Robby Bennett points out that the entirety of magic rests on about 10 effects.
“That’s it,” he says. “That’s the foundation.”
Yet over 10 years, he’s come up with about four hours of effects and illusions, finding variations on a theme or idea and making the old new again. His friend, Houston-based artist Jumper Maybach, should have a good vantage to get behind the illusions, since he’s the artistic designer for Bennett’s show. But, no.
“He’ll do something like pushing a quarter through a Lucite table,” Maybach says. “And I’ll think I know how something works, but then I realize I don’t. But really, that’s my favorite part. Not knowing. There’s something great about the unknown.”
Bennett does more than 200 shows a year. Like many magicians, he’s a regular at conventions, corporate functions and private parties and events. But this weekend, he’ll do his “Anomaly” show at the Wortham Theater Center.
“It features some new stuff, a big face-lift from what I’ve done here before,” says Bennett. “It’ll be a bigger stage, with more illusions. But the hope is to still have the feeling of close-up magic. I always like to keep that in there. There’s no way to cheat.”
Magic from illness
Bennett’s career dates back to a magic kit bought at Disney World when he was 5. Like many aspiring magicians who don’t put in the hours, Bennett found the work didn’t come naturally. He filed the kit away. But at age 9, Bennett fell ill. He spent an inordinate amount of time bed-ridden, with an undiagnosed illness that two years later would be attributed to food allergies.
While stuck in his room, Bennett first started working with some simple rope routines. At that point, magic stuck.
“Forget child labor laws, I was a professional at 12,” he says. “I remember doing an event at the George R. Brown Convention Center at 13. I did events for GE, the Texas Home Builders Association. It didn’t seem strange to me. Just, ‘Mom, I got a thing tonight.’”
Like any other magician, he’s learned along the way. Bennett says he’s had his fair share of flashes, moments where an illusion goes awry.
“I remember a convention event where they had cameras on the side of the stage,” he says. “Just pointed straight into my jacket. And they were projecting everything I did. But that’s part of it. You have to be bad to be good, you crash and learn doing this.”
He learned presentation and storytelling required nearly as much development as the repetition that perfects a piece of magic. His manner is perfectly understated when it needs to be, allowing him to play both the part of a comedic straight man and humorist. And he’s enjoyed magic’s recent renaissance. An age-old trade, magic found itself frequently the subject of jokes in TV and film, particularly as flashier purveyors resorted to more outlandish stunts.
“With movies like ‘The Illusionist’ and ‘The Prestige,’ it feels like magic became more solidified as something interesting in our culture,” he says. “There’s a different mindset now.”
Simple is best
He speaks reverently of the late Ricky Jay, the great magician who died last month.
“He did more for magic with simple card tricks than some people do with a $10 million production,” Bennett says.
True to Jay’s understated appearance, Bennett in his day to day doesn’t exude anything particularly flashy. Even his stainless-steel card protector is simple and unadorned. And he doesn’t describe it in any overly romantic way.
“I got this at a convention,” he says. “It just keeps the cards pressed together, keeps out some of the humidity.”
Thanks to that small widget, he goes through a deck of cards a week, instead of several.
The case exemplifies much of what Bennett, or any magician does: It’s one small piece that contributes to a larger whole. A little element that feeds a grander moment of deception or illusion.
“My whole life has revolved around this show,” he says. “But my favorite stuff is always the new stuff. And there’s always something new to work on, some new idea that will come along.”