Articles about Ben Robinson
Robinson’s in the Distance
by Daniel Stationer
Ben Robinson is a product of my imagination. I made him up. He’s a character in a book I wrote. Anyone who tells you differently is wrong.
It started twenty years ago, when I picked up Milbourne Christopher’s Illustrated History of Magic for the first time. I was 13 years old, and did much of my reading under the covers, by flashlight. Though by that time I had worked my way through most of the Tarbell’s, Christopher’s book was the first magic history I’d ever read. This was great stuff – Robert-Houdin and the rebellion in Algeria, Houdini and the Siberian Prison Van – I was hooked. But the story that really jumped out at me, and has stayed with me ever since, was the account of Chung Ling Soo and the ill-fated bullet-catch. I often pictured the scene: the tall figure of the magician in his silk robe, the sharpshooters taking careful aim, the sudden crack of the rifles, the collective gasp as the performer sank to the stage…
Some years later, as I was casting about for a plot for my book Elephants in the Distance, I realized I need look no further than the story of Chung Ling Soo. The bullet-catch gave me a starting point, and to bring the story up to date I created an affable young magician named Paul Galliard. He was a New Yorker, worked a gig at a West End Bar, had a girlfriend in T.V. news, and – oh, yeah – he caught bullets in his teeth.
The book came out in 1989. It got some nice reviews, sold well, but failed to make me a millionaire, so I busily set to work on the next one. One day, the phone rang. A voice said, “Hi Dan, this is Ben Robinson.
”By this time I’d heard the name. A friend had recommended his book Twelve Have Died, as the definitive statement on the history of the bullet catch. This proved to be the case, but – to my chagrin – I discovered it too late to do me any good. I knew nothing else about the author, and frankly, the meager information I’d been able to glean from the book itself did not augur well. They say you can tell a lot about a writer by how he chooses to present himself in his jacket photo. Me, I like to strike a thoughtful pose, often in front of a book case, gazing into the middle distance. Apparently Ben Robinson took a different view. In his photo, there’s a twelve-inch metal skewer sticking through his tongue.
I was somewhat wary, then, when the guy called me up out of the blue. He came right to the point: “Have you been following me around?”
“Huh?” I responded, always ready with a quick reply.
“Maybe I should tell you a little about myself, ” he said, and proceeded to give me a brief run-down on his life and career. It sounded awfully familiar. Ben is a New Yorker, and at the time he worked a regular gig at a West End bar, had a girlfriend in T.V. news, and – oh, yeah – he caught bullets in his teeth.
I figured this was someone I should meet. Over the next five years I’ve hooked up with him dozens of times, sometimes in New York, sometimes in Washington, once in London. It’s always an adventure. I’ve watched him work the crowd at a Fortean Festival, matching wonders with psychic detectives and fire-walkers. I’ve seen him charm his way onto a crowded program with the help of his psychic parrot, Stubby. And one memorable evening, I stood by in awe as he strolled bravely on stage at Gallaudet University, having learned only moments earlier – too late to alter his show – that his entire audience was deaf.
Sometimes I forget who came first, Ben Robinson or Paul Galliard. Every time I meet up with Ben, some other bizarre coincidence reveals itself – a shared quirk of family history, a telltale chin scar. Ben, it turns out, was even a student of Milbourne Christopher, my early hero. Often these synchronicities get carried to a ridiculous extreme. At the end of Elephants in the Distance, Paul Galliard takes a shard of glass in the arm while performing the bullet catch. Two years later, as Ben was staging the effect in California…
I should have seen it coming. After all, I wrote the book.