A Conversation with Robbie Wise | Local Vocal | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Spend enough time Downtown and you'll cross paths with magician Robbie Wise. Wise, 44, of Spring Hill, has been doing magic most of his life. He plies his craft on the street when he's not working bars or parties. If the card table of tricks doesn't pull you in, he's hoping the tuxedo and top hat might.

How did you get started in magic?

I used to pull little magic tricks out of Cracker Jack boxes. There was a place here back in the '60s, early '70s, I could go buy tricks and do them on my mom and my dad. I started fooling them. I went to a magic store in the Fulton Building, Downtown, and the man said, "You come in here every couple days buying these tricks. Where do you get your money?" I said, "I've been saving my allowance money." He said, "You doing shows? Who you foolin' with?" I said, "Oh, my mom and my dad." He said, "You can fool your mom and your dad, you can fool anybody. Start putting on shows!"

In my neighborhood I started putting on shows. Kids would throw a nickel down, put a quarter in my hat; I'd come home with four, five dollars! For a kid in the '60s, that was a lot of money. I told my mom, "I'm a businessman, I made five dollars doing tricks!" She said, "Bring it back home to me, boy!" It's hard to be a magician. It takes a lot of dedication, but it's natural for me. If you're not a born salesman and psychologist, you're not going to make it as a magician.

Do you have a magician hero?

I like Blackstone. He was my favorite magician because he looked the part. He wore the tuxedo, goatee, real mysterious and fun. He was a real professional. David Copperfield is smooth, but he's more of an '80s-, '90s-type, big-time illusionist. David Blaine's way out there. He's scaring people. You're not getting the wholesome sleight-of-hand like we used to have. It's real weird. I'm not too thrilled with him. The magic world frowns on him because he's scaring people.

What's the hardest part about being a magician?

A lot of the time when I walk down the street, a lot of the brothers, they'll look at me and say, "Cuz, why you dressed like that?" I say, "I'm a magician." They say, "You ain't no magician, cuz!"

When I was doing tricks in Perry High School, the brothers used to beat me up, take my lunch money because I was doing something different from them. I wasn't better, I was just doing something different. I was called Uncle Tom when I was in school; they thought I liked white people more than I liked black people. It was tough. I had a lot of peer pressure. I never got into drugs, never got into any trouble. I just wanted to make something of myself.

I had to leave public school after 10th grade. I'd had enough. Public school was real hard for me. Dan Onorato's mom was my teacher back in the '60s, and she said, "Stick with that magic, you love it. Just keep doing it." White kids treated me with more respect than my brothers. That's the downfall; you have to win them over, prove that you're legit before they'll accept you. I don't know if they're just jealous or feel threatened by me because I'm doing something different and unusual.

There's a lot of controversy on me being a magician sometimes. A lot of the African-American people get scared of me when I say I'm a magician. They think it's like voodoo or witchcraft. It's entertainment. Some people are leery of it. I've been asked, "How can you be a Christian and a magician? God doesn't want you doing magic." Well, when I do my show I tell jokes; when I'm done with my show I teach the kids how to do a trick. I'm an entertainer.

Who's the best audience?

My senior citizens are my best audience. When I'm doing my senior-citizen shows, they're writing down my corny jokes. They keep me real busy. They're my best audience.

Kids try to figure me out. They see so much on TV, they don't believe in it too much. Sometimes you do a show, someone hears you're a magician and they'll come just to bust you, saying, "He ain't no magician. It's a trick, I'm gonna catch him." Rather than just enjoy it, they want to figure out the magician.

Why does magic intrigue people so much?

I guess because it's like miracles. Being a Christian entertainer, I know God does miracles. I do magic, it's different. You like to see the impossible happen sometimes. Blackstone had a line one time: "Come along with me to a special place where the impossible is somehow possible. Watch closely, you'll see things happen that just can't be ... or can they?" c

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