Street entertainment in San Francisco

  • Europe
  • Friday, 11 Oct 2013

If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to check out where the street performances are.

THE Golden Gate Bridge and Chinatown aren’t going anywhere, but if you’re looking for the city’s celebrated street performers, they can prove hard to find.

But these buskers – entertainers who pass their hats for tips – are worth tracking down. On a three-day spring weekend, I missed the legendary Bush Man of Fisherman’s Wharf (more on him later), but I did spend quality bizarre-o time enjoying the likes of teen tap dancer/trumpeter MasterBlaster G, Al the Balloon Man, Robot Bob, the Sardine Family Circus and others. And, of course, Kenny the Clown.

Here’s how it works. ...

Location, location

Forget about Alcatraz, Lombard Street, Coit Tower, etc. Performers go to tourist sites where there’s a steady flow of pedestrians but with a public space large enough to hold an audience. Forget about Chinatown – the streets are too narrow. (But some will try. I caught two buskers there and neither was very good: a blue-faced “living statue” who could barely stand still and, a couple blocks away, a geezer who scratched out Oh, Susannah! on a violin.)

Much of John F. King II's equipment is at the Ferry Building plaza, even when the percussionist is not.

Suggestions from friendly locals only get you so far. Union Square was highly recommended but proved a dud. Ditto for Portsmouth Square Plaza and Washington Square, both on the edge of Chinatown. (You can watch housewives practising tai chi in parks across the country.)

Buskers I encountered tended to live in the Bay area, but not necessarily in the pricey city where they ply their trade. Given their sketchy income, they take the MUNI rail/bus system or BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) trains to their downtown non-desk jobs. If their act includes, say, juggling equipment or prop-filled suitcases, they want a popular spot near a station.

The Embarcadero – the busy, scenic dockside north and north-east of the city’s heart – fits the bill nicely. The commercialised Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 are at one end, the Ferry Building is at the other. Strollers throng the pavement and there are rail and bus stops all along the way.

The Ferry Building vibe is less plastic. The structure is historic – it opened in 1898, survived the quakes of 1906 and 1989 and quietly rotted away until the 1990s when it was restored to Victorian prime. The interior is filled with boutiques; the back side is where commuters catch boats that cross the bay to Sausalito, Marin, Oakland and elsewhere.

The expansive Ferry Building pavement facing the Embarcadero is busy with vendors as well as entertainers; the plaza across the street, next to the Hyatt Regency, is well-stocked with crafters’ tables and tents.

David Cantor juggles while his partner Amica Hunter (not pictured) does solo clown bits, and they team up on acrobatics.

Another choice but less obvious locale is Hallidie Plaza, south of Union Square at Market, Powell and Fifth streets. The small-ish patch of concrete has mass-transit stops, is a heavily walked commercial area (Bloomingdale’s is across Market); a visitor centre is just down the way. The plaza is also at the southern terminus of a cable-car line. If you’re a balloon-bender or boom-box dancer, the site is ideal.

Buskers often move from one location to another – and not just for more lucrative crowd-sourcing.

The city wants tourists to have a good time, but doesn’t want them hassled. Street entertainers throughout the city are subject to shoals of regulations, which can vary district by district. Codes concern blocking the sidewalk, amplified sound, vending without a permit and more. The Embarcadero falls into the city’s Port of San Francisco subset.

While stating that “The Port of San Francisco welcomes Street Musicians and Street Performers (because) live performances make a positive contribution to the culture and ambience”, it came up with an official but optional US$500-per-year (RM1,600) permit and a US$215 (RM687) insurance policy. The 11-page Guidelines & Rules lists a number of time and location slots that can be reserved. Unscheduled as well as unlicensed performers can work the turf on a first-come basis.

Bottom line? Police have wide latitude in deciding whom to roust or fine.

Seasoned performers are, accordingly, cagey. Say one of them manipulates a balloon into an animal and hands it to a kid: A donation will usually be requested only after the six-twist doggie is out of the performer’s hands, so he or she can’t be nailed for vending without a permit. Most simply ask for “any kind of donation” to be dropped into a container on the pavement or being passed through the crowd: Even suggesting specific-amount donations could bring trouble.

And buskers tend to be easy for policemen to spot. Drug dealers, on the other hand, aren’t known for face paint or public juggling.

That said, Bush Man has unique hassles. He crouches low to the ground along Fisherman’s Wharf, motionless and hidden behind a sheaf of sawed-off eucalyptus branches. He then jumps out to startle unsuspecting passers-by.

Some potential customers – as well as wharf merchants – just aren’t amused by his act, and file complaints. Nine years ago, Bush Man stood trial on several misdemeanours.

In it together: Siblings Alex and Meisje Griffiths and their friend Kevin (centre) are extremely accomplished derring-doers, and you'll find them at Pier 39.

If nothing else, his acquittal on all charges may answer the old question of how many clowns you can fit into a jury box.

Characters enjoyed on a long weekend there:

> A Little Bit Off

David Cantor juggles, Amica Hunter does solo clown bits, and they partner on acrobatics. After she finished the Clown Conservatory programme at San Francisco’s Circus Centre, the duo put together a show that toured European street-performer venues in France, Britain and Germany over the summer. Catch them again this fall at the Ferry Building.

> Zach Houston

His instrument at the Ferry Building is a manual Hermes portable. What he does is write poems – 10 to 40 per day – each 35 lines or so of stream-of-consciousness verse. He’s been doing this since 2005; full-time since 2007. The hardest requests, he says, are requests for odes to dogs. As a poet, he says, “They’re my worst enemy. They can’t talk and can’t read. What can I say?” But write he will, on whatever topic you wish, on quartered 8-by-11 card stock.

> Hirtzon Velasquez

Velazquez plays a variety of instruments from South and Central America, notably instruments of the Andes (including several types of zampona “pan pipes”). CDs he sells at his Pier 39 performances make for a true-life souvenir.

> John F. King II

Much of King’s equipment is at the Ferry Building plaza even when the percussionist isn’t: Aside from a couple of stands of cymbals, what he does is bang the be-hoozis out of overturned plastic trash bins, paint buckets and other containers. Quite a racket, quite an interesting show.

> Kenny the Clown

He pops up around San Francisco, honking wildly, twisting balloons, bantering with pedestrians and yelling out that what visitors truly need is “San Fran-silliness”. He’s something of an iconic figure: He twice ran for mayor of nearby Alameda (home of the original Kewpie doll) and also ran for mayor of San Francisco.

> Al the Balloon Man

Watch what’s on his head, not on his long face. Easy-going Al works a number of downtown locales, often teaming up with Kenny the Clown. A hand-twisted accessory may be just what you need to put your business clothes in proper perspective. – The Charlotte Observer/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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