Tag Archives: Street Performers

Heart and Home

This is the story of the extended dialogue. It begins in Echo Park at a poker game in 2002. Robert Nelson drove me over from Venice in his passion red Morris Minor— passion in any color was Robert through and through. Playing that night were a handful of street performers. Sean Laughlin and Lee Ross were at the table. Sean, I knew from working sidewalk shows in Fisherman’s Wharf, Lee from festivals we played in Halifax and Edmonton.

Dearly beloved we are gathered here to walk into the mystery

Traveling through Nevada in 2016 I reached out to Sean and stopped over at his century old digs in Silver City. In 2019 on the road for performances in Canada I’d stopped in Ft Collins, Colorado for shows at the street pitch in Old Town. Lee was south near Boulder and came north for a meet up.

I had forgotten about the three of us playing poker in LA, sometimes there just isn’t enough bandwidth to keep all these accidental interactions sorted out in your head.  

Each of us have met with much success in show business. Sean had been working cruise ships out of Australia, he’d come up with a double act, the other half of the act was a woman, they were business partners on stage and romantic partners off.

Lee had worked New York City, Paris and other corners of the world. Cirque de Soleil had cast him to play the part of ringmaster in their Australian unit. Lee was tapped for the part based off his improvisational skills and comic madness— Lee goes over the falls, jumps from the highest building and socks you with his humor in the belly. Lee is one funny fucker— if he was one of our nation’s founding documents he’d be categorized as an original.

All three of us have honed improvisational comic skills. All three of us have set routines. We’ve got bits, gags, and time-tested one-liners. We’ve performed our shows 1000’s of times. We have worked all over the world. On any given night any of the three of us could have been the best act on the bill— yes, the three of us can knock a building down with laughter.

After decades in the business, after signing one contract after another, stopping over to play some street pitches for fun, to meetup with our peers, after decades of this work along came the pathogenic crisis and our access to work came to a grinding halt.

Last week traveling east from my place in San Francisco up to Silver City, Nevada and then further east to Salida, Colorado it was on this 1200-mile drive that my memory jelled, and I connected the dots. 

In the last years I’ve been writing novels, there are four obscure seldom read but superb works of fiction, none have been acquired by a major publishing house, but that is a marketing challenge and not a creative failure. Locking up and having our output sputter to a halt is another malady altogether.

Lee about the same decade plus was working in Hollywood— he sold a few scripts, produced a few shows, and is in the hunt to do more.

Sean’s father passed (Travis T Hip) and his Berkeley born son inherited the property in Silver City. These are complicated bones some refurbished to perfection while other parts remain unfinished, much still to do, there is a legacy and fortune to honor here.

Where to live is a question— the three of us have no sure answers. How best to use our heart’s is another— passionate physical comedians talking heart power is a rant inside a poem peppered with false hopes, dead ends and Eureka moments a mother would die knowing about.

The question of our going into rehearsals and preparing to go back onstage is part of our conversation. We’re all Broadway Baby’s, the whole lot of us born in a packing trunk— our parents worked at the 5 and 10, just so someday we could be in a great big Broadway show— oh…………….

Place as Soul, Here is what ache looks like

Down the list of what is next— what to do about scratching up money, how to get more fat hat’s, and where we might get all this spare laughter— what we would do with the involuntary guffaw treasure— yeah we kick the past, present and how we’ll deal with our monthly nut— making the nut is part of the grind— we run our tread thin— to the bone— once you’ve scraped up a living from what you can find on a sidewalk— once you’ve tasted cheap paved thrills there is a confidence that drowns the second guessing and promises you’ve made to your landlord that you of all people to doubt are better than good for the rent.

Sean was none too keen about signing up for another run on a cruise ship. Terms included being under contract for almost four months, and during the run to remain safe from Covid the artist would not be allowed to go ashore. If you worked the gig you remained aboard the entire time— that’s not necessarily music to the ears of a world class performer who is otherwise accustomed to having prior to this moment all manner of adventure, leisure and self discovery. Clipping our wings isn’t something we’d sign up for.

Lee has been ensconced in an entirely different puzzle to sort through. Done with Boulder, no longer able to see any sense in simply holding onto doing more shows on the pitch on the mall he moved up to the mountain town of Salida, Colorado. Where the two of us intersect in the present is our work as writers. Lee has been producing scripts, some written with a partner, then trying to get the projects into the hands of producers who might acquire the rights. 

The market for new fiction and screenplays has been undergoing change, turmoil isn’t even the beginning of how to describe what is underway, it is seismic, tidal— today’s marketplace resembles nothing like what a novelist or screenwriter confronted two decades earlier. 

Three of us have long been buskers. All of us have told ourselves time and again if we ever got down on our luck, we could pitch the act back up on a sidewalk and scuff up a few bucks. It is a common conceit among sidewalk show-makers. The question is how hard we’d have to hit bottom before we’d return to pound out shows on the pavement— at some point in a life there is located a point of no return, that for many practical reasons remounting the act to work on a sidewalk will meet neither the moment nor the requirements of an evolving showman. Still, it’s this letting go thing that’s hardest of all.

Considering how we’ve all ridden the rough and tumble, up and downs of show business, just when you figure this is it, that’s all she’s wrote, you get a call, you toss your hat into the ring, and once more you yoke your show to a contract and a year later look back at another good run.

Whatever comes next— what we build from scratch— no more hanging on to yesterday— this is the present moment point of departure for this group of three men plotting next chapters. What binds us to this conversation is we know we’ve two other’s who can appreciate the fix we’re all in.

Love looks something like this, not exactly since love isn’t certain

So maybe we do a show maybe we don’t, maybe we stay right where we are maybe we go somewhere else, most of what looks fixed and bolted down turns out to be fungible, going off on a lark is part of what sidewalk showmen do with the rest of their lives. 

Like back in the poker playing party days, I forged ahead with love— met my wife— had the sense to marry the woman— I put one piece of my life into order. I’m the older guy here among the poker players and they’ve been lucky at cards and somewhat less lucky at love, not that there has been any shortage of opportunities, but getting in and staying in is something else, something you got to work at, and the work of intimacy— ain’t for sissies— it takes guts kid.

What the three of us do know is that we hold a pretty good set of cards. We’d all like to make good and all three are willing to bet their life on it. Two of the three are considering potentials to form partnerships, it is in their nature to love and be loved— good thing if you can find it, form it and keep it on track.

Two of us have traded in our suitcase and have a steady place to live, not that this has been easy or that we have any knack for being in the same place, but damn it we are giving it a go, we pretend we’re just like everyone else even if we’ve never lived anywhere for long since decades ago when we were still just a couple of wise cracking talk backing boys. 

Of the one of us that hasn’t gone all in on a spot— and I’m privy to no inside information here— what I know is my gut tells me there is a move to be made and this last busker is ready to trade in his suitcase for a place he can call his own— these things happen even when you believe that they never will or that you are the one drifter that will just have to keep roaming the wide world until the end of your days.

That’s us in a nutshell, or maybe just the nut with no shell. We do a show or not, we love as we can and finally talk ourselves into sticking around. End times for vagabonds— this is the look and how it is done. I’d bet two weeks from now all of this could change— they both raise me and call— they want to see the cards I’m holding in my hand— sure thing Poncho 

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Code of Street Performing Conduct

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Love Your Audience

There is no getting off the road, there are no breaks— you can’t undo what you’ve bet your life on. One of the hardest hand to mouth games ever invented in this world of hard knocks is busking full time. No contracts, no off site gigs, just pure hat and more hat shows. You do so many you’re at risk of drowning in a sea of nickels, dimes and quarters.

To take the edge off, to stand just that much further from the abyss some acts blend the footloose street show with the paid for hire show’s. For the sake of profit and efficiency contracts and appearances need to be packed tight. A good act is infused with an evangelical enthusiasm. The paid gig, as sweet as that payday might be, is never more than a prayer and a hope whereas a first class street pitch opens the door to pure worshipping at the altar of the almighty unseen mystery and miracle. It is not exaggeration to claim street theater in some spontaneously combustible way is as near to a religious experience as you will ever behold.

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Running with the Wild and Free

A street act is either in town or on the road, behind the wheel or on stage. A day off with no show is an odd unwelcomed event, something worrisome and undesirable. Fairs and festivals are all performed by binding contract between the producer and artist, the agreements are simple fee for service agreements. Some entertainers might forward stage, light and sound requirements, but a grizzled street act, tested by parkway and boulevard, the hardcore bust your butt busker urban take no guff kind, are most times pure point and shoot types. A veteran street act is accustomed to possessing the chops to walk on steal the show. “Hand me that mike. Is it hot? Let’s roll…”

Buskers are all about squeezing the light out of the red dawn and gold dusk, there is no tomorrow, there is this opportunity right here, this show, this crowd, what are you waiting for? In the vernacular of the street, “Throw it down, and whip it out…” a racy phrase that means to set down your prop case and do what you do— perform.

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Skylight before a Starry Night

Street veterans eat the scenery. The Grand Canyon would be lucky to even be noticed. Empirically this may not stand up to factual analysis but by size of heart and willingness of spirit— this kind of zeal is customary. Buskers are all great infinite expectation unexpectedly seized by ‘I never saw it coming’ heart failure. This is the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. We are trained by sidewalks to talk our way into anything and get out of more corners and tight spots than an average Joe might know was even possible to be caught in to begin with. Buskers worth their weight in copper coins are charmingly eccentric hybridized brightly packaged one part con and two parts escape artist.

I’m sorry to say that a good many of the world’s most rational sisters and daughters couldn’t help but toss all caution to the wind and go all in on our outlandish shows and offbeat lifestyle. The gutsy best of them became our wives. And all those women who ought to have known better, the women who have seen a thing or two, the wives and mothers? Countless numbers of these firebrand beauties in the most unexpected next chapters of their lives entangled their fates with ours, some for a night other aspiring free spirited souls have had the course of their wardrobes irreversibly changed, abandoning suburb and former friends forever and go full wanderlust while vowing to never look back. Love is as unpredictable as a street show. Strap a heart to a buskers grit and you’ve got a life worth riding down the unforeseen future boulevard of unbroken dreams. Neither Hells Angels or street performers want for women. Charismatic outlaws got nothing but magnetism, unpaid parking tickets and access to real happiness.

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A Star is Born

Being a busker is handcuffed to having no more excuses for why the impossible isn’t even an excuse. Rainy days and lonely nights catch no sympathy or slack from our kind. We hold self empowered destiny hostage. Our sidewalk show pitch—the pavement stages we concoct is a no strings attached low budget self-inoculating wide open wild as the west dream vaccine. On the ride to the top of the small time a busker’s prop case is near at hand, in our veins, at the tip of our tongues. We don’t go buy costumes- we come costumed. We’ll have plenty of time to relax after this brawling life has been chewed up, satisfaction and self-contentment can come later. Easy Street has got its own sorry location. That useless boulevard is just the other side of the mortal coil.

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Fire Dreamer

My money is on a bunch of the best I’ve shared stages with who I believe are working hard out there in the afterlife, and even if there is no for sure I have to hope they’re all killing up there, even now, in the rose bowl of eternal laughs… Wayne Condo, Vince Bruce, Hokum W Jeebs, Butterfly Man, Johnny Fox,Rob Torres, Dick Finkel, Steve Hansen, Gary Schnell… that is a tough lineup to break into. There you go, now you’ve been given a taste, from the barrel.Edited Red Star