The Professional Stage Pickpocket by Ricki Dunn
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 2006)
In the. id-1960s, Tannen's Magic suspended its annual "Jubilee" convention and instead produced an annual evening show of magicians, presented at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel in New York City, and which ran for two nights each year. I attended the show all three of those years, typically with my father, seeing countless "name" stage acts. One year, when I think I was about 14 years old, the show included an extraordinary as of stage pick pocketing. I don't remember the details of the act as much as I recall a moment when my father, who was laughing so hard he was literally crying and all but falling out of his seat, managed to raise my adolescent concern for a few moments, while I briefly feared that he was laughing so hard he might hurt himself.
That act was Ricki Dunn and, as it turns out, my father's response wasn't all that unusual. Although Ricki and I worked together decades later, I didn't know him well only enough to get into a dispute with him, and as sever-al of his friends mention in the pages of this book, you did-n't have to know him well for that at all. Then again, one of his closest and oldest friends, when I was about to work with Ricki, warned me that even though he loved Ricki dearly, I should look out, because "Ricki is nuts!" The warning could not begin to live up to the reality, but I'm also glad to say that Ricki and I eventually kissed and made up well, shook hands and made up before his untimely death. No matter what, I was glad to know him and privileged to have seen him perform.
In a field rife with uncommon characters, few were more uncommon, or memorable, than the late Ricki Dunn. That fact is testified to by the wonderful foreword to this book, penned by Ricki's lifelong friend, the great comedy writer, Bob Orben. The claim is further supported by a profile written by David Avadon (which first appeared in the pages of this magazine), and is capped by the slew of anecdotes and tributes provided in the final section of the book, contributed by some of Ricki's friends, including Glenn and Frances Falkenstein, Norm Nielsen, and recounting the marvelous story of "Lodar is a Thief"—Johnny Thompson.
Ricki Dunn was a nightclub performer in the days when there really were such things and he made a very steady living as a full-time variety entertainer for some 50 years. Self-made in every way, Ricki started out as a magician, but became a stage pickpocket when there were few such acts and essentially none performed in the U.S. by Americans. David Avadon succinctly explains that Ricki "took the European pickpocket act as pioneered by Dr. Giovanni and linked it with cutting edge night club humor," and offers that Ricki "was the most successful performer you've never read about in a magic magazine."
Readers will find out much about what made him such a success when they dive into this terrific book, which was substantially written by Ricki before his death, they assembled, cleaned up, and transformed into this attractive volume by Nielsen Magic. (Norm Nielsen was a great friend of Ricki's, and Norm's wife, Lupe, took the publishing project in hand and produced this latest offering for the firm.) The literature of pick pocketing is sparse, and while I have read most but admittedly not all of it, I think I can confidently claim that this is the book that overrides everything else you may have read previously on the subject.
The book is bulging with material and ideas. It's also ripe with Ricki's voice and personality, and that is all for the bet-ter. If you were lucky enough to see Ricki perform, you might never have known what a deeply analytical thinker he was about his work, but that attention to detail the hallmark of the professional is thoroughly on display here, in page after page that reveals Ricki's mastery of his subject, his demanding standards, his boundless creativity, and his strong and honest opinions. Indeed, those who have studied the existing literature on the subject will doubtless find Ricki's occasional passing remarks on various other pickpocket works sometimes to their credit, and other times to their detriment of inestimable and entertaining value.
Excluding the introductions, tributes, and anecdotes, there are 11 chapters filled with useable material here, and I emphasize the word "useable." Although there is one illusion idea included that the author admits he never actually used, that is a notable exception to the incredibly practical, real-world approaches that virtually every item in these pages delivers. This is not armchair theorizing. This is the real work from a guy who was in the trenches for half a century and made plenty of money and produced plenty of laughs while doing so.
Chapter One addresses the fundamental concepts of pick pocketing, including the all important subject of misdirection, along with maintaining control, how to handle stolen items (where to store them and when to return them), choosing volunteers, and the issue of confederates. It's actually quite remarkable to read Ricki's direct and practical discussion of this last subject, because during his life-time I often heard him insist (at the top of his lungs and in profanity-laced terms) that he never used confederates, even though he might be talking to a magician who had seen Ricki do the "shirt pull" stunt, which can only be done with a stooge! But his advice here is extremely smart and addresses the questions a performer must consider when thinking about using confederates in such an act.
Chapter Two systematically approaches how to pick every specific pocket in a suit of clothing and the next chapter thoroughly examines the subject of stealing watches. Even if you think you know how to do this, I think it highly unlikely you will not discover something new here. This is instruction from a master.
Chapter Three discusses how to steal neckties, belts, suspenders, and more and you really had to see Ricki perform in order to appreciate that he could really do these things and to grasp what effect he could have on an audience when doing so. And, as it happens, if you buy this book, you will be able to do just that: watch Ricki Dunn in action! Because along with the well-produced book comes a DVD with a video of Ricki doing a turn of a bit under 10 minutes in the Palace showroom of The Magic Castle. As thorough and detailed as are the instructions Dunn provides in this book, you cannot begin to comprehend the showmanship and skill with which Ricki would elicit breathless laughs and gasps from his audiences until you see this brief but joyful example. It's a fabulous idea to include it with the book and students (and their layman friends!) will be equally thankful for the thought. It is one thing to read the prosaic (if sometimes mind-boggling) descriptions of how to steal a belt or a tie, but to watch the raw physicality and comic timing of Dunn's execution of these methods is another thing entirely.
Remaining chapters address pseudo-steals; the shirt steal; a substantial chapter of pickpocket-related magic which is brimming with great material from close-up to stage magic, including routines for close-up watch steals (one involving a Chop Cup), plus tremendously commercial platform routines, including a "Bills Across," and a hilarious and extremely deceptive "Cut-and Restored Tie." Any of these routines can be combined with a pickpocket act, and some are ideally suited as the basis for building an act. And of course there is in fact a chapter of how to construct such an act, along with a chapter on publicity and other professional tips.
One of the many ironies of Ricki Dunn's personality was that he was one of those performers who never knew how well he did on stage. If so much as a single joke played a little more weakly than it might, Ricki was instantly certain he was going down the toilet he had a more colorful word for it and to make matters worse, he would promptly say so on stage. Meanwhile, everybody else in the room no one more than any other performers looking on knew that he was killing. Nielsen Magic has done double service by providing a wonderful tribute to a great act and unique character, and at the same time delivering his enormous talent and hard-won knowledge to future performers.