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Send Out the Clowns

Harborplace Performer Loses Gig For Making Sniper Joke

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 11/6/2002

On an unseasonably bright and warm October day, street performer Jerry Rowan walks around the Inner Harbor Amphitheater amid tourists and balloon sculptors. Normally at this time, he would be entertaining the crowds with his comedy-juggling routine, but today he is just one of the throng. On Monday, Oct. 21, Rowan received a letter informing him that his services would no longer be needed at the harbor. And after 20 years of performing here, Rowan does not appreciate being stuck on the sidelines.

Rowan, a graduate of the elite Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, has toured with the circus, appeared on Late Night with David Letterman, and routinely commands $1,000 for his performances. He has been juggling, riding his unicycle, and telling jokes at the Inner Harbor since 1982, and he has built a fan base among performers, merchants, and Inner Harbor regulars. Gary Smith, who has been working at Quickdraw Caricatures in Harborplace for 22 years, calls Rowan "without a doubt the very best street performer that they have. Nobody holds a crowd like he does and nobody gathers a crowd like he does."

Rowan had a crowd gathered on Saturday, Oct. 19, despite the miserable weather. In the course of his performance, he made a joke about the ongoing sniper investigation: "I was driving downtown this morning, 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."

According to an Oct. 21 letter he received from Adair Fogarty, director of marketing for Harborplace (which is run by the Columbia-based Rouse Co.), three city police officers patrolling the area overheard his act and "thought that offensive, rude, politically incorrect comments were made." Former Harborplace performer Scott Houghton was in the crowd that day as well. Houghton, who worked at the harbor from 1985 to 1994 and has worked with Rowan on several occasions, didn't share the officers' opinion. "It got a really nice laugh," he says. "I got no feeling of the crowd going, 'Ooh, that was in bad taste.'"

Rowan was also pleased with the joke's reception--so pleased that he did it again the next day. "It was good, because I'm commenting on what's going on in the world," he says. On Sunday, Oct. 20, according to the letter, the manager on duty came to see Rowan's show and reportedly thought the act "contained very insensitive comments about drive-by shootings and the at-large sniper." The letter explained that "[c]omments such as the ones made are not in keeping with our very clear standards for a first-class oriented environment."

The clarity of these standards, however, is up for debate. Several merchants and performers say they've never been given specific guidelines by Rouse. Tim Forrester, a Harborplace promotions assistant who coordinates the street performers for Rouse, says that the guidelines are "just common sense." The Harborplace Street Performers Program Guidelines for 2002 says simply that the "use of the off color humor or profanity will not be permitted as any part of any performance." Many performers complain that the rules are too vague--"You could have it all taken away if you're not a good boy," Houghton says.

The street performers aren't paid by Rouse, which leases the ground Harborplace and the amphitheater sit on from Baltimore City. Rouse administers the street-performer program in conjunction with the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. Every year, at least a dozen new performers audition to join the Harborplace street-performer program. Sixty-three are in the program now, and each is given one or two time slots per month. They are allowed to put out hats for audience contributions, but official company guidelines say, "Performers are not permitted to openly ask for donations." Physical comedian Glenn Singer worked at Harborplace in the mid-'90s before he decided to focus on contracted bookings. "Working for the Rouse corporation in a haphazard situation like that saddles the performer with all the risks," he says. "And the Rouse corporation still benefits from excellent representation."

This is not the first time that Rowan has been reprimanded by Rouse for his routine. On April 18 he received a letter from then-marketing coordinator Bethany Alwan censuring Rowan for unprofessional behavior including "[l]ack of respect for program administrators, off-color humor in [his] performances, and pejorative comments about the program and the administration thereof." The letter went on to say, "Harborplace and the Gallery is certainly appreciative of the past two decades of performance, however, please let this letter serve as the first and only warning you will receive."

Rowan didn't know what to make of the April letter. "It was so open-ended, it was basically like saying, 'Look anything you do or say, and we have a problem with it, we're going to throw you out.' It was basically setting me up for a fall."

Before the April and October letters, Rouse frequently asked Rowan to MC events and used his image in promotional materials. "They'll ask him to MC and do all these special things for the city for special events, but then a month later they'll overreact to an incident," says Joe Rice, a teacher at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills who has performed at Harborplace for 20 years. "It's very inconsistent."

Just a few days before he received his dismissal, Rowan says Forrester asked him to perform in the upcoming Christmas parade. When the October letter came, Rowan assumed it was information for the holiday event.

Alwan has since left the company, and Fogarty refuses to comment on the letters or Rowan's dismissal. She does, however, say that "we're very very enthusiastically supportive, historically and in the moment, of street performers." Rouse spokeswoman Nancy Tucker would only say, "Jerry Rowan is no longer with the street-performers program. We had complaints from shoppers and audience members and we acted on it."

Few current Harborplace performers were willing to speak on the record about their dealings with Rouse. Most say they are afraid of retribution if they criticize the company.

"The politics . . . can be dodgy," Houghton says. "You can lose a month's income if you get on their bad side."

At the same time, it is clear that Harborplace performers past and present have their grumbles about the company and its street performer program. Several performers complain that the lights in the amphitheater are frequently burned out and that the darkness combined with the lack of security make them feel unsafe while performing at night. Scheduling is also a sore spot.

"The person who schedules the street performance is basically there for a year or two, so for them it's just something they do," Houghton says. "But [the performers] depend on it for their livelihood."

Rice adds that the lack of consideration given for seniority in the scheduling process is also frustrating.

"I'd like to think I'm one of the better acts down there," he says. "Twenty years, I've certainly paid my dues." Still, Rice says he finds himself frequently passed over for the coveted 2-5 p.m. Saturday slots. Instead, he says, newer, less-experienced acts often get the prime booking.

"That leaves a sour taste in my mouth," he says. "I really haven't been down there a whole lot since the summer because it's not worth it. The fun is no longer there."

Rowan says Rouse doesn't "really understand street." Performing in Harborplace is more than just juggling for families, he says. The area also attracts "punks, drunks, and hardened criminals" who will "eat you alive if you just sit there and let them," he says. "[Rouse is] up in this ivory tower far removed from the common man, and that's a problem."

Forrester, who has only held the street performer coordinator position since August, acknowledges that he communicates with street performers mostly over the phone or through e-mail. "I don't know if I would even recognize a lot of them," he says.

The current controversy is not the first time Rouse has come into conflict with street performers. Herman Heyn, the self-proclaimed street corner astronomer, sued the Harborplace Merchants Association, the city, and others seeking permission, under a First Amendment claim, to set up his telescope on Rouse-controlled property at the Inner Harbor. In 1992 the case went to negotiated settlement, and Heyn has been working there since. A magician who goes by the name Gazzo, who works at the Boston Rouse property Fanueil Hall, claims he was blacklisted from performing there for 15 years for doing his act 60 feet from his designated spot.

For all the complaints, most of the performers say they enjoy working at Harborplace. The money is good--a skilled performer can make $500 on a good day--and performers enjoy the large crowds. "The harbor is one of the best places I've ever worked for street," Houghton says. "The audience there is great, the mix is really diverse."

Rowan agrees. "You have every facet of human life on the street, from an infant right up to a 90-year-old," he says. "Every walk of life, all races, all religions, all economic backgrounds--you have it all. It's the best world you could ever be in to do comedy. It's absolutely phenomenal." While, ideally, Rowan would like to get back into the program, he says he's tired of dealing with the politics. "We're street performers, we're a different breed, we're creative spirits," he says. "Those people trying to tell us how to street perform is like a construction worker trying to conduct the BSO."

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