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Dumb Show

Street Performers Audition For a License They May Not Actually Need

Frank Klein
TOO LEGIT TO QUIT: Street performer Willie Cherry doesn't have one of the city's new street performer licenses, and may not need one, because performing on the street isn't actually illegal.

By Charles Cohen | Posted 8/9/2006

When Willie Cherry got out of the Johns Hopkins Hospital psychiatric ward, he walked back to Fells Point looking for his guitar and boom box/amp setup. He had handed them off to a friend as the police carted him away on July 28 for creating a disturbance on the square at the foot of Broadway. When the 44-year-old returned to the square the next day, he spied 23 performers, including puppeteers, a master of the didgeridoo, and, of course, a plethora of folky guitar players, doing their acts to the applause of onlookers and the cheers of an emcee.

Cherry was witnessing Baltimore's first ever official auditions for street performers, on the very grounds where he was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest 24 hours earlier.

It turns out the audition was a mere formality. Everyone who "auditioned" before the four judges seated under a canopy will eventually get licenses--laminated badges--as the city's first sanctioned street performers. Not that they necessarily need the city's sanction. Performing on the street for tips without a license is not illegal in Baltimore City, although those who do so often find themselves in confrontations with police.

The newly formed Baltimore City Board of License for Street Entertainers is the brainchild of state Del. Catherine E. Pugh, a 40th District Democrat. Back in 2004, when she represented the 4th District on the City Council, Pugh introduced legislation calling for encouraging and supporting the presence of street performers in the city. After all, while New York's subway stations and Philadelphia's Walnut Street are lined with performers looking to fill their tip cups, Baltimore offerings remain rather sad at best: a saxophone player sets up before Ravens games, a steel drum band plays between produce stands at the downtown farmers' market--not exactly Pugh's vision of artists entertaining tourists along the city's sidewalks. "I know people from Baltimore who have performed in other cities," she says.

The street entertainers board is looking to change all that, says Michael Evitts, spokesman for the Downtown Partnership, the nonprofit civic booster organization that organized the auditions. He insists that the street entertainers board members--which include Pugh, Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance executive director Nancy Haragan, Downtown Partnership President Kirby Fowler, and local musician Vattel Cherry, among others--are more interested in promoting street performers than regulating them. The laminated badges are designed to lend legitimacy to the artists. As Evitts puts it, "It's hard sometimes to determine whether you're a legit musician or [someone] trying to panhandle."

The auditions were not designed to be rigorous, and the judges, including Pugh and Fowler, weren't there to judge artistic merit. The event was part publicity stunt, and partly to ensure that the acts weren't likely to compromise public decency or safety--stripping or juggling flaming chain saws, for example. Would-be performers who missed the audition can contact the city's Office of Promotion and the Arts and audition later. The $25 fee that applicants pay for the license goes to pay for the board's activities. According to the Downtown Partnership's Fowler, no city funds have been allocated for the program.

Almost two dozen performers signed up to run through their acts in the hot sun, but not all were quite sure why they were there. Scott Goodhue, who's part of a newly formed acting troupe, says the licensing process gives him the confidence to try his act on the street, adding that "we don't want to be in a pinch where someone says you've got to move on." But Peter Harrington, who plays his fiddle to the accompaniment of a foot-powered drone instrument called a shruti box on Fells Point sidewalks, says he's never had trouble with police and is a little befuddled by the audition process. "I would have preferred it if there was no bureaucracy surrounding this licensing," he says. "I would have much preferred it if they had left the musicians alone."

Ian Hesford, who specializes in an eclectic range of instruments including didgeridoo, and contortionist/balloon maker Lisa Oberg agree that the city needs to offer some structure so street performers "won't be hassled by the cops," as Hesford puts it. Oberg chimes in, "That's why we're biting the bullet to jump through their hoops and get over it." But they resent the $25 application fee and audition for the privilege to perform on the street for tips.

"I am a union actor," Oberg says. "If an agent says, `Well, you have to pay a fee,' I don't sign up with that agent because it's bunk--they're trying to scam me. And what if I go out there and say something vaguely political and somebody takes offense on that board?"

Several of the performers who auditioned also expressed concern over how much control the board would have over where they ply their trade. The license would allow performers to set up anywhere other than the privately run Harborplace amphitheater, currently the only regular venue welcoming street performers, though it's a tightly controlled and highly coveted gig. But the board asked auditioners to note on their applications exactly where they plan to perform. Fowler says licensed performers would get preference over unlicensed ones should a conflict arise, but he dismisses the likelihood of the board having to interfere. "It's not like there's a crisis of [too many] street performers in Baltimore City," he says. "In actuality, there aren't enough." Evitts adds that the Downtown Partnership will point out less obvious areas for performers, such as outside the Hippodrome Theatre during a big show or around the Creative Alliance at the Patterson.

Watching the auditions from underneath a canopy, Pugh dismisses mumbles about a conspiracy to control the street-performing scene. "This is not about censorship or restricting people," she says. "This is about giving light to the fact that we have people who are capable of performing and can make a little bit of money, if they want to, on the streets of Baltimore."

The list of auditioners the judges consulted throughout the afternoon listed no poets, to Pugh's disappointment, but it did include an "orator."

That orator turned out to be David Roland of the Institute for Justice, a law firm based in Arlington, Va., that specializes in individual constitutional rights, such as representing homeowners in eminent domain cases. Roland says he had been looking at how governments were stepping up their controls on street performers when he heard about the Baltimore audition. The attorney wound up in front of the judges talking about the freedom to assemble and how Baltimore's fledgling license board is unnecessary.

"The fact of the matter is that everything that happens with regards to street performers is protected by the First Amendment," Roland says in an interview. "As long as a street performer is not somehow threatening the health or safety of people in the city, there is no legitimate reason for the government to be involved in regulating it.

"This will be an ideal spot to step into the process to convince them that this kind of regulation is unconstitutional and unnecessary so they would abandon this altogether," he continues. "And, of course, if they don't do that we will consider filing a lawsuit," provided some local performer or performers wanted to pursue it.

Even Roland was bitten by the performing bug after his speech. "This is one of the first times I have been able to directly address people who were doing something blatantly unconstitutional," he says. "This is the first time I was able to say something to their face."

Four days after the auditions, Willie Cherry sits on the steps of a vacant Broadway storefront around midnight. "God bless 'em," he says of the auditions. "I wish someone had told me." When informed that a street performer's license costs $25, his mood seemed to sink. "We the people of the United States have a right to be happy," he says. "And now the United States have abolished every chance to be happy. You can't play music."

As Cherry sits and strums, a smiling young mohawked lad wanders up. After Cherry asks him if he wants to hear something, the retro punk keeps his fixed grin, then turns and sashays up Broadway, his shorts pulled down far enough that his butt cheeks shine under the streetlamps.

"You see that," Cherry says. "That's what I got to deal with."

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