On Stage: Channeling the spirit of Robin Williams

Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times

“Along with being one of the top comedy impressionists in the country, he is a talented actor and portrait artist.” – Denny DyroffEntertainment Editor, The Times

While Halloween and El Dia de Los Muertos are still a little more than a week away, there will be a visit from a departed person this week.

The spirit will be the spirit of Robin Williams and its destination will be the Candlelight Theatre (2208 Millers Road, Arden, Delaware, www.candlelighttheatredelaware.org).

More specifically, the spirit of the revered late comedian will visit comedian Roger Kabler when he performs his “Robin – The Ultimate Robin Williams Tribute Experience” at the October edition of the Candlelight Comedy Club.

“There are moments in the show when there is a real spirit onstage,” said Kabler, during a phone interview Monday from his home in suburban Boston.

“It’s part conjuring. I walk like him. I talk like him.”

Kabler’s show goes to great lengths to respect Williams’ memory and celebrate his legacy — hilarious and emotionally powerful at the same time. For everyone around the globe confused about his unexpected departure, this tribute offers a form of closure and a chance to laugh with Robin one more time.

Kabler is a true renaissance man.

“I was a child actor,” said Kabler. “The first time I did stand-up was when I was 18. I was inspired by Robin Williams and Cheech & Chong. I was a performance artist and was always big on impressions.

“There was a show called ‘The Kopycats’ that I watched a lot. I started doing Rich Little. I started doing Columbo and drove my mother crazy.

“When I was 20, I moved to New York to be an actor. I also lived in L.A. for a while before coming back to the East Coast.”

Along with being one of the top comedy impressionists in the country, he is a talented actor and portrait artist. Kabler has served as the spokesman for Zima in national television commercials.  He was a regular on the last Carol Burnett series in 1991.  He has also starred in his own NBC sitcom, “Rhythm & Blues.”

“Rhythm & Blues” was a sitcom television series created by Jordan Moffet, that aired on NBC for five weeks in September and October 1992. The show was heavily criticized for relying on traditional black stereotypes for its humor and was cancelled after only five weeks because of low ratings.

In early 1990s ads, Kabler was known as the fedora-wearing “Zima Guy.” Aside from the fedora, his gimmick involved replacing “S” sounds with “Z” sounds, reinforcing the slogan “Zomething different.”

When Williams died in 2014, people asked Kabler to do a tribute, but he adamantly refused.

“I had done stand-up and television,” said Kabler. “I had a failed sitcom and that crushed me. I got into drugs and alcohol.

“After five years, I got clean. This is a story of recovery from a downward spiral.

“I had to get out of show business. I could do the work, but I couldn’t do the trip. Show business was toxic for me. So, I became an artist. I’m 20 years sober now.”

The catalyst for Kabler’s return to the stage was Williams’ death.

“At one point, I felt Robin’s spirit,” said Kabler. “I was really crushed by his death, so I decided to write a tribute show to perform as Robin.

“It’s not just a show – it’s a séance. Cindy Williams saw me perform and said she felt Robin.

“The show is exhausting. You be Robin Williams for five minutes and you’ll see.

“He had super-fast comic mind that would envision a funny scenario or character, and then suddenly it would manifest in his face body and voice. In my show, I channel Robin and its exhausting and exhilarating.”

“Robin – The Ultimate Robin Williams Tribute Experience” has been a positive for Kabler and for Williams’ fans.

“Like I said before, it’s not just a show, it’s a séance,” said Kabler. “It’s not just humor. I go to places where a lot of people don’t go.

“There is a progression in the material. It’s more like a Robin Williams concert. I just do a comedy show as Robin.”

Kabler also has done a film about Robin Williams – “Being Robin.” The movie will have its premiere on October at the Regent Theatre in Arlington, Massachusetts.

According to Kabler, “Images of Robin kept flashing in my mind. He showed up in dreams. And then he was talking to me, in my head. At moments I felt possessed by him — felt his presence strongly, and sometimes I involuntarily behaved like him. Alone or in front of people, with no warning, Robin would leap out and comment on what was going on, from my mouth, taking over my body, sometimes hilariously and inappropriately.

“And I felt him having experiences through me. I felt him pulling at me, urging me to help him, saying – ‘I need to get back to work’.”

In response, Kabler created a stage show as a tribute — that Robin should be remembered for his spectacular wit, genius and humanity. Kabler said he wrote it together with Robin and held rehearsals in the woods. The show toured America for several years. Thousands of people saw it. Many said they felt Robin’s presence during the show, including Robin’s friend, Cindy Williams.

So Kabler decided to tell his story in a film using footage from the live shows and reenacting events around it. He called it “Being Robin.” He raised money and hired a crew to shoot it. Then COVID hit, and they couldn’t finish. During that time, Roger decided to wrap the footage they had with narration to fill in the gaps. He then spent two years editing. “Being Robin” has elements of a documentary, with re-enactments of events, and a bit of fantasy.

According to Kabler, “You will see actual footage of events as they happened, caught on camera, including a TV interview where Robin took hold of me in front of countless viewers. While filming the movie, as onstage during the show, I felt Robin so strongly, I often fell into wild improvisational riffs that only Robin could create.”

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