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Apollo Robbins Will Steal Your Wallet: A Conversation with the World's Best Pickpocket

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Apollo Robbins is good at stealing stuff. For years, this renown pickpocket entertained Vegas audiences by stealing their hearts-- generally by stealing their wristwatches and money clips. But everything changed for Apollo after he picked the pocket of one of Jimmy Carter's secret service agents during one of his shows. I sat with Robbins to talk about the art of pickpocketing, life after Vegas, and why he lets gypsies steal stuff from him.


How'd you get into pickpocketing business?
My half brothers were involved with crime. But I was too young to participate. I also had certain disabilities that prevented me [from joining in]: like braces on my legs. When I became a teen, I ran into a friend at a magic shop who took me under his wing. I started reading up on magical theory and immediately blended that with what my brothers had shown me.


Your style of pickpocketing is based in magic?
I applied my magic in ways that were invasive, where it happened on people. There are two kinds of magic. If you think of it like martial arts, there's sparring where you are doing it with a partner and the other is kata where you're doing an exposition for the audience. Many times, illusions or magic sets are designed as an exposition for the audience to watch, but the the style I do with the pickpocketing is directly interactive. So I used that idea to build my pickpocket act in Vegas.

You mentioned a story about Jimmy Carter's secret service man. How did stealing from an president's bodyguard turn into your big break?
My show was part-variety, part-magic, so I brought people on stage. Then I'd steal all their stuff and give it back to them. But 7 or 8 years ago, I pick-pocketed one of Jimmy Carter's secret service agents. After that, I got approached [to consult] police departments and security individuals. I got to visit prisons and I started learning the thinking and skill set of real thieves.
So, there's a difference in how thieves and magicians pick pockets?

The thinking is the same. But you're in a different context and coming from a different place. For a street thief, the priority--more than dexterity or nimble fingers-- is being able to monitor where someone's attention is. It's fascinating. They don't so much manipulate attention [like a magician does], because they don't want to be memorable. But they do want to know where someone's attention is. If a person is focused elsewhere, a thief can put his whole hand in [a pocket] and steal.

And what about a magician?
You have to monitor the responses you're getting from the person you're working with and adjust your performance. In the same way that a film director would use a film lens to blur out a certain item or use a spotlight, I use certain movements that draw the eye instinctually.

So, what are some of the tricks a successful pockpocket will use?
If you keep eye contact as you approach someone and go to their side, the person will stay very focused on on your face and upper body because it's alarming to them that you're keeping eye contact. But if you break eye contact as you approach from the front and then you step to their side, you can use this. If you don't want them to focus on something you're doing with your hands, just by tilting your head into their personal space, it'll draw their attention, and they'll want to look at you. I use that when I'm stealing.

That's crazy! Is it safe to meet you in person?
Generally, yes. [Laughing] It depends on whether I'm on or off the clock!

Any other tricks of the trade you don't mind sharing?
My business is basically a business of false assumptions -- I create assumptions that look like reality and take advantage of those. I'll tell someone I'm going to try and steal from them and then challenge them to catch me. Then I'll use hand movements to create false assumptions. I'll put my hand in their pocket, and when it comes out, they're expecting that I would have stolen something. Then I create a ruse, by moving my hand in a half-circle. Their eyes will instinctively chase the movement, almost like a cat chases a string-- it's fascinating.

So, the ruse is in the half-circle?
Exactly. If you keep your hand movement in a straight line, the person won't follow it. They'll snap to the end location and they'll snap back to the pocket, and they'll catch your other hand if it's doing something. But that's not the only trick. If I'm going to steal from someone, I'll lock onto what I'm about to steal, but I wait. I'll use statements and situations that create an inner dialogue so they'll second guess themselves. They may say "I think he's up to this." And you can detect that. You develop a sense to detect that.

And when they're caught in this inner dialogue, then what?
When they have that inner dialogue, it suppresses their outside senses, so they can't feel when you're pulling something and they can't see it, even their glasses are getting pulled right off their face. There's a pickpocket who specializes in this named Bora. He removes glasses without people ever noticing, even though their field of vision has changed.

That sounds incredible. So, is pickpocketing still an art that people are practicing on the streets?
Definitely. That's what been interesting to me. You have organized teams that have become very prevalent in the US, especially around large sporting events -- The Super-Bowl, Kentucky Derby, etc. I set myself up to be pickpocketed in Spain. I just wanted to feel the sensation.

How did it feel?
Fascinating. Two Gypsy ladies outside of Alhambra locked up a frame on me. One lady was reaching inside a bag to pull out some fern leaves and the other was locking up my elbow and trying to steal from behind. I saw them doing it to other people, so I positioned myself so I'd be in the queue for it.

So, what's next for you?
I'm working with a show called Leverage on TNT as an advisor, teaching them how to do these types of techniques on television. I also work with the actors and the writers. And I'll be on an episode this fall. Until then, you can catch me at istealstuff.com.

Got any leads for who we should interview next? Email the person's name and the questions you're curious about to chetan@mentalfloss.com. If we end up using your lead, we'll be sure to include your name!

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The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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