Illusionist Rob Lake talks Harrah’s Lake Tahoe residency and who he picks in Dumbledore/Gandalf match-up in Q&A
Rob Lake made his South Shore debut with a two-week run at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe in December, and come Friday, June 23, he’s back for more. The 34-year-old illusionist is set to once again take over the Stateline venue — this time with an approximate two-month engagement suitable for the whole family.
While the show is similar to his December performance, expect a few new illusions to come into the mix.
We sat down with Lake and talked about what to expect, in addition to his entry into show business, inspirations, and who he’d pick in a match-up between Dumbledore and Gandalf.
Action: Do you prefer ‘illusionist’ or ‘magician’?
Lake: They’re very similar; they’re almost interchangeable. Illusionist is a type of magician. “Magic” is the umbrella and “illusion” is a specialty of magic. An illusionist would be a stage performer with grander effects, like what I do.
You have a pretty large entourage, correct?
Yeah, four semi trucks, and about 20 people to put on the show. A little more than half travel with me and the rest are locals from the theater. One truck is scenery and lighting — the infrastructure for the show. When you see the show you’ll see how much scenic elements we have. The illusions themselves are quite large, so three trucks for illusions.
And then you have things like costumes and wardrobe. Because there’s so much equipment we have lots of tool cases; we have to travel with everything we could possibly need on the road. Anything we need in our warehouse or shop has to be built into a roadcase so it can roll into the truck and travel everywhere we go.
How will you experience Tahoe while you’re here?
I brought two bikes with me — my road bike and my mountain bike — so I’m really excited to use those and get outside in the fresh air. It’s going to be crazy hot and humid at home [Oklahoma]. I love to explore, so I’m definitely looking forward to that.
I’m also a foodie and I know there are so many great restaurants here to try. People who work here have already given me a list of places I need to go.
What got you into magic?
I saw a magic show when I was 10 years old and I just knew that’s what I wanted to do. It was in Branson, Missouri, and it was by a magician named Kirby VanBurch. A few years later he became my mentor and helped me quite a bit over the years before he retired.
What was the first trick you mastered?
There were a few. I couldn’t afford expensive illusions or equipment back then, so I had to do things with household objects. I had a magic kit and checked out every magic book I could from the library — my school library, the public library — and I ran up late fees for keeping them way too long. I studied them.
It was card tricks, it was coin tricks, it was stuff with household objects. Stuff with my hands. Very small stuff, but I always knew I wanted to be a stage illusionist.
When did you start larger illusions?
After I started doing magic I did birthday parties or shows for churches, or rotary clubs and civic groups. I would save up my money from those shows to buy illusions. I think my first illusion was $200-$300. I got that when I was 12. It was used, it was secondhand, it was total junk and rubbish, but I was happy to have it. I’d close my small shows with that.
From there I kept saving my money until I could buy more illusions. Sometimes today our illusions cost $60,000-$100,000.
How long does it take to create an illusion?
It could be anywhere from a few months — like last summer I had an idea for an illusion, and it actually debuted at the very end of our [December] run in Tahoe — about six months, which is pretty fast. Another illusion in the show took me seven years.
It’s a process, a lot of trial and error, a lot of prototypes. We built things cheaply to see if it was going to work — see if we need to make any changes, tweak this, tweak that.
The opening, when I appear at the top of the show — I had the idea for that when I was 14, and it went into the show 15 years later because it took me 15 years to figure out how to do it. Of course in that time I had to figure out how to build it, but I had the idea for it when I was a teenager and it was something that stuck in my mind for years and years.
What’s the most rewarding part about what you do?
The fact that I get to do it. The fact that every day I get to wake up, do what I love, live my dream and see the wonder. There’s just enough light where I can see some of the faces in the audience, and even the most harsh critic — even for a brief moment — several times throughout the show has this sense of amazement and wonder and awe — the thing that we all felt as kids.
If you think back to when you would read “Harry Potter” — that magical feeling, that wonder — and even if they say it was a trick or there was an illusion there, for a moment there’s that astounded look on their face which is just pure joy. That’s a wonder we all like and a lot of us have outgrown those feelings, so seeing that throughout every show is what makes it really rewarding.
Some people come to the show saying, “OK, I’m going to figure everything out,” but a few minutes into the show they give up and decide to have fun because there’s no way they’re going to get everything.
People think of either a stuffy old guy in a tuxedo with a top hat, or if you’ve seen “Arrested Development” — that could be very accurate. It can be very cheesy or very corny, it can be, and not cool and fun. So people come in with that perception but that’s shattered probably the moment the show starts.
What would you say to someone who might be skeptical about coming?
It’s a very modern and fun and high-tech show. It’s kind of like a rock concert meets a magic show. It’s not a kids’ show, but it’s family friendly. To be honest I think the adults have as much, if not more, fun than the kids.
After every show I meet the audience; I love to do autographs after every single show in the lobby with the audience and that’s a great way for me to be honest with myself. If they didn’t like something, if they thought something could be better, tell me. It’s getting direct feedback every night, and getting to hear how inspired people were when they see the show and how much fun they had — that’s really where the reward comes in for me.
You’ve Worked with Broadway — how is the way you approach that different than how you approach your show?
I’ve done the illusions for over 1,000 shows of “Beauty and the Beast” and lots of other shows like “Phantom of the Opera,” “Wizard of Oz,” “Cats,” “Christmas Carol,” “Nutcracker,” lots of other shows. For those shows, the script would say, “The beast magically transforms into a prince in the air.” That’s when they call an illusionist. It’s not like in our show where it’s, “Ta-da! It’s a trick.” It’s, “We have to integrate the illusion and the technology and if there’s an apparatus involved — all this stuff has to be incorporated perfectly into their set and the story.”
If you smoothly and seamlessly blend it in, it makes the performance more magical. It’s a different approach — it’s not presenting an illusion, it’s creating an illusion in that world. There are a whole set of challenges because every theater is different — their limitations, the heights, the viewing angles — everything.
If you weren’t a magician what would you do?
I would probably be in the holistic healing arts somehow. I’m really big into health and fitness and natural healing. Health is another fascination and interest of mine.
You partner with Armed Forces Entertainment?
Every year we do about a one-month tour — last year we actually did a two-month tour — entertaining the U.S. troops overseas, where we block out a big chunk of our schedule and we take our show and cast and crew overseas to perform for our troops and their families. A lot of them are stationed in very remote areas, so it’s like bringing out a bit of the magic and a little bit of America to these families.
Who is your Favorite Hollywood wizard?
Walt Disney. Most people wouldn’t think of him as a magician, but I think of him as a wizard. He’s a big inspiration to me. His story is wonderful. He created so much: He created the theme park as we know it, he created pretty much family entertainment as we know it. He’s a guy who had a dream, and when I go to a Disney park — which I go to all the time; I have an annual pass for both Disneyland and Disneyworld — just being in the park is inspiring to me because the fact that one man could dream up this entire world and entire experience that’s made millions of people happy is very magical to me.
He was always trying to not only succeed, but push the bar further. The things he created, like “Snow White” as the first animated feature film, everybody said would never work. Everybody said the theme park would never work. He always had this vision that was beyond what other people could conceive, but he still pushed through it and made it and that’s why Disney is what it is today — because of him and that foundation.
Dumbledore vs. Gandalf: who do you pick?
Oh, Dumbledore, all the way. All the way. I enjoyed “Lord of the Rings,” but I loved “Harry Potter.” It’s one of the greatest stories of all time, to be honest. It’s probably too modern to be called a classic, but I think “Harry Potter” will be called a classic. Look at how many people it inspired to read. Look at how many people it’s touched. It’s a journey I got into when I was in my 20s and I did all the “Harry Potter”s on audiobook, which is the best way to do it because Jim Dale, who won a Grammy for each of the books I believe, does all the voices.
It’s such an inspiring and magical story, and I think we all wish we had a Dumbledore in our lives.
‘The Illusionist’ or ‘The Prestige’?
I like them both a lot, and “Now You See Me” as well. I thought “The Prestige” was more entertaining, but I liked them both. And actually in a similar era and similar style: “Hugo.” That movie is a love story to both movies and magic — I’ve seen it so many times, I love it every time and it inspires me every time.
Lake performs in Harrah’s South Shore Room nightly through Monday, Sept. 4. Tickets, which start at $38, and additional information are available online at http://www.ticketmaster.com.