Tag Archives: Royal Lichtenstein Circus

Another Roadside Distraction

The Kid with the Old Man in Edmonton

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.”

Big Bad Dodge Pulling a Classic…take that Shakespeare

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.

What a Pair Sunshine and Her Performing Juggler Dana

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.

The Year from the Rearview Mirror

Mojave Desert Spring 2011

In June I completed the manuscript to Bankrupt Heart a project I’d been working on for some 21 months. This was the first of firsts, the vow to see to the end the finishing of the second novel.

Bankrupt Heart my second novel has a tighter plot, memorable characters, sharp dialogue, and unrelenting pacing. With all that in mind I’ve spent most of the rest of the year searching for an agent. That search continues.

I have been guiding my performing dog through the twilight years. She is 16 years old. She is mostly deaf and blind. She enjoys a good bowl of food. She is stiff in the morning. By the afternoon she enjoys warming her old bones in the sun. She’s a profile in dignity.

Show business was good to me this year. Tempe Festival of the Arts had staged me in the premier venue at their event and had kept me in that location for an unbroken twice a year appearance beginning in December of 2000. The show played to record breaking audiences for most of the rest of the decade, but between the financial crisis, housing bubble bursting, the recession and tepid recovery, and of course the retirement of Lacey in 2009 the show that had worked so well at this venue had somehow through all of those changes no longer suited the space. It was hard to let go.

Lacey flying in Tempe circa 2003

Still the year was full of new opportunities: appearing for five nights at the legendary Olympic Club inSan Francisco for Father-Daughter Night, the Stanislaus County Fair, the many library programs I had an opportunity to play.

This year’s favorite audience award goes to the Chocolate Festival in Berkeley, California where I was able to attract a rather cerebral-liberal-scholarly-sophisticated-urban-international-family oriented-clan of like minded people and be this years best street audience. What does that mean? It is the quality of their being with me, their surrender, their interest, their willingness, their getting it, and wanting it. This was one of those moments when I believe we all walked away from the thing feeling as if we all got what we always wanted from one another.

The Great Ones

I said goodbye to Hokum W Jeebs, Steve Hansen, Vince Bruce and Stuartini the Magnificient. We’ll leave the ghost light on for these great showmen.

The personal and fascinating dinner with the Tony Award winning choreographer Bill T Jones who had just come from rehearsals for a show that he is mounting on Broadway in 2013! Jennifer Bain a great painter and friend for showing continued artistic courage. The reincarnation of Steve Aveson who was a few years ago flat on his back now back on both feet! A daughter who seems to get any grade she wants now in her second year at SeattleUniversity. And the brilliant Uncle Milt Gonsalves who helped make all those last minute edits and bring grammatical elegance to Bankrupt Heart.

What is just ahead? Bankrupt Heart is just now available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I’ll be trying encourage some thousands and thousands of you to read while I continue to try and find a literary agency that can help me take my work to the next level. Next week I’ll begin outlining the story to my next novel Hot Spring Honeymoon. With luck I’ll be set to begin drafting the manuscript by March.

And finally I want to express my appreciation for the love my wife Eileen gives to me each and every day. Whether I am alone on the road traveling from town to town presenting shows, or in my office with the door closed writing from early morning until late into the night. Nobody does it alone. Eileen sprinkles that magic fairy dust over my dreams…helping me vanquish doubt and firing up the torch that lights my way.

Sunset on Las Trampas solstice

See you all in the new year…

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.

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

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

The Great Romance of Street Theater

My Little Girl With Two Buskers with Great Soul....

Developing an efficient way of stopping pedestrians is not
so simple. It is a trial and error process. Eventually each act finds something
that does the trick. Some acts are incredibly skillful at gathering an
audience.

There are all kinds of street shows. People present all
kinds of skills. Some people work silent, others talk. Some work solo, others
work in a group. Many of us work from a set of principles. We establish some
sort of framework. We arrange to practice and train. We develop our skills. We
rehearse new whole routines. We write material. We try it. We toss out what
doesn’t work and we refine what does. Even if we work silent we’ll at the least
outline the idea move by move.

There is content and form. We think about the structure. How
long the show runs. What is first and what comes last. We know we can lose
audiences between routines so we work on our transitions. We know we can kill a
show if we put a weak routine in the show. If the routine is really weak
everything we’ve worked to build up to that point can vanish in an instant.
People will just walk away.

The good acts develop great material, great content, but
they also know that the structure of the show must work hand in glove with the
other elements. The mother’s milk of street is spontaneity. We thrive upon
being seamlessly woven into the present moment, even if its all an act, the
street show has to come off fresh, original, as if happening for the first
time.

Here is where the interactive skills of an act seal the
deal. A versatile act will adjust their material to the situation and an
audience will never notice that what they are watching is actually scripted
out, practiced, and has been performed hundreds and hundreds of times.

A veteran street act can step in and out of character,
winking and letting the audience in on the fact they really are just doing the
old act. But, to pull this off they need to demonstrate their command of the
situation. If the performer can earn an audiences respect, if they trust the performer,
admire the skillfulness, and appreciate the general direction the entertainment
is taking them, then the act is poised for success.

Learning how to street perform is difficult. Most performers
must practice the craft and learn by trial and error. It is time consuming for
most of us. Rarely someone comes along who seems to just make great
adjustments, good decisions, and the right choices so fast as to have a shorter
journey.

It is why street is what it is and why it is suitable for so
few… It is painful, difficult, and failure is waiting for you just ahead at
your next show. Then, on the other hand it can be like no other experience you
have ever had……..

Invocation to Show circa  1976 

You are the chance of a dream

The dream of a dance

We are a song

Sung with a swirl

A carwheeling feeling

Where…

Who shall ever dare

Must weigh with care

The fear and risk

Rising to the chance

To there

Sommersault

Catapault

Vault with us

To there… there…

Dancing… Dancing…

We are the chance of a dream

The dream of a dance…

Father Daughter Life on the Road…

It's only a stage she was going through...

Tonight I begin a Father-Daughter Night series at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Over the next two weekends I’ll do five nights of shows with the irrepressible Bob Sarlatte hosting the stage. Bob’s a Saint Ignatius High School
grad. I went to school at Bellarmine. My wife and I have three daughters. Our youngest, Alana Rose, is in her second year at Seattle University.

I can hear the intro now, “Live, on stage, tonight, for one show only, the only all Jesuit educated entertainment to be found west of St. Mary’s Cathedral!”

Alana was raised backstage. When only seven we landed in Phoenix at 4 in the morning, Alana told me to get the luggage and she’d go get the cab! When late while driving between the smallest towns in Wyoming Alana had the best eye for the perfect spot to pull over and park the truck and trailer. She liked to park and sleep near rivers.

She has developed a keen eye for variety entertainment. She knows what makes Flying Bob so appealing and appreciates the staccato rat-a-tat-tat comic musings of Rhys Thomas. She is also quick to spot a hole in an  entertainers game. And did I mention that her concision of explaining the plot to a movie is preternatural.

She has worked with me at the Oregonand Ohio State Fair’s. She has traveled across Western Canada. She thinks the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival rocks, and that The Country Fair is sacrament.

She’s danced since forever; modern dance. It’s kind of difficult to pick her up and carry her on my hip like I once did. I was away in Yuma performing at a festival (Hillbilly Willy aptly described this gig as part of the Bleak  Tour) and missed her birthday when she was seven years old. That still makes my heart ache. But, the road isn’t just a place to work and travel, it is also a place you go and miss things, like daughters growing up, and birthdays, and  helping her off to school.

Still, she’s a trouper. She understands backstage life. She knows what we go through offstage to put our best efforts out onstage. She has a solid gin game. Likes to play the out of state license plate game, has been introduced to the fine art of the game horse by El Gleno Grande, and has dined on white linen in the dining tent at Carson and Barnes Circus just before being invited to go feed the elephants with the trainer who promised her a ride.

          I love that kid. I love all my daughters. I love the sound of that word, “Dad…” I owe most of my humanity to those women. Oh, and one more girl, she’s old now, and I owe a debt to her too. Thanks Lacey. You’ve been there for me when it has counted.

BANKRUPT HEART                       THE SECOND NOVEL

“Your hair is getting long.” She  brushed it back.

            “Last  time it was this long you were still a little girl?” Ry said.

            “Was  I a little girl?”

            “If  I was carrying you in my arms backstage, then you were still a little, tiny,
baby, girl…”

            “I  don’t remember…”

            “You  were busy growing up, too busy, too grown up, too soon…”

Sophia exercised  care as she brushed her father’s hair. It was soothing, peaceful, ritual, a
father-daughter intimacy. They had a knack for hanging out backstage. “Your
hair is definitely getting thinner up here dad.” She smiled, wasn’t being
sassy, “sorry.”

            “Yeah,  well that’s life. It comes, it goes. If I had stayed in radio, nobody would
have noticed.”

Bankrupt Heart Copyright © 2011 by Dana Smith

Long Hops and short stops

“I know what you’re thinking, what a horrible way for a chicken to have to make a living. Well, there are a lot of chickens working at Safeway and they’re not having half as much fun.”

In the early 70’s as the counter cultural movement took to the streets the first wave of artists built shows from scratch. We had no templates to work from. By the early 80’s that was over. Acts arrived at venues derived from the first wave shows of the late 60’s to early 70’s. We felt a tremendous sense of freedom in the beginning. Audiences like artists had no expectations. Still it was at its heart a form of theater and as such there were rules. The basic rule was gather a crowd, hold
them together, turn them into an audience, and if done properly at the end when you passed your hat there would be a fair exchange between artist and audience.

Over the span of almost 40 years I have created about 6 different closing routines. These are the best of the best material, the surefire, knock them dead, take no prisoners, this is the one you’ve been waiting to see routines. Perhaps the wildest most talked about stunt I’ve ever devised was to juggle fire while balancing a chicken on my head.

American Airlines Magazine 1988

 

In the winter of 1986 Will Soto brought a lot of us together in Key   West for a festival he’d titled Buskerfest. Talent scouts from Europe and Canada were there; in particular Edmonton’s brilliant festival director Dick Finkel. He imagined our shows not as mere minor additions to a larger show or festival, but instead he imagined our shows as a festival in and of itself. He bet that he could make street theater into a stand alone festival.

With that in mind Dick went about the business of finding out who among the many acts practicing street theater were doing first rate original work. It was this group he believed that he could build a festival from. And with an eye on quality he believed his audience would return the following year. He was right and the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival in Alberta, Canada will present its 28th festival in 2012.

Some of my most cherished experiences have come while performing in Edmonton. In addition to simply performing our shows we also combined our talents and present special productions. Late Night Madness was one, and a late night fire extravaganza another. I had the privilege of writing, directing and performing in some of these larger productions. Some of these audiences numbered in the many thousands. Under such circumstances we were able to test and prove that our material was versatile enough to engage audiences of all types and sizes.

 

Great Canadian Audiences

 

So, this is one small fragment of the whole. Whether on stage in front of audiences that looked something like this or, backstage after a show hanging out with some of the local fans who looked something like this, I can say that working in street theater has turned out to be one of the grand adventures of my life. To all the audiences and to all the artists I’ve shared time with I will always be grateful.

Volunteers waiting backstage..........

 BANKRUPT HEART            THE SECOND NOVEL

Mort watched his best act from the
back of the room. To his ear he was trying too hard. He knew how Ry’s mind
worked. He watched his eyes. It wasn’t the lines, it was what he was thinking,
not what he said, what he was feeling, how he worked the room. Mort could hear
the whirling gears inside his best acts mind.

“I think timing is everything,” Ry
was shifting gears, “fundraiser’s are good things, giving a little is good for
you, good for the world, good for these kids we’re putting this event on for,
but I mean, talk about timing, what’s going on with Wall Street? All the lousy
luck, it’s a bad time for newspapers, they’re getting smaller and folks I don’t
know if you’ve noticed but the news it has been getting bigger.” Ry laughs at
his own line of thinking.

Bankrupt Heart Copyright © 2011 by Dana Smith

 

 

 

Circus as Change

Tailgate Backstage at Gig

Especially interesting speculation with regard to whether the newfangled cirque is a durable long lasting incarnation. And it comes while finding by accident this other iteration of circus, something that seems to have survived against all odds.

Time will tell. Fortune telling is not my specialty. It seems the era when Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Phil Silvers, Chaplan, Groucho etc… all spawned from vaudeville and in some stroke of change were able to rise and command a place in these new high dollar venues of broadcast radio, the pioneering days of television and motion pictures.

But, in this journey vaudeville theaters withered and closed, those that could adapted their acts to playing fairs, nightclubs, and circus. They had the Catskills and Pocono’s, the senior circuit in Florida and to a lesser extent the winter resorts in Arizona, maybe Vegas.

There are revues still most times you see them on cruise ships. This is what is left of what we’d call vaudeville. Cirque has provided a vehicle for well trained circus artists, but they seem to design the shows to feature the cirque and we never seem to witness the creation of that new  phenomenal individual must see performer or act from the show. Our attention is drawn to the concept, the costumes, the colossal new this or that…

So, I’m
with you, more comfortable visiting the lower rungs of the pyramid of success
and show, where miracles of virtuous skill and rehearsal can be savored at a
graspable level. Of course Disney on Ice, and other large arena spec type shows
seem to endure and remain fixtures on the scene. Cirque with the wind at their
back are likely to remain influential for some years ahead, but all around them
the world is changing and one difficult day they will likely find they are no
longer as synchronized with the trends and tastes of the moment and their scale
and size will shrink to something other than what is happening now.