Take a walk down the 16th Street Mall on any given weekend, and you're liable to run into a freaky dude in a fright wig and a bot suit, his face fixed in a wide-eyed stare, his every Jacksonesque pop-lock move linked to a pneumatic mouth sound. That would be Michael Potts, AKA Robo Mike, Denver's resident street robot.
"It's my eyes that draw them in," he said. "But then people get real quiet cause they want to see how I'm making the sounds. They think it's a recording in my suit, but it's not."
The mechanical sound effects actually come from deep in his throat, which he constricts to get just the right metallic effect. His vocal warm-up routine usually starts the night before at a neighborhood watering hole, where he saturates his throat with four rum and cokes. "If I drink anything else," he said, "the sounds go away. I think it's the carbon from the fountain spigot at the bar. If I mix my own, no robot sounds."
Ever since he was a kid of eight, Potts has known he'd someday be a robot…or at least a robot actor.
"I was watching Lost in Space," he said. "There was a robot on the show that used to say 'Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!' One day I turned to my mom and said, 'That's what I wanna be when I grow up.'"
Most kids outgrow their superhero fantasies, but Michael Potts was not like other kids. When he daydreamed, he saw himself as a giant robot protecting the city. To get just the right superhero look, he began working out with weights and competing in body building contests where, instead of a smooth transition from one pose to the next, he did jerky robot moves.
He caught his first break as a robot impersonator at the Havana Flea Market, where he was hired to stand outside the main gates and draw a crowd for $3.50 an hour. "I was a moving mannequin," he said. "My feet were planted and I just did robotic upper body moves."
In 1990, he donned a clown suit and multi-colored fright wig, rechristened himself "Robo Clown," and moved his act to the 16th Street Mall. The clown persona, however, was never entirely a comfortable fit. "It kind of freaked out the kids," he said. So in the mid-90s he switched to a black Afro, began wearing a motocross outfit that sort of looked like a suit of armor, and became Robo Mike.
He's been on the Mall now for 24 years, working ten hour days on weekends only. For a time he worked with an agent who booked him into conventions, weddings, and the occasional TV commercial (He once sang a jingle for Rocky's Auto wearing a fro and a purple suit). He's also been on America's Got Talent, and on a show called 30 Seconds of Fame.
"Most I ever made on the street was $560 in one day," he said. "That was when the Pope was in town for World Youth Day. In summer time I average between $70 and $120 a day."
It hasn't been all fun and games, though. "Being a street performer, you take the bad with the good. I'm a magnet for weirdos. People have pulled knives on me. One time six guys jumped me and a crowd gathered and had my back." he said.
On the other hand, he's also had some real heart openers. Like the time a woman stood watching him while clutching the hand of her little girl, whom Potts later learned had been traumatized and hadn't uttered a single word in a solid year. As they were leaving, the girl turned to him and said, "Bye, Robot."
Which leads you to wonder if maybe, just possibly, Robo Mike isn't a superhero after all.
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