MICHAEL ROBBINS has appeared locally in more than 120 major character roles ranging from Moliere’s Miser Harpegon to Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.
But he admits his first public performances had less to do with launching a theater career than augmenting his meager boyhood allowance back in Great Depression days.
Aged six or seven, young Mike spotted some lively black kids shuffle-dancing on the streets of his native Atlantic City. “People were throwing showers of pennies and nickels at them. I decided to join as the only blond, blue-eyed member of the dance troupe.” It worked well enough for the next couple of evenings, till his father, alerted by some neighbors, yanked his son abruptly out of the dance session and escorted him briskly home. “I have never danced since,” Michael told me last week.
Halting the shuffle-dancing didn’t mean his father or anyone else in the Robbins family wasn’t a live theater fan. Atlantic City was still a major theatrical tryout spot. Michael’s father had a job driving a jitney that would carry posters for shows heading for Broadway and the family would get free tickets to see the big stars of the 1930s.
Weirdest of these, not Broadway bound but headlining a minstrel show on Atlantic City pier, was Lou Costello. “He did all the familiar routines like ‘Who’s on First?’ but in blackface while beating a tambourine. It was bizarre.”
Michael’s own stage work grew gradually out of nearly 40 years in advertising in Philadelphia, Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Monterey. “We started doing radio ads and demos. To be honest, I had to work with some actors who were so dumb I started to think, ‘Hey, I can do this better than you can.’” and he did, touting the virtues of products like Plymouth cars and Firestone tires.
Regular scripted stage work came later, after he and his wife Margaret moved from Los Angeles to the Monterey Peninsula in the 1980s. “I was delighted to find so much live theater in and around Monterey and decided to give it a try.”
His first shot was a production of Amadeus directed by Peter DeBono. Michael was part of the ensemble, spoke only a line or two, but was immediately spotted as a new talent by, among others, the ever-watchful (late) Marcia Hovick. She rocketed Mike from chorus to title role in a Staff Players Rep production of The Miser.
He went on to work at every major theater then in operation in the area, sometimes rehearsing one show while another was still having its run. “I’ve been blessed with an understanding wife,” he says. “Margaret attends every opening, whether she likes the play or not.”
His favorite role became Tevye in a Forest Theatre Guild production of Fiddler on the Roof in the late 1980s.
“My thirty years of theater have been the happiest of my life,” he told me. “And it’s become technically so much more advanced. Lights and sound all so much better. So much more space backstage for the actors, too. PacRep does some wonderful things, if they could only get Buddy Holly out of their system. I’m not a Rock ‘n Roll fan.
“And MPC. continues to do fine work. If they could only get a budget! But slashed by 80%?! It’s been brutal. But you know that.”
As for the range of available roles, Mike Robbins admits it gets narrower at his age. “Two of my most recent parts were ‘Dirty Old Man’ in Sweet Charity at MPC and ‘Old Geezer’ in Lysistrata at The Western Stage.
“I also recently answered a call for someone to work with a CSUMB student who was making a film for a movie class. The assignment was to play the role of ‘Death.’ I applied, some girl showed up and took my picture, but I didn’t even get a call-back. I guess that’s a sign I’ve still got some vitality, right?”
Photos by Melissa Chin-Parker