If Phoenix is a hot mess of a beast, Gilbert is the sizzling distant unknown reptile nobody has ever heard of. I’d come in from the south, drove through Coolidge, then finally the long straight boulevard into downtown, the very beating heart of this anonymous gargantuan valley town..
Three lanes in each direction for 20 miles will change how you see a boulevard. All the usual big box suspects were there, then there were all the plus plus plus strip malls.
Back in California up in the Bay Area because of the layout it is hard to run boulevards to this 20 mile length. El Camino Real starts up in San Bruno and terminates in Santa Clara. Over in the East Bay Mission Boulevard gets honking along in Oakland and sputters out just beyond Niles.
Gilbert is on another level. There is no obvious break in city limits. It is one long comprehensive aggregation of something profoundly present yet awakened to a sense of commerce and design that seems almost cruel.
Here is a place where an electric bike helps. On a hot day, and they are all hot days in Gilbert just walking one nearly one third mile long block may be something you will never recover from. Because of the scale of the thing if you don’t drive you don’t exist, or better yet that’s all you can do is exist because you certainly can’t get anywhere.
If you wanted to foment a sense of isolation, a sense of being lost, a sense of feeling that the manmade world surrounding you in some odd way is aimed to dishearten you this would be the place to come see how the discouragment is constructed.
What makes a small place like Patagonia feel so sublime is that it allows none of it in their town limits. You got the local cooperative style grocery store, coffee joint, bakery and gift shop. You want to attend a spiritual function you drink at the Wagon Wheel Saloon where the tequila is intended to help you find your very own personal hangover and God.
Tubac is a bit bigger, Bisbee too. Place such as Jerome is just too dang near Sedona. These better pieces of Arizona are right-sized.
I put down a long unbroken string of appearances at the Tempe Festival of the Arts. My initial appearances sputtered along more failed experiments than rousing successes. Then, about 2000 the festival producer got serious about presenting my kind of act, street theater, and I went on an unbroken twice a year stint, 3 days in December and another 3 days at the end of March that took me through 2012.
The cancer of progress struck Mill Avenue in Tempe where the festival was mounted. All the local mom and pop stores were shutdown replaced with slicker franchise style businesses. Gutted the soul right out of Mill Avenue, you don’t have to take my word, pretty much everyone agrees the place that was has been killed off, a death by a hundred devastating good intentions.
I’m no bean counter, I’d guess the building boom in the surrounding Mill Avenue area has to exceed $1-billion. I can count 20 skyscrapers and there are probably more. Those pesky mid-rise type buildings have given way to genuine twenty plus story honest go gosh big money mosh pits.
Nothing to do I suppose but pick up and move elsewhere, then again where is a good soul to go— Las Vegas is terrifying, forget LA, Tucson has its own issues.
Traveling the last few weeks I’ve had a good shot at seeing what’s become of Pasadena, Redondo Beach and a next to nowhere place like Bagdad, Arizona. One sure thing I know is that it has been more miss than hit out here in the building a place game. I wonder what’s so hard about making place. Not entirely sure but making one that works is a might bit harder than we’re ready to do something about.
Trip to Kona has been a bit of a tale. A carrying cart failed just before coming over to the islands resulting in a propane tank landing square on my big toe. That kind of changed the last two weeks. An urgent care doctor glued the gash back together slapped me on the butt and told me to get back in the game.
Then my buddy Waldo hobbled by a motorcycle accident comes to the Kona side of the island to visit. Hobbling together we got out and about the two showmen not accustomed to being on injured reserve. Gallows humor ensued well into the wee hours of the early morning.
Street show veteran get togethers are like comfort food for the soul. I can still do this but I can’t do that. There are the favorite shows to review, some performed together some solo. It goes on and on like this. There is the part where we brag about how few props we needed to do a show. Waldo made his living as a suave, dashing and lightening quick juggler that never dropped. I was every bit of Waldo’s equal (allow me to amuse myself) but for the drops— I am perhaps best known for my trouble with this minor detail— Try not to applaud when I make a mistake, you’re only reinforcing my bad habits—
Our careers were long. I like Wally to tell me his Perth, Australia stories. He likes our time together in Arizona and gets a kick talking about those adventures. Street performers are not sentimental, but we have lived privileged lives traveling both here and abroad and earning a pretty penny along the way. The present and future we imagine is framed as a life beyond our work as showmen.
Two months ago I visited with Sean Laughlin and Lee Ross. Conversations between all of us track by topic to do with shows, love and a bite at life lived with no regrets. A performance happens in a particular time and place and after— like that— vanishes into the slipstream of time. We might improve the show, we might do better shows, there may be advances in our skills, better costumes, bigger paychecks and fancier stages. Of the many tens of thousands of shows all of us have under our belts most are now in the rear view mirror. Any of us might still do a show, but none of us are likely to do anywhere near as many as we have left behind to the sands of time.
One benefit of not having a demanding show schedule is that it gives your head the space to consider the less examined parts of your life. This is to the good. A bad show is like a losing game and after back in the locker room a showman can suffer pangs of regret. Climbing that hill day in and day out is in one sense about being ready to defend your emotional life. A good show pumps you up and lousy show lets you down. Without having to deal with that rollercoaster our offstage time isn’t ordinary time, it is human time, we are allowed the chance to be back in touch with our most ordinary day to day self. The more selfless we can live, the less stuck in our heads the better. This is our occupational hazard.
Where we live and who we love is always a topic that hovers near our meetups. Some of us are in, some out, some up, some down. The funniest are on the ropes getting a pretty good pummeling by the object of their desire. Most interesting to my way of seeing things is my showmen friends have had a life full of love and it shows they have skills they know how to be in a relationship. Some of what causes so much trouble is our time away from our partners while we are on tour. Our finances are what they are, like any self-employed sole proprietor there’s a lot of ups and downs in a business famous for uncertainty. This isn’t a common circumstance and while the romance of loving a showman is second to none the practicality of such relationships requires a dash of courage with a twist of letting go—
Sore toe and all being here on Kona turns out to be a good thing. Waldo and I will see each other over on the mainland later this summer. We can continue to build on our extended conversation. There will by then be new information. Waldo is slated to speak with many of our peers in the weeks ahead. By the time I see him again he’ll have ten new next things to do. Sean’s still got his place in Silver City, Nevada to wrangle into shape, most of that work is done but not all of it, and then there’s the matter of what’s next to do that isn’t about a show or a house— I think he’s interested in finding a path for his heart. Lee has slated a shoot of a short feature he hopes to complete before September. Editing will consume his autumn. I know his family is coming out to Colorado for his birthday. He’s got a lot up in the air right now and how any of it sorts itself out remains wrapped up in the creative mystery.I’ve been stuck restructuring my office where I write and have had to clear my desk of the chaos I’ve allowed to place a gauzy haze on the clarity good writing demands.
Right now as of this moment the project is to do with a pesto made with pistachios— highly recommended. Then, when I get back to California I’ve got raspberries, figs and a melon patch to work into our meals. That’s likely where my focus will be tied up. Eating good food, cooking interesting dishes, having fun playing in the kitchen with food grown from our garden is its own simple pleasure. Yesterday was the solstice and the long days are all to the good. Life isn’t that complicated if you don’t let this one visit to earth run you off into the intractable pieces beyond a showman’s ability to fix.
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.
If I hadn’t gotten all drunk and stubborn and insisted on putting a down payment on that double wide I fell in love with there would not be that much in my life to be ashamed of.
End of my show I use some musical tracks mixed down. I do my own editing. I’ve got plenty more mixing to do. Then, there is synchronizing the musical tracks with the volunteers who’ll be caught up in the show’s ending. None of this can be rehearsed. You just go out and try it on a crowd to see how it fits.
This musical closer is pure street theater. It belongs to the street, and is a form of group improvisation perhaps singularly suited to the here and now.
I find love a particularly salient theme, but you have to
handle the conveyance of a loving theme with a certain cold disdain so as to
not overshoot your audiences appetite for such intimate insights. Sneaking up
on the powers of heart with a good laugh is close enough.
However it works in your life- in a relationship, not in a relationship, single, married, lifelong bachelor, married once but never again, never married but suddenly head over heels, these things are not choices, we are not in control, our heart sees the world through its own eyes and makes its own decisions. We are along for the ride.
Some busking types might say it is all laughs, that it’s how
much you make in the hat, how big a crowd you can draw. My goal is to touch the
four year old, the eighty-five year old and everyone in between with the notion
that our loving one another is where everything begins and ends. Imagine having
a show that works on that level every time? I’m such the romantic
When I work in Mexico there’s this guy that pushes a cart through the neighborhood selling bottled water. Well, it turns out he’s got a sister that sells hot water that a married man can never get out of.
Norm Ornstein describes the partisanship to have metastasized into tribal warfare. Tribalism is about being a member of a group that you are above all else loyal to. Privatization, sending programs back to the states, rejection of spending on infrastructure, no new taxes, lower old taxes, and dismantle social welfare programs. That’s the village they want to live in.
The scorched earth strategy is not a tactic and it decidedly not a means of governance, it is Donald Trumps first and last Fox Television tested means to all ends. All of this ends in stalemate. Until the tribe can get back into the White House. Then, they’ll ram through the tribes greatest hits and most damaging harms.
The tribal members on the Supreme Court have been perfect shills for Big Business. Follow the money and the spigots they open or close attune perfectly to what is big and powerful and away from what is small and not wealthy. Messing with the right to vote is just a bon bon to their tribes efforts to hold on to power. The rest of it is disinformation to cloud their penchant for wanting to help those born with silver spoons in their…..
The tribalism around Scalia’s exiting this reality is pure rocket fuel. The tribe already in a spiral, many wondering when the whole stinking thing will blow, has found a sword to fall on. Teddy Cruz and Marco Rubio (both suspected of being ineligible to actually be President by circumstances of birth as explained by a political Republican operative in Nevada) promise full on filibustering any nominee put forward by the obviously illegitimate executive presently illegally occupying their home on Pennsylvania Avenue.
That’s us in a nutshell, and what a nut it has been. Tribalism, not movement conservatism, comes closer to our understanding what the country is up against. The flippant tone of my comments aside this kind of behavior is dangerous for all of us. I never thought I’d see us going off the cliff in a clown car… but, that’s looking more and more like one version of our end to this current hell we find ourselves stuck in.
That pesky liberal agenda featured on the Academy Awards was a bit of a thumb in the eye to many people not sympathetic to such an agenda. These are the issues being systematically blocked by a do nothing Congress.
Voting rights, equal pay for women, spying and immigration reform come to mind. There was the issue of finding a cure for Alzheimer’s and ALS…
Some loon on the radio urged the liberals in the film making industry to put a sock. He was suggesting that the big corporate money was behind a more conservative agenda and since they were the masters that the artists were supposed to behave more like servants. This guy gets today’s ass kissing award for media performing in a supine role.
So, let me see? I have a majority of women in my family. Advocating for equal pay isn’t some kind of liberal agenda item. It is pragmatic. The more they earn the less I have be concerned with their welfare.
Are the NSA surveillance programs a partisan issue? I’m not so sure. I think it is dangerous to democracy in general and a concern to both left and right in particular.
Voter suppression is an oligarchic issue. Case in point are Social Security and Medicare. About the only piece of the conservative movement that wants to mess with the two programs are those people who can afford to be messing with those programs. We call those rich mo-fo’s where I come from.
We are defunding basic research because of schmuck’s like Author Laffer, Larry Kudlow and Steven Moore. These are the loon right fake economic elite who have been embraced by the no new taxes freaks.
Neil Patrick Harris was something of an odd vortex. Sucked down by his version of hosting was warmth. He seemed too scripted but for a few asides and the scripting while terse played emotionally brittle. He didn’t take over so much as draw the audience into his tone and orbit. He glowed where numerous hosts in years past shined. He won’t be back is my guess.
I haven’t seen Eastwood’s American Sniper yet. We may not be ready to celebrate sending our best soldiers working as snipers in foreign wars. That isn’t too difficult to understand. It can’t be a zero sum game and it isn’t. I’ll have more on American Sniper after I see it.
I had seen Selma. I loved it. It didn’t do that well because an intangible secret energy level was missing in the script. And then Birdman a film I loved this last year indeed captured that secret energy level. One person’s secret energy level is another’s fingers on the chalkboard moment. I’d recommend both of the movies. Each has much to admire.
My personal disappointment was that Keaton missed earning his first Oscar. One of the last things from the stage was his approaching the microphone after Birdman winning Best Picture and starting to say something then breaking it off, “Who am I kidding? I’m just lucky to even be here…”
And that my friends is how this juggling novelist lives life. Bravo Keaton…
“As far as entertainment goes clinching a barbecue fork in my teeth and performing this stunt stands at least one foot higher in the minds of audiences than topless dancing does.”
The Godzilla in the room of a performer’s world is to know when to build new material.
A huge dividend is paid for having polished a routine. It is a reliable tool in the shows running order. Anyone who has honed their act to this razor sharp edge is reluctant to abandon the surefire for uncharted waters.
I have no such show. Twice now in my four decade career my performing dogs have retired leaving me to start all over from scratch. New jokes and stunts are devised. Most of the old show has to be abandoned in its entirety. A few pieces are cobbled together and survive. But that killer closer you’ve been doing for a decade is now an old flea bitten hound with cataracts and hearing loss.
This week I’ve had no less than two superb variety acts make no bones about it. They aren’t building material right now. “Thanks, but no thanks.” The shows working fine as is and it really just isn’t what they want to do. I was racked with envy. Talk about a couple of lucky stiffs.
Build new material? Of course not! It is a source of flaming pains in the ass followed by spiraling pangs of doubt that are halted once your confidence has been shattered beyond reach of repair. Unless the dogs died why in the name of vaudeville would you set out to make yourself so utterly miserable? Nobody needs to man-‘splain this. This isn’t fanny patting this is butt kicking welcome to your own personal little hell.
I am between rounds. Angelo Dundee’s in my corner. Half-way through the fight and I’m giving, as good, as I’m getting. When you are prizefighting, and when you are building a new show, you know you are in the ring and if you’re going to win the fight you’ll need to face the fact that you are going to take a pounding.
The lipstick on this pig is that I can see the light at the end of the funnel. Testing proceeds apace. I’m taking the now proofed pieces to my lego-comedy-puzzle and have near finished erecting the all shiny new framework.
Dundee slaps me across the face. I stand up off my stool. The bell rings. I’m heading back into the ring. It’s all fancy footwork and tactics now; my audience won’t even see it coming. I’m back and I’m packing a knockout punch.
Don’t believe me? Get in line. Buy a ticket. Put your money where your mouth is. Working cheap is for suckers, and winning fights is what you do when a career is on the line.
Drop by the slaughterhouse of comedy where this act works six nights a week. I either kill or I die. Last night it was the audience picking itself up off the floor. Damn right they deserved it. I worked hard for that victory. And that’s how a new show gets done. You got a problem with that?
“My volunteer will toss the orange into the air over to me. The orange may well miss. Continue across the room and land at this table where this beautiful woman is seated. If it does stay where you are; I’ll go over and get her phone number.”
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Welcome to the world of entertainment in the Riviera Maya. What we have here is a short clip from my show at Puerto Aventuras just south of Playa del Carmen. I’d just come on stage. I was perhaps 5 minutes into my opening monologue when a sizable bat with wingspan of a little over a foot to something less than a foot and a half winged on into the theater. What you can see is that behind me is a stage and curtain. After buzzing over the top of the audience the bat went up into the rafters behind me on the stage. I rushed over to the curtains and closed them and our bat was now confined backstage. It only took forty years for my performing bat to finally show up.
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“Move over Moliere. Smith’s depth and wisdom give the reader a surgically precise but comic look into the relationship between the sexes.”