Entertainers hope to make splash at Harborplace


I STOOD IN the bright sunshine at Harborplace this weekend and watched some people step up to a microphone and die a slow, messy, agonizing death.

This was at the 2003 Street Performers auditions at the amphitheater, where there were 22 acts signed up. One was a saxophone player who played "Misty." His little dog was there with him, only the dog inexplicably had no part in the act and simply sat there looking stunned.

Oh, there were some decent acts on this glorious spring afternoon, the first day of sunshine after five dreary days that felt like February in Scotland.

There was Madison Melodies of Joy, an energetic 10-man instrumental group and Will Lewis and Co., a gospel a cappella group. And I liked the manic energy of a band called 209, which did a hip-hop cover of the rock anthem "Dream On" that was wonderfully bizarre.

But there were some real bad acts, too, and the bad acts tended to stay with you longer, the way indigestion stays with you, or a lingering migraine.

Nobody threw rotten fruit. But a glazed look came over the audience when an act was dying, and soon people were looking up at the sky and yakking into cell phones and drifting off to the water taxi or the food pavilion.

"This is a hard place to work well," said Michael Rosman, the master of ceremonies and a Harborplace street performer himself for the past 18 years. "'Cause it's so big. It's like 60 feet across.

"There are also so many variables - the sun's in your eyes, all the noise, ambulances going by, helicopters over your head, boats passing sounding their air horns."

Of all the acts that auditioned Saturday, maybe a half dozen will work their way into the regular rotation of 50-some Harborplace performers, many of whom are quite good.

The rest will vanish into Entertainment Oblivion, where you do your act around the kitchen table, agents never return your calls and only your mom thinks you're any good.

When the auditions began a little after noon, a harmonica player named Jim Hull from Philadelphia was the first to die.

His harmonica playing was OK, I guess. But he was new at this and seemed very nervous. He mumbled when he talked to the crowd and then his mike cut out on him. When he played, it was with his head down and his black fedora pulled over his eyes.

So basically what you had was 15 minutes of the harmonica, which is about 12 minutes more than anyone ever wants to hear.

"He needs to be friendlier to the audience," Rosman said after they dragged Hull's corpse away. "He needs to project more, to open up more."

Hull had come face-to-face with the elemental nature of street performing.

It's you and the crowd. There's no stage behind you, no fake brick wall like in the comedy clubs. The audience isn't swilling $6 Amstel Lights and looking for a good time.

If you're good, the audience sticks around. And maybe they throw a buck or two in your hat.

If you stink, they walk.

It's that simple.

"This is performing in the truest sense," Rosman said. "You get instant feedback."

The best street performers can actually make a living at this. Rosman, 36, does juggling and comedy and works corporate gigs and cruises in addition to his stuff at Harborplace.

He was evasive about how lucrative the gigs are. But he's funny and quick and whether he was introducing the next act or filling time juggling or balancing a hat on the bridge of his nose, the audience seemed to take to him instantly.

"Milton Berle was discovered here at the Harborplace Street Performers auditions," he told the crowd with a straight face. "And Madonna, she was discovered here. She was a juggler ..."

Most street performers are not as lucky as Rosman, though, and have other jobs that pay the bills.

The second act, for instance, was a young man with the stage name of Hypnotic who banged drumsticks on a bunch of pails and buckets, including an empty water jug.

Hypnotic, who said he was 25, was actually very good and his drumming was oddly soothing and entrancing. But as there is not a great hue and cry in show biz for guys who bang on pails, Hypnotic supplements his street performer income with his day job as a neuro-diagnostic tech in Washington.

Then there was Philip DePalo, 21, a regular Harborplace street performer who is both an EMT and a student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He was helping Rosman emcee and entertain between acts.

DePalo is a 6-foot-5, 250-pound juggler who recently introduced sword-swallowing and fire-breathing into his act, which he says has turbo-charged his career.

There are only 53 people in the entire world who do sword-swallowing, DePalo told me. When I asked how, exactly, one swallows a sword, he said: "Practice. Lots of throwing up."

Then he pulled out a set of X-rays that he said showed a sword lodged in his gut.

As I left the auditions a few hours later, a man named Jack from Columbia was dying on the hot concrete of the amphitheater.

He had on a black angora beret and he was talking in a goofy French accent and juggling three balls, which he said were stinky cheese balls.

He was wearing a belt that held two toilet plungers, and I said a prayer for him that the end would come soon.

Sometimes, of course, it never comes soon enough.

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