Professor Bobby Baxter was one funny man. Over the years, I had heard his name many times. I remember the first night I met him, and it was at Monday Night Magic some dozen years ago. This was going to a memorable night, for sure, since I was working with the legendary Bobby Baxter.
Backstage, he was this nice elderly man, who would try little one-liners and zingers while trying to have fun with you. He almost made you think, gee, this old guy really is trying to be funny, but he doesn't have a clue. Man, was I wrong. HE was the one who was making sure that I didn't have a clue of how good and funny he really was.
While setting up for the show, he asked what material I would be doing as the opening act. I went through my list of effects within my bird act, and also mentioned the linking rings. With a dejected sigh, he said, "OK, I guess I'll take mine out tonight." I offered to not do my rings, and he replied, "nope. I'm the closer, I have more time on the bill. I'll take out my rings. Don't worry about it, kid. Do your stuff."
I opened the show with my act, including the rings. Afterwards, I ran around to the front of the house, and snuck into an empty aisle seat during intermission. If I was going to se him for the first time, I wanted to see the Professor from the front. So, I wore my street clothes and slouched in my seat, about five rows back in the dark. Even though the theater was very dark, I didn't want to distract him.
He was hilarious. He acted as this, overworked, under appreciated old guy, who seemed to WANT to enjoy his performance, but it had become a 'job.' (Imagine the old guys from the Muppet Show, "Waldorf" and "Statler," or ventriloquist Jeff Dunham's puppet, "Walter" doing magic.) His audience management and timing were better than almost anyone I have ever seen. He darted around both physically and figuratively, mesmerizing the entire audience. Then, about twenty minutes later, it happened.
He took out his linking rings. He began his routine. There was a very subtle mumble in the audience. (Today, I know he waited for that mumble to happen, and he would have continued until it did. Or he would have pretended to hear it anyway.) He looked up in the direction of the noise and commented (as if he had actually heard a something), "What!? You've already seen these? Oliver did them before? That bastard."
He then began to walk up the aisle in my direction, yet never looking at me. I was sure he hadn't seen me crouching in the dark, and that the lights were in his eyes. He had been mumbling his disgust about the whole situation all the way up the aisle, and the audience was laughing heartily. He stopped in the aisle, turned to face me and glared in my direction. I was now in full lighting, and it was clear that he knew I was there the whole time. I was had. He tossed the rings into my lap and said in a most crotchety tone, "If you're going to do my act, you might as well take all of it." With that, he tore off his toupee' and placed it onto my head, kissed it goodbye, and went back onstage to finish his set. The audience roared.
We worked together several times at MNM after that, and each time was a learning experience for me. I would usually have a sore side from laughing so hard every time I saw him. But I would always come home a little smarter, and a smidge better performer for having spent time with Professor Bobby.
After that first show, he thanked me for "playing" with him, and allowing him to have some fun.
No, thank YOU, Professor, for allowing me to play, and to learn about having fun and loving what you do onstage, from one of magic's true masters.
You will be missed, Professor.