Faneuil Hall is one of those iconic pitches and the first time I saw it I was struck by how similar it was to Covent Garden, London. The main difference being that the performers were all sober!
I didn’t start playing there until May of 2013 and even then only occasionally. It’s a long
way from my pretty home in the mountains of Vermont and parking is a nuisance. So to make it worth my while I have to have two days of shows in a row and stay with friends. Because of my newness it was also unlikely I’d get the prime time weekend shows. But, hey, I had a foot in the door and it’s always good to have options. I’m sure if I were a younger and hungrier street performer I’d do shows in Harvard Square and Newburyport too. But let’s face it, I’m old, jaded, and have a nice, relaxed little pitch in Burlington, VT that is only 45 minutes from my house!
I wasn’t terribly surprised when I got a call from a production company asking me if I would like to take part in a Travel Channel program highlighting Faneuil Hall Market, the performers would just be a bit of background. “Sure,” I said being a polite kind of fellow, but really thinking “Good luck with that, matey! Sure enough I forgot about it and went on with my life.
So, a couple of weeks, maybe a month pass and I’m doing shows on Church Street, Burlington. It’s just me and John Stork, and the pitch is rocking! The phone rings and, yes, you’ve guessed it; it is the production company again. “Will you be in Boston tomorrow?”
“Look we would really like it if you could come down, we will give you the footage, it will be great exposure for you and there may be …………some money. Can you contact Faneuil Hall Marketplace and see if they have a spot for you?”
“Look I’ll try.” said I, “But it’s highly unlikely!”
I sent off a quick email from my phone and was amazed when I immediately got a reply telling me they were giving me prime time Saturday and Sunday (unheard of for a newbie like me). My eyes rolled up dollar signs! I phoned the production chappie back and gave him the good news.
“Wonderful I will see you tomorrow”.
I put the phone down and 10 minutes later started another show. Burlington was rocking. Did I really need to go all the way to Boston? Where would I stay? After calling around I discovered all my friends were away, so I ‘Pricelined’ a cheap hotel. Saturday came and off I toddled to Boston. Unusually the weather was perfect (not too hot), and, as always, there were plenty of punters.
At Faneuil Hall you get a two hour time slot, mine was 1-3pm on the West End, yummy. Just before my first show a very nice young woman appears and asks me to sign a release, “sure” I say not actually caring as I have prime time and I’m guaranteed a hat, I pull off a very decent show (it would have been impossible not to). I’m collecting the money at the end when this guy starts making conversation with me saying how great the show was, I’m polite and we have a fun little banter, but I have to cut him short as a little girl wants her picture taken with me and her mum has cash in her hand. My second show is even better than the first and the nice young woman reappears and tells me how much the producer likes me can I do another show. I’m about to tell her that that would be impossible as the next act is about to come on. At this moment the next act who is a magician informs me that he doesn’t want to do his show as the pitch is too big for him! I look round to see if anyone else is hanging for a freebie, no, nobody there. I inform the nice young woman that “Yes I will be doing another show.” Now at this point I really do start to think, “Wow, I’m going to make some serious cash today!”
My third show is just as nice as the first two. I have a lovely edge, I’m relaxed and the crowd is with me. I do the rope then climb up onto the unicycle for the finale. The little girl throws me up the plunger, which I gleefully stick on my head, then the chicken and finally she hands me up a knife. It is at this point that I see Penn Jillette is standing amongst the crowd on the right side edge. He is enormous, he literally stands a head and shoulders
above anyone else. Now I don’t know about anybody else but when there is another performer, a celebrity, a family member or even just a friend in the audience I tend to up my game and play a little for them. Mr Jillette looks to me as if he is scowling but he is certainly engaged. I give my bottling speech, checking to see if he is laughing at the funny bits, I’m pretty sure he at least smiled, sort of. Then it’s time for the last juggle. I fake not being able to get the plunger off my head saying “Oh no, how embarrassing I come all the way from England, there are celebrities in the audience and now I can’t even get this plunger off my head!” Penn is, to be honest looking a little preoccupied.
“Everybody else is laughing, why aren’t you, you motherfucker.” I think to myself.
I remove the plunger, showing everybody the target on my head and how the pigeons will use me for poopy target practice and, with much clapping and cheering, I juggle. “Thank you again for watching my utter nonsense, you’ve seen the show, now come pay the monkey!” and I jump down and hold out my hat.
At this point I hear a big booming voice, people have already started to come forward, “Excuse me, excuse me, I’m Penn Jillette, I’m with the Travel Channel, we have been watching shows all day and Groovy Guy is the best, I’m going to give him ten thousand dollars!”
And with that he drops $10,000 into my hat in at least four big bundles. Now what would you do!? I was speechless, but I’m sure I did manage a small “Thank you.” There are now two or three cameras surrounding us and people are clapping me on the back. Penn notices that people have stopped coming forward with cash, he tells them that they should and, bless them, some do. I’m still stunned.
Penn is telling me how much he liked my slack rope, the nice guy who I had the little conversation after the first show (Sherrod Small) is laughing and telling me I owe him half of that cash, while an enthusiastic blonde lady tells me her name (Tonya Kay) and proceeds to jump around. I’m still stunned. Penn leans in close and tells me “It’s not really $10,000 it’s $400 and the rest is just paper, we are going to give you a cheque for the rest! Have you got 6 clubs we can pass?” “I have 5 and a knife”. I say. So we passed them whilst the crowd applauded, which I have to say was a nice touch!
The TV production team, want a bit more, I don’t think my reaction was enough for them. Could we shoot the bit where I’m dropped the money again. So we did and I try and be a little more animated. In fact we did it three more times and eventually they are happy. Penn shakes my hand and departs with his entourage.
Would I mind saying a few words for the camera, I do my best and I’m sure I’m coming over as a blithering idiot especially as I can’t say Jillette. I call him Juliette and Joiletee much to the annoyance of the director who tells me it’s “Jillette”. I still can’t say it and in the end settle for “Penn, you know from Penn and Teller”! “Could I phone someone and tell them?” asks the director, I call home and my daughter Poppy answers “Hi Daddy”. ”Hi ya baby, guess what, I just got $10,000!” “Really!” she replied “We can get that new trailer now, yay.” I’m pretty sure she didn’t believe me.
Most people have drifted off now and having exchanged pleasantries with the production team I’m left all alone with the nice young woman who informs me that she will give me the cheque. We walk to my car, which is in a multistory car park about five minutes away. I’m still a little shell shocked by the whole thing. We load up my gear and she gives me the
cheque, the carpark makes it feels like we are doing some sort of shady deal. I thank her several times and then I’m left there all alone.
I drive out to my cheap hotel, depositing the cheque in an ATM on the way, I buy a bottle of reasonable but not expensive bottle of wine and fall asleep.
Am I the best street performer in Boston? I doubt it! Penn Jillette liked me, but then art is subjective and most of the really big acts were out of town that weekend. Besides, just because a show is big it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is good. (They had big crowds for public hangings) Is my show unique? The slack rope routine is and I’m proud of it. My hats although good are not always that big, I like to play for laughs more than money. My favourite street performer and inspiration is my best friend Brian Reid who performs at Covent Garden, his act is completely original and hysterical he makes very little cash by comparison to most of the
other performers there. But he makes enough and has the respect of his peers and himself.
Every street performer has heard the line “It will be great exposure!” from a TV person at
some point in their career, and pretty much every street performer has thought “Yeah, right, sure it will be!” But in this case at least for me it was.
You can watch all of Penn Jillette’s Street Cred here http://youtu.be/psXszLyabNw if you are quick or just want to see the Groovy Guy’s bits go to www.groovyguyshow.com and then clicking the video tab.