But Davis, who began his career in Seattle as a circus performer, used to live in fear of what street performers call "The Death." Davis, who often works Venice Beach, describes it as the uneasy period when a street artist is learning how to draw a crowd, deliver a joke and keep an audience spellbound until it's over.
"It takes a certain amount of guts to do that," he says. "I know a lot of people in the circus world who won't ever do the street because they're frightened of The Death; it's easier to do the performance when someone has paid for their ticket and will be in their seat until the end."
Davis, 32, is a busker, which today's street artists prefer to call themselves. The term "busking" means performing in the streets, usually for money from the crowd. These days, busking is growing into an organized art form, with a healthy underground network, professional associations and busking festivals around the globe.
That list includes the third annual Seaport Village Spring Busker Festival in San Diego today and Sunday. There Davis will join other jugglers, comedians, daredevils, sword swallowers, musicians and the like at bayside festivities. The public may attend free of charge.
"Everyone says, 'What the heck is a busker?' " says Terry Hall, general manager of Seaport Village. The festival gives the artists an annual showcase, but buskers hang out at Seaport Village year-round.
Others coming to town this year include pogo stick and unicycle performer Wacky Chad; the clowning duo Mango and Dango, who were among the winners in the first San Diego festival; and Jimmy Talksalot, who -- surprise -- includes mime in his act. Also attending is Murrugun the Mystic, who swallows swords and fire and naps on a bed of nails.
Although buskers say they do it for love, passing the hat is part of the game. Though many rely on other earnings, they often rate their own performances by what the crowd contributes.
Hall and others who oversee busking festivals -- which often draw seasoned pros who can boast other income sources -- say that their enterprises are thriving, not shrinking, in today's tough economy. Mackenzie Muldoon, entertainment and marketing director for the Toronto Scotiabank BuskerFest, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in August, says that free entertainment tends to thrive in a down economy. "It's the only kind of entertainment where you get to pay what it's worth," she says.
But Marcus Raymond, a variety artist (juggling, fire-eating, magic) who also books buskers for a shopping center in Pleasant Hill, says that today's buskers are definitely "feeling it in the hat" with lower donations. He also says that people who might hire a clown for a kid's birthday party in better times might now bring the guests to San Francisco's Pier 39 to watch a busking show instead.
Stephen H. Baird, a street folk singer, puppeteer and hammer dulcimer player in the Boston area, is also head of Community Arts Advocates, which supports the busking community. Baird says that because jobs at birthday parties or weddings are drying up, more professional artists are crowding the streets to supplement their income. On the bright side, he adds, some of those performers get discovered and hired for other work while doing their act outdoors.
Davis wants to make sure buskers are seen as artists, not vagrants. "Just because I work on the street doesn't mean I don't have a home," he says. "It's really honest money. People don't have to pay me, and they choose how much."
Davis adds that he hasn't yet felt the pinch of the bleak economy, pointing out that tipping a street performer is much cheaper than taking the family to a theme park. Scot Nery has a similar observation. "Performers did great during the Depression," he said. "People pay from the heart, and they pay more than they expect."
In his 30 years of performing, musician Mark Wenzel of Eagle Rock has watched the tricks of collecting funds become quite creative.
"I've seen some people who do musical acts ask people to put two quarters between their thumb and first finger and make castanets, so people already have the money in their hands," Wenzel says. "There's another fellow who will take a gourd and shake it and say, 'The sound is too sharp -- I need more money to make it right.' " Wenzel adds that the most effective way to get the crowd to spend a dollar is to have a pretty woman lift her skirt to accept the money in her garter. "You see that at the Renaissance fairs. The old stuff is also the good stuff," he says.
Contortionist Davis has been lucky enough to survive only on income from his street act. The Idaho native often works Venice Beach, checking a local webcam to see where crowds are gathering before venturing out.
But many other buskers, including Wenzel, get most of their income doing other work in the entertainment industry or live shows at state fairs, nightclubs and comedy venues, or at corporate events. Some even find their way into burlesque shows, including Nery, who last week could be found among the frisky females who were taking it all off -- well, most of it -- at Paladino's club in Tarzana.