Category Archives: Performances

I perform all over the world- check out what I’m up to now!

The Land Yacht… When Dreams were Big and Fuel was Still Cheap

Road Dog Deluxe

I found my Streamliner in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was the ultimate. I mean it was the full fantasy. In 1974 I was on the back lot at Circus Vargas. We had jumped over from St. Louisto see the show in Springfield, Missouri. They’d come off a mud lot and the trucks and trailers that arrived had been pulled off the last lot with tractors. Most rigs had buried their axles at the hubs into the mud. The center ring circus stars were the backstage mechanics who had to pull repack the bearings on their trucks and trailers between shows while preparing to jump to the next stop.

The new acts traveled in whatever they could scratch up. The families who had spent their lives in circus, the families that had come from families that had spent their lives in circus traveled in a rather distinctive manner. They pulled Airstream trailers with these massive Cadillac’s. These were the 500 cubic inch motors of this era.

Most circus shows worked east of the Mississippi and for good reason. West of there were mountains. West of there were long distances between towns. West of there were small populations. It was hard to scuff up enough people to make a show worthwhile.

Pulling an Airstream with a Cadillac on flat ground was not too hard on equipment. You don’t break down as often. You don’t fry transmissions. Motors don’t give it up going over a mountain pass.

I had plenty of years to consider how I wanted to do it. Dodge king cab diesel pickup truck with dual rear wheels was off the shelf perfect. Streamliner travel trailer looked good on her bumper. I already owned a proper towing hitch.

Big Bad Dodge Pulling a Classic...take that Shakespeare

She served me well while I owned her. Wasn’t a long affair, but it was a grand and elegant stop along the road called life.

Sold her to a collector out of Austin, Texas, he took ownership in Tucson, Arizona. When I bought the Dodge diesel was still under one dollar and fifty and when I sold her a gallon was running five bucks! Pretty much ended the heavy duty era of my touring life. I tried holding on for a spell, but unless it was a high dollar multiple week contract the trailer couldn’t come, didn’t pencil out.

Still it isn’t like I had to have that setup for the rest of my life. It wasn’t like I was going to need to vow devotion to a trailer. She came, did her little dance in my life, and at the right moment she departed, and a time and place of my choosing. Wasn’t more than six months later that I swapped out my Dodge Cummins Diesel for a Toyota Tacoma. Six diesel turbo powered cylinders for four naturally aspirated combustion chambers.

As a fellow performer reminded me once, “It isn’t what you have, it’s what you can tell someone you had.” So, there you go. If you’ve been thinking about running the highway with a rig and trailer like this I’d be careful. Be sure you know how far and how often you’ll need to pull her somewhere. Rig like this will eat you out of house and home in this day and age…

BANKRUPT HEART                THE SECOND NOVEL

Ry turned down the alley. He walked out onto the pier. There were fishing boats, some worn by work, others painted fresh. There were Purse Seiners and Long Liners mixed together with commercial sports fishermen boats. Across the way near the warehouse, the bigger vessels in the fleet were tied up at the docks. He counted two trollers. The next one looked like a Gillnetter and last, a ship built for fishing far offshore. Ry leaned on the rail. Tied up below was a Monterey Fisherman, a capable sea-going vessel. It was not big. Time had taken its toll. Hard for a one-man show to make a go of fishing.  Ry knew a few who still tried. Hard to make ends meet. Fuel bill, cost of bait, cost of ice, and a slim catch could eat up a man’s profits. A few seasons of that and a fisherman has no choice but to throw in the towel. Ry inhaled. The sea air was ripe with salt, the stink of fish, and a wisp of diesel fumes. Scoma’s, one of the oldest fish joints in the wharf, was set back out here above the bay water on the piers.

You’re No Dennis Conner

New Zealand briefly ahead...Spithill would soon put a stop to that

“I know Dennis Conner. Dennis Conner is a friend of mine.” Said a patron at the tavern I bellied up to. His friend from Scotland older and more subdued knew Dennis too. The two men offered by way of beer induced barrier reduction their back of the envelope opinion on this current incarnation of sports oldest prize.

“Not going to work. It is going to ruin the sport. Ellison is ruining the prize.”

I’d spent the day just north of the historic Midway now in repose in San Diego and open for business as historic artifact to tour. Seated with feet dangling over the piers edge I chewed the racing fat with nomadic armchair sailing types from such distant ports as Santa Cruz, Austin, Seattle, Newport, Yorba Linda, and San Francisco.

These are boomer men. Nearing the abyss of retirement they fend off the day of their uselessness by finding one way or another to remain in the game. But, a boomer man needs a good foil and lining the dock is a wide assortment of women. They won’t let on how much they know while the men can’t help revealing how little they do. This is the real fun. We don’t need to know who won or who lost. We just want to learn the truth by way of a thousand tangled fallacies. It is good for blood pressure.

As spectacle Friday worked better than Thursday or what I saw of Wednesday’s races. The French and American boats fight it out today for first place. Those of us on the edge of thePacific Ocean yesterday witness to the sports most technologically advanced racing machines vanquish their competitors with the brutal vengeance of such earlier masters of the match racing art as the esteemed Mr. Conner.

We bickered among ourselves over the start. Who had the advantage and who screwed up, each of us knew nothing while making up our opinion from whole clothe of pure speculation. And this is the thing. God knows how much it costs, but yesterday for the cost of some time and gas money I was permitted for free to appreciate a few fateful moments between boats on water. Because of the history of the cup we suppose significance, and there must have been something to that. But, in fact it came down to watching two boats and ten sailors see who can best the other. I’ve never had so much knowing so little and having it turn out that I would enjoy myself so much.

 BANKRUPT HEART               THE SECOND NOVEL

Dawn was pristine. The air crisp, clean, the sky empty, the sea was true, chasmal…blue. No chop on the water; no cloud in the sky. Limantour Beach was alone, still, breathless. Not another soul had set foot here this morning, but for Ry and Finn. It was the first day, the New Year. They walked barefoot in the sand at the surf’s edge, acquainting their thoughts to the booze-soaked resolutions they’d taken the night before. The least waves arrived.  The Pacific was in repose between storms.  The surf’s soundtrack was a languid slow curling muffled splashing that reverberated up and down the beach.

Bankrupt Heart Copyright © 2011 by Dana Smith

The Road that Never Ends

Refurbishment of the Venerable Touring Rig

Pulling off a national tour means you need a reliable
vehicle. Here I am installing my fourth motor into my ’67 Ford. I did all my
own work. The first few rebuilds were not so good, but they got better and
lasted longer with practice. Note the camper shell. This shell was scrapped and
a new shell was purchased in 1985. So, for the first 8 years when I faced a
headwind, and in show business there are many fuel consumption increased and progress
decreased.

Unplanned Small Town Stop...

I was returning from Key West,
Florida in 1988 when I burned up my rear axle
bearings on Interstate 10 some 60 miles east of Houston, Texas.
Was towed into a town called Anahuac where I
got a room. Room came with a bed. Town didn’t have a restaurant. It did have a
convenience store. Next day local welder cut the bearing off the axle and
pressed new bearing into place. I installed the axle and was back on the road.

Stage Coach Stop, Gold Mine, and Hot Spring

Here I am parked in Warm   Springs, Nevada. Had
a good camp alongside a desolate stretch of at the junction of Hwy 6 / Hwy 375,
the roads skirt the edges of the northeastern boundary to the atomic test site.
If you look into the back of my rig you can see on the right side a large aluminum
water cooler. To the left I stored food, Coleman two burner stove, pots, pans,
plates, silverware, had a manual powered coffee grinder. There is a modest
sized ice chest. With care and planning I could eat fresh good food for a week
without coming in from the wilds. I shared the camp with this gentleman biking
across the country.

Gourmet Coffee, Great Views, Terrific Service

Here I am in Hells Canyon on the Idaho
side taking a much needed lunch break along the Snake
River with Sunshine. Main thing to understand that touring
grassroots isn’t just about going from one town to another, one show, one
audience to another, it is also about being good to yourself every mile of the
journey. Emptiness is no longer uncomfortable. It becomes your living room. It
is where you live between shows.

It Must Be Love

If I had a lot of time between dates I would make myself at
home. Here I am parked at a hot spring for a few days while waiting to play a
date in La Grande, Oregon. When I had the time, and when I have the time, I’ll get my tent out and set up camp. Having a hot spring to soak in makes snow camping a treat. This is the Ukiah-Hilgard Hwy.
It is a remote and rugged seldom visited area of Oregon. You have to be comfortable in  your own bones to be here. There were no
telephones, cell phones, computers, any digital devices of any kind. At night I
might try tuning in my AM radio see if I could pick up a skip signal off the atmosphere
and catch the news at the top of the hour.

 

I had the opportunity to hang with some dancers from the
Joffrey Ballet. Audiences are not aware of the rigorous testing that artists
undertake when heading out on tour. In 1967  the company traveled from New
York to San Francisco to play at the Opera House. The entire company arrived by way of a station
wagon that transported them 3000 non stop miles. It is in facts like this that
our imaginations muse upon the life an artist lives off stage as well as on.

BANKRUPT HEART                     THE SECOND NOVEL

He continued to
just thumb through the pages of the book he’d picked from the shelf. He plunged
into the prose, selected at random, where it read, “…The abyss had been furious
with me.  The barometer continued to
sink.  Winds had increased from a full
gale to storm force.  Under bare poles,
sea anchor deployed, hatch sealed, I wedged my body for safe keeping into the
rear quarter berth, faith in my vessel resolute, she was not the weak
link.  If there was a chance something
might fail, that risk resided in character…”

            Ry
was tired. The book fell on his chest. He fell asleep. The book startled him.
He lifted it up. He continued to read. “I had been called— a cruel insistent
demand.  Luck’s allowance fully spent, it
was time to pass through the eye of my worst fears…”

Bankrupt Heart Copyright © 2011 by Dana Smith

Worth a Try

to learn something more about what show is and is not...

I find some of my earliest material from my show
embarrassing. I would have preferred to have come out of the starting blocks
with a perfect beginning.

 

My first few years consisted of a wide range of elements.
There was juggling, magic, mindreading, sketch comedy, puppetry,
water-spitting, springboard acrobatic stunts, and handbalancing. I tried
writing poetry, built sketches using such devices as couplets set to the rhythm
of iambic pentameter. I wrote one-liners galore.  I wrote witty things I could say for stray
dogs, fire trucks, windy weather, rude audience members, unruly children, and
just about any other potential event that might be anticipated.

 

In 1979 I had built more than 3 hours of material. In 1980
going solo and working sidewalks in San
Francisco I distilled the 180 minutes of material down
to 15! And then I found adding another solid 5 minutes excruciating to come up
with. The sidewalk show demanded a quick start, a rapid succession of more and
more interesting stunts, verbal patter and a strong finish.

 

So, a brightly colored costume and a gigantic puppet made in
my likeness was an interesting concept, but in practice it fell short for what
was needed for the audiences I was gathering on the street. Still, the
experimentation clued me into where to look next. I have always believed street
theater needed to be an act of imagination.

From the vantage point of the present it seems obvious, but
in 1978 the concept of what street theater might mean was still an open
question. There were no pat answers yet, no formulas, no templates. In San Francisco the streets
of 1978 was an era full of divergence. Eccentric musicians, roller skating
accordion players, pantomime, and puppet shows. In 2011 the list of things
presented as street performance is much narrower now.

 

Now, as I look at all the material I’ve ginned up over the
years I am grateful, not just for what worked, but for what didn’t, and what
those things that didn’t work have taught me. In one sense it isn’t what is in
the show, but what an artist decides to leave out.

BANKRUPT HEART                        THE SECOND NOVEL

 

“Ry, look at you, didn’t have two
nickels you could rub together when we met, you had nothing, nothing…and
nothing didn’t pay the bills, I got you work, you hit here, one rough spot in
all of these years, and you fold like a cheap pocket knife, take your marbles
and go home, great, good for you, but this won’t even buy paperclips, it’ll get
you two week vacation in Fresno, so you walk away from this one, don’t hold
your breath Ry, might as well know it now, before you find out later, you’re
done, over,”

            Finn
was angry. Thought Mort was out of line. Ry put his hand on Finn’s shoulder to
keep him in his seat.

            “Mort,
thanks, I appreciate the show. I mean it. You get an award. Best agent in the
role of trying to scare his act into signing a deal that he’ll never be happy
in.”

            “I
thought you were smarter than this,”

            “I’m
a clown Mort. I’m fiction, made up, washed out, done, don’t think I’m going
back,” Ry was at ease with his choice, he smiled, “time for something else,”

Bankrupt Heart Copyright © 2011 by Dana Smith

Street Show as Heart Song

New York Times in New York City, Sunday Edition

My career in show business spans almost four decades. For
many years I have presented somewhere around 300 performances per year. That’s
a solid number. Some years I didn’t do that many shows and in other years it is
likely that I approached as many as 750. There were a chunk of years that I did
shows in Fisherman’s Wharf, at a rate of 15 shows per week. Do the math. I’ve
done a lot of shows.

 

We become
creatures of the stage. We are always in front of audiences. We dial in and
fine tune. We can feel energy. We can remember the last few days and if an
audience is tired or uptight we pick it up right away. We know how to handle
it. We know what to do. We are prepared. We’ve come up with solutions to
situations and have tested the material. For a veteran act we can work with
confidence. In one situation it might mean trying harder, picking up the pace,
or perhaps it means slowing down, relaxing and accepting the audience’s
collective consciousness just the way you find it.

Poster Graphic circa 1977, by Mari Dempsey Artist/Performer

I’ve put up numerous pages now. If you stroll through my
performing blog pages you’ll find pictures and stories from a wide range of
different points in my career, a wide range of different shows, presented in
different places. It is difficult to sometimes convey how this mosaic of
experience affects us. We can be the center of attention while we are doing a
show and can be utterly alone and isolated moments after the performance is
complete. We can travel for days and do one show for an audience and then pack
up and travel again for days before we do another. A solo performer must be
good at being alone.

 

I place
emphasis upon heart. Show business requires a certain kind of mental toughness,
but it also demands sensitivity. We must be capable of empathy. We have to feel
our way into a performance. We need to read our audiences. Look at a face and
know by that quick glance what that person might be feeling. We listen
carefully. Too much noise and it might mean the audience is restless, maybe
they can’t focus, perhaps it is late in the afternoon, they’re hungry, tired.
You have to know how to pick up on these things. A performance is collaboration,
a two way street, it is audience and artist, the world’s oldest biofeedback
system.

Sing...."Oh... its lonely at the top....."

Our lives are different. Our children, our partners, friends
they see it, they know. It is more roller coaster than merry-go-round. We get a
big fat contract and find ourselves in the chips and the next month we are
scuffing up work here and there as we can. It is a groundless life or perhaps a
secure life. Learning how to gather a crowd and do a show and then pass that
hat if you are skillful can be something to depend on. Still I would suggest
street performance is heart driven, you have to put the whole of your heart
into the thing. If you don’t want to use your whole heart, you’ll want to get
off the roller coaster and buy a ticket for the merry-go-round. Each ride is
its own experience….

HIGHWAY HOME                 THE FIRST NOVEL 

 

 

She was rail thin, clad in denim, a
cotton blouse, and a white straw cowboy hat. She had white hair gathered up
with a silver and turquoise clasp into a ponytail. She’d been riding a while
and sweat had come, and dust clung to the wet patches on her shirt. She had a
pair of leather gloves stuffed in her back pocket and a handkerchief tied
around her neck. Noel didn’t know how old she was. She moved better than she
looked. She had lace-up boots with a riding heel and spurs strapped on. She had
an easy look in her eyes. They were brown, clear, and kind looking. She looked
into Noel’s eyes when she spoke, otherwise she tended to keep her eyes held
away from things. She had a way of being polite and giving a person their
space. Lot of sun had damaged her skin. Parts of her face had lines, other
parts had deep creases. Her skin had been wrinkled by what appeared to be a
hard climate and a long stretch of time.

She admired his van. “Got a pretty good
home away from home. Looks like you know how to take care of yourself.”

“I’m out here for a few days. Maybe
more.”

“Taking your time out here. That never
hurt nobody; more harm in rushing.”

Highway Home Copyright © 2009 by Dana Smith

 

Sometimes I Played for Elephants

Page from Milage Log 1978

Touring a show by truck is a different experience from
flying to an airport, renting a car, staying at a hotel, and getting all your
meals in restaurants. I arranged my pickup truck to fit my show equipment and
everything I would need to eat and sleep while traveling.

 

 

To travel in this way requires a whole set of different
muscles. You need to know where you can park and sleep at night and not be
hassled. You need to time cooking with light of day. You need to deal with
wind, rain and cold.

 

Diversity of opinion, wide range of locations, paints a picture of a veteran

Everything on a truck tour is about the show. What time is
the show? Where is it? How do I shower, shave, get my hair looking right and
get into costume so I am ready? If you are in Hammond, Louisiana
for the first time it takes some effort to pull this off on the sly and the
cheap.

If the tour was booked efficiently there wasn’t much down
time. You arrived and set up, did the show, pack up, look at the schedule and then
drive to the next spot. Might be a short drive might take the rest of the day.
Arriving late at night I used all night coffee shops for parking lots where I
could sleep.

Circa Early 90's Windsor, Ontario

There were animals that needed care. I cleaned cages, took
the dog for a walk, tried to get the chicken out and let her peck around on the
ground when I was in camp. Sometimes I would have a friend in the town I was
visiting. Sometimes I made new friends and sometimes I didn’t. I carried my
Smith-Corona typewriter with me and when I could I’d set it up and write. I
also used yellow legal pads when I needed to work on material.  I juggled and did my handbalancing training in
a park. Sometimes I’d crash a college campus and find a hallway that was dry
and warm where I could practice. Not once was I ever asked to leave.

There was solitude in this kind of touring. There was empty
space between one place and the next. Nothing was out there. Just one small
town and then another. You had to be comfortable and take good care of your
rig. Change the oil, keep an eye on things. You didn’t want to break down in
the middle of nowhere. If you did break down you might be stuck out there for a
long time waiting for help.

Where is Lake Havasu? Right next to Nowhere...

But, this is what touring in the small time is all about.
You are closer to your audiences. It is this intimacy between artist and
audience that if you enjoy performing makes the touring worthwhile. The small
time is located in your heart, next to your audience while you perform your
show. It is this warmth, this intimacy, between audience and artist. This is
the purpose of the tour, the reason for the voluntary sacrifice.

Induction at Start of Show ,       Circa 1977

Miracles

Is there such a thing?

Laughter

Is the song you sing

Clowns

Every always flirting

Then look!

Into the wild blue yonder

Bolting

Crashing…the fury of thunder

Swoosh…

The windy dance of the sparrow

Finally

Rain descends

Friends

Huddle about some puddle

Grey

Gives way to a blue day

So here we are

As the curtain goes up

And the show goes on

Like a newborn pup

To the merriest song…

Street Performing as Spoken Word

Sunshine the performing dog, Cookie my chicken, and Leonardo my Cat

 

Dana Smith  Harlequin Street Theater from 1978

 

My approach to street theater has placed particular emphasis
on words. It is the power of the spoken word when combined with visual
elements, and situational moments that can be one of the most effective tools
when building a successful show. In the vernacular of the showman it is called
patter. For comics it is all set up and blow off, premise and punchline.

We paint pictures with our words. We create illusions that
our audience holds in their imagination.

“Everything was going fine until we lost our band in Pocatello, Idaho…”
I’ll sometimes say.

It talks of travel, of touring, of a whole cast, of mishap,
hazard, and the inevitable chaos of touring.

Some acts just want to be funny, at all times. It isn’t the
only way to do things. You can drive a show by playing it straight, you might
rely upon charm, it could be you even do something dramatic.

Al Shakespeare used to do a short piece with a whale being
harpooned by a whaler. The whale’s soliloquy was heartwrenching and audiences
weeped over the puppets death.

The veteran street act generally paints from a pallet of
many colors. The show experience is not so range bound. The experience becomes
more fully human. The audience feels a wider range of emotions.

The single most important part of the act is the finale. How
you get there, and what you might do to wind up the show is a matter of
artistic choice. Laughter is helpful, but a seasoned variety act begins to
trust the multiplicity of possible human variations of emotion.

Here is one of the closing salutations used in my show circa
1977….

Closing time, calling out

Last chance for a dance

To the tune of trumpeting

Elephants wandering

From table to table

The ending of a fable

Is a warm violin

The making of new friends.

Closing time calling out

And the wanderer walks

Peddling to the next town

Some circus tricks, magic

And an acrobatic clown

Who sees in his frolic

The savory embrace

Of your souvenir face