Ricky Jay loves history, magic, sideshows, inventions, circuses, typography, and collecting. Perhaps most of all, Ricky Jay loves words. "I love the way they look on the page," he confesses, contemplating a small 19th-century playbill that heralds "The Giant Hungarian Schoolboy." "I love the way they roll off the tongue. No matter how much one is mired in the complexities of life… no matter how depressing are the day's events—these vicissitudes are all assuaged by the presence of 'The Giant Hungarian Schoolboy.'" In Extraordinary Exhibitions, Jay enthusiastically annotates a selection of broadsides and advertising ephemera from his copious collection, sometimes lapsing into such expressions of personal euphoria. The large-format book with its fine color reproductions is a browser's delight.
Arranged chronologically from 1618 to 1898, these bills form a timeline both of novelty acts and printing styles. Jay, an illusionist, actor, and writer, seizes the opportunity to comment on any peripheral matter that catches his fancy. An Argentinean playbill for a husband-and-wife animal act, for example, prompts brief reflections on the dictatorship of Juan Manuel Rosas, whose Federalist party demanded the appearance of political slogans at the top of the sheet. Philosophical reflections on identity and society accompany twin broadsides featuring conjoined twins Millie-Christine and Chang and Eng. Jay frequently delivers brief, entertaining histories of the performers featured on his playbills. He connects the innovators and the famous, like Professor J.H. Anderson, "The Great Wizard of the North" (who promised "Odoriferous Coolness through the House"), with imitators and followers like Savren, "Artist in Experimental Philosophy." Fans of Jay's egregiously entertaining history of freak-shows, Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women, will recognize Toby the Sapient Pig ("The Philosopher of the Swinish Race"). Here, the prodigious porker shares the spotlight with a beautiful lithograph of the Pig-Faced Lady and a crude, possibly libelous depiction of Spelterini balancing a "Living Ass" on a ladder.
Unfortunately for the true Jay aficionado, Extraordinary Exhibitions, like the 2001 collection Jay's Journal Of Anomalies, merely assembles short, relatively independent pieces. That motley character fits Jay's subject matter, but it pales in comparison to what he can do with a sustained treatise. The last actual book Jay wrote on vaudeville and sideshow entertainers was Learned Pigs, almost two decades ago. The mixed nuts he's been collecting and presenting since then make tasty appetizers, but even a book as gorgeous and enjoyable as Extraordinary Exhibitions doesn't satisfy like a main course.