Articles about Ben Robinson
Q Magazine interviews Ben Robinson by Kathy MIllard, 2004
Ben Robinson is a magician of many accomplishments. He’s caught bullets in his teeth and lived to write the book about it which sells on eBay for over $500! He’s performed all over the world, including Mt. Everest. As a “close-up” sleight of hand magician he creates new “effects” that leave people with their jaws on the floor. Pennies materialize around him in weird places. He says the pennies are not a trick. We found Robinson in New York City, where he lives with his rambunctious parrot and dazzling redheaded wife. This interview concentrates on several of Robinson’s “firsts.” Q’s fringe reporter Kathy Millard spoke with the boyish-looking 42 yr. old Harry Potter look-a-like who says “Magic is a great art, but it doesn’t work on TV.”
Understanding Illusions? Not really.
By Kathy Millard
KM: I’ve read that you have been doing magic for 35 years, but only are proud of three things. What are they and why?
BR: The three things are: my book “Twelve Have Died,” my music-theater show “Out Of Order” and my trek to the base camp of Mt. Everest. I’m proud because they were all “firsts” in some regard. “Twelve Have Died” was one of the first books, probably the first hard back book in my field dedicated to only one trick. My show was the only one-man show ever produced by Lyn Austin in her 50-year career as a Broadway and avant garde producer, and I am probably the first professional magician to trek to the base camp of Mt. Everest.
KM: Were you not also the first to do that thing with your arm?
BR: Yes. Larry White invented an illusion I named “The Trisection.” You apparently cut your am into three pieces. I was the first to bring it to the stage in 1987 after Larry had invented it in the 50’s but it stayed in his basement, not believing it was any good. His wife would have paid me to take it out of the house. In 1995, in a moment of depression, I made the biggest mistake of my career by licensing it with Larry to another performer, whose name I won’t mention because he is a really unpleasant person and I think he’s a theatrical thief. Life’s too short, you know. Now the illusion has gone on the market, so it is no longer exclusive to me. I know more about the illusion than anyone, and have even taken it further when my show played at MOE in Seattle. That they haven’t copied, nor ever will. I hope Larry gets some money from all this. He deserves to. Illusions are hard to protect via patent or copyright, so he should be honored. Typical.
KM: But you were the first.
BR: Yes, as my friend Dick Bass, the first mountaineer to conquer the highest peak on each contient says, “first is forever.” Without my creative eye it would have stayed in Larry’s basement.
KM: I have heard your lecture on synchronicity and I think it is one of the most amazing talks I have ever heard. Is that unusual for a magician to dip into the paranormal?
BR: Well, no. A lot of magicians, including Houdini and my teacher Milbourne Christopher who was the Society of American Magicians Occult Investigation Chairman — a post Houdini once occupied — investigated the paranormal. My take on it all comes through some wild direct experience. I have spent 10 years studying with a professional parapsychologist named George Hansen. Through George I learned about the trickster archetype and this led to my inquiry on synchronicity, which you heard. I was the first professional magician to lecture at the Parapsychology Foundation in New York. That was in 1999.
KM: Christopher was a man of firsts too, right? Wasn’t he the man who put magic on network TV back in the 50’s?
BR: He did the dangerous bullet catch live on the first network special he produced for NBC. Unlike the chop shop FX specials you see on network today, he did not need TV editing to pull off a great show. Basically if you see one of these guys on TV now, you cannot trust that they are performing the art of magic. They cheat, they use video tricks and call it magic. A poor substitute for talent, hard work and a real appreciation of the art of magic. It is a gross perversion, and cheapens something profound, which is very sad to me. The reason you don’t see some of these guys with network specials anymore is because they have been found out to be the Milli Vanilli of magic. Magic is a great art, but it doesn’t work on TV.
KM: Strong words. Tell me about Christopher, sounds like an interesting man.
BR: I studied informally with him in the late 70’s until his death in 1984. He wrote and edited twenty-three books and performed in seventy two countries. Three different Broadway shows. A huge career. He wrote the definitive biography of Houdini. He even recreated Houdini’s last lecture tour at Lincoln Center. A major achievement. I never knew until well after he died that both of our fathers practiced the same profession, and died the same way. He knew this, which tells you something about our relationship and how he viewed me, which I was unaware of throughout our relationship. I also once made the same quote to a paper at the same age he made the same quote. I was unaware of his statement when I made mine. It was a meaningful coincidence to him. To me he was sort of a father figure. I have some of his things. It’s nice because I did not know my real dad very well. He died when I was a boy.
KM: You did a bunch of shows at the famous Kennywood Amusement Park for which you hold a world record. Tell me about that.
BR: It is an unofficial world record, but unchallenged I guess. Over a five-month period I did 1,750 shows, that’s 15 a day…straight through. I can name them: 3 magic acts, 3 blade box acts, I hosted 4 contortion acts, 3 strait jacket escapes and 2 canon shots by the world champion Human Canon Ball Mr. David Smith, and his family, all the flying Smiths. I also announced all the acts every day. We did 45 shows a day from 1pm to 7:45 each evening. The Chairman of the Board of Kennywood, known as the Ed Sullivan of his field wrote me a very complimentary letter. His name was Carl Hughes.
KM: You’re insane! How could you do that daily, didn’t you die, go hoarse, lose your nut?
BR: It was pretty stressful. I wrangled a crew of 15, directed all of the shows, wrote a ton of them, and organized three camps daily: making the Dallas producer happy, satisfying the park people in Pittsburgh and keeping my boat afloat in New York. We hit national press a few times primarily because it was the famous park’s 100th birthday, but we were also what was new that year, so we rocked the gig pretty hard. I only threw up in the dressing room once I am proud to say. We were the debut show for Daniel Smith, aka Rubber Boy, now a big deal. I developed Daniel’s enterology act way before he was on an FX TV show doing it to hard rock music. I mean, a kid from the back woods of Mississippi is not going to be hip to 19th century music hall acts such as “enterology.”
At the end of it all I took my girlfriend (now wife) to Holland on a vacation and sat by a canal and drank champagne. I earned every drop. I was pretty tired at the end. No one asked me to do it. I was put in the position to make the Centennial of the Park a big deal and the producer kind of let me do what I wanted because we’d been friends.
KM: Tell me more about Mt. Everest. When did you go? How did you get there? Why did you go? Did you get hurt?
BR: In 1987 I met the oldest man to have climbed (at the time) Mt. Everest, and the only man to have climbed the highest peak on each continent, a Texan named Dick Bass who owns a resort in Utah called Snowbird. (Commercial over!) After I performed at Snowbird in the summer of 1987 for three weeks, we became friends and he invited me to go trekking with him in the Himalaya and entertain along the way. We walked from a little airstrip called Lukla, 75 miles to the 17,800 ft. level at the base camp. And then the decent was also 75 miles. I blew out my knee, I fell in a glacial stream which was pretty hairy except my Sherpa guide pulled me out before I got sucked under, and basically I flew around the world. It was the greatest adventure of my life. Someday I hope to go back. I was told recently that there was one of my show posters up in a lodge I visited and that people still remembered the show I did in the town square of Namche Bazar. Talk about street magic!
KM: Your circus was also pretty kickin’ for it’s time.
BR: You mean “The Art Rock ‘n Roll Circus.” I created it with Dan Seiden as a commission from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for the largest festival of street entertainers in the world, the 1995 Buskers Fare. We opened the gala and combined rock music live played by Dan’s band, The Round Band, film cut to their beat and live stage theatrics. This was well ahead of other long-haired performers who said they were first to adopt this synthesis. In fact, they still have not been able to copy certain aspects of that show. Andrew Watson, the artistic director of Cirque du Soliel complimented me in a letter saying my work was “very exciting and original.” High praise. After three years of it I learned I had had enough of rock ‘n roll personailities and trying to corral circus performers to be on stage promptly.
KM: Any other firsts?
BR: I am proud of the fact that I was the first to establish magic as one of the artistic disciplines taught at one of the finest arts camps in the US, Buck’s Rock in New Milford, Connecticut. I taught there in 1980 and 1981. Only real Buck’s Rockers know how special that place is. To others reading this, it will mean nothing.
KM: Anything else?
BR: During a long recovery from an injury I recently came up with a routine for a prop that has never been used as I am using it. But until I do it in front of an audience, I won’t talk about it.
KM: Thieves listening?
BR: It’s going to happen whether I kvetch about it or not. It just makes me sick when someone apropriates the concept I created of using my grandfather’s home movies, which was used in our rock circus. Thieves will always be thieves. Originators will always be originators. You know, the cyber age is a funny thing. Peope who have good records of what was said when and to whom now have the ability to release that information on the Internet with one touch of a button. Perhaps the truth will be set free, or make others realize who is original and who is copying who.
KM: You work with a lot of musicians. What’s that about?
BR: In the 70’s I began working in coffee houses and met a lot of folkies along the way and we enjoyed eachother because we both worked with our hands. I did a big show for a season with composer Mark Bennett and it was probably the best experience I ever had in the theatre. I wish I could work every day with Mark. I have since performed live with the Round Band, and had my best live gig ever in Central Park at the bandshell with Rebecca Moore, the avant garde musician. Recently I opened for the hit band October Project. I’ve known them a long time. Musicians are less egotisitcal than magicians. We share the detailed mind that both practices require.
KM: What’s next for you? Gigs? Big plans, other “firsts?”
BR: Sure, some exciting stuff on the horizon. I only talk about stuff after it’s happened. That way it’s safe. Magic is a very competitive field and were I to mention something that was going to be a “first” then another would try to beat me to it. But the biggie is getting back to full health. After September 11th I got hurt, eventually requiring serious surgery one year later when nothing else worked, and it has taken me a long time to recover. I have been in pretty intensive physical therapy to feel 100%. This month (May) unfortunately, I had a set back, but it was a wake-up call. I wasn’t healing because another part of me wasn’t working properly. So onward and upwards. I’m a positive guy; otherwise I would not be a magician. The world needs to believe in magic. Through belief we can accomplish real miracles. Going to the moon is small potatoes compared to Earth’s eventual realization of its place in the universe.
KM: Cosmic dude.
BR: Magic is cosmic.
Copyright 2003 Q Publications. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission.
Ben Robinson: The real Harry Potter
photo: W. J. Regan
Robinson says “fire!” and the marksman shoots at his mouth
The bullet knocks him to the ground but he isn’t dead. Photos from his Niagara Falls bullet catch courtesy of WJZ-TV.
Jane Phillips Photo
The Synchronicity Sorcerer
The first magician to put magic on network TV. He caught a bullet between his teeth (seen), and didn’t have to use editorial TV tricks like the magicians today, Robinson says.
“The only contrortionist with an ivy league education” the magician said four times daily amidst human flying canon balls, gorillas killing people (it was an act) and the wacky magic act or five, Ben Robinson performed at Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh for a season. After more than 1500 shows he went to Holland, drank champagne by a canal, then married his girfriend. His proposal was no illusion of course
Guillotining his wife! A Robinson family Christmas Card. “The world needs to believe in magic. Especially now.” photo: Kate Milliken