Festivals were a great way to relax and perform to a ready-made crowd without the noise and distractions of the street. From the San Gennaro Festival in Manhattan to the Denver World Theatre Festival
to the Seattle Bumbershoot to the Festival of Fools in Amsterdam to the Theater Spektakel in Zurich, each
and every one was delightful. And so many stories to tell! Enjoy these festival antics from the eighties.
Calgary Stampede, 1983
Driving from Vancouver to Calgary, we passed through Glacier National Park and witnessed frothing emerald-green waters, the majestic Selkirk Mountains capped in snow, and a grizzly bear sliding down a scree.
Treeless hills and verdant flat plains greeted us as we cruised to the outskirts of Calgary, hosting one of the largest rodeos in the world. Our time spent with an easy-going family of four in Calgary was a fantastic experience. They took us horseback riding western style, treated us to an afternoon of rodeo delight, and hosted a backyard barbecue where we gazed at brightly-colored hot air balloons floating by in a race sponsored by the Stampede.
Sunny weather at midnight threw us off our sleeping schedule, but we drove into town every day to work the outdoor mall, crammed with cowboy-hatter patrons and fans in search of food, fun, and magic.
Here is a sample fare of festivals we busked, some of which are still in existence:
3rd Avenue Fair, NYC
9th Avenue Fair, NYC.
San Gennaro Festival, NYC
Baltimore World Theater, Baltimore
Piedmont Arts Festival, Atlanta
Jazz & Heritage Festival, New Orleans
Mardi Gras, New Orleans
Westheimer Art Festival, Houston
Denver World Theater, Denver
Newport Beach Fair, Newport Beach CA
Bumbershoot Festival, Seattle,
Taste of Seattle, Seattle
Folk Music Festival, Vancouver BC
Calgary Stampede, Calgary AB
Streetfest, Edmonton AB
Elephant Fayre, St. Germans Cornwall
Edinburgh Festival, Edinburgh Scotland
Festival of Fools, Amsterdam Netherlands
Avignon Festival, Avignon France
Oktoberfest, Munich Germany
Montreaux Jazz Festival, Montreaux Switzerland
Theater Spektakel, Zurich Switzerland
Edinburgh International Festival, 1984
On the sidewalk outside of the Assembly Rooms on George Street was a perfect venue for us to busk during the festival with people coming and going to see the shows until after midnight.
The building hosted a slew of performances such as the classic comedy Playboy of the Western World in the main theatre and a one-man show in the Wildman Room by the American actor Anthony Zerbe, celebrating the poetry of E. E. Cummings. After watching five of Jim’s shows in a row, Zerbe introduced himself. He pointed to a button Jim was wearing that said, “It’s All Done With Mirrors.”
“I can’t believe it,” Zerbe said to us, whipping out a tri-fold brochure advertising his show ‘It’s All Done With Mirrors.’ “This is what I’m doing here in the rooms. A serendipitous occasion that we met, don’t you think?”
We broke bread at our favorite Italian restaurant almost every night afterward in Edinburgh’s Old Town that served meals until two in the morning and shared stories. Zerbe commented that he was always acting out the part whereas Jim was the part. Impressed by Jim’s version of the Cups and Balls, Zerbe wrote a poem on an envelope and gave it to us:
all accumulated years
with my (and every) rendered pre-adolescent
while three (growing bald) balls
three oranges into
one grapefruit plus two
(tons of pence/pounds/pesetas)
The Fringe added hundreds of avant-garde performances during the same three weeks in August. Buskers were allowed to do their acts not only outside but at any cabaret, bar, or venue throughout the city, and pass the hat. We camped at a luxurious campground two miles away in tents that our friend Chris “de Pyss” Lynam provided. Each day for three weeks I threw all of our change into two large pillowcases. At the end of the festival, Chris helped me drag the pillowcases up the sidewalk from the car to the Royal Bank of Scotland on Princes Street. I had the dubious honor of weighing and packaging the most change the bank had ever received to convert into pound notes.
We ran into Jerry Sadowitz, Glaswegian magician and avid card man, halfheartedly attempting to do street shows on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Months earlier, we’d met him in Amsterdam, right after Jim had most of his equipment stolen. Jerry loaned Jim a set of aluminum cups to use. Jim and I laughed when Jerry started his Cups and Balls routine on the cobblestone street in Edinburgh by throwing the cups at people and insulting them.
Piedmont Arts Festival, 1983
The 1983 Piedmont Arts Festival in Atlanta attracted more than a million attendees. But the star of the street performers was Ruby the bantam hen.
A slew of performance artists and bands, potters, jewelers, glass blowers, and leather-goods craftsmen dotted the festival grounds. Once we saw that face painters were allowed, I ran back to the bus, whipped up an advertising placard on poster board, and marched back armed with my face-painting kit and camping stool. I remained in place painting roses, balloons, hearts, freckles, black noses and whiskers, thrilled by the long lines of patient parents and their excited kids.
The festival allowed all performers and booth participants who lived in their vehicles to park in a vast lot adjacent to one of the main booth areas. Access to bathrooms, electrical hookups, and plenty of edibles were a big relief. Each morning we stepped out of the bus, walked less than a block, and worked on the walkways packed with strolling crowds near the park meadow. We took time off during that week to listen to a quirky group called The Swimming Pool Q’s and to talk with a West Virginia family of off-the-grid farmers who sold thousands of hand-carved wood flutes.
When Jim first revealed Ruby the bantam hen from underneath his hat at the end of the Cups and Balls, she became the talk of the festival. Jim had trained the chick to lay quietly on a soft cotton cloth in his servante until needed—no peeping allowed. Everywhere he set up people flocked to him.
A reporter from The Atlanta Journal interviewed us for a piece in the Sunday Lifestyle section. Usually, Jim avoided newspaper and television reporters like the plague, but he regaled her with hilarious stories about life on the streets and made the claim that for a busker “every day is a vacation.” She lapped that up as a great quote for her article. Eager to capture our images, the photographer went through two rolls of film. Positive he’d shot some really cool pics, the young man promised to send us a copy of the newspaper to our address in the French Quarter.
We left the next morning with our pockets full and journeyed west to California.
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