Articles about Ben Robinson
30 Magical Years by Kate Milliken
Meeting a magician is kind of like entering a funhouse — you never know what to expect.
Ben Robinson has caught bullets in his teeth. He’s trekked to Mount Everest, encounterd wild synchronicity and recorded his experience, and broken new trail with a career that largely defies categorization.
I met with Ben Robinson in New York during a respite from his almost constant traveling around the world giving shows. We sat down for 2 hours in September ’04 to discuss his last 30 years and the next 30.
– Kate Milliken
1. After 30 years, how do you feel about being a magician?
Wow. No small answer. Generally I love the work, and have realized it gets harder as you get older, which is the opposite to what I thought when I was 16. But, I also realize I am better at what I do as I get older. Having the trust of people I respect has been a gratifying experience. Seems artists I admire have mutual respect. One case in point is the show I did with the Jazz Mandolin Project at BB King’s earlier this year. I love their music, and I told their leader I had composed a piece of magic to his music. So, amidst waiters carrying trays backstage I showed it to him and he OK’ed me right then and there to join a song of theirs, to do magic while they played. It was a big moment for me because the audience did not expect to see a magician and they accepted me, even wrote on the band’s website message board that what I did was cool!
2. What has been your favorite experience?
Probably making a clinically depressed AIDS patient smile. I was engaged to do a Valentine’s show for the Center for Special Studies in New York. After the show the doctors asked if I would join a conference to help them break through to patients who were depressed, because I had broken through.
3. Favorite magician?
Well, two actually, the man I originally saw, Fred Kaps the only magician to ever win the Grand Prix award three times successively. And then my good friend Johnny Ace Palmer, who I consider to be the greatest sleight of hand artist in the world. Johnny is also the first magician to ever win the Grand Prix as a closeup magician.
4. Is there a world’s greatest magician?
It is kind of like asking who is the greatest baseball player, Joe DiMaggio or Willie Mays? But I think when you add it all up at the end of the day, John Calvert gets my vote. He has performed in every country in the world except the USSR and lived more than one life, film star, adventurer and now he and his wife drive 1500 miles between one nighters in their trailer. At 93 he blows men out of the water 60 years younger. We will never see his kind again. Truly, not just a great talent with charisma, but a very uncommon spirit. He once told me, “Don’t worry, I’m a tough old bird.”
5. Favorite place you’ve been?
That’s hard. Immediately Amsterdam comes to mind because I have had so much fun there, one real vacation after months and months of shows where I double dated with a pal and with our girlfriends we toured the town and drank champagne by a canal, that was great. I also like Seattle a lot.
6. Greatest performance?
That’s easy. August 16, 2001 in Central Park with Rebecca Moore’s band. They played a song with their nine players set in a horseshoe pattern around me while I made things float, and changed the consistency of things while they were air born. Fighting the wind, being in the sunset, playing the band shell stage in front of 3000 people was very exciting. It is one of the few experiences that I was conscious of while I was doing it. I remember Rebecca kneeling down while the band played and looking upstage at me and I just felt this rush of warmth for her, what I was doing and appreciation that she had trusted me to appear with her. When it was over, we were backstage and she fell against a wall and said, “we just played Central Park.” For two New Yorkers, it was a special moment.
7. Favorite trick?
Yes, my ring trick. It represents almost my entire career because I began my career learning what a routine was through the prop this is based on.
8. Worst performance?
Well, there have been so many! Only kidding. I don’t know about ‘worst’ but I distinctly remember doing a show in Stockbridge MA, and after we had hit reviews, I walked backstage one night after the show, sort of slammed my fist down on the table and said to the stage manager, “Sort of lost them in the middle.” And the stage manager, not wanting to upset me further, just said, “Ah, don’t worry, I once saw George Harrison suck one night.”
9. Favorite city?
It’s a love-hate relationship, but nothing matches New York, no matter how much it is overbuilt and the taxes are out of sight.
10. Hardest thing you’ve ever done?
Travel up a slope from Phaking to Namche Bazar in the Himalaya. The ground was eroded and we were just going above the tree line and there was not a solid trail sometimes. I got very depressed because it was just day two of the trek and I thought I was going to have to stay behind.
11. Most amazing thing you’ve ever seen?
My parrot’s face when we were reunited after he flew away in New York City. I talked to Roy of Siegfried and Roy about this and he confirmed my suspicions about the innate talents of these incredible animals.
12. What’s been the biggest goal you set and accomplished?
When I was 14, I said to myself that I was going to have my own fully produced magic show when I was 27 just like Doug Henning had when he was 27. I had met Doug Henning on the first anniversary of The Magic Show on Broadway, and he was really clear with me in the meeting about how I should pursue a career as a magician. He also told me that he was a close up magician by training, a student of Vernon’s, and that he was not really a large scale illusionist, but in fact his career bore out his great talents as an illusionist. So, on July 5, 1988, at the age of 27 I opened in my show produced by the Music-Theatre Group in their summer series. That became the foundation of the hour-long show I do now.
13. How do you see your next 30 years?
I doubt I’ll be around for another thirty, but the one thing I can say is that we are in an interim period with the digital revolution. In 1995 I saw a TV screen that was just released on the world market a few months ago. At the same time, 1995, I also told friends in New York I had seen a friend attach a wireless phone to a laptop in the back of a car and trade stocks on the Japanese market. He did this in Seattle. The global village and the instant gratification of the internet has created people with real power at a very young age, I’m talking about 25 year olds. Problem is, these 25 year olds don’t have any manners or experience, just unbridled ego from early mastery of a temporary technology. This is new. As far as the art of magic, it will always be around, but it will take twenty years of magicians working honestly in representative media to correct the distrust built by those who used TV editing to create illusions in the past. I really don’t believe magic works in any other medium than being done live.
Kate Milliken interviews Ben Robinson
14. What’s the biggest thing holding you back?
My health. In January 2002 I woke feeling like my legs were on fire. 9 months later an incompetent surgeon told me he had performed a standard operation on my herniated disk. The operation made the situation worse. In May of 2003 I thought I was turning a corner with physical therapy and then I had a heart attack. So, “rebuilding Ben” has been my major task for quite some time, though I am completely functional I just have to make sure I get my rest. Otherwise I’m ready to rock. I gave over 200 performances in 2004. Didn’t miss a show.
15. What’s wrong with the world?
Well, it’s hardly for a magician to answer. But I think that attacking Iraq was a mistake. It depresses me to think about war and soldiers dying needlessly. W has a lot of blood on his hands that he doesn’t seem to care about. He clearly doesn’t care about New York City and all those that were affected by the toxic dust cloud from 9/11. One friend I helped who lived downtown has really had problems because of what she breathed that day. Overall, ethics have had the heel of greed ground into it. It’s not survival of the fittest, it is survival, period. Very wealthy people I know were greatly inconvenienced on 9/11 and all their money did not help them one bit, while I was able to get free groceries for performing in the store.
16. Who has been your greatest love?
Besides my mother, obviously my wife. But truth be told, I have had real relationships with several women, and even though I am now married, I still have good relationships with these former girlfriends and that’s a good feeling. Sometimes they email me and title their message with a line from our times together. It’s nice to have parted amicably. I’m proud of that.
17. Do you have a best friend?
Yes, my wife.
18. What’s the greatest tragedy of your life?
Probably the death of my dog. She was so simple and funny, taught me everything I know about humor. When she got ill, she looked at me helplessly and I wept telling her the pain would soon end, and then we put her to sleep. Part of me also died that day. I’ll never love anything like I loved her.
19. Do you think magic will ever be considered an art?
Probably not. Except by magicians and magic fans. Because secrecy is inherent to the craft and that separates audiences understanding, which is necessary. But people who love what some magicians do say, “magic is an art.” So, since the modern art of magic is only 150 years old, there is still a lot of time for development of the audience.
20. Do you play sports?
I used to play a pretty good game of tennis every now and then. I have very good hand-eye coordination. My health doesn’t allow that anymore.
21. Favorite color?
To wear, black. To design with, blood red.
22. Why do you live in New York City?
I moved here when my mom moved here while I was still in high school. She lived in Manhattan while I finished public school outside of New York. After college, because she was in Manhattan, I moved home to figure out how to seek my fortune. But, Manhattan has changed. I’ve changed. I don’t want to live here much longer, so we’ll visit from where we’ll move to.
23. Is there a magic effect that still blows you away?
Yes. There is a very brilliant performer in England named David Berglas. He has something called The Berglas Effect. Basically you name a card and a number and the card named winds up at that number instantly. I have seen him do this on three continents and each time it left me truly wondering. Once in Canada I stayed up a good portion of the evening working with another magician to duplicate this. We came up with a mathematical theorem to dissect it and the next day Berglas scoffed at us and did his best to put us off the scent, so to speak. I like being amazed, it is one of the reasons I do what I do. However, the method behind illusion is always secondary to the entertainment value and “essence of performance” that is what makes a great magic illusion. They say, it’s not what you do, but how you do it that counts.
24. Is there a place you want to go?
Yes, I’d like to go to what is left of Tibet and I’d also like to tour the USSR.
25. What interested you about the bullet caching stunt?
I read an article about Orville Meyer, the man who invented Annemann’s method, and that was the spark. 26 months later I held the hard back book I’d written in my hands.
26. Favorite author?
27. Favorite movie?
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
28. Favorite book?
29. What’s your most humiliating moment?
Once on stage during college someone shouted out, “Why don’t you just make yourself disappear?” I walked off, and the audience shuddered. A classmate of mine whose now a big league producer and was once a very prowerful agent told me at the time that my actions were too classy for the audience and that he would enjoy watching me turn from craftsman to showman. He was right. Thank you Chris Wright.
30. Do magicians have a lot of partners?
Partners? You mean lovers? I can only speak for myself. I have had 4 or 5 very meaningful relationships in my life and I am grateful for all of them. My wife understands this, which is why she is my wife. I carry the initial of one woman I loved on my right leg and even though we parted, I upheld my promise that I would not have it removed. I’ll tell you one thing. I have a very close friend. A woman. I’ve known her since I was 14 and she was 15. I had a mad crush on her throughout high school which was no secret to anyone. Though we were never “involved.” Well, she and I still know each other and even though she has had boyfriends and two husbands, I think I know her better than any other guy. So in the end, I got what no other man has, a thirty plus year relationship with this woman. It’s not sexual. It is real friendship, something to trust. As the Beatles said, “real love.”
Kate Milliken is a TV host and producer seen at sporting events and music events internationally. In 2000 she covered the Olympic Games in Sydney. She also hosts the video Ben Robinson Live in Central Park.