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All the world's a stage for street performers

fire eater

June 18, 1996
Web posted at: 3:30 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent Cynthia Tornquist

PITTSBURGH (CNN) -- Take a stroll down a popular area in almost any American city, and you're bound to bump into a musician, juggler or mime trying to amuse or entertain passersby. (889K QuickTime movie)

For most observers, it seems an odd profession and a hard one at that. So why do they do it?

"Well it's not the streets I like," says a musician in San Francisco. "I mean, I wouldn't want to live in it, which I don't, but I like playing music."

"It's just something I want to do," explains a guitarist in London. "I don't want to give the best hours of my life to some big, huge, fat employer, smoking a cigar while he creams off all the money."

"Who else can say they go to a job and put smiles on people's faces?" says a clown. (64K AIFF or WAV sound)

In New York City, some take their acts to the subways, giving new meaning to the term "underground artist." They don't have to worry about the weather, just the crime and the cops.

Risking jail

dog dancer plate spinner

"I've been in jail for it. I went to jail for 10 days because I couldn't afford to pay the fine," said a London street musician.

The pay varies -- sometimes a mound of coins amounts only to a few dollars for a day's work.

That's why a fire-eater in New York says it pays to have a second job.

"I've got a costume shop now that I've made from the money, and I still perform and run that," he explains between gulps of fire.

Some musicians use their street performances to promote their cassettes and compact discs.

Street performing is something some cities embrace and others try their best to stamp out. Most cities require performers to carry a permit.

In Pittsburgh, buskering -- a busker is a street singer or strolling entertainer -- used to be looked upon as panhandling. But in recent years, city officials have begun to view it as a way to add lively culture to the streets. They allow street artists to perform as long as they follow the rules.

"You can't go up and ask people individually," a comedian explains. "You can ask for money, but you can't badger somebody."

Dreams of fame

banjo player

Despite the drawbacks, the prospect of being discovered attracts many.

"You have mimes like Shields and Yarnell, they started off in the streets of New York and rose to stardom," says a Pittsburgh musician.

Some street performers actually make it inside the theater. Two London stilt-walkers said they were cast in "Barnum," an American musical.

Which just goes to show, today's dusty street performer may be tomorrow's shining star.


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