I’m from the small time, nothing but proud of the work I’ve done, all the way down to the day-to-day, show business as paycheck, that’s been the path, how I found my way in this mixed up worldwide love affair I’m having with life.
I played spot dates across the United States, Canada and Mexico. In the latter part of my career, I landed a gig playing nightlife stages at Dreams and Secrets, an American owned all-inclusive Mexican Riviera resort operation.
Until the pandemic I had kept a roof over my head and food on the table banging out shows with much of my focus here in the American West. In San Francisco I played in Fisherman’s Wharf. Off the road for a decade plus, I dug into a swank ground level garden apartment in Cow Hollow at Steiner at Union. Peak street performing years allowed the best of the best acts to live large.
In Alberta Canada I was awarded by the late Dick Finkel, executive producer of the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival the Golden Finkelini in 2001 for my lifetime contribution to street theater. This is who I am, part mongrel street artist mated to a career as a professional variety show artist. I’ve been singing for my supper, at least with a dog accompanying me for the last 5 decades.
Predicting my turn at finding a path in the performing arts would have been a fool’s errand. I was an undiagnosed creative type. Symptoms included boredom with school. I didn’t fear hard work but meaningless, boring, tedious labor ate at my spirit. First examples of my creative bent arrived as poems I composed in middle school years. Best buddies in high school were two terrific actors, I had no knack for the stage, not acting but performing was unknown to me. Ballet training altered my course, in a sense the physical training distributed creativity out of my head into my body. I was still too wordy had to learn to smother my inner Norman Mailer and transpose my literary bent into something more terse, glibber, think Eastwood style single word reply.
Working in the business takes it toll. It’s rags to riches and all the way back to rags again. If you need a smoother ride, can’t hack the bumpy road, and there are plenty of this kind of touring weary talented souls that suffer the extended months and months out there making one appearance after another until it shatters their personal lives. If you know someone in this fix, this is how talent gets stuck between the rock and the hard place. The road may be killing them but a steady job would be a death sentence.
Stardom is another beast, there’s a waiting list, and it’s a short one, the gods mint a handful and sprinkle them out over the eons, just know that an infinitesimally few rare talents ever crack the code, so you best know the road is long and there are no bookies taking these longest of long odds, it’s almost a sure thing you’ll go broke and get nowhere no matter how hard you try.
Dining at an outdoor café on Columbus in New York with a former beauty queen, the real deal, a Broadway veteran, triple threat, she was the complete package, and after a decade best she had ever done was one principal role, a few lines, more often a dancer in the chorus. She’d landed a few bit parts in the soaps, worked summers in regional theaters, auditioned in LA, shot one pilot never came of anything. When her current gig in 42nd Street closed her time was up and the stunner in any other business was heading home to South Carolina.
The Pentagon spends $2100 per person per year trying to keep America safe. That is two grand plus for every single citizen. To fortify our cultural lives the National Endowment of the Arts spends $4.00 per person per year. The disinvestment in our cultural lives has shrunken opportunity for both the artist and the audience.
Arts administrators cobble together low-priced office space, staff turnover is frequent, here and there you will find exceptions, more often than not an unqualified inexperienced self-funding citizen will voluntarily step in and do what they can. Having had the opportunity to work at Universal Studios in Universal City, California I can affirm that having a veteran professional production team attending to my sound, lights and staging made a difference. Second day on the job my stage had been lowered, lights repositioned and sound system was replaced. There job was to make me look good, and did they ever.
Playing regional dates at regional festivals is another matter altogether. Volunteer staff trying their best, and none of this heroism is sustainable. The festival breaks, the staff burnout, the artists don’t want to come back. Too many administrators live too near the poverty line. Like the artists the event staff sacrifice everything only to find that their lives are unstable, they are constantly on the move, their marriages crumbling under the stress.
For a very few life at the top is fat while down in the minor leagues where things are less flush the up and comers can’t make ends meet, lives become unmanageable, creative’s become dysfunctional most subsist in survival mode. Everything is put on hold but for perhaps the purchase of a new suitcase.
There are no 401k’s, no matching contributions, nobody is an employee working for an employer. Most artists function as sole proprietor’s, furiously deducting their 3 martini lunches and long-distance drives to the next date. Workman’s compensation, medical, dental, and pensions are nowhere to be found. I joke that my show business day rate is the same as my executive wife’s per diem.
Traveling to an International Festival and Events Association convention in Anaheim I met a Australian who had come to the convention in an effort to teach artists how to save for retirement. Here was proof that you could retire if you knew how time and compound interest worked to the investors advantage. He’d worked in Sidney, had worked for a financial institution, he had a passion for being around people that worked in show business, creative people were his bliss. His intentions were all to the good. His actuarial chops were superb. He was there to teach artists how to save for retirement, he wanted to teach the youngest artists how to start socking away 10% of everything they earned and allow their monthly contributions, their nest egg the decades of time to grow. He knew life was short and at the other end of a career these artists would need this cushion to fall back on when their gigging days were up.
Matters were slightly less dire in Europe where he’d traveled and presented his ideas at similar conventions. In the United States there were no extra revenue streams for artists to invest in their own future. Instead he found performers living hand to mouth, month to month, much of the work was seasonal, rare was the act that had figured out how to build a robust year round tour.
Creatives are wired to put up with all manner of obstacles while dedicating countless hours, months and years building a new speculative piece that may or may not sell. Painters, composers, choreographers, and novelists spend years hoping they’ll maybe find an audience for what they are producing. Most of this work never sells, the work that does sell if you figure the time invested versus the return there is no business case to be made for working this way, but this is the only way this work gets done, by creative types who are doing what they have to do, this isn’t a choice, they must get this work into the world no matter the odds of the work paying off.
Patrons of the arts over the long course of history paid to have paintings created, plays written and symphony’s composed.
In 1946 Wallace Stegner, writer and environmentalist was offered to come to California and lead the Stanford Creative Writing Program and Writing Fellowships. Mr. Stegner had been a prolific writer, over 30 books, and then winning a Pulitzer in 1972 for Angle of Repose, but even still his financial circumstances throughout his life were modest, not so much dirt poor as having to endure so much financial instability that it interfered with his work. Stanford seized on the opportunity to recruit Stegner helping to give this artist a place to live and steady income affording him the opportunity to live beyond the circumstances of what he could earn as a writer. His appointment at Stanford was a form of patronage, and our cultural lives are all the better for it.
Stegner summed up his situation: “A talent is a kind of imprisonment. You’re stuck in it, you have to keep using it, or else you get ruined by it. It’s like a beaver’s teeth. He has to chew or else his jaws lock shut.”
Political hacks have for decades dissed on the National Endowment for the Arts. All in Washington spends about $1.4 billion on the arts. We’ve got little two seat fighter planes that cost more. The damage this lack of funding does to the lives of the artists scrambling through this bizarre world is incalculable. In some alternate world a larger investment in the arts would mean we still would still be teaching music in our public schools, instead of attending festivals designed around artisans hawking pottery and jewelry we might be part of a larger audience watching the amphibious kinetic sculpture racers. More of the funds would end up in schools and our creative students would have the opportunity to develop their craft, hone their skills, prepare for a productive adult life with a chance at making a living wage.
Our climate emergency grows worse by the day. Our climate scientists continue to produce more facts, they are busy building an action plan, filling in the holes in our technology with new tools we can use to fix one piece or another in our effort to end civilizations overuse of fossil fuels. This is a story that needs telling. Our best narrators come from theater, the best scripts from our community of writers, the best sound from our most gifted musicians. Hobbling our best talent because we are unable to understand how to put a price on the priceless, how somewhere in our dysfunctional minds where mistrust lurks, we remain silent while a small band of hot heads derail efforts to redirect our nations resources to corners of our economy that for too long have gone neglected, unfunded and misunderstood.
I started out in the business with a sidewalk circus, a show designed to go work where the people lived. Our audiences were walking across campus, getting on a bus, trying to get to a job, wherever we found people moving in sufficient numbers our show was designed to captivate that pedestrian, to attract them, hold them, entertain them and then if they wanted, if they could, at the shows end they could contribute to our cause, to help us get along for one more day, to make it to the next pitch, to entertain a new audience, because we had provided our audience with an experience of a kind that was like nothing they had ever had until now. That’s how the best of our creativity works by giving an audience an out of this world experience they never had imagined would give their souls such satisfaction and fulfillment. All of this, the fruit of our collective creativity is worthy of our time, attention and money.