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.
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.
New York has long been a thriving hub for the development of American magic. You can chalk it up to the city’s reputation for entertainment and theater, or write it off as just another feature of the modern metropolis. But zoom in a little closer on Brooklyn, and the very first spark of New York’s magic scene unfolds all the way out in Coney Island over 100 years ago. Coney Island was one of the first places in the United States that audiences could regularly see and appreciate magic, but Brooklyn wasn’t exactly the seat of glamor. In fact, East Coast magic’s gritty reputation—as compared to the glitz of the West Coast, Vegas world—traces all the way back to Coney Island at the turn of the century.
It’s said that in New York’s early days, back in the days of New Amsterdam, the strip of undeveloped land we now know as Coney Island was overrun with rabbits. The island was named for konijn, the Dutch word for rabbits and probably the only future early New Yorkers saw for an island way out there at the edge of nowhere. But by the late 1800s, Brooklyn had become a whole new world. Coney Island was a burgeoning destination, a beach escape for local residents and even the brave Manhattanites who would take the ferries or later the overground train out to Brooklyn. Clam bars lined the beach, three independent music halls drew huge crowds, and the Elephant Hotel stood tall.
In the late 1800s, standalone rides like the carousel and the Razzle Dazzle paved the way for the full amusement parks that solidified Coney Island’s reputation. Sea Lion Park started it all in 1895, followed by Steeplechase Park in 1897. By 1903, Luna Park revived the land and attractions where Sea Lion Park once stood. By 1904, Dreamland was up and running with a mission to compete with the glory and appeal of the sparkly new Luna Park. Both on the stages of these early major theme parks and in the space created by the conversation they started, magic flourished.
When Sea Lion Park opened in 1895, it was the first enclosed amusement park in North America. Founder Paul Boyton (occasionally seen as Boynton) built a fence around the park and charged an entrance fee, establishing his intentions to create a permanent space in contrast with the one at a time, pay-as-you-go attraction booths that were more popular at the time. Boyton worked hard to keep up with the changing times of Coney Island by adding rides like the Water Chute and a rollercoaster called the Flip Flap Railway, which was closed down when its upside-down loop was deemed too dangerous for riders. Boyton even acquired a well-loved Elephant named Topsy in the hopes of boosting attendance, but much like Sea Lion Park itself, Topsy’s enduring fame was mostly born of her untimely death.
Eventually, Boyton admitted he couldn’t keep up and sold Sea Lion Park to new owners, who quickly reopened the newly renovated park as Luna Park. And although Sea Lion Park didn’t last, all the amusement parks that followed managed to incorporate magic effects and illusion shows into their success. Luna Park co-owner Elmer “Skip” Dundy got his start as a magician while working as an assistant to Frederick Eugene Powell. Illusion shows like “Trip to the Moon” made Dundy’s name as a magician, and were all founded by his Luna Park partner, Frederick Thompson. Branching out from their rapid magical success in Luna Park, Dundy and Thompson later went on to found the New York Hippodrome, where Houdini would go on to make his 10,000 pound elephant disappear, among other world-famous illusions.
Dreamland Park was an idea with magic at its very core. British magician Roltaire created the park, promoted it widely, and also performed his own illusions on the main stages of the park. Roltaire’s illusions included acts called “Pharaoh’s Daughter” and “The Creation”, complex theatrical presentations that would hold audiences for half-hour long seated magic shows. Positioning himself as a headliner, Roltaire’s auditorium shows stood under the spotlight in contrast with Dreamland’s Temple of Illusions, where spectators would walk through a series of booths or rooms, each displaying a single illusion. “Those who know say that the amount of plate glass and mirror glass used was measured in acres,” wrote Arthur Leroy of the Temple of Illusions in the August 1950 issue of The Sphinx. The “Midget Village” in Dreamland Park also featured magic, where at the “Midget Magic Theatre” a “Midget Kellar” and his fellow “midget” assistants presented their own takes on famous illusions and popular tricks of the day.
Beyond the enclosed amusement parks that featured magic as mere aspects of their overall alure, the Illusion Palace on Surf Avenue offered a rotating cast of illusions as the main event. As many as 40 illusions featured at a time, on a roster that was updated every season to reflect new technologies and spotlight talented performers. Pepper’s Ghost was on display, groundbreaking as it was at the time, and big-stage classics like the Sword Box, levitations, and the Blue Room drew huge crowds. Meanwhile, appearances by the Four-Legged Girl and the Two-Headed Girl heralded the golden age of the sideshow.
While a “Midget Village” certainly wouldn’t pass muster today and the sideshows that do still exist are met with plenty of external resistance, this kind of entertainment was par for the course in Coney Island. Take Martin Couney, for example, who struggled to raise funds to finance his commitment to nurturing and caring for babies born premature. Forced to find another way to realize his vision, Couney’s Infant Incubator operation ran from 1903 to 1943 as just another Coney Island attraction. Audiences paid 25 cents to enter the facility and coo over the tiny, fragile babies encased in cutting-edge incubators that Couney imported from Europe. The “attraction” was so successful, not a single family had to pay for the neonatal care their premature babies wouldn’t have been able to access anywhere else.
While “Midget Villages” and “Infant Incubators” were the amusements audiences craved at the turn of the century, magicians were forced in many ways to adapt to the demands of the times. Coney Island was quickly becoming a haven for magic, serving performers and fans alike. But what must it have been like to entertain an audience that smelled bad? How could magicians pull crowds when preemies and bearded ladies were the dominant trends?
Certainly no history either of magic or of Coney Island would be complete without Al Flosso, who played a crucial role in shaping the New York City magic world both in Brooklyn and beyond. It was in Coney Island’s seedy underbelly environment that Flosso got his start, blossoming in front of audiences who wanted to see horrific, disturbing, just-plain-wrong experiences and converting those crowds into magic-lovers.
Flosso worked the sideshows and performed the hugely popular Punch and Judy puppet shows of the day, touring his acts all over New York. For his magic act, Flosso was first known as “The Boy Magician”, and later, when his world-famous Miser’s Dream routine put him on the map, as “The King of Koins”. But it was the almost accidental moniker of the “Coney Island Fakir” that stuck—an MC introduced him with the name before a performance at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, and from then on, it became his identity. Flosso had become famous as much for his quirks as for his strict magical skill, quirks like his brash attitude, handsy approach to volunteers, and penchant for eating lunch while performing on stage. While less polished than the white-gloved stage spectacles of the day, Flosso’s grittier, straight-to-the-point style of magic won over audiences of laymen and impressed generations of magicians. Perhaps it was precisely this roughness that allowed Flosso such incredible mastery over randomly selected audience members and enabled him to draw huge crowds (and a following of devoted magicians that has far outlived him) during the darkest, seediest days of magic at Coney Island.
“By the 1920s, magic was a bedrock part of Coney Island,” said Richard Cohn in the New York Sun. As a popular summer retreat dedicated to entertainment, Coney Island touched the up-and-coming careers of plenty of early magicians whose names today are legend. David Bamberg (perhaps better known by his stage name, Fu Man Chu) appeared in Coney Island, as did Louis “Pop” Krieger and the “Queen of Magic,” Adelaide Herrmann. Dai Vernon was cutting silhouettes on the Coney Island boardwalk for 50 cents a piece in the 1920s (two silhouettes would cost you a whopping 75 cents), when he met his wife Jeanne Hayes. Jeanne herself was in Coney Island that summer after being recruited by an outside talker to work in Jean Hugard’s illusion show as part of his Sawing a Woman in Half act, so in a way, it was magic that brought them together.
Harry Houdini’s love for Coney Island has also been well documented. His brother Hardeen lived near Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue at the time, just a short distance away from the magic and wonder in the neighborhood’s amusement parks and attraction tents. The Brothers Houdini were playing Coney Island in 1894, the same year that a young woman named Bess was performing with a singing and dancing troupe called The Floral Sisters. After Harry and Bess were married, it’s said that they visited Coney Island every year on their anniversary to walk the Boardwalk or pose for a photograph on the beach.
Today, Coney Island’s farflung location feels like a mere echo of its rambunctious past. It’s no longer an island, first of all, and the subway makes a day trip or even an afternoon at the beach an easy adventure. Although many reminders of Coney Island’s magical history remain, much has changed. The smiling cartoon face of Tilley that hangs over the entrance to Luna Park these days is a stylized caricature of George C. Tilyou, who first founded Steeplechase Park more than a century ago. Performers of all kinds stalk the boardwalk—some even use shills to sell souvenirs and draw crowds. In homage to the history of the place, Coney Island USA hosts regular magic shows in their upstairs museum space. And if you listen closely, if you wander the side streets and alleys of Coney Island and squint just right, you might even glimpse the shadow of the giants who paved the way for the magic of today.