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Articles about Ben Robinson

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Tim Hatley photo


1 April 2004, Berlin


“The world’s greatest magician would never be known” says a man who lives, eats, and dreams of making dreams real. Relaxing is about the only thing Ben Robinson doesn’t do well. I sought the truth–not the secrets–behind his illusion. He claims illusion is the final truth. I was intrigued.

Actor. Author. Producer. Underground video artist. The illusionist celebrating 30-years of performance in December invited me to see what he does, “because it is about the only way to understand it” he contends. I step, gingerly, like Alice, through the looking glass to the other side of living illusion.


A native Berliner I make it to the States infrequently. Here, coincidence called.


Covering trax by a small Brooklyn-based record label, makng grooves on the dance scene here, Robinson’s name came up when I heard who made the grungy documentary-style film promo unlike any I’d seen. The next day, while on holiday in Den Haag, I ran into a painter friend. She told me of a magician she dated for a short time after meeting him in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “I didn’t even know I was being picked up,” she blushed.


It was the same man. What are the chances?


From those interviewed over two weeks for this article it seems Ben Robinson is an enigma even to those who know him well. Synchronicities abound in his life. That’s a fancy way for saying coincidence surrounds him.


I’m wary, though. Maybe he’s just making these things happen in his tricky way. After all, some things just can’t happen, but they did. While his resume is full of natty accomplishments, I was simultaneously pulled into his gravitational field from the worlds of music, film, the fine arts and finally the vortex: an invitation via email to spend a day with him. I packed for New York and checked to see what February weather offered.



The master illusionist wakes at 5am and by six he’s meditated for twenty minutes, showered, made the bed, eaten a light breakfast of unbuttered rye toast, fat free yogurt, and a glass of apple juice. By 7am he’s spoken to twenty people on the phone in many time zones (his colleagues don’t sleep either apparently). Every time I asked who someone was, he remarked that he knew the person for a long time. If true, I wondered how many people he knew; how well; and for how long. The air crackled with curiosity.He’s also prepared his parrot’s breakfast.


“Waking the master is one of my joys,” he says quietly before sending a cooing whistle into the inky blackness of his parrot’s cage. Stubby the parrot is docile, and enjoys the morning ritual of looking into cabinets while his friend prepares for his day.


Robinson has had a difficult two years. A lower back operation in 2002, has taken a long time to heal and then a minor heart attack in May has slowed him down, so he says. His frustration is evident; though cloaked by youthful enthusiasm. I’m amazed at his docket: facilitating a long term gig in a resort; promoting a variety show at the Punch Line in Atlanta; and working with a show in London to bring to the US. This is what is on top of his pile he says.


It’s 9am and he’s reading the newspaper, listening to music, talking on the phone and giving himself a cuticle all at the same time. I’ve never seen anyone multi-task like this. You sort of blink your eyes twice, as if you can’t be seeing what is in front of you. He doesn’t just work hard, he works smart. After four early morning hours I’m still groggy, while he’s flying to the first of the day’s ten appointments.


Local errands first: in the bank, post office, newstand, drycleaning and bakery — everyone gladly knows him. Uptown, he sees a doctor; downtown he gets a military-style haircut. Then we head to his “homeboy gym.” Trekking along the East river to a former bath house, he notes, “No designer spandex in there, only sweaty folks who don’t talk.” I take my cue not to follow him into the men’s locker room; instead talking to the guard who hesitantly admits me to the gymnasium. Fleet footed, in forty minutes he lifts weights, sculpts his chest, and jumps his cardio on the walker. Hanging upside down he has a conversation with a woman, who, I am sure, is hitting on him. She’s talking to his crotch while he does upside down sit ups.


By 1pm we are back at his flat and his assistant has arrived. There is a stack of papers for the magician. Among the odds and ends: a show in Baltimore recommended by an agency in Minneapolis, through a party planner in Texas has been rescheduled. “Too many cooks” he shrugs. A benefit performance for AIDS patients confirms his appearance and has already begun publicizing the show. A book from New Orleans arrives via Federal Express, signed to him by his friend, TV star Harry Anderson. Anderson wrote the foreword to Robinson’s cult classic Twelve Have Died.


Lost & Found

He settles behind his desk as his assistant “GG” runs more errands. Fifteen minutes of conversation ensue about adding one link to a chain; the details of illusion I assume. A whirlwind follows: more phone calls; a big contract is moving forward. I overhear that soon a lot of cash will be spent on his activities. He says, “If all goes well, I can look forward to all of my hair turning grey.”


He changes the subject, and talks about his love of found clothing. Found on the street, that is. “Look at my gloves” he gleefully says. I see two black leather gloves, nothing else.


“I found both of these separately, look closely.” The gloves do not match, but are both black, leather and the same size.


“My cap,” he squints. I look. It is used, grey, simple, and fits as if tailored.


“My sweater.” I t’s a black wooly frock, well worn, but again, fits him perfectly. His scarf is an elegant silk wrap given to him by a child of an extremely famous family who was insistent the magician left it behind. He didn’t, but he now sports it well. The magician once spoke of needing a pair of boots while making a documentary in Nevada. Walking across 26th street he found, brand new, still in the original box, the exact pair of work boots he needed. This is hard to believe. He says it’s part of his “trickster archetype.” I ‘ll research that one.


I’m offered a piece of fruit while he takes a call from a school. They want to know how many shows he does. Three different lectures, and three different stage shows, he responds. They book one show and one lecture. “I’m like a doctor, ” he explains. “It has taken my whole life to achieve this level. Whatever level that is.”


Recently he played the Mad Hatter at the Spence School Mother-Daughter Tea. “Tough gig,” he recalls. “Me and a hundred young ladies. Well somebody’s got to do it!” Power mom, and TV personality Katie Couric (The Today Show) chatted with him, remembering her conversation with him on the TV show while he bounced on a trampoline (of course) a few years ago. In the coming 18-months, Robinson will appear in half the US states and four countries. (On a recent trip he really did appear in two countries and three cities in a 24 hour period: Vancouver, Seattle and New York.) Nothing about this seems unnatural to him. He jokes, “The gig’s free, I’m paid to travel.” He notes a one-nighter now takes three days due to the changed world of airline travel. Having been to the roof of the world, Mount Everest in 1989, nothing about travel fazes him.


The bellman rings. An unexpected visitor arrives: a friend, from undergound television production, I’m told. The two discuss a new “high def” post-production house in the city recently opened in Times Square. The friend needs creative staff. The magician proffers a movie titles designer (Indecent Exposure, Looking for Richard among others) and a frequent collaborator, high tech visionary Jon Dix, the man behind audiences seeing Radiohead’s concert the world over. Robinson shows a tape of his work with Dix from 1995 where they pushed the boundaries of video and magic unlike anything ever done. It borders on mind altering, even from a shadowy tape. Robinson and Dix dig their work and the level to which they make it happen is exciting to be around.


Typical to how I met the magician’s reputation, he’s known by the wizards behind the scenes in many worlds. One music producer remarked, “You have no idea how many production offices in the western world know of, or are discussing Ben right now. When there’s a creative problem, someone will invariably say, ‘What about Ben Robinson? ‘ ” He embodies a genuinely magical countenance. Children see this right away.


Magic Children

His wife stays home keeping company with the parrot when he’s traveling. She has her own job, and asked not to be included in this article. She let it be known, however, her husband used magic to marry her and she loves to help in his shows when she can. She’s been turned into a gorilla and been decapitated repeatedly. Brave gal.


They have no children. Do they plan to have little warlocks and witches?


He calls his “effects” or individual illusions, his children. He introduces some of his tykes: all wig me out and make my shoulders feel like wings. Rings appear on all his fingers, a page disappears from a book I hold, and then my own signature also disappears! I feel I might be dreaming; reality being fluid to the magician. Painfully obvious, joyous illusion mixing in plastic modernity is difficult to accept.


He guards “his children” zealously. As an engagement present, the couple received a vintage, 1920’s vaudeville guillotine, from the widow of the man Robinson learned from, Milbourne Christopher (who performed at the Wintergarten in Berlin in 1936 and then covered the Olympics I later discover). It seems beheading is ritualistic passage for magic wives. I don’t want to be foolish by asking if any of this is dangerous, yet, is it? I listen for answers hoping my mind is read.


“Don’t all magicians do the same tricks?” While Robinson sort of agrees, he notes distinguishing factors and what makes some illusion-makers unique. He is in regular contact with colleagues in New York, LA, Atlanta, New Orleans, and even mega-famous British TV star Paul Daniels is a confidant. Robinson’s an expert on the history of magic but doesn’t speak about himself — a refreshing lack of ego.


The sun sets. We’ve been in his office and he’s been taking calls, looking in old showman scrapbooks, writing email and faxes, and talking with me for hours. The parrot never stops playing in his office either, having been hand fed a glass of apple juice. The magician has a tattoo on his leg of a wizard with an owl on his shoulder. It exactly matches a statue he acquired in England. This magician twists reality regularly. The parrot replicates the sounds of my mobile phone so clearly that I reach for the phone only to be told it is the parrot making the ringer sound. A perfect illusion in a magician’s office, I think. After the third time I ‘m fooled, I swear, the parrot laughs at me. Clearly I am in Wonderland.


Robinson showers again (since being at the gym), and will meditate again before his evening performance. “A half million nightspots in New York, you can have anything you want,” he gleams, as we decide where to sup.


In his absence I look at a framed collage hanging on the wall. He emerges, as promised, twenty minutes later to the second. I learn he made the multi-media collage quickly during a stressful time in his life. “Art therapy” he adds cryptically. The collage haunts me beyond surrealism. I have seen some of the images before in my dreams. His art has anticipated me, or, have I anticpated it? Illusion genius?


Lighting up…

A small Polish cafe in the East Village is our destination. The reaction there is the same as at other encounters, “Magic is here!” People light up when they see Ben Robinson. He brings out the excited child in most everyone we meet, and I know this is not planned. There is something infectious about his smile, which seems to say, “Walk on the wild side, no one gets hurt.” We coincidentally meet friends of his (who booked him at a club in the West Indies) as they leave, and we enter. In my travels with Ben Robinson I note one consistency; while not a celebrity, it is unusual how many people know him. He has the indefinable “something” people respond to, but no autograqphs are sought, which he enjoys.


At 9pm we finish eating and I learn about his family. Seems his mother and father met in 1947 because of a pocketpicking-magician named Dr. Giovanni. They married shortly thereafter at Hampshire House on Central Park South. He is not close to any relatives. He changes the subject. I sense darkness entering. We head to a big club.


Robinson is recognized at the door and we are passed in ahead of a long line of club-goers. One pierced and tattooed girl with an exposed belly button ring snipes, “Who’s he, some f—ing celebrity?” He heads backstage where he high fives the giant bouncer who pushes buttons on a locked door and admits us backstage at The Knitting Factory, in Tribeca. “The Knit” is a large three-tiered club once known for innovative jazz, now struggling to survive in the post 9/11 economy.


Phish magic

Robinson entertains entertainers. He once did a party for Sinatra, though doesn’t give details. He asks his musician friend to think of a card while the musician holds the cards. The card merely thought of disappears and winds up — believe it or not — imbedded in a handkerchief. Not underneath, intertwined with the fibers. I’ve never seen anything like it. One of his children, obviously. The magician and musicians, he has an epithet about this he prevails upon me not to print. It’s pretty cool though.


He tells another musician that he will read the magician’s mind. “Yeah, right after more beers” the musician mumbles and the hip throng bellows. Not losing composure, Robinson feels that whatever happens makes the better show.


Once he did a show backstage at Irving Plaza (a rock venue downtown) and Phish drummer Jon Fishman witnessed Robinson’s on-the-spot-sorcery. A knife appeared inches from Fishman’s face and security wasn’t even called. Fishman loved it. Others cackled, “This knife came out, right near Fishman’s million dollar face. Dude, you should have seen it.” A few more tricks and he finishes with a scarf ending up in someone’s pants. No one is sure exactly what just happened because the guy with the scarf in his pants swears it was not pre-arranged. So, in the midst of a miracle, we leave. The girl with the belly button ring is trying to get backstage, the bouncer unimpressed. She looks at us as we pass. I give her a self-satisfied smile, just for good measure. Simple pleasures of living illusion.


We stop momentarily at Robinson’s SoHo hangout, a smoking lounge (rare these days in the city) Circa Tabac. Robinson doesn’t smoke. He and owner Lee Ringelheim embrace hello. Robinson and the entrepreneur put on shows when the lounge was new. Now it’s the epicenter of cool. The magician is greeted by regulars who ask him to come to their table and “you know.” This is the place you go not to be seen. Robinson and Ringelheim chime, “The best kept non-secret in New York.”


It’s almost midnight and we have one more stop. In the art gallery district, on Spring Street we stop by a loft, and run into Marina Belica, the lead singer of the re-formed band, October Project. Robinson has been the opening act for the New Age hit group in the last year. He needs to pick up some “merch” he left behind recently. He and Belica have known each other for . . . I’m cut off. Age is secret. With the exception of thinning hair, he looks about 25 in the evening light. ” Hi Ben!” Belica’s airy falsetto chimes over the intercom. We enter the dazzling art-filled loft. Sometimes shows happen here for VIP’s and I can see why. With his goods we taxi uptown to an all-night diner not far from Robinson’s swank midtown address, with a mind-blowing roof view. Henry Kissinger, Greta Garbo and John Lennon have been neighbors at times.

The waiters in black vests and bow ties recognize the magician also wearing a vest, “Ya been working? Show my brother that thing with the watch.” We enjoy a late night snack. It’s hard to talk; we’re being watched by eager magic fans. Magic pays the tab. I’m envious, were it only writers received free food for poems. It is 1am.


Enthralled, amazed, exhausted

I ‘ve been with Ben Robinson for nearly 24-hours and he hasn’t yawned once. I am enthralled, amazed and exhausted. He invites me back to his flat for tea while he catches up on e-mail and talk further. A quiet belief in himself is his creative edge. “Loving what I do is my oxygen” he says, as if to convince others and himself that he’ll be OK. When you’re having fun, you don’t want to admit the fun can kill. His health requires more rest than he gets.


He tells some funny stories about life on the road (being uninformed his audience was deaf I’d never heard before). I inquire about his “magician’s shrine” containing madness, poetry, junk and jewels from his travels. A huge amber crystal ball sits near a prop pen used by the Great Malini. A shattered and rebuilt ashtray has a connection to a psychic premonition. A faux jeweled ostrich egg depicts Superman and Clark Kent. A broken drum stick signed to him by a fellow street performer sits in a box from a diplomat the magician is sure contains a hidden listening device. The artifacts reflect stories too numerous, but too juicy to miss. Like his life, it is a 3D multi-media collage.


His thousand books pertaining his craft occupies a large wall and is well-organized. (I wonder if a secret room will be revealed when a book on mechanics and illusion is slightly pulled!)

He shows me a book from 1858 that once belonged to Louis Comfort Tiffany. The artisan entertained clients with this book of 1001 “home amusements.” It was given to Robinson by Tiffany’s grand daughter, once the magician’s consort. Having been gone six hours, the answering machine has twelve messages; his universe nocturnal.


His wife has left him a note with some funny drawings, put the parrot to bed and retired herself. GG has left the magician a long note concerning the load-in for an upcoming performance, complete with a security guard’s mobile number. “That’s my boy!” he smiles. The chain now has the additional link.


2am. My eyelids fight to remain open. A full day behind the magician’s curtain is like visiting the circus. You don’t want to leave, but are tired from the excitement. He quotes his mother, while his doorman hails a taxi for me, “I’ve got to get to bed and sleep fast. I have a lot to do tomorrow.”


His greatest feat is time travel. It is already tomorrow.


Alyska is an arts reporter living in Europe. She covered David Bowie’s newest CD debut in Germany. Simultaneously published as: Unterhalt Tauschung. Used by permission.


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