Todd Robbins - 7/1/03

 

Q. You are billed as "The Coney Island Wonder Worker" and "The Most Amazing Man in America". What do you do that has earned you those titles?


A. There is really no need to earn those titles.  You just have to have the guts to use them!  Seriously, I am proud of my association with Coney Island and wanted to include it in some sort of title for myself.  Magician Al Flosso was known as the "Coney Island Fakir" (a title given to him by Milton Berle) and I thought I would follow his lead by using the wonder worker moniker.  As for the Most Amazing title, what I do in my act is real and goes beyond the level of amazement found in magic tricks.  There is nothing more amazing than reality.

Q. Many performers look to you for inspiration. How do you feel about that?

 

A. It is flattering.  I have not tried to cultivate this.  I have only tried to do what I do the best that I can.  If others find inspiration in this, then I am honored.


Q. Let's back up a moment, what got you started in show business? Did you always want to perform sideshow stunts?


A. I got involved in magic when I was ten and saw my first sideshow when I was about 12.  I wanted to experience something extraordinary.  I never really found that in magic, since the foundation of it is deception.  The sideshow working acts, such as sword swallowing and fire eating are real, and the very thing I was looking for.  I was fortunate to know several old performers that had worked in sideshows for people like Vanteen and Pete Quartz.  They were the ones that started me off in the right direction.

 
Q. Who were your early influences?


A. I always like performers that could take something simple and get a lot out of it.  I could mention names of magicians like Senator Crandall and Duke Stern, but unfortunately these names don't mean much to people today.  These were guys that took a magic trick that could be done in a minute and build a very entertaining ten-minute routine out of it.  Melvin Burkhart was another example of this.  Later on, Penn & Teller influenced me to make certain that whatever I do onstage is about something.  Always add content to your work.

Q. Your show is the very shades of the classic carnival sideshow, why is that?


A. This is an example of what I just stated.  I have tried to put the skills I perform into the context of the American sideshow.  It is a remarkable subculture and I try to show as much of it to the public as I can without becoming didactic and lecturing the audience on the subject.  I like to show where the material came from.  At one time, I worked on taking the act out of this context, but found that people are fascinated by the netherworld of the carnival.  So, if this is what the people want, then I will give it to them.

Q. Have you ever sustained any Major accidents?


A. I've cut open my feet doing the bottle walk, scraped up my esophagus doing sword swallowing and ruptured my saliva gland blowing up a hot water bottle.  Recently, I had a neon sword break while down my throat, but there was no injury there.  As Melvin used to say, "It's a hard way to make an easy living".

Q. What would you say is the most dangerous act that you do and why?


A. I have done business with Bobby Reynolds.  Easily the most perilous thing I have ever tried.

Q. Unlike some performers, you have a VERY vast knowledge of the history to the sideshow.  What was it that sparked your interest to learn not only the skills of the performer, but the history as well?


A. Once again, the world of the carnival sideshow is a fascinating place.  It is rich in colorful history.  As soon as I started delving into this, I found it incredibly rewarding.  The people and their stories are far more interesting than anything Hollywood has thrown at us.  I know only a small portion of what I would like to know.  I would love to just sit down with a complete file of the Billboard magazine and soak up every page of it and all that has gone on in the world of the outdoor amusement business for the last one hundred years.

Q. Is there anything that you don't like to perform in your show, but do anyway?


A. I'm not crazy about sword swallowing, but do it anyway because the audience expects it.  You call yourself a sideshow performer, then you better swallow a damn sword.  It's like being a Dixieland band and not playing When the Saints Go Marching In.  You can do it, but it's not as satisfying for the audience.  The challenge is to do it in way that serves the need of both the audience and the performer.

Q. How long have you been in this business?


A. Too damn long.  I have been performing professionally for over twenty years.

Q. Do you think the sideshow will ever make a comeback to the way it used to be, and if so why?


A. Economics and Ward Hall!  If people go to my homepage and read the history there, they will get a more complete explanation.  The short answer is that carnival owners found it more profitable to have more rides on their midways instead of shows and Ward bought up the shows of many of the old timers, thus consolidating many operations into one company.

Q. We understand that Melvin Burkhart was a dear friend of yours and since his passing you have carried on his version of the Human Blockhead routine, even wearing his old hat while doing it. Is this in homage to Melvin?


A. It is an homage to Melvin to honor his memory, even though I don't do his text in my show.  I have done Melvin's routine word for word as a tribute on several occasions.  He was a great man.

Q. You are also the Professor at the Coney Island Sideshow School. How did that come about and why do you do it?


A. I wouldn't be doing what I do without the generous instruction I received from others, so the school was created to pass on this knowledge.  Also, there is a lot of misinformation out there in print and online, so the school was formed to teach people the right way to do these skills.

Q. Some people feel that the sideshow skills should be only taught to those who have earned it. What is your take on that?


A. In the good olde days, you worked a season on a sideshow doing grunt work like taking tickets, doing load in and out and cleaning up.  Then, after you have proven yourself, if you were lucky, someone might teach you to eat fire.  Where, these days, are you going to find a show and do that?  We have set the tuition of the school at a level that makes certain that only the serious apply and yet is not cost prohibitive.

Q. Is there anything new in the works for your show that you'd like to share?


A. Since the Great White/Rhode Island fire, there are more and more venues prohibiting fire eating.  Therefore, I am working on some whip material that will take the place of the fire when I play these venues.  Also, I am putting together some old sideshow illusions.  I've stayed away from them in the past, as I wanted to keep deception out of my act.  The fact that they are very bulky is another reason I have avoided doing them.  Now, there are some things in the works that make doing these illusions possible.

Q. Lastly, is there anything you'd like to tell our readers?


A. Yes, if you are a performer, be distinctive.  There are far too many sideshow people that have seen the Jim Rose show and just glom on to doing what they see there.  We already have Jim Rose, we don't need another.  I'm not even sure we need Jim, but I jest.  There is nothing wrong with doing traditional material as long you truly infuse your performance with who you are and what you believe in.  This is what makes, not just sideshow, but all performances watchable.  This is what makes it Art.  Making what you do an art form is not a bad thing.

 

Interview by Ses Carny

 

For more information on Todd Robbins visit his site at www.toddrobbins.com

 

Each month we will try and interview a new performer for the site.  Because of the logistics of it face to face interviews are tough to come by.  A good percentage of the interviews we will be doing will be via e-mail or telephone.  If you are interested in being interviewed for the site drop us a line.

 

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