San Diego -- some say it's the best because of a reputation for producing top quality performers such as Mark Nizer, Edward Jackman and Jon Held. Some say it's the worst because of poor street performing conditions, limited opportunity and an overabundance of performers. What is San Diego really like, and who are the top variety performers who work there?
"It's a war zone," says San Diego veteran Ben Decker regarding street performing at Balboa Park. "The only two places to street perform are Seaport Village, which is privately owned and is essentially closed to any new performers, and Balboa Park, where people spend the night to get a spot that's mediocre at best."
Permits are required in Balboa Park, the area where performers have traditionally developed their acts, and are issued daily on a first-come, first-served basis. Once a permit has been obtained for one of the three prime spots, the next step is doing shows for an audience that is conservative both in reaction and donations.
"I've seen great jugglers from other cities who were used to making well over a hundred dollars per show make less then $20 here," says Decker. You can imagine what it is like for the beginners who often make less than $10 for a 20-minute act.
When asked why he continues working the park, street magician Jim Hershey said, "I can make double or triple my average hat somewhere else, but after five years in the park I'm established enough that I don't have to worry about someone taking my spot."
Hershey and juggler/rope walker Dan Wiles have become well-known in the San Diego area from their years spent street performing. Dan's highly technical routines are performed with a European style that has been influenced by his experiences traveling with one-ring circuses in Mexico and Europe.
Some highlights of his act include jumping rope while a ball bounces on his head, two ping pong balls with his mouth and five fed to his mouth using his hands, a five-minute routine of solid rope walking, and his amazing finale of riding a unicycle on the slack rope and juggling three torches.
Besides Balboa Park, Wiles can also be seen working at Sea World on a seasonal basis and performing for conventions and schools throughout the area. Hershey's comedy and magic show is aptly named "a spoof on magic" and adheres to the "anything for a laugh" philosophy. Unlike some magicians, Hershey doesn't have to expose tricks to get laughs.
"I try to do tricks that are funny as well as amazing," he says. His show includes a suggestive bit with a rising black cloth ("This bit requires special equipment"), a hilarious arm chopper routine using a volunteer and a cucumber, and a card-finding wooden duck. Hershey also regularly performs in nightclubs and is Southern California's only radio magician on San Diego's B-100 FM.
San Diego's other street performing area, Seaport Village, is a tourist shopping area with a Disneyland appearance and a beautiful bayside location. Out-of-town visitors often take a break from browsing through the high-priced specialty shops to watch a large variety of entertainment provided by the mall. Most acts are paid on a one-time basis and rarely appear at the mall more than two or three times a year.
Two jugglers, however, are regularly featured. David Kell can be seen the first three weekends each month doing a straightforward juggling show that emphasizes technique and educating the audience about the skills involved. David juggles fire, clubs, four basketballs and three through six balls, including a very stable five ball shower (he's working on six between shows!).
The last weekend features Ben Decker and his comedy juggling. Unlike other shopping centers, such as San Francisco's Pier 39 and Boston's Faneuil Hall, Seaport Village has chosen to keep the number of jugglers at a minimum to limit competition for space, material overlap and "pass-the-hat politics" that so often plague areas with more entertainers than space.
"We are committed to our jugglers and they are committed to Seaport," said Sherrie Brown, director of entertainment. "Our policy maintains a high performance standard and helps create a following for our jugglers."
In the unending quest to get off the streets, San Diego jugglers have opportunity for employment through Sea World (a nautically-themed amusement park), other shopping malls and private parties, but these are often seasonal and inconsistent. "The key to success here, just like anywhere else, is being original, well-established and pushing to create new markets," says Decker. "Entertainers so often saturate an area that even hints at being lucrative, instead of taking a chance somewhere new."
By far the most ambitious juggler working in the San Diego area, Decker is also the only performer not associated with a single location. He performs regularly at Seaport Village, Horton Plaza (a shopping mall) and two cruise ships out of the Los Angeles area. When asked about performing on a moving ship with 7-1/2 foot ceilings, he joked, "I wear knee pads and take a lot of dramamine."
Decker's nightclub routines are filled with original comedy that is delivered with a "nice-guy" approach. His performance includes a three ball routine complete with head rolls, a scarf routine that is as silly as it is stupid, a bowling ball routine and neck catch, and a rola-bola using a volunteer to hand him knives and be the subject of light-hearted humiliation.
Other jugglers and street performers often visit the area, but few stay for any length of time. Juggler Ron Meyers performed in San Diego for a few months before moving on to Los Angeles. Daniel Holzman and Barry Friedman, the Raspyni Brothers, occasionally come down from Los Angeles to work on the weekends, and some San Francisco performers have stopped in and done shows.
Juggler and unicyclist Chuck Marquette has also been working in Balboa Park, riding a 22-foot unicycle between the museum buildings for his finale. San Diego also has a few part-time performers who work on nights and weekends.
This group includes Susie Williams, a college student at U.C. San Diego, Brad French, and "Air Technology," a new group consisting of Milt Tate, Gaye Tate and Dick Rainer. The part-time performers are generally happy only doing occasional shows. Williams said, "I only do about five shows a month, so each one is special to me. I don't have the pressures of performing every day, but I have enough work so that I can improve and try new things."
What each San Diego performer wants to do in the future is as varied as the areas they perform in. "Sea World and Balboa Park are OK for developing an act. The pay isn't good, but it's steady work and a good experience. Now I hope to get back in a European circus," Wiles said.
David Kell, who is a licensed chiropractor but prefers juggling and its easy-going lifestyle, is content with his present position at Seaport Village. "I hope to be doing this the rest of my life," he said. Hershey would like to continue his recent trend towards nightclub work and find some fame and fortune if it happens. "Sure, I've got one eye on Vegas, but I take things as they come," Jim answered when asked about his future.
Decker, who graduated from UC-San Diego with a computer science degree but makes his living as an entertainer, has mixed feelings about his plans. "More than anything, I want to be comfortable in life. If that means juggling, that's great. I'll always be pushing for bigger gigs, but while I'm promoting myself I'm also keeping up with other things like computers and real estate. I love what I'm doing, but I realize it might not last forever."