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Digging into history to modernize mystery with Todd Robbins


Todd Robbins is a venerable king of variety arts. He has inherited sideshow skills from legacy masters of variety arts, hosted the Coney Island Sideshow in the 1990s, and performed as ringmaster of the Big Apple Circus. But if you’ve never wondered where your favorite sideshow acts come from—the regurgitators, light bulb eaters, and sword swallowers—it’s precisely those legacy stories that hooked Robbins in the first place. Robbins describes his specialties as “arcane forms of popular entertainment, offbeat amusements, and intriguing deceptions,” which all point to his love for anything with a history and his commitment to leaving audiences with a new sense of what’s possible.

Robbins fell in love with magic as a kid growing up in Southern California, primarily at the B&H School of Magic run by Bessie and Herb Feedler. Robbins describes it as a “run down, seedy, dusty and cluttered” shop, where Herb sold Robbins his first svengali deck (which he still has). As a pre-teen, Robbins auditioned for the infamous Long Beach Mystics and was accepted into their ranks. Soon after, he became one of the first junior members of the Academy of Magical Arts. As it turned out, the quaint California town where Robbins grew up was perfectly positioned for his magical future, from the Castle in Hollywood to B&H and the Mystics in Long Beach. “You couldn’t ask for anything more if you wanted an introduction to magic, than to be in that place at that time.”

While he’s still deeply involved in the international magic community, performing regularly across the country and both MCing and co-producing Monday Night Magic in New York City, at a certain point Robbins’ focus shifted over to the sideshow. He remembers seeing his first carnival sideshow when he was 12 or 13 years old, back in Long Beach: “I went in to see a magic act, but it was a person swallowing swords and eating fire. There was a person lying down on a bed of nails with someone standing on top of him. These were the kinds of things that really captured my imagination because it was all real,” Robbins says. After the carnival, Robbins enlisted legendary California magician Ralph McAbee to teach him the repertoire of sideshow skills that would later become his bread and butter—but only much later.

In the 1990s, Robbins answered an ad in the Village Voice written in what he describes as carnival language, placed by Coney Island’s longstanding unofficial mayor, Dick Zigun. Robbins worked a few full seasons as a full-time fixture of the Coney Island sideshow, and later focused on filling in with specific skills he had mastered over the years, like eating light bulbs or hammering a nail into his nose. This last piece, affectionately known as the Human Blockhead, is a trick Robbins performs regularly to this day. You won’t find Robbins performing at the Coney Island sideshow much these days, but pay attention at the entrance and the recording you’ll hear beckoning curious passersby inside is none other than the voice of Robbins.

As to the gross factor inherent in some of what he does best, Robbins knows his sideshow skills won’t please every audience. Before launching into the Human Blockhead or another dangerous act, Robbins always gives the audience a choice of what they want to see next. Something vile and disgusting, for example, or a card trick. “Not everyone likes this stuff,” Robbins says. “I’ve done it long enough to know that it’s not right for every audience. And yet those that appreciate it have a tendency to appreciate on a very deep and profound level. That’s why I do it.”

Robbins knows everything there is to know about the history that surrounds him. But the thinking he does on what makes a good performance, why stories matter, and why it’s the darkest, most deadly experiences that capture the human imagination best are significant, if not also important. We’ll let him tell you himself.

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GENIIONLINE: How did a kid growing up surrounded by a picture-perfect postwar lifestyle end up so attracted to anything imbued with story and character?

TODD ROBBINS: My dad was a corporate guy who worked his way up from the accounting pool to being the Senior Vice President of a multinational corporation. My mother was a schoolteacher who retired when I came along and became a stay-at-home mom. It doesn’t get much more American Dream-esque than that. My dad always made certain that we were well taken care of, so it just seems like I wouldn’t head in that direction. Early on in my childhood, I developed bronchial problems. I had bronchitis quite a bit—I’m going to cough right now (Robbins coughs). I had an immune deficiency that caused me to become very susceptible to a number of illnesses going around. Anything that was going around, I got, and then I stayed home a lot. I ended up reading and watching TV. Afternoon options were game shows, soap operas, and on the independent stations, old movies. I started watching old Hollywood movies, those midday matinees, the million dollar movie, things like that. They would show old silent movies that had music added in, sometimes narration and sound effects. There were a number of classic Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton films done like this. And I thought they were great. I got it. They appealed to me the same way they did the original generation that encountered these films.

When I was a kid, I could tell you the stats of Charlie Chaplin’s career the same way that many of my contemporaries could tell you a baseball player or a football player. I just gravitated towards that—it became kind of second nature. When I got involved in magic, I wanted to know where did this stuff come from? Who were these people? I knew some of the old Vaudevillians that were still around. One of my heroes is Milt Larsen, and Milt, besides the Magic Castle, has a great collection of variety arts material that he has been collecting since was a kid. He always had an appreciation of variety arts and I kind of picked up on that. I saw all these wonderful people that were in their twilight years talking about things they’d done before. Some of them were still doing what they had been doing for 50 years or more, and it still worked. A lot of people will look upon it as nostalgia but I stripped all that away and got x-ray vision to look at the core of what they were doing and see why it still worked.

In addition to your work as a magician and sideshow artist, you’ve also created some wonderfully terrifying theater around ghost stories, murder mysteries, and the like. How does your interest in the spookshow fit in with some of these others arts?

I have an appreciation of honesty when it comes to performing, and I also have a fascination with real dishonesty. There are two levels that I’m very attracted to. One are the con artists—I mean even the phrase “con artist” has a certain sophistication to it that implies that there’s something more to it than just your thug with a gun, and it’s true. So much of what’s done by con artists is done with finesse instead of brute force. So much of it is done with psychology and understanding why people act the way they do. When you’re making a profit based on lying to people, it’s because you understand not only what they want, but if you really want to get your hooks in deep, what they need. If you can do that and deceive them, there’s something almost admirable about that.

The other side of the family is, of course, the spiritualists, who have just played upon, again, the need that people have. When you lose someone it creates a wound that never heals. And they understand that, and they manipulate that and throw in a little trickery because you’re not looking for trickery, and even if you suspect there might be trickery, the desire for it to be real will override that and you will embrace it, against your better nature and better judgment, as reality. I like that.

And then there’s a darkness to all of that. Dealing with the ultimate mystery of mystery, which is death, and is there anything that comes after. Because you’re dealing with death, there’s such fear involved. That gets us into the kind of dark stories and horror side of things. It ties into something that I wrote and that we put into Play Dead, the show I wrote with Teller: “You’re never so alive as when you’re scared to death.” That’s something I certainly know from my background being out in Coney Island, and the simulated near-death experience of riding on the rides out there. The Cyclone is a perfect example of that. People walk off and they feel exhilarated because they’ve been pushed to the limits of their endurance and experience.

You talk about being impressed and inspired by your first-ever sideshow, but it wasn’t until much later that you incorporated those skills into your own act. Why the slow burn?

I was reflecting a while back on why I didn’t really want to perform the sideshow stuff when I first learned how to do it, and then it hit me. I had forgotten about this. I came upon a book on fire eating that was sold at the magic shop. The pictures in it were of this guy named Bruno from Australia who did a living statue act with fire, and Bruno was a pompadoured bodybuilder in a little tiny g-string who stood there and ate fire as he posed like Greek statues. I thought, this is what you’re supposed to do with this stuff? Because I don’t want to do that. I remember just this kind of revulsion, being a teenger, thinking, ‘look at that thing!’ It just turned me off of it.

It took forgetting about that book and then in the early 80s, I got a call to do something unusual on an MTV show. I worked on sticking my hand into an animal trap, and the trap shuts on my hand and does no harm. I put that into a magic act and said, ‘well that card trick I just did was obviously a trick, but this is the real thing.’ People came back afterwards and said, ‘that can’t be real! You can’t really do that. And if you can, how is it possible that you don’t just end up being called Stumpy for the rest of your life?’ I went, ‘oh! That’s an interesting dynamic, a very profound sense of amazement.’ That’s what set me off on the trajectory of all the sideshow stuff.

It’s easy to frame sideshow skills as the real deal compared to the deception and trickery in magic. Is that part of what compelled you to switch over?

It’s not that it was just ‘real’, it was something beyond the scope of normal life. It was extraordinary. Extraordinary ability is not the kind of thing you see very often. I think all entertainment should be that. It should not be more of the same, but something that expands the boundaries of existence and and experience. The idea that the impossible might just be possible is a very powerful one. It’s what motivates people to go on and do great things with their lives. And I think it all begins with amazement. When you see something you don’t understand and you’re amazed, you begin to wonder. How can you eat glass? How can you hammer a nail into your nose? And that means you’re thinking, and that’s the greatest thing of all. We’ve got too much fear in our world and not enough rational thought.

I do whatever I can to make sure that people accept that what they’re seeing is real, that I’m not just doing a bunch of cheap tricks and lying to them, which all magicians do. Yet there’s a difference between a theatrical reality and a false reality. When you see a magician perform, you enter into a contract with that performer that what you’re seeing is not real. And yet, because it goes beyond that and fools you as to how it’s done, it can create a sense of childlike fantasy and wonder. That’s a glorious thing, even when done on a very sophisticated level, with context. Derek Delgaudio, or Ricky Jay, or Penn & Teller, or any of the people that are adding context into what they do, it still has that baseline of wonderment. I think that’s the real power of magic.

Why do you think this difference between lying and deceiving is so crucial?

I think it’s a very powerful thing. It’s creating a theatrical suspension of disbelief as opposed to embracing a false reality. It’s Banachek versus Uri Geller. Geller is saying ‘I can do this for real,’ and Banachek is saying ‘I can’t do this, no one can, but we can create the illusion. Let’s have some fun with this.’

How do you want to be seen is really the question. If you go for a kind of generic answer, ‘I just want to entertain them, I want to fool them,’ that’s fine. Yet, one size does not fit all. The more you tailor this experience that you’re giving to the audience, the more powerful and significant it can be. I almost said ‘important,’ but I’m not sure it’s important. I do think it can be significant. The most important thing for an entertainer is to understand that people have invested their time in what you’re doing. Regardless of what your philosophical, religious, or spiritual beliefs are, the reality that we are sure of is that life is finite. What you’re presenting better be worthwhile. And ideally, it will be an experience that is the best use of the time. Not just a good use of the time, or an excellent use of the time, but the best use of that time. That’s a challenge. That’s the goal that I think every entertainer should strive for.

Do you think that your conceptual approach to magic and performance comes from the multi-disciplinary training you’ve had in so many different arts? Is it more from decades of experience?

I think it came from always having that appreciation of the past and history, and really a fascination with older people and their experience. And knowing early on that this too shall pass, that all of this will be gone one day. It’s important to make this significant and not to waste it. The other side of it is that looking at the history of so many things including entertainment, show business, performing arts, we find that we are in a very disposable world. That there is a great deal of profit to be made in the idea of new and improved. Latest and greatest. And the only way to do that, to really sell that, is to discount everything that’s come before. You have to say that was that, but this is what you need right here and right now. In doing that, we often cast aside that which still has a great deal of merit and value.