How does a guy grow up to hammer nails into his head for a living?
"What you're about to see here is real," Todd Robbins warns the audience in the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village on a balmy Monday night in August. "And also dangerous."
The six-foot tall, nylon purple suit-wearing 54-year-old twists a 60-watt light bulb onto the end of a power cord, plugs it into an outlet, and flips the switch on the wall on and off. Having proven the bulb is real, he unscrews it. "It's warm, which is great because there's nothin' like a hot meal," he says. "HA! Hot meal! It's just like comedy." Robbins laughs at his own joke for a moment before, with the expertise of a sculptor, he contorts his smile into an expression of mock-disgust at his own cheesiness.
After teasing the audience with a false start—a moment in which he positions the light bulb as if he were to eat it, only to change his mind and share a few more facts about the stunt—Robbins bites into the bulb as though it were an apple. He removes the metal parts and carefully crunches the shards in his mouth. This time, the disgust on his face is all too genuine.
Robbins is performing as part of The Players Theatre's Monday Night Magic, New York's longest running magic show, but he's not showing off illusions in the vein of a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. He swallows swords, eats fire, and hammers nails into his nose—all real stunts that just seem impossible. In the age of YouTube do-try-this-at-home injury reels, Robbins is among of the last in a dying breed: a spectacle-creating live performer who aspires not to the Vegas-style stardom parodied in Jim Carrey's new sendup The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, but rather to attaining a middle-class income and carrying on the waning tradition of the Great American Sideshow.
Sideshows as we now think of them were born in the 1870s when P. T. Barnum began entertaining circus-goers with oddities and wonders in a small tent before the main circus commenced. They were prominent on midways until 1956, when circuses became traveling shows that took place in indoor arenas instead of in tents outside. Since then, they have appeared in smaller, more niche venues, such as New York's Coney Island—and even Coney Island is not the sideshow haven it once was.
Robbins inherited the sideshow tradition almost literally, from Melvin Burkhart, one of the pioneers in the field. Born in 1920, Burkhart worked venues from Ringling Brothers to Ripley's Believe It or Not, making a name for himself as the father of the blockhead routine—hammering a nail into one's nostril. Burkhart's last performance took place on October 8, 2001 at Robbins's wedding to Krista Brown. About month after the performance, Burkhart died, leaving his props to Robbins; his costume and signature enormous nail arrived in the mail. His cremated remains were also left to Robbins, who subsequently sprinkled the ashes at Coney Island.
To understand where Burkhart and Robbins fit into the greater scheme of the traditional sideshow, it helps to understand the hierarchy of the performers. At the top, there are the "freaks": the bearded lady, the Siamese twins, the midgets. Then come the self-made freaks (tattooed men e.g.), and finally the working acts—Robbins's category—who swallow swords, eat fire, perform the human block-head routine, walk on glass, lie upon a bed of nails, etc. Working acts can, hypothetically, be performed by anyone. Of the remaining working acts, Robbins is one of the best. Jamy Ian Swiss, one of his co-producers at Monday Night Magic calls Robbins "just so damn good at everything." Over the course of his career, Robbins estimates he has eaten more than 5,000 light bulbs, consuming up to 21 per week during his busiest season.
Sideshows in the modern day typically take one of two forms. The first, according to Swiss, is the class of "people doing crazy shit." One example of this is Jim Rose, who created the idea of a rock-and-roll sideshow at Lollapalooza in the 1990s. His style plays up the gross-out factor, with performers executing stunts so gruesome that viewers can't seem to look away: lifting a car battery with pierced nipples, stapling money to one's forehead with a staple gun, smashing one's testicles, and letting a scorpion explore the inside of one's own mouth.
"Any sideshow performer who tells you that he or she hasn't been injured is either a sucky performer or is lying. You're going to get hurt. There's no way around it."
Another contemporary sideshow performer who takes this extreme approach is a 62-year-old named Harley Newman. Newman got his start as a clown but has made a name for himself by pushing the boundaries of classical sideshow stunts. He swallows a toilet plunger instead of a sword, for example, and has swapped the traditional bed of nails for a bed of nail, placing all of his weight upon a single sharp point (Newman has since retired this trick, due to the physical peril). According to Adam Rinn, a Brooklyn sideshow performer, Newman's stunts are so phenomenal and grotesque that "you could literally shit your pants. I never have. But theoretically."
Robbins, however, takes the opposite approach. If Jim Rose is AC/DC, then Robbins is Mozart, a classical, refined blockhead. Instead of trying to disgust his audience, Robbins acts the family man, telling jokes with fine-tuned diction and poise. "My sensibility is a little more vanilla," Robbins says. "I am not that fond of real blood. On stage." According to Swiss, Robbins is an "erudite, sophisticated, [and] clean cut" performer who "will be charming you while he sticks a spike up his nose." Teller, the quiet half of Las Vegas's Penn & Teller, is a close friend and collaborator and describes Robbins's performance style as "classy." When contrasted with Jim Rose, who blows condoms out of his nose, balloons exiting Robbins's nose do, indeed, seem tasteful.
Robbins took his first bite of glass neither out of boredom nor a dire need for cash. It was genuine curiosity that made him do it. When he was 10-years-old, a magic shop opened up near his home in Long Beach, California. On Saturday afternoons, he used to join a group of older men who would "sit around and do card tricks for each other and smoke unfiltered Camel cigarettes and swap lies." Robbins's childhood love of magic tricks and his first experience seeing a traveling circus completely blew him away, inspiring him to become a working act himself. One of the local magicians struck a deal with Robbins: He promised to teach Robbins how to eat fire and hammer a nail into his head if Robbins agreed to assist him at parties and events that he was working.
That first bite of glass was understandably a nerve-racking experience. "To say that I didn't have some trepidation would be lying," he admits. He first ate a small piece of glass and, when he suffered no consequences, took it a step further. Literally. In his performances, Robbins used to step on a bag of glass in order to break it up into little pieces before eating it, limiting the total amount of glass he consumed. Over time, Robbins moved onto what is now his standard practice: taking a bite out of the bulb and eating the whole thing.
The light-bulb act is just one in his proverbial bag of tricks. Classically trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, Robbins has worked in almost all aspects of performance: emceeing various corporate events, working as a circus ringmaster, teaching at the Coney Island Sideshow School, and playing ragtime piano in Woody Allen's jazz band. One of his most recent projects was writing, directing, and producing a two-man off-Broadway show, Play Dead, with Teller.
But the job to which Robbins keeps returning is that of a working act, which as you'd imagine, comes with physical risks. Robbins is meticulous about his diet, following a specific regimen of herbs and fiber that he says helps his system process the glass he swallows. But he also acknowledges that eating glass has taken a toll. A number of his teeth have cracked from the pressure of grinding up broken shards, and his body doesn't always fare much better. "The danger of glass eating is the lack of control," Robbins says. "When I swallow it, I don't know where it'll go. It's like Russian Roulette for about two days."
He downplays the dangers of his career ("Oh, I have a career? I was wondering what this was"), noting that thus far he has sustained "nothing serious" in terms of injuries. But to a sideshow performer, the definition of "nothing serious" is different than it is to most people. Once, when blowing up a hot water bottle, Robbins ruptured a salivary gland. Another time, when trying to swallow a sword, Robbins broke the No. 1 rule of sword swallowing: He forced it. The blade got stuck in his throat and irritated his esophagus, dilating the sphincter that goes to stomach consequently triggering stomach acid to wash back up over the wound, he tells me proudly, as if rehashing a war story.
Rinn notes that, "Any sideshow performer who tells you that he or she hasn't been injured is either a sucky performer or is lying. You're going to get hurt. There's no way around it."
Robbins knows better than anyone that the payoffs for these risks will probably not include fame. "In the business we call show, fame is great, fortune is better, fame and fortune is best," he says. "But it's hard when you're doing something that is as [outsider] as this is... it's not something that has been embraced by mainstream, popular entertainment." Even Harley Newman, whose stunts are more shocking and gruesome, agrees, noting that he is often remembered as "that guy who..." did a certain stunt, rather than as Harley Newman.
Though Robbins suspects that he is not going to become a household name by performing sideshow stunts, he persists. "It's a strange thing ... but there's just something that appeals to my character about eating glass for living," he says. "Being successful. Being able to support a wife and child. Being able to pay the rent. And being ... lauded for being the finest professional glass eater."
Indeed, Robbins's home life is actually quite stable: After a long day of swallowing swords, he comes home to his wife and four-year-old son, Phineas Taylor Robbins (named after P.T. Barnum). One can almost imagine Robbins removing his nylon purple suit as he enters his midtown apartment, before sitting down to have dinner with his family.
In today's entertainment industry, the stakes are increasingly high for what is considered shocking. After watching enough Youtube clips and blockbusters with special effects, viewers may easily become desensitized to this sort of performance. But given that Robbins's shows sell ticket, there must be some remaining interest and intrigue. Perhaps there is something about these tricks that is hard translate into video format. Maybe it's the flying shards of glass onstage or the heat of the fire-eater's flame that incites such a visceral reaction when performed live. Or, in Robbins's case, maybe the most disconcerting aspect of all is watching these weird tricks being done by someone who kind of resembles your uncle.