Melvin Burkhart's Dice Routine

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Postby Todd Robbins » 02/11/03 07:10 PM

It was good to see James Taylor's Shocked & Amazed mentioned in Jon Racherbaumer's On the Slant column. James has poured countless hours, a ton of hard work and unlimited passion into the creation of this fine publication. It's good to see it get some notice.

I would also like to thank Jon for the nice mention of the great Melvin Burkhart. Melvin was a mentor of mine and his last performance was at my wedding. He died one month later to the day.

Though Melvin was known for his work in sideshows as the Human Blockhead and the Anatomical Wonder, he was, as was mentioned in the article, a magician, and a fine one at that. During his travels around the country, Melvin struck up a friendship with many magicians. Karrell Fox, Hen Fetsch and Gene Gordon were all good friends. He often picked up a magic trick from one of these friends and then spent a year performing it ten to fifteen times a day in the sideshow. By the time the carnival route brought him back around a year later, Melvin had often added many touches to the traditional handling of effects.

The Sacks Dice Routine is a good example of this. Melvin was working in a dime museum in Chicago in 1933. There was a magician on the bill named The Great Gravitino. This fellow was in his sixties and had a full head of long bushy white hair. After doing his magic act, the Gravitino would tie up his silvery locks, hook them up to rope and be lifted by the hair up off the stage. While he was hanging there, he would juggle. Now, that's show business.

One day, Gravitino fell off the stage and broke his hip. He was rushed to the hospital and the manager told Melvin to fill in doing the magic act in the show. Melvin had dabbled with magic, but never really performed it onstage, so he took it as a challenge and started messing around with the various trick Gravitino had left behind.

Later that week, while Melvin was on a break, I guy came up to Melvin asked if he wanted to see a trick. The guy took out a single die and held it at his finger tips. He held it, not sideways as in the Sacks routine, but like you hold a pin when you stick it into a bulletin board. As he moved it towards and away from Melvin, he used a paddle-like move to cause the numbers on the die to change back and forth. Melvin liked the trick and the guy showed him how to do it. Melvin started doing it in the next show.

The problem was that it was very small and only looked good from the front, so Melvin started using a pair of large dice and held them sideways. Since he had never seen the Sack's routine, he develped a different handling that involved the rotation of the wrists instead of the turning of the whole arm. Melvin did that routine for sixty-eight years.

As was mentioned earlier, his last performance of that and his Human Blockhead act were at my wedding, October 8th, 2001. While Melvin was in New York for the wedding, I set up a session with Melvin and Jamy Ian Swiss, where Melvin showed him his handling of the dice. A few weeks after Melvin's death, I received a package in the mail. In it were Melvin's costume and props for his Human Blockhead act. Also in the box were Melvin's giant dice with a note expressing a desire for Jamy to have them. I know he is honored to have them.

Well, that's the story of Melvin's dice. I just thought you might like to know it.

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Postby Jeff Eline » 02/12/03 07:43 AM

Very cool, thank you!
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Postby Guest » 02/12/03 09:34 AM

Thanks, Todd, for the memory. I only knew Melvin as a fan, and looked forward to seeing him every year with (I believe) the James E. Strates Shows. I loved to see his Fraidy Cat Rabbit routine (along with everything else)! --Asrah

Postby Todd Robbins » 02/12/03 11:27 AM

Asrah, you are right about Melvin being on the Strates show. He started working for Slim Kelly in 1955 and continued with that show for thirty years. The amazing thing was that he never missed a single performance in all that time! I have a lovely transcript of Melvin working on the Strates show in the early 1970s. It has Melvin doing the Electric Chair, Blockhead, dice and the Fraidy Cat Rabbit. Every time I read it, I can hear Melvin's voice doing the routines. "I'm going to make you think that what you thought you saw is not what you think you're seeing, in case you weren't watching"
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Postby Jon Racherbaumer » 02/12/03 06:44 PM

Thanks, Todd, for the additional history and personal insights regarding M.B.and his dice routine.

Those (like yourself) who work and have worked in tent shows and side shows--which is as "grass roots" as it gets--literally learned their trade and art by example, sharing details first-hand from their exemplars, and BY DOING AND TESTING material thousands of times for LIVE audiences. They rehearsed and perfected their presentations in the "acid bath" of LIVE PERFORMANCE. And, by God, it showed. After 20, 30, or 40 years, they truly KNEW the SOUL of a routine, trick, or mystery.

I loved watching guys like Eddie Fields work a crowd. He, like Flosso and others of that era, were bred in the hardscrabble atmosphere of Coney Island. The "work" (if you pardon the expression) eventually became ontologically based; it was bred in their bones. And their utter confidence in what they could do was palpable. You could see it in the gleaming of their eyes, in the certainty of their spiels. You could hear it in the gasps of the crowd, transfixed in a daydream not their own...yet one they who struggle to retell and remember as though it was their own.

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Postby Matthew Field » 02/13/03 08:17 AM

Watching Melvin Burkhart perform the Dice Routine (at Todd's wedding) was, simply put, an awe-inspiring experience. The dice Mr. Burkhart used were HUGE -- they looked to be 2 inches or more to me.

Later, at the Robbins' wedding reception, Mr. Burkhart was seated among many admirers and, after checking with Todd and Jamy Swiss about how appropriate it might be, I approached him and asked about his Color Changing Knife routine.

All I can say is, I had no idea what moves this man was using. It looked to me to be a totally original routine, as all of this great man's magic and entertaining was.

The opportnity to see and speak with the legendary Melvin Burkhart who, while not in the best of health, was one of the most riveting performers I've ever witnessed, was a gift Todd and Krista Robbins gave to all who were lucky enough to be at their wedding.

I hope they equally enjoyed the Ginzu knife I gave them as their wedding present. :D

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Postby Pete Biro » 02/13/03 11:30 AM

Todd... GREAT STUFF, thanks... History Lives! :cool:
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Postby Todd Robbins » 02/15/03 12:47 AM

Thanks for the Ginzu knife. Though, I have been working for over a year now trying to get the thing to change colors.

By the way, I sat down with Melvin at his home in Riverview, FL and video taped him doing all his stuff and the explanation to it all. I also took a number of photos of his hands doing various moves. I'll have to write it up some day.

Right now, or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say "write now", I'm working on a thumbnail sketch on the history of the American sideshow for my webpage and then I will put the pieces together on the first part of the memoirs of carnival showman Bobby Reynolds. That is going to be one hell of a story.
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