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lampmaker, lampmaker, make me a lamp

By tony carnevale
Arizona Daily Wildcat
February 11, 1999
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karen c. tully
Arizona Daily Wildcat

Jeff Robins and the world's sexiest lamp.

"This is the world's sexiest lamp." Jeff Robins gestures to the curvaceous light fixture in his living room. "Here, take your hand and feel up this lamp. Really. It's okay, it'll let you do it."

Robins, 38, has lived in Tucson since he was four years old, when his father was offered a full professorship at the University of Arizona. Robins would later attend the UA for five years before determining that graduation was, in fact, impossible - a conclusion reached by innumerable UA students each semester. And Robins built that sexy lamp. He's built a lot of lamps, actually. When he started making new lamps out of old lamp parts and other found materials several years ago, he discovered that "people not only enjoyed them [at my house], but also wanted them for themselves. And a lamp is a wonderful gift. It's practical and useful and, at the same time, attractive." Robins has been selling his lamps ever since.

He shows them to potential customers by appointment and at the art shows that he organizes (the art in question is invariably lamps). "I've had three art shows so far, and every lamp in every show has sold. Which means, according to an appraiser who I talked to, that my art is appreciating. So if you bought a lamp from me today, by the time you get home it's worth like two cents more."


karen c. tully
Arizona Daily Wildcat

Jeff is tickling the ivory.

Lampmaking isn't the only thing Robins does. He's built clocks, full-size mazes with moving walls and a robot. "A killer robot," he adds. "It was very stupid and had no intelligence electronics at all because I didn't know what I was doing. But it was deadly. It could kill you. And it would go, 'This is the Slicemaster home security device. Warning. Warning.'"

Though he insists that he's on the verge of death with type-2 diabetes, Robins is involved with enough creative projects to choke Steve Allen. One of them is his radio show on 91.3 KXCI-FM. "The Machine Shop," broadcasting Tuesdays from midnight to 2 a.m. It is an endearingly bizarre medley of music and talk. Robins describes the music played on his show as "experimental." "There's no rarity or unusuality about something that anybody can get anywhere. Why go to the trouble to play the Brady Bunch theme if you can go and buy it on TV's Greatest Hits for seven dollars?"

But the real meat of "the Machine Shop" is Robins himself. When he turns off the CD player and turns on the microphone, Robins reveals his facility with improvisational, stream-of-consciousness monologues. Croaking in a voice somewhere between William S. Burroughs and Katherine Hepburn, he scolds callers, riffs with sidekicks and delivers fervent mock-religious tirades. The result is nothing short of captivating - the rare radio program that capitalizes on the immense potential of the medium.

"It's hard to describe my career because there's so much of it," says Robins. He's right. As a child, he made dozens of 8-millimeter movies in his backyard. He was being paid for operating cameras by age 16. Since then, Robins has created 237 television commercials, writing the storyboards, scripts and music for most of them, and doing voice-over work as well. At 26, he made a film in two days for $500. Called "No Way Out," it was screened at the Tucson Museum of Art's biennial celebration. "It had a good audience reaction, even though it was playing [with two other] films that had cost $55,000."

Robins comes from a talented family. His brother, Harry, wrote the screenplay for "Kamillions," a "science-fiction comedy." In 1989, Jeff accompanied Harry to the "Kamillions" set in San Francisco, intending to learn more about moviemaking by watching the shoot - as Robins puts it, "to be a nerd." As it turned out, Robins was more than a mere nerd.

"They hadn't designed certain special effects because they hadn't figured out how to do them," he says. "I figured out how to do everything." Robins offered his services to the floundering "Kamillions" crew, and they gladly accepted. He built "a fabulous 1950s-style lab set which included an Acme Dimension Diver, which lets you go from universe to universe. It looks like a big water heater and makes steaming noises and stuff... the whole thing is this ridiculous retro science lab that's always overheating."

As Robins learned, making a feature film can be as disappointing as it is thrilling. "Kamillions," subtly funny in concept, was bankrolled by producers used to making mindless action flicks.

Says Robins, "Several edits were made by Hong Kong people who didn't understand the first thing about a real movie. Their experience included making 'Iron Angels' and 'Iron Angels II,' which were about 'beautiful kung-fu babes who attack with lightning fist!' They edited and edited the movie, and they cut special effects that I had done out of it, and they also cut things that just made sense out of it. And they locked it into a distributorship with 'Iron Angels III.' Unfortunately, people who want to buy a movie in Taiwanese about beautiful babes blowing things up and fighting a drug war in their bikinis usually don't want to see a sophisticated English comedy with all kinds of quirky references. I mean, they didn't know what it was."

These days, though his vision is deteriorating from his illness, Robins still works on movies. He's currently editing a documentary on the Vietnam war, and building a "Wright-brothers-like biplane" for a client who intends to take it to this year's Burning Man Festival. And, of course, there are the lamps.

In Robins's bedroom stands an elegant black floor lamp almost as tall as he is. It's a slender rod with a heavy round base, topped with an egg-shaped frosted-glass globe. "This is a lamp that was thrown at me by a psychotic ex-girlfriend trying to kill me. And she bent it slightly, and she broke the glass at the top. But then, just to infuriate her, I went into my studio, got a new piece of glass and a new bulb, screwed the bulb in, and the lamp was just brand new."