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The wizard behind the curtain
Story by Ashley Harrell
When you gasp in wonder at a Strip show illusion, that’s the magic of Thom Rubino. Thom who? Exactly?
Thom Rubino is really into choppers. How’s a chopper work? Come in! Come in! He’ll show you. You’ve got to try it, he says in his living room, surrounded by magic paraphernalia, illusion books and wizard figurines. He holds up a mini guillotine for fingers. It’s a chopper!
“Go ahead, I think it’ll be alright,” he says. There’s no reason to be scared. What’s the hesitation for? “What could go wrong?” says the funny little man with spiky yellow hair and white eyelashes. He has an aura of benign mischief, but make no mistake: Rubino is as serious about trickery as a man can be. He believes absolutely in magic, and his elfin frame has grown muscular from all-nighters in his workshop, where he builds illusions for some of the most famous magicians in the world.
Ask the magicians, and they’ll tell you Rubino is a genius at his job and also maybe the nicest person in Vegas: He once flew across the country to paint the interior of his parents' home, and lends out his Toyota Prius to people he’s just met. Is this a man who would cut off somebody’s finger?
“Put your f---ing finger there!” Rubino says.
He’s joking but … serious.
You shut your eyes. Give him an index finger. He snaps the device shut. All 10 digits remain. You scream anyway, of course, then laugh uncontrollably for a long time. He’s laughing, too. They must happen a lot here, these celebrations of intact fingers and something else, too — the incredible power a piece of plywood and some metal hold over the human psyche. Ta-da!
The trick must remind Rubino of his days performing as a stage magician, but he doesn’t mention it. Things are different now. While he still makes magic, Rubino rarely interacts directly with an audience. Thousands of people on the Strip and beyond are exhilarated by Rubino’s deceptive and ingenious contraptions, although they’ve never heard his name or anything else about him.
He’s the man behind the curtain.
‘I knew there was a place for me’
Young boys rarely dream of building the table the magician uses to cut his assistant in half. They want to be onstage, holding the blade. And this was certainly the case for little Thom Rubino, a 4-year-old growing up in Levittown, New York.
He had just received his first magic set, a kit from Walmart that fell into his hands after his older brother grew bored of it. Rubino, on the other hand, was enthralled, and spent hours fumbling with the tricks: a disappearing, reappearing coin, a fake thumb that hid scarves — and, of course, a finger chopper. He began performing these “close-up” magic tricks for his family, and took it very seriously. “He swore us to secrecy when he was about 6,” says his mother, Marlene.
By the time Rubino reached high school, he was performing his magic everywhere, and always in a nice black suit and a tie (which he also wore to class). He did shows at school functions, birthday parties, holiday events and even in his grandmother’s retirement community. Although he hoped to expand his repertoire, advanced tricks were expensive. He was making some money from the shows, but not enough to afford, say, the coveted sword basket illusion. Rubino solved this problem by teaching himself carpentry. He would make his own tricks.
The first illusion he built, dubbed “The See Through,” was a tall cabinet that an assistant would stand in. Four large cylinders would then be pushed through the cabinet, apparently impaling the assistant inside. It looked real and worked well. After that, Rubino began to get requests from other magicians, and the crafts he designed started to fund his magic act.
Rubino’s parents and his friends and old folks in the retirement community were crazy about Rubino. They thought he was an excellent performer. But eventually, Rubino came to a different conclusion.
He followed magicians like Doug Henning, a Canadian illusionist and escape artist known for revitalizing the craft of magic in the 1970s and early ’80s. Watching Henning perform, Rubino was taken with the man’s charisma, the way his voice commanded attention and respect.
During Rubino’s own performances, he felt like his voice was wrong — almost cartoony. He couldn’t fully grasp stage presence. Rubino didn’t want to become one of the world’s many mediocre magicians. He didn’t want to leave the business either.
“I knew there was a place for me,” he says.
Supporting the magic habit
During the ’80s and ’90s, the Las Vegas magic scene was booming. There were well-attended shows up and down the Strip, and none more popular than Siegfried & Roy at the Mirage Resort and Casino.
“A lot of magicians came here with ideas of fame and fortune and performing on the Strip,’’ says John Harrison, a magic historian and entertainment attorney who wrote the definitive biography of Doug Henning. “It’s still a great place for magicians because the community is here, and the biggest, most popular conventions are here.”
Rubino felt the pull of Vegas. But for a long time, he played it safe. Out of high school, Rubino took a steady job at a print shop in his hometown. He married and had two sons, and later divorced. In the evenings and on weekends, he still built illusions for friends in the magic community.
Running in illusionist circles in New York, Rubino met Vinny Giordano, a fellow magic enthusiast and technician who worked backstage helping magicians with anything they needed. Both Rubino and Giordano had attended the famous Tannen’s Magic Camp, and they ran into each other often at magic conventions. When a spot for an illusion-builder opened up in a production where Giordano was working, he recommended Rubino, and soon they fell in love.
“The magic brought us together,” Giordano says.
The pair bought a house in Lindenhurst, and to support their magic habit, they put their carpentry skills to use with a window display business. Soon they had an impressive roster of clients that included Gucci, Sephora, Nine West and Armani Exchange. In spite of the growing success, Rubino woke up one morning and said he wanted to move to Vegas. Giordano agreed right away. “We sold our house and walked away from our business to come out to Vegas with literally nothing,” Rubino says. “No contract. Just an idea of working with my friend in a show.”
The greatest trick ever pulled
To aspiring magic builders, the greatest trick Rubino ever pulled was breaking into Vegas. The industry is cutthroat, and its practitioners are known for being ruthless to newcomers. But looking back, Rubino’s decision was sort of like sticking his finger in a chopper. Terrifying? Yes. Risky? Perhaps not at all. He had the passion and the skill. He also had a way in.
Rubino’s childhood friend Darren Romeo, who later became the protégé for Siegfried and Roy, had also left New York for Vegas. Romeo worked as a wizard in Caesar’s Magical Empire, and when Rubino and Giordano arrived, he found them jobs as a technician and a builder for the venue. During his tenure, Rubino constructed any illusions asked of him. He pulled all-nighters, drinking coffee and Slimfast chocolate shakes, making sure all the props he built were flawless.
While others used cheap wood from Home Depot, Rubino worked with Baltic birch. The craftsmanship was important to him — no edges should be visible; nobody should be able to tell what the thing was made of. Rubino wanted each trick to be a work of art. If it didn’t look right, he started over.
His reputation grew, and soon he was hired by David Saxe, who produced a show at the Venetian for his sister, Melinda the First Lady of Magic. Rubino worked backstage with that show for its two-year run, refurbishing and building illusions. Then he got a job with Showgirls of Magic. He built the props for eight versions of that show, some of which went up in Atlantic City, Philadelphia and Tokyo.
“Some of the best magic I’ve ever had anyone build came from Tommy,” says Johnny “The Great Tompsoni” Thompson, a longtime Vegas illusionist and comedian now filming a TV show called Wizard Wars. “We’ve given him tricks that have never been done before, and he was able to bring them to life.”
In a career-making moment, Thompson recommended Rubino for a job building magic for Teller, the quiet half of Penn & Teller. As a test, Rubino was asked to construct a special trap door for the magician’s show Play Dead. Teller loved the results.
“At a distance of 1 foot, (the trap door) was utterly invisible,” Teller wrote on his blog. “(Rubino had) invented a new way to cut trap doors so that there was no visible seam around them.”
Teller hired Rubino to build the rest of the magic in the show, solidifying Rubino’s place as an illusion-building luminary. He went into high demand, and was also hired by Cirque du Soleil for three shows: Zumanity, O, Love and Michael Jackson ONE, for which he currently builds and maintains props.
‘I touch a lot of lives’
On a Wednesday night in May, Rubino takes you to a sold-out performance of Michael Jackson ONE at Mandalay Bay. Lights twinkle from the walls and ceiling of the lavish theater, and actors dressed as paparazzi pretend to harass you in your $200 premium seats.
It isn’t often that Rubino watches a performance. He’s almost always backstage, or at home gulping Slimfast and working on some new illusion. But tonight he will see the show, and he’ll see how you like it. Although Rubino can’t tell you the scenes he worked on or the props he’s built, the way he watches you will give some hints.
Early in the performance, when snow begins to fall in the theater, Rubino turns to you and winks. Apparently, he’s in control of the weather. A few scenes later, when acrobats wearing light-up suits fly in darkness above the stage like brightly colored constellations, he sits up higher in his seat for a better view. Did he create these mind-blowing outfits?
All you can do is guess. But you’ve also got another question: After aspiring for so long to be a famous stage magician, is Rubino satisfied being the man behind the curtain? If you must know, here’s the answer: He sure is.
“It’s enough to know that the work I did evoked the feelings you are feeling,” he says. “Even though you don’t know it’s me — you have no idea where this all came from — but I know. I feel like I reach out and I touch a lot of lives.”
Rubino sits high again during the climax of the show, as Michael Jackson returns to life as a hologram and performs “Man in the Mirror.” As he looks over the packed theater at all of you, he sees your huge smiles and the tears you wipe away.
It is, as Rubino says, a magic moment. And it’s all he’s ever wanted for you.
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