Marshall Field's has a motorized Cinderella and Carson's has mechanized elves, but it's the robotic man in the frosted window at Mysels Furs and Leathers, 123 S. State, who's riveting holiday shoppers and lunch-hour office workers. He's wrapped in a full-length mahogany mink coat, standing on a ten-inch-high pedestal. One by one a dozen people stop in their tracks to look at the man who stares right through them with a vacant, faraway gaze.
He rolls his head to one side. It bounces to a stop. He leans forward, inching out until he looks like he might fall over. He freezes, then stands erect with a bob. He swivels his feet in place. He rotates his head to the other side, then begins the same actions all over again, in a different order, pausing as he moves stiffly from one to the next.
"He's artificial, but he's real," says a woman cleaning her teeth with a toothpick. "He's real." She and her gray-headed friends giggle. One of the women waves to him. His waxy visage is utterly expressionless, but then he tips his black leather cowboy hat with a wiggle of his forehead.
A group of young women smitten by his model's good looks try to figure out if he's human. One woman, unconvinced, moves up to the front to get a closer look. She searches his body for clues, but the fur covers him except for his black boots and a gold eagle pendant around his neck. "He's good," one of the women says. "He's been doing that for years." After five minutes or so the sidewalk crowd peaks at about 25 people of all ages and races, all jostling for position.
Suddenly the man's blank look transforms into a smile. He relaxes and backs out of the window into the store. A few people applaud, and the crowd disperses.
Inside, Ben Sexton, who's 54, removes his hat and dabs his brow with a paper towel. He hangs the coat and its $3,295 price tag on a hanger. "I'm going to wear leather next," he says, breathing heavily.
This is Sexton's second season at the furrier's. He was hired last year after he walked into the store and demonstrated a few of his tin-man moves. Since mid-October he's been entertaining every day from noon to 4 PM and will keep at it through Christmas Eve. He calls himself the Mechanical Man.
"I actually become a machine when I'm working," he says. "I can hear gears clicking. When I stop I can hear the gears click--clicka--in my mind. Clicka. Clicka. I feel like a machine. I want to be a machine. I don't want to do anything that would look awkward for a machine to do, like bend my knees."
Sexton, who grew up on the south side, has performed all over the country for the last 34 years, at countless mall openings, racetracks, NBA games, bar mitzvahs, fund-raisers, nightclubs, and industrial shows. Basically people hire him to draw crowds to their product or event. "If I'm standing still they think it's just a mannequin and they keep going," Sexton explains. "So when I see them coming out of the corner of my eye, I'll move my hand and try to catch their attention. They'll say, 'Did he move? I saw him move.' Then I develop my crowd."
Once he's got their attention, Sexton tries to get them to suspend their disbelief. "What I really try to do is to convince people I'm not human, to challenge their imagination. If all they say is How does he do that? that's it, that's a compliment."
People always ask him how he goes so long without blinking his eyes. His secret? When one of his eyes is burning or itching he disguises a blink with a wink. "I try to fake people out as much as possible because I know they're watching my eyes." People also wonder why he doesn't fall on his face when he leans over. "When I don't feel comfortable I'll do it real slow. Once I get to that point I lock on it. Then I come back. I know exactly where to stop."
Models who pretend to be mannequins are a dime a dozen, he says, but mechanical people are a rare breed. "I've only run into maybe three people who actually had the moves that I thought were qualified to be out there trying to make a living doing it. A guy in New Orleans, a girl here--I think she's out of Oak Brook or something--and another guy called Otto. He used to work all the auto shows. He would be working for Dodge, and I'd be working for General Motors. He had full makeup and lights on the side and his hair slicked back with a lot of oil and grease in it. Otto was great. He'd come down to see me, bother me while I was working, and I'd go up and see him. I haven't had a whole lot of competition with what I'm doing."
Sexton suffered a minor scare in the mid-70s when he thought a disco-era dance step called "The Robot" might drive him out of business. "I said, 'Wow, this is going to kill me. Everybody will be doing it. There will be nothing new to look at." But despite masses of teenagers aping his moves, his expertise carried him through the craze.
Sexton got started back in the early 1960s, when he was studying transcendental meditation in California and impressing his friends with his uncanny ability to become stone-faced. "They'd say, 'Meditate for us, man. Are you breathing? Can you see? Can you hear? You look like you're dead.'" They told him he should try making money meditating. "You should go out on the corner and do that, man," they said. "That would really trip people out. They would see you standing there and think you were a real dummy or a mannequin or something."
At the time he was modeling in fashion shows, but getting tired of the routine. He had tried to spice things up--"so that I wouldn't be just another model"--by roller-skating across the stage and swinging across the runway dressed as Tarzan. Then he asked the man he was working for if he could meditate and try to convince people he was a mannequin. The man agreed. Sexton stood motionless throughout the show, and at the end the emcee introduced him. "I stepped down, and people jumped up and ran and screamed and knocked over drinks." At the next show he moved slightly every few minutes onstage so people would know he was human. Eventually he developed an entire routine for the shows.
Sexton weaned himself from meditation as he began performing as Mechanical Man at conventions and social events. These days he only meditates if he's working nonstop for several hours. Going deeply into concentration, he says, relieves the strain on his body. "I play basketball with Michael Jordan. Or I go visit my daughter and spend time with her."
He also meditates when he has a cold or a pain of some kind. He says he once had the flu so bad he was just about to go to the hospital. "I was living in an apartment overlooking the lake. I sat on the floor and looked out the window over the water--and went out over the water mentally and cooled out and relaxed. When I came back my temperature was gone, my fever was gone, my coughing had stopped. You can mentally do just about anything with your body. If your mind says it's not there, it's not there."
As further proof he describes how he can stand on one leg for three hours. "The reason I can do it for so long is that I find my center of gravity and I relax on that one foot. Then I put my other foot in the air. Then I tell my body that it's not in the air and I'm standing on two feet. My foot doesn't know it's in the air, but my head does. I tell my body that I'm standing on two feet. Then my body says OK."
He says that sometimes he's concentrating so hard that small things become greatly magnified. "One time I was working at one of the auto shows and a little girl came up behind me and stuck me in the back with her finger to see if I was real. The first thing I thought of was 'knife,' so I felt pain from being stabbed. I came offstage and went in the back and took my tux jacket off and told this guy to look at my back: 'Am I cut bad?' He said, 'Cut? You're not cut.' I said, 'Yes, I am. Somebody stabbed me while I was onstage. They must have thought I was really a mechanical person.'"
He says that a few times he's been concentrating so hard that he's actually left his body. "The first time I saw myself when I went outside--I guess it's astral planing--I was working at Sears here on State Street. Two guys were arguing. One was saying I was real, and one was saying I wasn't. I couldn't hear them, and I wanted to hear them so bad that I went out there and found myself standing between. I still couldn't hear 'em, but I was standing right there with them looking at 'em. And I looked up in the window and saw myself. It scared me to death. I said, 'If that is me up there, then who is this down here?'"
Sexton has picked up some acting roles over the years, notably as Jean Baptiste Point DuSable in Oscar Brown Jr.'s The Great Nitty Gritty at the McCormick Place Playhouse Theater in the early 1980s. For a while he also appeared as the More cigarette man in print ads on the CTA.
His work used to take him on the road quite a bit. He has a scrapbook with photos of him with Muhammad Ali, Redd Foxx, and Bob Hope. He's also worked with Natalie Cole, Chaka Kahn, Sha Na Na, Della Reese, Lou Rawls, Lawrence Welk, the Four Tops, and Conway Twitty, among others on a long typed list in the scrapbook. Hope was one of his favorites. He met him in the mid-70s at a benefit for sickle-cell anemia at the Playboy club in Lake Geneva. "It was like meeting somebody out of the Bible. He was so spiritual and truthful and up-front. He flew in on his personal jet and came up onstage and gave a speech that had everybody in tears. And I think he was crying himself when he left. He even went up and did a little bit of my mechanical thing. He said, 'I don't know how he does it.' It was a great compliment. He played a few rounds of golf and left."
Sexton's car was stolen recently, and the thieves took his portfolio and contact numbers for employers across the country. He took it as a sign that he should slow down and stick closer to home for a while. But he says he's ready to hit the road again. "I'm looking forward to going up to the Mall of America sometime in January and seeing if I can do something there. I'm sure they can use a Mechanical Man."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Philin Phlash.