stuck in Cambridge.

His arrival, I think, was the catalyst for the scheme that George dreamed up: A tour across the continent, a traveling road show with old time music and magic, heading to San Francisco where reverberations from  “the summer of love” still charged the atmosphere. George was always the arch instigator of events, a character like no one I have ever known. His death in a car crash the following year bound all of us together with shared memories that with his passing can only be faintly sketched and vaguely comprehended by those who did not know him. But for now, suffice it to say that the whole escapade was George’s idea. He found another willing participant in his plan, one Bill Buckman, who had the required vehicle. As fate would have it, another old friend, Loudon Wainwright, also showed up, looking for a place in Cambridge. So I was able to turn my room over to him and disembark with George, Ricky, Marty and of course Marty’s dog, Stoney. Ricky, you see needed to do something. He’d really needed that paycheck from the Philadelphia Elks Lodge or whatever it was, and why not hitch a ride to the west coast? Besides, there he was, broke, with his Cambridge friends all about to leave town. We didn’t give him a lot of choice. We were all free and unemployed. We had a guy with a bus and a month’s supply of brown rice and buckwheat groats. Between us, we maybe had a few hundred dollars. What could possibly go wrong? We called up Walt Koken and convinced him with little effort that playing the banjo with his old pals in a music and magic show made more sense than a nine to five job in St Louis. We agreed we’d meet in Winnipeg and soon...I can’t remember exactly when... we were heading north. George and I had already spent time vagabonding in Canada and north was our default compass point.

And so began the great picaresque journey of my youth, the rite of passage that for better or worse set a course and initiated a chain of events that shaped much of what was to follow. Some day I’ll get around to more of the story, such as I remember it. It’s odd, but it does seem we survivors all remember different things. It’s not so much that we have conflicting accounts. Rather, each seems to recall events others have forgotten and have no memory of some episodes which are key to another’s recollections. For now, I’ll focus on how the magic frog arrived in our midst and how we ended up traveling across the prairie in a bus painted quite professionally with the following announcement: The Busted Toe Mudthumpers with Amazing Richard and his Magic Frog. How Ricky Jay ever took second billing to the Busted Toe Mudthumpers I don’t understand and where “Amazing Richard” came from I don’t recall  either. Maybe Ricky really needed to protect his reputation considering the company he was keeping. Why advertise that Ricky Jay, who had already appeared on television and had some notoriety, had been reduced temporarily to appearing in bowling alley parking lots in Manitoba with an old time hippie string band and passing the hat to drunken wheat farmers at a county fair.

After some days of travel, we found ourselves in the town of Portage La Prairie,  a small city where once the French explorer Verendrye had built an outpost at a spot where trappers could carry canoes from the Assiniboine River to Lake Manitoba. My memories of our stay are cloudy for sure, but I think we made a stir of some kind by announcing a performance behind the local bowling alley. The performance elicited from the small somewhat tipsy audience ( they served beer at the bowling alley ) more stares of disbelief than any other response, but we did get a few toes tapping timidly and Ricky was able to astonish the locals with some of his card wizardry. Needless to say, wandering musical and magic acts did not appear unannounced in Portage La Prairie on a regular basis, so we were certainly a curiosity. Moreover, the Canadian temperament and generally tolerant attitude prevented any interference from the RCMP or other authorities. We even made a few friends, one of whom, a young guy with a sign painting business, offered at a very reduced rate to paint the van with a logo appropriate for our act, something to give us a bit of a leg up professionally. Perhaps it was this offer that prompted us  to define for the public exactly who we were.

While we were still considering the exact wording to be painted on the bus, Ricky took me aside and asked me if I could lend him a few bucks and go with him to the local toy store, a dusty old place such as does not exist any more, the kind of five and dime where a Dad could buy a newspaper and some novelty for the kids. There among the yoyos and dominoes and packs of bubble gum, Ricky found what he was looking for, a little windup metal frog. Wind him up and off he’d go, hopping along the floor as some internal spring with a catch and release mechanism revolved the key and made the legs flex, click, click, click...until the spring wound down and the little frog after some hesitant jerks came to a full stop. And so it was that we found the magic frog, the sixth performer in our little show. If I remember correctly, he only cost me $2.50, and thinking back on it, the frog was quite a bargain, reliable, always showed up on time and performed as advertised. No doubt having an assistant made Ricky’s job easier, given the not so cushy performance situations we encountered. A deck of cards, even in the hands of one of the great masters, which even back then Ricky was, may have limited visual impact at a distance in some random improvised setting.

To the best of my recollection, Ricky and the frog’s collaboration went as follows: Ricky would shuffle a deck of cards; he was always shuffling cards, playing with them, making them fan out, flip or ripple down a line like dominoes. He would hold out the fanned deck to someone in the audience and ask the person to pick a card, then show the card to the audience while his back was turned. Then he’d give the audience member the deck and have him or her reinsert the card and shuffle the deck again before handing him back all the cards. At that point, Ricky would produce the magic frog, usually from some coat pocket, and after an introduction about the clairvoyant powers of his amphibious assistant, would spread the whole deck out in a wide circle. Then, while further elaborating on the frog’s psychic powers, he would turn the winding key, then place the frog in the middle of the circle and let it hop. Off it jumped, quickly at first. Then the hopping slowed, as if the frog were deliberating, psychically honing in on its target. The circle was big enough so that the frog never seemed to jump outside of its circumference. It usually came to a halt pointing at a card, or at least more in the direction of one card than any other, sometimes even landing on one. When the frog stopped, it had made a decision and had found the card chosen by the audience member. Ricky would pick up the frog and then the card, which was invariably the correct one. I watched his hands, sometimes from just a few feet away, time after time, and never saw how he did it. As far as I could tell, it was always the exact card that had been lying in the circle and there was no alternate card in either of his hands.

I particularly remember one night when we had ended up at a very strange communal encampment called Tolstoy Farm, a canyon in the semi desert east of Spokane where long term residents and various transients had holed up with the approval of some distant land owner whose name nobody seemed to know. We stayed there a few days while plotting the next leg of our journey since we had parted company from the van the previous week back in British Columbia. There was a large communal campfire where folks gathered in a kind of demographic mash up of Grapes of Wrath and Haight Ashbury. Among these various strays was a pretty young hippie girl  who was always accompanied by a pet raccoon that rode around on her shoulder. She was traveling with an odd group of flower children led it seemed by an older man named Roger who I remember extolling the virtues of eating dried apricots and nudism, though mercifully, he usually appeared in boxer shorts. One night Ricky did his magic frog routine by firelight on the packed earth of the campsite. As he held out the deck of cards for someone to grab, the raccoon lunged, and as surely as if it had been practicing card tricks itself, plucked a card right out of the deck. Ricky handed the deck to the girl and the trick proceeded as usual.

Well, it’s all a long time ago, and maybe I’ve changed a detail or two inadvertently. But given all that’s happened since and Ricky’s present prominence as one of the acknowledged masters of his trade, it’s no wonder that I still have no idea how that frog always got the right card.


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