Tobias Weinberger’s Traveling Spectacular

Magic, mystery, music in a ’51 Chevy truck.
Story David Bolling

Tobias Weinberger is 6-feet-2, and the distance from his lips to the pit of his stomach is approximately 24 inches.
At least that’s the length of the blade he inserts through his open mouth, down his throat, past his upper esophageal sphincter, down the length of his esophagus, through the lower esophageal sphincter and into the reluctant cavity of his stomach.
He does this on stage, in front of a cheering or gasping crowd and then takes a slow elaborate bow with the blade still in place, his head, neck and chest locked in perfect alignment. It’s not a trick; there’s a real sword inside him.
When swallowing a sword, it is good for it to stop somewhere just above the soft lower lining of the stomach wall. Half an inch too far, and the magic turns to misery.
“When you stick the bottom of your stomach with the tip of a sword, you know it,” Tobias explains, with classic understatement. “And you realize, ‘Oh, I should cut this sword down a little farther.’”
Gifted with a first name that is both evocative of an earlier era and unique enough to use alone (say “Tobias” to anyone in town and they know who you’re talking about), Sonoma’s senior sword swallower is now 37 and has been putting blades in his mouth and down his throat for close to 20 years. Drawn to magic in early childhood, Tobias discovered his mentor and muse, Roger Rhoten, shortly after moving to Sonoma from Massachusetts in 1991. Rhoten, as most Sonomans know, is not only the manager and savior of the Sebastiani Theatre but an accomplished magician as well. He gave young Tobias his phone number and offered to teach him a lesson or two sometime (“That was his first mistake”), so the 11-year-old magician’s apprentice began an unrelenting phone campaign, calling Roger over and over for lessons until he finally relented.
The relationship blossomed, Tobias became a feature fixture of the Rhotens’ summer performing arts camps as he polished his craft and grew into his magical talent and locally iconic onstage persona. Today he says, “Roger is one of my best friends,” but sword swallowing is among several things Rhoten did not teach Tobias; he taught himself.
“I went to my parents’ bookstore (Readers’ Books), and I got a copy of Grey’s Anatomy and read as much as I could. I never found a book that said, ‘This is how you swallow a sword.’ It was just a gradual process; I started with my finger, just sort of feeling around in there. I overcame the gag reflex pretty quickly. I went from a finger to a letter opener, and then I had a bayonet, and then a sword. It took me a year and a half to get it to the place where I wanted to show anybody what I was doing.”
Sword swallowing is only one of the tricks Tobias keeps up his lengthy sleeve. He can pull yards of ribbon, scarves, umbrellas and a live chicken from the bell of a tuba. He can pour an endless string of salt from the palm of his hand. He can swallow cup after cup of water and then spit it out in one continuous stream. And, of course, he can levitate maidens, swallow fire and materialize a live mermaid inside a giant clamshell.
He practiced many of these skills as part of the legendary Yard Dogs Road Show, a Vaudevillian troop that served a stew of music, magic, mystery, mirth and a little mayhem, touring the country and beyond before unraveling and disbanding around 2014.
He also studied the lives and works of famous musicians and performers and counts as influences Hans Moretti, George Melies, A. Robbins The Banana Man, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin and Mary Poppins. Magic is imbedded in his DNA, it seems to flow through his veins, and after the Yard Dogs, Tobias (aka the Mystic Man) still had a yearning for the old-time traveling show experience. So he bought a 1951 Chevy flatbed truck in Southern California, nursed it north to his home at Sky Farm, near the top of Norrbom Road, dropped in a new engine and spent the next 18 months transforming the truck into a 15-by-14-foot mobile stage complete with sets, props, folding walls, a rising roof and enough lights to turn a meadow into a midway.
With nine performing friends—including three musicians (known as The Oddjob Ensemble), a bevy of beautiful dancing girls (including Glen Ellen’s Nathalie Tedrick), the Devil Himself (who swallows fire and throws knives around a damsel) and that live chicken—he created the Traveling Spectacular, now appearing in venues around Northern California, most recently at the Sonoma International Film Festival. Upcoming performances include the Maker Faire Bay Area, Petaluma’s Rivertown Revival and five summer and fall weekends at Cornerstone Sonoma.
Tobias says it takes about three hours to set up the stage, and another three hours to tear it down. “The work part of the show turns out to be the traveling, setting up and breaking down,” he says. “Once it’s up and the show is rolling, that’s the easy part.”
There is a vision behind Tobias’s dark, thoughtful eyes and Lincolnesque face, a mission to preserve the essence of a pure, old-fashioned, screen-free road show, rolling into small towns, setting up on empty lots, bringing real live magic, original music and a little mischief back into people’s lives. But that’s a challenge.
“It’s an archetypal thing,” he says, “but where it fits into our modern world, I’m still trying to figure out.”
The traveling equation got more complicated 18 months ago with the arrival of Elijah, a tow-headed bundle of boy energy who now adds a rapidly expanding dimension to the life Tobias leads with his wife, Janne. The two first met as students at the Marin Waldorf School where Tobias caught Janne’s eye when he successfully escaped from a straight jacket.
How far the Traveling Spectacular will carry them into the future is an open question. “These days,” says Tobias, “to be a professional magician you have to do a lot of gigs you don’t want to do just to make ends meet. I definitely don’t want a ‘real job,’ I want to be true to my vision of what I’m putting out there. And I want to be with my family.”
For now, the Spectacular is nicely booked well into the summer, but there is plenty of room for more gigs, and Tobias works everything from weddings and winery events to stand-alone shows. He also rents out his rig for venues needing a portable stage.
The full show lasts about an hour but seems to pass in 20 minutes. And almost everyone who sees it agrees: The Traveling Spectacular is just that.
For dates and times of Spectacular performances, as well as videos of the show, go to thetravelingspectacular.com. 

2 Comments

  1. It is truly one of the best shows I’ve seen- and unique in this modern day era. Anyone who gets a chance to see this show will not regret it- but you may regret if you don’t plan to see it before it disappears!

  2. I know you are mainly doing shows in Northern California (where I have seen you perform several times), but IF you ever travel further south, there is a tiny town that would welcome you enthusicastically called OJAI. It is a community of artists, gardners, music, film, etcetera – They have a theater outside in the park – which I believe is across the street from the party-planning office behind the post office. We need your majic down here, but I fully understand it’s not in your circle of travel.

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