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Volume 73, Number 15 | Aug. 13 - Aug. 19, 2003

THEATER


Carnival Knowledge
SoHo Playhouse
15 Vandam Street
(212) 239-6200


He eats light bulbs, fire and walks on glass

By JERRY TALLMER

Todd Robbins and cast of “Carnival Knowledge”

Cr-r-r-unch. That’s the sound of a man biting into a light bulb — followed by a dozen or so more cr-r-r-unches as he calmly, methodically chews and apparently swallows all the rest of it.

I know it was a real light bulb because I held it in my hands and felt it, looked it over, before passing it across the aisle to another member of the audience, who did the same and then passed it along to someone else, and so on and so forth. It ended up in the hands of Amy, the pretty audience member in the first row, who passed it back up to the straw-hatted guy on stage.

The bulb, which had been plugged in, was still warm. “Nothing like a hot meal,” said the wise-cracking straw-hatted guy as he snapped off and pocketed the metal screw-in portion and then fed the entire glass bulb itself bit by bit into his mouth and . . . cr-r-r-unch.

His name is Todd Robbins, the show is called “Carnival Knowledge,” it has come from Coney Island to the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, where it started previews last month toward an official opening this Sunday, Aug. 17, five performances a week. It alternates with an ongoing “Monday Night Magic” that, now in its seventh year, also stars Todd Robbins.

In “Carnival Knowledge,” the fruit of a tradition going back in American sideshow history to well before Mark Twain, and in human history to the first caveman who ever balanced a pole on his nose, Todd Robbins also:

Eats fire.Walks barefoot on broken glass. {“Amy, do you see any cuts on my feet?”) Swallows swords, and a ragged Moroccan kris, and a 10-inch pair of scissors; that is to say, puts each of these things, separately, at least that far down his gullet. and then, head tilted back, extracts them, slowly, carefully — as this onlooker’s own gut screams for mercy.

Places his fingers in a killer-type animal trap, which goes Snappp! on top of them, but does not even dent them. Hammers a nail up his nose (as The Human Blockhead), and snorts an elongated balloon up one nostril until it emerges from his mouth.

Brings up out of the audience another pretty girl — a “Madame Electra, from France” whom he places in a rickety plywood electric chair with the command: “Say ‘Ooh la la,” which she does. When, after withstanding electrocution, giggling Madame Electra returns to the seat she or her boyfriend had paid for, the good reporter one seat over elicits the fact that she’s actually Terry G. from Long Island.

Meanwhile, brash Todd Robbins has brought four assorted gangly young males up out of the audience, and by hokus-pokus now transforms them into “the anti-gravity death-defying human-pretzel Flying Ebola Brothers.” Don’t knock it till you see it.

All this and lots more does Todd Robbins work of an evening from the stage of the SoHo Playhouse, scattering such random verbal buckshot as “I’m the most honest charlatan you ever want to meet” and “People talk of fear, but the greatest fear in life is standing on stage” and, even more seriously, “With a great deal of pride, I carry on the great American sideshow.”

He means it, and, offstage, a couple of days later — less the straw hat and the brashness but plus a pair of eyeglasses — Robbins talks of his fascination and deep respect for “carnival culture,” and how he first got into the whole thing. But he can’t resist starting with an old joke.

“I was born in a hospital so I would be close to my mother. Well, that was at Long Beach, California, August 15, 1958. My father died two years ago. He was an executive for the Purex [soap] corporation. My mother’s a retired a schoolteacher.

“Middle-class upbringing. Clean, safe, quiet — three hots and a cot, as they say — three square meals a day and a place to sleep — and it just bored the daylights out of me. I was looking for something extraordinary, and was 12 years old when, first, I discovered a magic shop where they gave magic lessons, the B & H School of Magic, and then a carnival came through town.”

Mr. Robbins, you surely don’t learn how to eat a light bulb just like that at age 12 in a magic store.

“No, no, that took a little while. It turned out that one of the magicians had worked in a carnival. I bugged the daylights out of his mind until he agreed to teach me things. His name? Ralph Macabee. I last saw Ralph when I was 16 or 17. He had emphysema, had left his wife, had loaded all his worldly possessions into his Volkswagen bus and was heading south to Texas, alternating between his oxygen mask in one hand, his cigarette in the other. ‘See you down the road, kid,’ he said as he drove off.”

Todd Robbins’s own road took him through traditional acting classes on the West Coast — “Even in elementary school I was in the drama club, always performing” — and at 22 he came to New York to pursue a career in the theater.

“But a lot of the small theaters were drying up, going out of business, and I was auditioning for shows I didn’t like run by people I didn’t respect. So I decided to resurrect my magic act, at clubs, colleges, universities, at the same time that I was performing at the Big Apple circus as a ringmaster, magician, and Medicine Show Doc, the snake-oil salesman.”In the arts of the carnival, Robbins had many mentors, legends in the trade, among them Dick Zigun, who had started Sideshow by the Seashore at Coney Island 20 years ago, and somehow kept it going; Melvin Burkhart, who’d invented the Human Blockhead in 1929 and died only two years ago, at 94; Ward Hall, “who’s been in the business 60 years, the classiest man in carnival”; and Johnny Meah, “the last of the old-time banner painters” — banners being carnival posters on canvas like the ones on these SoHo walls for Priscilla the Ape Girl and Otis the Frog Boy.

“Down the road I would meet other performers. It’s kind of a closed society. Has its own language, Carney Speak, a form of pig latin.” (On request, Robbins says a sentence in Carney Speak which seems to be all z’s and u’s.) “I demonstrated how serious I was, not just about the workings, the skills, but about the whole culture, and a lot of old-timers appreciated that.

“They’d say: ‘What do you do?’ ‘Well, I do the blockhead and fire eating.’

‘Do you do so-and-so? Here’s what goes into it.’ “

Between Coney Island and Manhattan, the idea of a “Carnival Knowledge” show “has been a real roller-coaster ride for the last eight years, front burner, back burner.” It was Dana Matthow, owner of SoHo Playhouse, to whom magician Robbins one day said: ‘I’d like to do some bigger things,’ only to have Matthow reply: ‘Sure, let’s do it.’ “

In the show, sword-swallowing Robbins makes casual reference to an experience “in an emergency room at 3 in the morning in Wichita, Kansas.” This is true, the offstage Robbins now says. “Committed the biggest mistake you can make.

“Forcing it [a sword, down his throat]. Not a smart thing to do. Scratched my esophagus. Bad acid reflex. Busted my cherry. ‘Today you are a sword swallower.’ ”

Other than that?

“Nothing much. Cut my feet walking on glass because I was lazy and let the neck of a beer bottle get in with the glass. Light bulbs? No, never any trouble with that.”
This civilian once upon a time many years ago read a book, “Nightmare Alley,” by William Lindsay Gresham, which left the distinct impression that everything in a sideshow, a carnival, was a trick, a fraud, a scam.

Todd Robbins smiles. “That’s really not true,” he says. “Half of what you see is real, half is false. The irony is that what you think is real, is false, and what you think is false, is real. But credibility is very important to me.

People’s trust and belief. If I don’t have that, I don’t have a show.”

There is, he says, only one flat-out lie in his act. It’s when, during the sword-swallowing, he remarks: ‘Luckily, I’m single.” Not so. He’s been married two years now to Krista Brown, “who comes from puppet people, and was our stage manager in this very show when we started seven years ago.”

There’s a different girl like Amy in the front row every night, pre-selected (without her knowledge) by the house manager and the box-office guy, but regulars on stage every night are co-conspirators Little Jimmy, who’s something like 3 feet tall, and Shannon “Twistina” Morrow, the girl in the 18-bladed box.

Robbins has strong feelings about the humanity of the people sometimes called “freaks,” and for that reason admires the famous, humanitarian, hard to find 1932 Tod Browning movie called “Freaks,” which was based on a story by — wait for it — a man named Tod Robbins. Tod with only one d, but close enough.

“When I discovered that, 20 years ago, chills went up and down my spine.”

One of the heroes of carnival lore was The Great Waldo, who at Hubert’s Museum, on 42nd Street, used to swallow and then regurgitate white mice.

“That’s an act I won’t do,” says Todd (two d’s) Robbins, “because of the animal-rights people and for other reasons. But who could complain if I did it with cockroaches? Of course, I first froze them on ice.”

“I’m glad you don’t swallow any cockroaches here at SoHo,” I say as his curtain time approaches.

“That makes two of us,” says Todd Robbins.


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