Cantor juggles, Amica Hunter (not pictured) does
solo clown bits, and they partner on acrobatics.
FRANCISCO — The Golden Gate Bridge and Chinatown aren’t
going anywhere, but if you’re looking for the city’s
celebrated street performers, they can prove hard to find.
these buskers — entertainers who pass their hats for
tips — are worth tracking down. On a three-day spring
weekend, I missed the legendary Bush Man of Fisherman’s
Wharf (more on him later), but I did spend quality
bizarre-o time enjoying the likes of teen tap
dancer/trumpeter MasterBlaster G, Al the Balloon Man,
Robot Bob, the Sardine Family Circus and others. And, of
course, Kenny the Clown.
how it works. ...
about Alcatraz, Lombard Street, Coit Tower, etc.
Performers go to tourist sites where there’s a steady
flow of pedestrians but with a public space large enough
to hold an audience. Forget about Chinatown — the
streets are too narrow. (But some will try. I caught two
buskers there and neither was very good: a blue-faced
"living statue" who could barely stand still,
and, a couple blocks away, a geezer who scratched out
"Oh, Susannah!" on a violin.)
from friendly locals only get you so far. Union Square was
highly recommended but proved a dud. Ditto for Portsmouth
Square Plaza and Washington Square, both on the edge of
Chinatown. (You can watch housewives practicing tai chi in
parks across the country.)
I encountered tended to lived in the Bay area, but not
necessarily in the pricey city where they ply their trade.
Given their sketchy income, they take the MUNI rail/bus
system or BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) trains to their
downtown non-desk jobs. If their act includes, say,
juggling equipment or prop-filled suitcases, they want a
popular spot near a station.
Embarcadero — the busy, scenic dockside north and
northeast of the city’s heart — fits the bill nicely.
The commercialized Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 are at
one end, the Ferry Building is at the other. Strollers
throng the pavement and there are rail and bus stops all
along the way.
Ferry Building vibe is less plastic. The structure is
historic — it opened in 1898, survived the quakes of
1906 and 1989 and quietly rotted away until the 1990s when
it was restored to Victorian prime. The interior is filled
with boutiques; the back side is where commuters catch
boats that cross the bay to Sausalito, Marin, Oakland and
expansive Ferry Building pavement facing the Embarcadero
is busy with vendors as well as entertainers; the plaza
across the street, next to the Hyatt Regency, is well
stocked with crafters’ tables and tents.
choice but less obvious locale is Hallidie Plaza, south of
Union Square at Market, Powell and Fifth streets. The
small-ish patch of concrete has mass-transit stops, is a
heavily walked commercial area (Bloomingdale’s is across
Market); a visitor center is just down the way. The plaza
is also at the southern terminus of a cable-car line. If
you’re a balloon-bender or boom-box dancer, the site is
often move from one location to another — and not just
for more lucrative crowd-sourcing:
city wants tourists to have a good time, but doesn’t
want them hassled. Street entertainers throughout the city
are subject to shoals of regulations, which can vary
district by district. Codes concern blocking the sidewalk,
amplified sound, vending without a permit and more. The
Embarcadero falls into the city’s Port of San Francisco
subset. While stating that "The Port of San Francisco
welcomes Street Musicians and Street Performers (because)
"live performances make a positive contribution to
the culture and ambience," it came up with an
official but optional $500-per-year permit and a $215
insurance policy. The 11-page Guidelines & Rules lists
a number of time and location slots that can be reserved.
Unscheduled as well as unlicensed performers can work the
turf on a first-come basis.
line? Police have wide latitude in deciding whom to roust
performers are, accordingly, cagey. Say one of them
manipulates a balloon into an animal and hands it to a
kid: A donation will usually be requested only after the
six-twist doggie is out of the performer’s hands, so he
or she can’t be nailed for vending without a permit.
Most simply ask for "any kind of donation" to be
dropped into a container on the pavement or being passed
through the crowd: Even suggesting specific-amount
donations could bring trouble.
buskers tend to be easy for policemen to spot. Drug
dealers, on the other hand, aren’t known for face paint
or public juggling.
said, Bush Man has unique hassles. He crouches low to the
ground along Fisherman’s Wharf, motionless and hidden
behind a sheaf of sawed-off eucalyptus branches. He then
jumps out to startle unsuspecting passersby.
potential customers — as well as wharf merchants —
just aren’t amused by his act, and file complaints. Nine
years ago, Bush Man stood trial on several misdemeanors.
nothing else, his acquittal on all charges may answer the
old question of how many clowns you can fit into a jury
FRANCISCO PERFORMERS: OH, THE WONDERS YOU CAN SEE ...
enjoyed on a long weekend there:
Little Bit Off
Cantor juggles, Amica Hunter does solo clown bits, and
they partner on acrobatics. Now that she finished the
Clown Conservatory program at San Francisco’s Circus
Center, the duo put together a show that will tour
European street-performer venues in France, Britain and
Germany over the summer. Catch them again this fall at the
instrument at the Ferry Building is a manual Hermes
portable. What he does is write poems — 10 to 40 per day
— each 35 lines or so of stream of consciousness verse.
He’s been doing this since 2005; full-time since 2007.
The hardest requests, he says, are requests for odes to
dogs. As a poet, he says, "They’re my worst enemy.
They can’t talk and can’t read. What can I say?"
But write he will, on whatever topic you wish, on
quartered 8 1/2-by-11 card stock.
plays a variety of instruments from South and Central
America, notably instruments of the Andes (including
several types of zampona "pan pipes"). CDs he
sells at his Pier 39 performances make for a true-life
F. King II
of King’s equipment is at the Ferry Building plaza even
when the percussionist isn’t: Aside from a couple of
stands of cymbals, what he does is bang the be-hoozis out
of overturned plastic trash bins, paint buckets and other
containers. Quite a racket, quite an interesting show.
pops up around San Francisco, honking wildly, twisting
balloons, bantering with pedestrians and yelling out that
what visitors truly need is "San
Fran-silliness." He’s something of an iconic
figure: He twice ran for mayor of nearby Alameda (home of
the original Kewpie doll) and also ran for mayor of San
the Balloon Man
what’s on his head, not on his long face. Easy-going Al
works a number of downtown locales, often teaming up with
Kenny the Clown. A hand-twisted accessory may be just what
you need to put your business clothes in proper