The magic! The mystery! The moustache! Ashkenazi the Pretty Good to perform at arts festival

Placing the accent of magician Ashkenazi the Pretty Good is not easy. It sounds like early Late-Proto-Serbo-Slavic mixed with a touch of Galitzianer Yiddish and maybe a dash of Borat.

Ashkenazi claims the accent is that of his people: the good citizens of Balka, a tiny nation that has lived for centuries in fear of invasion from nearby Lichtenstein.

How tiny? Teeny tiny.

“Balka is the size of a city block,” says Ashkenazi the Pretty Good. “It has a good coffee house.”

That’s the coffee house at which he would gather with his fellow members of Balka’s Jewish community. All three of them. He remembers experiencing little anti-Semitism growing up because, as he says, “If you were an anti-Semite, the market in Balka was poor.”

These days, Ashkenazi the Pretty Good practices the ancient art of prestidigitation — i.e., magic — across the Bay Area. In fact, he will be a featured performer at this year’s Sausalito Art Festival, set for Labor Day weekend.

And let’s clear up one thing right away. Ashkenazi says he’s much better than “Pretty Good,” but blames the sobriquet on a bad translation done by a former publicist.

Of course he’s better. After all, his late grandfather, Pierre the Magnificent, served as court magician to the King of Balka. Now, Pierre’s grandson has taken up the Balkanian tradition of glib Jewish magicians with kooky moustaches.

His father was an accountant, but Ashkenazi says the magic thing skipped a generation.

Oh, about the moustache. Ashkenazi takes great pride in his facial hair, which looks disturbingly similar to those fake plastic moustaches kids wear on Halloween. “It’s a point of honor,” he says. “Some people work out. I trim my moustache.”

Ashkenazi has been in the United States only a dozen years, but he was already quite familiar with American culture. He says the most popular shows on Balkanian television are “Adam-12” and “The Streets of San Francisco.” When he first came to the Bay Area, he went on a fruitless search for Karl Malden.

Upon arrival in California, he had the good fortune to meet Kevin Madden, a Jewish pianist/entertainer and, now, personal manager to Ashkenazi the Pretty Good. Many have noted a striking physical resemblance between the two, leading Ashkenazi to wonder if Madden might have some Balkanian blood in him, and others to wonder if Madden has lost his mind.

As for his career in magic, Ashkenazi has delighted all kinds of local audiences, from heartless corporate predators to cute little kids. But sometimes, he questions what he does for a living.

“I’ve never done anything useful in my life,” he laments. “[Magic] is enormously entertaining, but the utility? If there’s an earthquake or a war, nobody says, ‘Let’s get a magician.”

Despite his struggles with the English language, Ashkenazi the Pretty Good can become quite eloquent when pondering the connections between his Jewish heritage and his profession.

“Being a Jew and doing magic are a celebration of the impossible and the unlikely,” he says. “This is a world that says magic is not real, and that being a Jew is waste of time. But there is nothing like taking a card, turning it over and it’s a different card. It’s a miracle hand that gives you pause and makes you ask fundamental questions about what it is to be a human being. I think people, like Jews, who maintain an identity outside the dominant culture, are happy people.”

With that, Ashkenazi the Pretty Good begs to return to his studio, where he continues to perfect his fantastic illusions.

And if you bought in, even a little bit, to this story about some supposed country named Balka, then — presto! — Dear reader, you’ve been royally tricked.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.