It ain't over 'till the fat man stops yelling. And before 'Arry Pavarotti (the organically amplified British busker) shuts his loud mouth, you may see in a single city park... a man balanced atop rola-bolas stacked four high, a performer dressed in a costume constructed of thousands of paper plates, and Hokum W. Jeeb enthralling his audience with tunes played on a toy piano.
This kaleidoscope of color, this menagerie of merry pranksters, these entertainers of the boulevards and parkways of the world have come to the edge of North America's last urban outpost since 1981 to take part in a street performer's festival called Summerfest. It is sponsored by the city of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, and runs this year from July 6-15.
Dick Finkle is the festival's producer, and orchestrates this publicly funded festival with a positive style. He is responsible for the ethical framework as well as the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day management of the site. It is fundamental to the festival that there are no contests and no prizes. The festival honors all the acts for just being there by paying their transportation and an appearance fee. They can also earn some handsome money from passing their hats in the central city park where they perform.
Finkle says he treats performers as professionals because it's best to run this type of festival professionally. "It lets me pick and choose the people I want, and the lines of responsibility and authority are clearly drawn. You can end up with an anarchistic situation when no one is paid to perform," he said.
Despite that warning, Finkle doesn't know of a single other festival where performers receive an appearance fee. They are generally left to collect what's put in their hats and/or compete for cash prizes given to the top "vote getters" in a public balloting.
But Finkle makes everyone at Edmonton a winner, rather than turning the event into another gladiatorial extravaganza. Summerfest bestows confidence and glory upon every performer. This is because Finkle believes the solo saxophone player is as important a part of the picture as the balloon twister, or a trio of jugglers.
Summerfest in Edmonton is just one of seven major international festivals and several other minor festivals that are held in that city every summer. Finkle explained, "Edmonton is unique in that the city government determined in 1981 they would substantially help festivals, so every weekend from the end of June to the end of August there is a major international festival in town."
Summerfest happens primarily in a square block in the center of town bounded by city hall on one side and the main library on another. And while Sir Winston Churchill Square is modest in size, it supports three to four shows simultaneously during the peak hours, as well as face painters, strolling mimes and balloon twisters.
The popularity of the festival among performers means that Finkle can contract with them early in the year. He brings in about 30 acts annually, and most do not repeat the following year. Finkle explained that since 80 percent of his festival audience is local, he must bring in new acts each year to keep the festival fresh. For the 1990 festival, he has so far contracted for jugglers Variety In Motion, Charlie Brown, Cliff & Mary Spenger and Alex Elixer from Vancouver.
The jugglers in last year's festival included: David Aiken as The Checkerboard Guy, Tawny Ross, Dan Looker, The Flaming Idiots, Jeanne Wall, Robert Nelson as The Butterfly Man, Izzy Tooinski, Dave Walley, Bob Palmer and James O'Shea of Flying Debris, Tash Wesp, Mark Heap and Mark Saban of Two Marks, Jeff Jenkins as J.J. The Juggling Fool, and Dana Smith.
In addition to the jugglers, performers included master improviser Dave Duncan, ventriloquist John Pattison, face painter Sioghan MacGowan, mime Jules Ross, eccentric character Kate Hull, Carolyn Sadowska as the Queen of England, Andre Vincent as 'Arry Pavarotti, eccentric musician Hokum W. Jeebs, the one-man band of Professor Gizmo, clown Michael Trautman, face painter Jacquie Paul, the strolling characters of Heather Sandvold, magician Steve Trash, the wacky hats of Wendy Brackman, and Lynette Maurice as Izzi.
Here is a quick review of some of the more remarkable juggling and circus skills seen: Checkerboard Guy presents unsupported ladder, five balls and five clubs. Tawny Ross, a lad of just 16 from Winnipeg, was there to break in his juggling act. He was young and green, but learned quite a lot and went away with some notion of what to try next.
Dan Looker, a young man from New England, is an extraordinary circus arts student from the school in Montreal. He worked with an unsupported ladder with foot pads which allow him to climb all the way to the top. He and Michael James are the only two acts I'm aware of who can do this on the street. Looker also does a free-standing headstand, hand balancing maneuvers, arm levers, diabolo (particularly nice), hat tricks and even juggling for a moment.
The Flaming Idiots from Texas are a three-man troupe who specialize in the longhair style of group juggling. Resplendent with psychedelic innuendo, polished club passing routines and boundless energy, these guys have a solid act. Jeanne Wall, a woman who has been in various street acts for more than 10 years, was soloing. Unicycle, clubs and a dash of acrobatics were the basis of her presentation. Street performing has kept her young and attractive. Robert Nelson was there as the Butterfly Man. He received great notices in the local press for his act. For those of you who don't know much about his show, I would sum it up as, "an entertainer who is transcendently abusive to his audience while presenting average juggling skills."
Izzy Tooinski is a California-based juggler who wraps a strange little Armenian character around ample juggling skills. Primarily a storytelling style juggler, Izzy can deliver the juggling goods. He has a four club routine that is filled with variations that require much practice to maintain.
Dave Walley from Winnipeg is a three ball juggling fanatic. The man knows of more three ball patterns than most people. Walley led the juggling workshops and is a great enthusiast of juggling. Bob Palmer and James O'Shea of Flying Debris from Saskatoon have a wide assortment of skills. I especially appreciated their style and humor.
Tash Wesp was there as Mildred, a circus arts act wrapped in a strange character. Wesp has a superb ball spinning routine, solid acrobatic skills and a rare interest in being a female solo street performer. The Two Marks from England were terrific. They claim to hate juggling, but nonetheless they put on a wacko comedy act based on clubs, fire eating, stilt dancing and flute playing. J.J. The Juggling Fool is a local legend, juggler and wonderful person. He pushes an entire shopping cart filled with juggling gear, and is a wondrous improviser, day-glow costume fanatic and kindred spirit to the buskers. It isn't what he does so much as what he is!
Summerfest includes an area set aside where the public can take $1 juggling lessons. Red the Juggler out of Vancouver coordinated it two years ago, and Dave Walley from Winnipeg did it in 1989. Most featured performers spend some time in the informal school helping their fans get started on the road to a performance career of their own.
Presenting different kinds of acts is important at Edmonton. People coming to see the street acts usually linger and wander from one show to another. Blending all this into divine chaos is Finkle's great talent.
In addition to having each act perform two sets each day during the ten day festival, there are a number of special shows. The specials provide the cast opportunities to create, improvise, write, direct, produce and perform. They are well attended by audiences of more than 2,000 people. Every effort is made to not just produce new material, but to capture the spirit and charm that distinguishes the street performer from other variety acts.
Every day is marked with some special event. To pick those few bright moments in the festival and say that they were the best moments is impossible. To compound the picture even more, there were a number of things that all of us would much rather forget! Nobody cares to remember the climax to the vaudeville show, when a thunderstorm drenched the audio mixer just as Al Simmons was taking the stage (under a tent) to close the show. To have the closing act, and one so well known in Canada, wiped out, was not easy to take.
Summerfest is a unique opportunity, though it isn't a big-bucks kind of experience. Rather, it is a festival designed to provide opportunities, a festival that structures a positive attitude into its scheme. You spend 10 days with 30 acts doing things you always dreamed about! And while it doesn't guarantee the results, it does nurture the process better than any other festival I know.
Dana Smith is a San Francisco street performer who is well known for having performed with his dog, Sunshine. He performed at the Edmonton Summerfest in 1987 and 1989 and has been an IJA member since 1985.