Articles by Ben Robinson
The Magic Business
by Ben Robinson
I’ve been a lot of places and done a lot of things. I suppose that’s why I wanted to do magic in the first place. In 1967 I sat watching the Ed Sullivan show with my mother. A Dutch magician named Fred Kaps followed the Beatles in a re-run from 1964. After the magician finished his dazzling few minutes, my mother exclaimed, “How did he do that?” I replied, “I don’t know mommy, but that’s what I want to do.” That was 35 years ago.
This past August, I lectured for magicians in Seattle. I told my fellow conjurors “a good trick is a good trick is a good trick.” What I meant is that an illusion that delights in a bar in Bangkok, that also inspires children in Maine is a good trick. Having performed all over the US and in about ten countries internationally, I can confirm the truth of this maxim.
I enjoy the nuances of different performance venues — at left, a shot I took while doing an ABC-TV show; at right, a factory in New Jersey I performed in during the company “employee appreciation day.” I did the same tricks in both locations: changing a silk scarf into a walking stick, lighting my hand on fire and acts of mindreading.
As I think back on my twenty years of professional performance, I am only really proud of:
(1981) at age 20, while still a college student I was a Guest Artist at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Theater Institute. The Associate Director wrote “this group of students was astounded by your skill.”
(1986) “Twelve Have Died” – my book (currently out of print) sometimes called the definitive work on the bullet catching illusion
(1988) “Out Of Order” – my one man show produced by Lyn Austin’s Music Theater Group — in fact the only one man show ever produced by Ms. Austin during her fifty year career
(1989) the 150-mile trek to and from the Base Camp of Mt. Everest I was invited to join — the greatest experience of my life
(1990) my bullet catch at Niagara Falls directed by Ted Annemann’s and my close friend, the late Bob Weill
(1994) being one of the first producers to bring rock’n roll to Lincoln Center by producing STOMP there for a gala show
(1995) the multi-media circus show I created with Dan Seiden called“GHOST — An Art Rock ‘n Roll Circus in 7 Minutes” commissioned by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Buskers Fare to open the largest festival of street entertainers in the world
(1998) giving 1,750 performances in 150 days as host of the Centennial Midway at Kennywood Amusement Park
(2001) two experiences: my CD on synchronicity which culminated ten years of inquiry into the phenomenon of meaningful coincidences; and my performances with Rebecca Moore and her band Prevention of Blindnessat The Knitting Factory and at the Naumburg bandshell in Central Park. The latter was probably the best short show I ever gave
It seems small to esteem these few experiences over an entire career but, if you love what you do, then the news is largely good. However, I have often written of my failures more than my successes because I find failure (and the reasons behind failure) more interesting; more human.
I wrote a whole book about the bullet catching stunt, yet was injured by flying glass in a casino show in 1993. I went to Mt. Everest, yet did not get one single photo of me performing for climbers at the highest altitude I reached. (Though I do remember a Swiss climber videotaping me and if that person ever reads this, I will pay for a copy of that tape!)
What strikes me about the select experiences above is that all were hard to do. It’s nice to look back on this work and think “whew, that’s over.” For me, the lesson of accomplishment is: there is a lot of pain involved in the creation of something that comes from deep within. That’s why thievery of my work is also so annoying — the work is hard won. I believe the theives’ karma provides that they too will be stolen from. Well, no one ever said being a magician was an easy gig.
When one is bitten by the magic bug, you generally see a book with a cover like the one depicted here by Ian Adair. The top hat, rabbit, colorful silk scarves all indicate a wondrous practice. The reality of the life of the illusionist is a lot of hard work and a good deal of frustration. Perhaps that is why Johnny Carson counseled me when I was 15 (in one backstage meeting I had with him at The Tonight Show in Los Angeles in 1975) that “You can’t make any money at magic, but it is a great hobby.” Well, perhaps I have not made Carson’s millions, but, Lance Burton and Siegfried and Roy surely have. Money was never my goal. Experience was.
Seeing and being seen as a magician was attractive to me. Doug Henning was known for saying that magic was his form of expression. What some magicians do not take into account (and will never understand) is that a genuine sense of wonder is primary to encountering the ups and downs of a professional career as a magician. Sure, the idea of being metaphysically inspired can be imitated — but to actually live it, and practice it — that is a state of mind I have arrived at through 20+ years of meditation, giving over 5000 one man shows, and frankly, and having had the experience of having less than I needed to live comfortably. Using my wits and my belief in a higher power has gotten me through the rough spots.
The magic business is chaotic. There are no regulations. It was the great 19th century French magician Robert-Houdin who was the first to define the professional practice of magic in western literature.
Today, people call me for shows at: clubs, resorts, conventions, trade shows, weddings, bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, schools, corporate events, sales meetings, and as an opening act for others. I’ve never been on a cruise ship as a magician; I’m told that I’m too hip for the room! But, I’d go if the contract length were agreeable.
It is an odd service business to one extent. One MUST deliver. Recently a man approached me after a show I gave for a printing company which paid me in color printing. The man said, “that TV guy, what’s his name… must hate you.” I inquired as to his reasoning. He said, “Well, how long a show was that just now?” I told him that I probably had entertained for about 40 minutes. “See that’s what I mean! You had more magical magic, good humor and genuine mystery in that 40 minutes than he has in his whole show which is mostly lights, smoke, dancing and bad music.”
Jack Flosso, owner of the world’s oldest magic store now found on line at www.martinka.com, told me that certain groups of people had “their magician.” That’s true. I believe that the several hundred formal shows and several thousand impromptu shows I give yearly exist for those that choose to hire or watch me because of what I bring to the practice. That’s not ego speaking; everyone brings something to their profession. As soon as I finish writing this article, I will prepare for entertaining 11 children in a show that has the distinction of being the shortest distance I have ever traveled to give a formal show – one floor beneath me in the building I live in Manhattan!
People ask how I have learned to be a magician. It has not been easy. It is something I have arrived at through constant study and practice. Doug Henning and Milbourne Christopher were my primary influences. My hands-on education continues through my friendship with two brilliant magicians: World Champion Magician Johnny Ace Palmer; and Atlanta’s premier magician, Howie the Great. If you’ve ever seen Johnny do the cups and balls or Howie’s thought projection, you’ll experience real wonder as I have. Mockery of miracles doesn’t fill the bill as I see it. To be a magician, and generate a magical feeling, you have to actually take a spoonful of the metaphysical for sustenance in order to deliver it. Tearing out the secret to illusion is mere cynicism; creating wonder is the work of poets.
Those who do not feel wonder, cannot generate wonder, sad to say.
Failure eliciting a positive reaction will often teach me something more about human nature and its reaction to the illusory world than spotlights and applause. Recently I informally entertained at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Christmas party in Manhattan. I met a banker who told me that he seriously considered becoming a magician for his livelihood. He appreciated magic as an art; a gratifying surprise.
Defining one’s practice of this profession is not easy.
The satisfaction I have achieved is that I have had varied experience, developed problem solving talents, resulting in one female producer friend calling me the most resourceful person she knows. I like that.
Being a magician has provided me the opportunity to travel to places I might not have otherwise had the chance to go to. It is a hard life, but, when things are tough I remind myself that I’ve worked with the one actress I admire, Diane Keaton (above right); met Sir Edmund Hillary, and been in the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. All because I decided to pursue magic as a way of life in 1967! I know of one magician who made a paralysed child smile even though the child’s facial muscles had not responded to medical stimulus. Talk about magic! It’s moments like this that keep the career magician going.
Howard Thurston (1869-1936), truly one of the greatest magicians, wrote in his autobiography “My Life of Magic” about the magic business.
I can do no better than end with a quote from Mr. Thurston:
"What a wonderful thing is work — and the ability of the individual with work to enjoy it.”
The Knitting Factory, New York, June 2001
Central Park Bandshell, New York, Aug. 2001
Two of my favorite recent photos: Above: stuck in a train station late at night while touring 5 cities in 7 days and (below) a load-in shot from the Central Park show. Both remind me what is involved in this profession.
The birthday child has been waiting to see me for nearly 12 months, or one-eighth his life!