WANTED: One rent-a-daughter willing to walk the hat line.
HALIFAX, Nova Scotia -- We reach the 20th Annual Halifax International Buskers Festival just as one act is offering up its “hat line,” its plea for money -- a pitch that in this instance involves doing something to the audience’s offspring if not enough cash lands in the hat or, more accurately, the bucket.
The hat line usually comes right before the final big stunt, and here the act -- a trio of young black men -- has lined up five audience members for something in the center of their performing circle along the city’s harbor-front walkway. We’re just not sure what. Although the program tells us that “Peter Rabbit” should be holding court at this time and place -- that’s the street-performing name of Bronx-born percussionist David Chapman -- he’s been joined by two brothers not on the roster.
In fact, that’s the gist of their hat line, how they’ve come here on their own dime and need enough cash to make the trip worthwhile, or at least pay their way home. Riffing back and forth in the clipped cadences of comedian Chris Rock, they explain to the uninitiated how the “usual” donation is $20, which, of course, it isn’t -- we’ve been around street performing enough to guess that the average is tenth that, at best. But you can’t blame a guy for trying, and they promise to throw in Peter Rabbit’s DVD for the twenty.
Then they explain what happens if we don’t kick in enough. “We’re going to have to stay,” one tells the 99% white crowd, “and marry your daughters.”
Time for the finale: They have the five volunteers bend over, and one brother stands at the end of the line, his arms forming a circle. The other steps back, then runs toward the human barricade. He leaps over the five people and through the arms of his brother, does a quick roll on the ground and pops to his feet.
Later, we learn that the brothers are Kareem and Tyheem Barnes, also from the Bronx, who perform their acrobatic dancing as Tic & Tac, mostly at New York’s Washington Square Park, and have appeared in an Alicia Keys video. But we’ve gotten more talk from them than show and missed their trademark bit -- in which Tic twirls on Tac’s head like a helicopter blade -- so my wife and I walk on without putting anything in their buckets.
We make our way past the Silver Elvis, Peter Jarvis, whose boombox plays “It’s Now or Never” while he stands on a pedestal like a statue, periodically making moves like the King, to the next performing space, where 200 people are watching a local act, Squid. It has several “Stomp"-style percussionists who bang away at barstools and a strutting, bagpipe-playing frontman whose bagpiping is more rock than “Danny Boy.”
We’ve caught this act early, for we hear several numbers before the bagpiper launches into the hat line, which is two-pronged: He first implores us to vote for Squid on People’s Choice ballots distributed at a festival tent, then asks for cash in appreciation of how he’ll be risking life and limb in a climax that includes something “never attempted by any other bagpiper.”
We assume he means playing while doing a one-handed cartwheel, though it’s possible he was referring to spinning on the ground on his ear, making circles in the manner of the late great Curly of the Three Stooges. Being a Stooges buff myself, I hand my wife a Canadian $5 bill ($4.49 U.S.) to drop in their bucket.
By invitation only
You can find buskers -- street performers -- in most any city, in parks and tourist areas and, where there are ones, waterfronts. The magicians, troubadours and break-dancers can be lame or eye-poppingly professional, as at L.A.'s Venice Beach, where the show runs 365 days a year and you just might see Robert Gruenberg juggle chain saws. But in Halifax they encourage the art with an August festival, organized by a local production company that stages similar events from Montreal to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The longest running is here on Canada’s eastern edge, however, and this year’s gave 28 invited acts a chance to pass the bucket for 10 days before thousands of visitors who wandered among face-painting and crepe-making booths set up by the piers offering tall ship cruises around the harbor from which Allied vessels carried half a million men overseas during WWII.
The appeal for the performers is that they don’t have to compete for time or space here -- that’s set by schedule -- but they still have to assemble audiences, then persuade them to dip into their wallets. After Squid’s show, we encounter another act -- a single man -- starting out by warning that, if we’re not generous enough, he’ll go back to his “previous profession.” What’s that? “Visiting your house.”
Off we go to where a magician is making a crushed Pepsi can whole, then past where the “Chalkmaster,” Dave Johnston, is creating a pastel masterpiece on the sidewalk. But we don’t stop until we reach Alakazam, a.k.a. the Human Knot. He’s a tattooed, nipple-pierced Australian -- real name Al Millar -- who won the People’s Choice award here three years ago, perhaps because he’s constantly doing stuff. When we arrive at the three-deep circle around him, he’s holding a sword behind his back with both hands and lifting it over his head until it’s in front of him, without ever letting go, a move accomplished by dislocating his shoulders. “These are not magic tricks, folks,” he says. “I’m a freak!”
Next he wriggles his rail-thin body through the head of a squash racket -- a tennis racket’s too easy -- and makes a game of whether the tight squeeze will pull off his trunks. “I’m single, ladies,” he says, “and I’m very flexible.”
He caps the act by recruiting four men to hold ropes supporting a 12-foot pole, which he climbs atop, then has a young woman from the crowd toss him balls and more prop swords, all of which he juggles amid jokes about whom he might conk if he drops one, and what he sees from up there -- the woman’s blouse is a little loose, after all.
Before the pole-top routine, though, we get Alakazam’s hat line. Eschewing any fanciful $20 pitch, he says we should pay only what we think any act’s worth and that “fivers,” or even twos, are fine. But then he launches into a rap that sounds familiar, about him being from the other side of the world and needing to get back, and what might happen if he doesn’t clear enough.
“I may have to stay,” he says, “and marry one of your daughters.”
I find a $2 Canadian coin in my pocket for his pot, Alakazam having earned a payday. But I decide I’ll need to track down the man -- he’s too busy collecting at the moment -- to find out what’s up. Sure, most comedy is begged, borrowed or stolen. But two acts using the exact same hat line at the same event?
“Was the other Peter Rabbit?” the juggling contortionist asks when I reach him on the last Sunday of the Halifax festival. “We did a gig in Montreal together and I watched his show on the first day and the last day. And he put about 10 of my lines in his show.”
I have to reach Peter Rabbit too after that, and he denies it. Rabbit, a.k.a. Chapman, says he did see Alakazam’s show and liked it. But the New Yorker says he got that line from another street performer. “I was in New Orleans, there was this juggler Tom, about four or five years ago, he has this ‘I don’t care’ attitude. That’s where I first heard it.
“I only use that when I’m in Canada, or like out of the country,” he says.
The artistic director of the Halifax festival, Debbie Twohig, laughs when I tell her of the matching marry-your-daughters bits. She says she heard Alakazam do it here first, three years ago, but also knows the New Orleans performer Peter Rabbit mentioned.
“There are only so many variations you can do for the hat line.” she says. Such as?
“Oh, boy,” Twohig says. “ ‘Street theater is free for you. But if you like the show, put some money in my hat. If you don’t like it, put some money in my hat anyway -- no point in both of us being disappointed.’ ”
Alakazam can’t be too irked, for it’s not like he’s the first entertainer to suggest that he poses a threat to the females of the world, daughters in particular. The political comedian Bill Maher works such a riff into his message to those who fret about movies’ influence on youth. “Stop worrying,” Maher says. “Hollywood won’t turn your daughter into a nymphomaniac or get her hooked on drugs ... I will.”
“That’s my twist on an old joke,” Alakazam acknowledges of his money pitch. He says he first heard something like it from an improv comedy act, “Hot Nuts and Popcorn,” two Canadians who spent much of their time in Australia and would threaten to “stay around and breed with the locals.” So he tweaked it to marrying their daughters, “and sometimes I’ll say, ‘or one of your sons.’ ”
“Whose line is it anyway?” he sums it up. “It’s all about ‘Dance, monkey, dance,’ just do the trick.’ ”
Still tied up
At 28, Alakazam has been performing on the street for a decade, since he eschewed higher education to become the Human Knot. He hopes to keep squeezing through squash rackets and juggling atop poles “until something better comes along” or “if contortionism starts being painful.”
On that last day of the Halifax festival, after “34 or 35" performances, he was waiting to hear whether he had again gotten the People’s Choice, and the $500 that goes with it. Twohig considered him a favorite, but he’d have to overcome “the local vote” for Squid, she said, along with support for a Toronto-based break-dancing act called ABS Crew (Abstrakt Breakin Systemz) -- and, yes, for Peter Rabbit.
With that festival over, Alakazam, Peter Rabbit and some of the others were heading to Toronto for three similar days of busking organized by Twohig’s company. But before they left, I asked the flexible Aussie whether anyone ever took him up on his offer -- or threat -- to marry a local maiden. After we’d heard the line twice, I’d told my wife it would be interesting to rent a daughter for the day, and have a judge handy too, to call these guys’ bluff.
I should have realized that, as with any gag, it’s hard to come up with an original retort.
“Yeah, sometimes people come up, ‘This is my daughter,’ ” Alakazam says. “I tell them, ‘This is just a joke, mate.’ ”
He explains how he has a steady at home, a Canadian, in fact. Still ...
“A girl came up here and said, ‘I’ll marry you!’ and she was totally hot.”
He goes silent a moment, then adds, “But she was just joking too -- she walked off.”