The majority of us will only take 20 minutes out of our lives to ever consider the lightbulb–most likely while replacing one. But Todd Robbins has made his living off the lowly household essential; he’s eaten more than 4,000 of them.
“It’s about as much of a trick as a triple somersault on a trapeze,” says the star of “Play Dead,” the off-Broadway spectacle that just hit its 200th run. “There’s no deception to it. I truly am eating glass.”
But instead of internal bleeding, a piece of legislation may be the thing that puts Robbins out of business.
President George W. Bush’s controversial Energy Interdependence and Security Act of 2007 phases out the manufacturing of traditional incandescent lightbulbs–the type swallowed by performers like Robbins the world over–in favor of more efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), which, for the record, are highly toxic.
The new regulations threaten not only the livelihood of a man whose stage act opens with a ritualistic devouring of light, but also the extinction of a tradition many hundreds of years old.
According to early documents, glass eating has been around since before the proliferation of the replaceable lightbulb, dating back to street performers in India during the British occupation.
“As long as there has been glass, there is someone down the line who could figure out how it could be done and that it could be an amazing thing, and figured a profit could be made from eating it,” he says. “And whoever that is, I thank them.”
Robbins learned the trade as a teenager. His mentor: sideshow legend “The Human Ostrich,” who would thrill audiences with macabre meals of tin cans, cigarettes and, of course, lightbulbs.
It’s a dangerous skill that Robbins is hesitant to teach to aspiring carnies. “Once you swallow glass, for the next two days, you’re basically running a little game of Russian Roulette,” he says. “If you do the preparation right, you can do it as safely as possible, but there is still a large element of risk.”
So far Robbins says he hasn’t suffered many serious injuries from digesting the glowing glass, at least above the waist.
“I bit into the lightbulb and cracked open a tooth and lost a filling and exposed a nerve,” he said, recalling a stretch of shows at Coney Island during Fourth of July weekend early in his career. “The funny thing about it was I didn’t get to a dentist until Tuesday, which means I did another dozen shows on Saturday, Sunday and Monday–another 10 or so shows all with an exposed nerve. So you want to talk about suffering for your art, there you go.”
Now that traditional lightbulbs are being phased out, however, it’s the art that will suffer.
Robbins hasn’t yet decoded the trick using the new curly bulbs, but noted that he could perform the stunt with a fluorescent bulb, despite the toxic gases contained inside. He also concedes that CFLs are “not as elegant” as the usual bulb.
So has he started stockpiling a warehouse’s worth of old-school incandescents? “I haven’t pulled that trigger yet,” Robbins says. “As it is, they are still readily available and probably will be for the foreseeable future.”
The stunt’s fragility against the inevitable march of time reminds him of another sideshow stunt that suffered a similar fate: blowing up a hot water bottle.
“So many of a younger generation don’t know what a hot water bottle is. They look at it and they don’t understand how difficult [blowing one up] is,” Robbins says. “So it’s possible that as these bulbs get rarer and rarer, the appearance of one will either be something that people can’t relate to or will be more suspect, like ‘Oh, I remember those. They haven’t been around for a while, so it must be a trick–like it’s made out of candy or sugar.’ It’s amazing how people will work at being wrong.”