Spiritualism at the Fringe Festival
Todd Robbins trickery sets up a 19thcentury-like séance
By Jerry Tallmer
Todd Robbins hadnt picked the place for us to meet. I had, about an hour earlier the Brooklyn Diner, on Manhattans West 57th Street, because I had to be in that neighborhood anyway.
Photo by Robbins
Coney Island regular Todd Robbins performs in Dark Deceptions: The Séance Experience, part of the New York International Fringe Festival.
Weegee, he said when we sat down. He gave a nod of his head toward the huge blown up photo that covered the entire wall just behind me a photo by, yes, that hardboiled world-famous tabloid lensman of the 1930s and 40s, a wide-angled shot of about a thousand people on the sand all looking enthusiastically straight at the camera. Weegee, Todd Robbins said. Coney Island, 1949. The question is: What did he do to get them all looking his way?
As it happens, Robbins has been working the Coney Island boardwalk for some 15 years now with a Carnival Knowledge show about sword swallowers, mind readers, shell-game artists, and other hucksters, a performance he brought with high success to Off-Off-Broadway during a couple of recent Fringe Festivals, and in fact hes current chairman of the non-profit Coney Island USA sponsoring organization.
But I had forgotten all that his entire Coney Island connection and had only suggested the Brooklyn Diner by total chance an hour earlier.
Todd Robbins gave a slow smile. All great spiritualists, he said, take whatever coincidence comes their way and work it for all its worth.
Robbins is back in town well, he never left, except to tour his stuff with a new show, Dark Deceptions: The Séance Experience, which opened last week as a 2005 NY International Fringe Festival entry at the Players Theater on MacDougal Street, where the remaining performances are Thursday at 8:45 p.m., Saturday at 12 noon, and Wednesday, August 24, at 11:30 p.m. a good hour for a show about spiritualism.
Spirits live in the world of shadows, of darkness, says Robbins, coming on strong. When the lights go down, all sorts of things happen. Voices of family and friends are heard. Bells ring. Spirits appear. My ads say: Are you afraid of the dark? You will be.
These shows, he says, coming on even stronger i.e., with even more malarkey are not appropriate for children, for people with weak constitutions, or ladies in the family way.
Youd be surprised at some of the people who wholly believed, or half believed, in spiritualism, séances, voices of the past, communication with the dead.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for one.
Here he is, the creator of the most rational-minded, deductive character in all fiction, Sherlock Holmes, and ends up believing that someone has made contact with his, Conan Doyles, dead son. Writes a two-volume history of spiritualism.
Mark Twain, of all people.
He joked about God and all, but he hedged his bets. He sort of believed in it but did not believe in it. An atheist. Or an agnostic, I guess.
Horace Greeley, commonsensical hard-headed newspaperman.
He was a big, big supporter of the Fox sisters, Kate and Margaretta, two little girls in Upstate New York in the 1800s, who found out, playing games, that by knocking their toes against the footboards of their beds, or against the floor, they could produce rappings from the dead.
A lot of stuff was going on in Upstate New York. The Mormons started there. The Quakers were there. And of course the rational, logical Chataqua movement, which was the opposite of all this. A hundred and fifty years later, plenty of people still believe you can call up the dead. And so do I, said Todd Robbins, straightfaced.
His interviewer fell back on Shakes-peare. Says Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep. Says Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man; / But will they come when you do call for them?
Robbins broke into an open grin. Exactly, he declared.
I said I had learned all I ever needed to know about mind readers from an experience my lifelong friend Babe Fanelli had once had. Babe was a very poetic guy. He was in this hall or theater where a spiritualist type asked everybody in the audience to jot down a few words on a piece of paper, then fold the paper, and so on.
Babe scribbled on a piece of paper a line from E.E. Cummings: Nobody, not even the rain, has such tiny hands. When the mind reader got around to pressing Babes still folded piece of paper to his, the spiritualists, forehead, he came up with the words: Nobody, not even the rain, has such tiny LANDS an l, not an h. The thing is, Babes ls looked almost exactly like his hs, and vice versa.
Some pair of eyes, somewhere along the line, had looked at the writing on that piece of paper, and misread it.
Uh huh, said Todd Robbins.
Messages from the dead are a slippery slope, he said, turning serious. People asking for guidance.
One imagines there is danger of nervous hysteria.
Its very dangerous, said Robbins. Conan Doyles great vast loneliness.
He tries to take the curse off any potential crisis with some light banter at the head of the show. The spiritualist movement, he tells his audience, has always been fake and will always be fake. Its about two things: Fakery and deception. Tonight is no exception. Ill take care of the fakery if youll take care of the deception.
Todd Robbins was born in Long Beach, California, in 1958. Like Johnny Carson and hundreds of others, he was a kid magician. He subsequently got involved in the theater at Bill Balls A.C.T. in San Francisco. One of my scene partners was Annette Benning. Two beats. And her sister-in-laws a spiritualist.
Come again? Then a light goes on. Oh, yeah, says a slow-witted interviewer, her sister-in-laws Shirley MacLaine.
And Todds wife Krista Brown Robbins is production manager of this years Fringe.
By now, Robbins is explaining a part of his act that involves two slates face to face enclosing a piece of chalk. A squeaky chalk. He doesnt have any slates or chalk, here in the Brooklyn Diner, so he produces a couple of yellow Post-Its and a stub of pencil.
This is done in darkness, and you have to imagine the chalk squeaking, he says. He slides the two Post-Its and the pencil stub beneath a large multicolored magicians handkerchief. Thats to represent darkness, he says.
The handkerchief containing the Post-Its and the pencil stub rises, bulges, pulses, wobbles. This continues for some few seconds. Then he lifts the handkerchief and shows me one of the Post-Its on which some block letters are scrawled. Read it, he says.
I read what looks to be the word BELIEVE, and below that, to the right, two initials that look to be P.F. Doesnt mean anything to me.
Look again, says Robbins. I look again, and harder. That P.F now begins to look like a rather clumsily scrawled B.F.
Yes and so? I look at Todd Robbins. What was your friends name? says Robbins, all innocence.
Babe Fanelli. Of course. B.F.
I believe, in a manner of speaking. But like Mark Twain oh Lord, help thou mine unbelief.