Attracting talent to the streets

A variety of open-air artists audition for permits to perform throughout Baltimore


A contortionist contorted. Fiddlers fiddled. Guitarists strummed. There was a marionette artist, a comedy improvisation troupe, a didgeridoo player, a musician dressed in a 19th- century sailor costume, and Baltimore's own street-corner astronomer.

"Variety" meant variety at Baltimore's street-entertainer auditions, an event organized by the city to encourage poet-unicyclist-flame-swallower types onto streets in need of local quirkiness and color.

Twenty-one people signed up and paid the requisite $25 fee for the honor of strutting their stuff outdoors yesterday in Fells Point. For their troubles on a steamy afternoon, they earned an official permit from the newly formed Board of License for Street Entertainers and a concomitant stamp of legitimacy from the city for performances in areas other than Harborplace.

"Chicago has street performers. Boston. New York. San Francisco. Many of the cities that you think of as cities that are exciting and lively places to visit have street performers as part of the street scene," said Lisa Keir, the special assistant to the president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, which helped organize the audition. Baltimore, she said, should be on that list, too.

"I think it's fantastic," said Jeff Swiss, a guitarist, who joined his violinist wife, Cindy Swiss, to play traditional fiddle tunes and an original song. "I'm glad they're finally doing this. They should have done it years ago, but it's better late than never."

Some in yesterday's crowd, which at one point included several dozen spectators, said that, actually, never would have been better. They argued that performing in public spaces is a right - not a privilege that the city can mete out and charge for. Some were vexed that after years of performing outside bureaucracy-free, suddenly they had to pay up.

"We think it's absolutely unconstitutional," Dave Roland, a lawyer at the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, said of the city ordinance that paved the way for yesterday's event. "If in fact the licensing board intends to issue licenses, we may well consider challenging the law's constitutionality under the First Amendment."

Roland signed up - he listed his skill as "oration" - in order to give a speech about liberty.

Kirby Fowler, the president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, responded that the fee is partly to defray the cost of running the program, which is meant to organize and promote performers. The auditions weren't technically that, but rather a forum to kick off the program, he said.

He sounded surprised by the objections.

"Other cities have to crack down on street performers," he said. "Our problem in Baltimore is that we don't have enough."

But yesterday Broadway Plaza was crackling with the good, the bad, the bland and the kooky. Mary Jane Oelke gracefully manipulated a marionette elephant across the stage. The elephant loped over to a bucket, dipped in his trunk and blew out a bubble.

Herman Heyn, who has been enlightening Baltimoreans about the stars and planets for 18 years, aimed his telescope at Saturn and invited the crowd to take a peek.

"I'm the only astronomer in the world who does it 24/7," he said.

Ian Hesford played the didgeridoo, the tabla and a kubing, a bamboo mouth harp from the Philippines - and earned $14 for his five minutes. "It's like practicing outside with a live audience," he said. "You can't beat that dynamic."

Two girls edged into the stage area holding hands and began to twirl to the music.

A spectator, Ed "Bustahh" Brown, hooted. "That's what it's all about right there," Brown said. The girls spun and spun, and when the music stopped, they took deep bows.

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