Articles by Ben Robinson

by Ben Robinson

Houdini 1917

Children naturally exhibit wonder as shown here during one of my performances this past March.

Doug Henning at the beginning of his fame in 1974

The Indian philosopher Shankara wrote in the 8th century of a cobra he encountered one early evening. He avoided the serpent, until, as he passed, he realized the snake was nothing more than a piece of rope coiled in the center of his path! He laughed out loud! The world was giving him an example of the philosophy he preached, Advaitya Vedanta; or, that the world is really an illusion.


As a magician I have been attracted to this paradox. That is why I launched my career doing the admittedly dangerous stunt Houdini is noted for carefully avoiding: catching a marked bullet in the teeth.


It is ironic that Houdini should have notoriety for not doing something, but that’s the way it is with the Houdini legend. Houdini could do the most mundane things, and get press. Near his death, as he was being wheeled into the hospital, writhing in pain from a burst appendix, Houdini confessed that he admired the doctor attending him because the doctor did something that was real.


Houdini lamented, “And in almost every case I am a total fraud.” A man who knew Houdini told me that the most sensational thing Houdini ever did was to not shake too much in the cold before he plunged into the waters of the world’s rivers while manacled. If he shook too much, the man contended, Houdini’s chains would have fallen off like a leaf in the wind. Houdini was really a man named Erik Weiz, born in Hungary, whose greatest feat was escaping the urban ghetto and becoming a folkloric legend. He inspired millions to break free of their chains during the dawn of the industrial revolution. Houdini’s personal illusion inspired a great social reality.


The blurring of lines between illusion and reality is a hallmark of the conjurer’s trade. A mind reader on stage would not entertain if he or she revealed the confederates, magnets, carbon papers and secret codes employed to apparently divine innermost thoughts. The performer who catches bullets encourages myth-making and drama in that a real rifle is fired toward the performer during the stunt. Magician. Stunt. Illusion. Publicity for the unreal apprehended as real…in the television age, they beat you over the head with it so much most people say “OK, it’s real, I get it…OK, stop!”


The guy who stood inside the hollow center of a big ice-cube in Times Square received a lot of press and money for his efforts. His spin team, of course, says the stunt was real, not an illusion. Yet, he is known for being a magician, and magicians perform illusions, “to the agreeable satisfaction of the audience” wrote John Mulholland.


Which was it? And that’s the point, you don’t know.


There is something magical in not knowing. Wonder is the precious emotion of not knowing imbued with hope. This is the reason magicians jealously guard their secrets (though in the Information Age nothing is really secret anymore).


Wonder is the precious emotion of not knowing imbued with hope.


I was once interviewed by a newspaper in Salt Lake City. The reporter asked how I caught a bullet in my teeth. I told her that the stunt was like walking a high wire. Possible, but dangerous.


She wrote “Robinson provided a magician’s answer, full of flurry and answers that only provoke more questions.” I appreciated her not destroying my myth and helping me and the resort I worked at sell dinners and tickets to my show.


My book, co-authored by my friend Larry White, Twelve Have Died–Bullet Catching, The Story and Secrets (Magic Art Book Company, 1986) addresses the very nature of this conundrum of illusion and reality. People really have died performing this stunt, and died as a result of the psychosis attached to the stunt (such as the man who fell off a terrace overlooking the Alps because his nerves were destroyed from his performance of the stunt). This gives the illusion credence.


Houdini may have believed he would achieve more publicity for not performing the stunt. He had said he was going to do it because Chung Ling Soo (a man posing as a Chinese performer who was actually named William Ellsworth Robinson) had just been shot on stage and died the following day in 1918. Perhaps his friend Soo dying on Houdini’s birthday had something to do with the great escapist’s avoidance?


When my teacher Milbourne Christopher created and performed on the first network magic special on NBC in 1957 he only performed the bullet-catch. Christopher opened the show with a rare letter from the Dean of the Society of American Magicians, Harry Kellar, pleading with Houdini to not do the bullet catching stunt, because, as Kellar noted, “Some dog might job you.”


Kellar knew what he was talking about. When he tried to buy the great levitation invention from the Maskelyne family in England and was refused, he hired away Maskelyne’s engineer and worked the levitation out himself. Kellar “jobbed” Maskelyne.


Milbourne Christopher and Doug Henning were great exceptions to this. Christopher was the first to put magic on network television. Henning performed, like Christopher, live without edits in the broadcast tape, unlike all of Henning’s imitators.


Someone once said to me, “Hey did you see that guy who does street magic on TV?” I replied, “Precisely.” At first the questioner was confused by my answer until I pointed out that doing magic outdoors like the great Central Park magician Jeff Sheridan, and doing magic on the street, videotaped, computer-altered and edited for network TV broadcast, are two different things. I don’t beleive TV edited magic is acceptable. Some say, “anything goes” in the name of entertainment.


Talent is rare and brings to mind the scripture that true greatness would remain so by being hidden. A modern version of this is: Those knowin’ ain’t tellin’. Those tellin’ ain’t knowin’.

A previously unpublished photo of my bullet-catching injury at Houdini’s grave, 1985

Children naturally exhibit wonder as shown here during one of my performances this past March.

Chung Ling Soo ,1916, above, and his former employer, Harry Kellar , 1924, below

Christopher’s live TV bullet catch, 1957

Legendary street conjurer Jeff Sheridan and his monumental 1977 tome on his craft. Left: a rare poster from Jeff Sheridan’s indoor concert of outdoor street magic, 1976, New York City.

When you see someone catching a bullet, myself included, the audience has to ask, “Why are they doing this?” Money and publicity are the usual answers. Money and publicity are not, however, necessarily always the realities. In 1993 when my left hand was injured in California by flying glass after the fateful shot, the casino I performed in did their best to stop any publicity of someone wounded in their place of business.

Ben Robinson flanked by Police Inspector Bill Bowie and rifle champion Bertol de Klout after a successful bullet catch, Niagara Falls, Canada, 1990. Rght: Xray Ben Robinson Injury

The injury cost me more time, effort and pain than the performance was worth. Ironically, I had written the book on the stunt, and previously performed the bullet catch four times, yet was unable to escape the curse that follows it.


This performance reminded me of my personal credo: “The job of the magician is to create wonder through the ancient art of illusion. I became a magician because I wanted to inspire others as I was first inspired by magic.”