A sense of humor returns to Harborplace

June 04, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Rowan is back. I can hear the happiness in his voice, and I don't think it has anything to do with medication. As far as I know, the only mood-enhancer at play here is the anticipation of Rowan's return to what Rowan does best - making people laugh at Harborplace, tourist capitol of the Queen City of the Patapsco Drainage Basin.

(Couple of weeks ago, a guy writes from Hampden - or Honville - that he doesn't like it when I use John Goodspeed's old nickname for Baltimore. He thinks it's a putdown. This is the first time I've heard this complaint in 26 years of occasionally dropping an earlier columnist's coinage into this space. As Sgt. Hulka told "Psycho" Soyer in Stripes: "Lighten up, Francis.")

The lack of a sense of humor is what this is all about - and partly explains why Jerry Rowan, perhaps the best Baltimore street performer to ever hit Harborplace, spent the past four tourist seasons in exile.

I listened to Rowan many times. Many phone calls. Many e-mails. God, he was morose. I worried about the guy. Many times, I wanted to say to Rowan what Loretta Castorini said to Ronny Cammareri in Moonstruck: "Snap out of it!"

But he couldn't.

The comedy police at Harborplace had banned Rowan from performing in their free-entertainment district, depriving him of income from tips and, worse, opportunities to make people laugh. It was as if he had been deprived of food.

"Not doing my act at Harborplace has sucked the life out of me," Rowan said last year.

His problems started in 2002, after a 20-year run as one of the city's top street performers.

Rowan juggled and cracked jokes. If you've ever seen his act - if you can remember it - he was the New York wise guy who could balance a bicycle on his nose or ride a unicycle while zapping tourists with one-liners. If you stood too close to Rowan as he performed in Harborplace's outdoor amphitheater - or if you just happened to be walking by - you could end up in a punch line.

Some people enjoyed this, and a few objected. That's comedy.

But with Rowan, it was all spontaneous and a little edgy, a real live-wire act in the classic sense of modern street performance - flaming torches and topical repartee.

In 2002, the Rouse Co., which developed Harborplace and supervised the street performers, started getting on Rowan about some of his jokes. Rouse officials gave him rules to perform by. One of the rules was that Rowan not offend anyone. And apparently he broke that rule.

The company dropped Rowan from the street performer lineup after some Baltimore police officers complained about comments he made regarding the hunt for the Washington-area snipers in 2002.

"I was driving downtown this morning," Rowan had quipped, "and on the radio I heard that they've finally come out with a composite of the sniper, so there should be an arrest forthcoming. Apparently, he's a white guy that speaks Spanish and looks like he's Arab."

Rowan thought he might have added: "Five thousand cops and they can't find one guy."

At the time, I thought they were just mildly funny cracks, relatively tame stuff. Rowan claimed the crowd that day had neither booed nor grumbled, but laughed.

Still, he got the hook.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on Rowan's behalf in 2003. He made some news when that happened - in this space, in the City Paper and on local television - but for the most part Jerry Rowan disappeared. He stayed home and took care of his kids. It's not clear he did much performing at all after that. I know he had some corporate jobs. But he really loved street performance - and made some decent money with tips from tourists - and he missed that which gave him life.

For a time, he considered toning down his act to get through the annual Rouse Co. street performer auditions. (The Rouse Co. once appreciated Rowan so much that the company had him serve as emcee at the tryouts.)

"Tone down my act?" Rowan said once. "I guess so. I guess I can get a lobotomy." Nothing much came of the ACLU suit. But the point had been made for free speech.

The outdoor amphitheater at Harborplace is a public space. The rules imposed on speech there, by a private management company, were arbitrary and based on the subjective opinions of a few people. Rowan had performed at Harborplace since 1982, delighting thousands. As far as I know, he was never profane. His humor cut a bit - and generally, in this country, that's accepted and expected practice for comics.

But here we are, 3 1/2 years since Rouse banned Rowan, and Rowan is back in action.

"The Uncle Jerry Show" opened at Harborplace yesterday and is scheduled again this afternoon. Rowan got through a spring audition run by the company that now manages Harborplace, General Growth Properties. Rowan credits two women with giving him a fresh start: Andrea Simpson, director of marketing, and Talia Vazquez, Harborplace street performers' program coordinator.

"They allowed me to get back to what I was bred to do. Entertain!" Rowan says.

The man sounded happy and eager, and I haven't heard that in his voice in a long time. Good luck, Jerry. Leave 'em laughing. Watch out for those flaming torches - and the joke police.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

To hear Dan Rodricks on the radio, tune in to WBAL (1090 AM) from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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