For what will be an ongoing series of interviews with people who have made an impact in the world of magic, we thought we would begin with one of magic’s unlikeliest success stories. A little over a decade ago, Rob Zabrecky walked away from a successful music career and devoted himself to his new hobby—magic. In those few years he has gone from knowing almost nothing about magic to becoming one of the most loved and respected magicians in Los Angeles, and this year, he was named the Academy of Magical Arts’ Stage Magician of the Year. I sat with Rob at Kay’s Donut Emporium in Studio City for this chat.
JL: You are the Magic Castle’s Stage Magician of the Year. How does that feel?
RZ: (Long pause. Very long.) Good! I still kind of can’t believe that that is the title that I hold.
JL: Would you have ever guessed you’d win Stage Magician award before you won the Parlour Magician award?
RZ: No, not at all. I built an act for that room at the Magic Castle. That was my goal in life was to perform in that Parlour, and get the tightest 20 minutes that I could possibly get. That’s what I worked for in magic. I didn’t work to be Stage Magician of the Year.
JL: And what was the experience like on the night of?
RZ: It was just so exciting, being there with all my friends. I love those awards shows. I think they’re terrific, and each year since I’ve been going I think they’ve just gotten better. It’s fun just to go—number one. Number two, it’s super fun to go when you’re nominated for something, because (laughing) you get a free ticket. And you feel like a hot-shot for the night, and your name appears in the program, and it’s kind of exciting. Having never won any award in magic, I had no idea what that was supposed to feel like. It went from good to better. When they called my name, I really could not believe—when Caveney said, “This is good news.” I didn’t know what that meant exactly.
JL: We all knew what that meant.
RZ: Well, you did, but I didn’t. I was in a blissful state of shock. Something I’ve felt not too many times in life. That kind of elation is something I haven’t really experienced too much.
JL: This is just the latest of a lot of great things you’ve done in the last year or two. You made your first magic convention appearance at Magic-Con, and you’re booked for the Genii convention later this year. You’ve debuted two new lectures. Wrote a booklet based on one lecture and are writing a book based on the other lecture. You sold out five performances of your one-man show (with special guests) at the Steve Allen Theater in Hollywood. What am I missing?
RZ: You can stop there. That’s pretty good.
JL: How do you explain this burst of activity?
RZ: If I trace this back to… You know, I had a career in music for ten years before learning any magic trick, so I knew what it was like to come into the zeitgeist, and sort of be “the guy” and be in “the band” and be written about in the LA Times, and go to Europe and have people know your songs. I’ve had these waves of success, and have had a lot of eyes on me, and people have said, “Oh this is something special.” I’ve gone from that to being forgotten about. So, I know that success is fleeting. I’m having a moment right now, and it’s fantastic. In a month from now, I might not be “that guy”, and that’s perfectly fine. I will cherish every moment that someone says, “Hey, congratulations on this or that, and I really enjoyed your lecture notes.” I’m a hard worker. I’ve been working really hard in magic to tell my story, as it is, and create new material, and write and keep developing all these things that I really love. It’s nice to be recognized for them, but the hows or whys, that’s beyond my control.
JL: Oh, I forgot. Didn’t you make an appearance on French TV?
RZ: Yes, I had the good fortune of going to Paris to do Le Plus Grand Cabaret du Monde. Did six minutes of silent material. A standing ovation on that one. They give a lot of standing ovations on that show. That was a big milestone for me. Basically, they wanted me to do my
Diminishing Card routine. That’s what they hired me for, but realizing I had something of value, that was gonna take me overseas was a big moment for me.
JL: Speaking of standing ovations… your first convention appearance (at Magic-Con). How did you prepare for it, and did you have any expectations about what it would be like.
RZ: Basically, I just prepared for it like I would for any other performance, but knowing that this was a crowd of magicians—and I’m an unknown face to them. I was thinking it could go either direction. It was a 50/50 shot for me. There was no sign saying it was gonna kill or be killed. So, I just kinda—before I go onstage sometimes, I borrow this great line that Judy Garland used to say to herself before she would go onstage. Referring to her audience, but speaking inwardly: “Fuck’em, fuck’em, fuck ’em, fuck ’em, fuck ’em, fuck’em, fuck ’em.” You throw
that out there…
JL: That’s what Howard Thurston would do. He’d say, “I love my audience. I love my audience. I love my audience.” It’s the exact same thing.
RZ: Yeah, exactly! It puts a psychic connection… it does bond something. I was such a thrill to do that, but I’m not taking any of this for granted. I could do another convention tomorrow, and they might throw decks of cards at me.
JL: Most of what you did at Magic-Con was right out of your stage show. How did your stage show come about?
RZ: I can trace that back to a phone call from Derek DelGaudio. He said, “You know, I would really like to see you take elements of your music background, everything you’re doing in magic, and your acting, and dancing, and put it all into one show. An evening with Rob Zabrecky.” Maybe I’m dense but that thought hadn’t crossed my mind. I hung up the phone, and thought about it. After a day or so, it seemed like a good idea. A week later I called the Steve Allen theatre, where I’ve got friends. I had some credibility from doing shows there with the Unholy Three five years ago, and they were gracious enough to take a risk and give me a night with this show.
At that moment I knew I needed every bit of help I could get from the best people possible. And that led me to making phone calls to you, DelGaudio, and Derek Hughes. Three of my best friends in magic, so it was working on things that I love with people that I love. It was a win/win situation across the board at a theatre I like performing at. Not knowing who would show up, if anybody was gonna show up, if anyone would give a shit about—why should we go see this guy?
It was just fun. It was fun from beginning to end. It was hard. It was difficult. Once I decided that the message was going to be “Trying to see beauty in the darkness”—That was the thesis of the show. Everything crystallized, and we had something to work toward. I learned the longer my sets get, the more disjointed they really are, and the more things need fixing. Nobody’s shows are ever perfect. I would like to be able to walk onstage for an hour and give people something that’s valuable that they can walk away, having been hit emotionally, that they were able to feel and empathize and feel the pathos of what I’m trying to do as, dare I say?, an artist.
JL: Do you have advice for someone who is trying to put together a show?
RZ: I have a lot to say on that actually. Because everyone seems to do it differently, and most people seem to do it all wrong. Especially in magic. You’ve got to have something you wanna say, and you gotta have a point of view. And if you don’t have those things, you’re left with tricks. And unless you can do those tricks so goddamn good… unless you have those kinds of chops where you can entertain people with magic for magic’s sake, you’re gonna run into trouble.
I just did a week at the Comedy & Magic Club, and learned so much about the purpose of comedy in magic, versus just watching a comedian work. So many magicians think they need to be funny and they wanna be funny, and they use these stock jokes that are terrible.
JL: Or just generic, which is as bad as being not funny.
RZ: Exactly. At the Magic Castle audiences seem to tolerate the fool there and they’ll laugh at stupid jokes, which leads the magician to think he’s doing everything right, and it’s all great, but in the real world, he’s doing Robert Orben lines that are not funny and store-bought magic tricks with no point of view. They are not contributing anything to magic. If anything they are taking away from it.
Above all I think the performers that people remember, that people really enjoy, that are able to connect with audiences, are the ones that have a point of view, that see magic as an art form that is based on who they are at their core, or who they want to be, as opposed to gluing a bunch of tricks together from a magic shop.
Photography by Brad Fulton