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.