Register Thursday | June 20 | 2019

Busker’s World

Toronto’s streets could be a world-class site for open-air entertainment. But for that to happen, the city needs to change its tune.

It’s a few weeks before Christmas 2005 in downtown Toronto. At the corner of Yonge and Queen Streets, in front of the Eaton Centre, two living statues perform face-to-face for holiday shoppers. One is dressed as a samurai, wielding a long staff, with his back to Queen Street. The other is a flashy robotic Elvis, dressed head to toe in silver, with his back to the mall. It may not look like it, but this is a battle—the two buskers are competing for territory, audience and cash.

Silver Elvis (also known as Peter Jarvis) has performed on this corner for nine years. A few weeks before the showdown he noticed someone in the crowd studying his act. The stranger watched Jarvis for a couple of hours everyday before finally approaching him. The Silver Elvis act, he said, made him want to start his own.

Jarvis was flattered at first, but later started to worry when he realized his fan wasn’t just inspired to start busking—he was inspired to encroach on Jarvis’s lucrative turf. Every time Jarvis showed up at his usual spot after their first meeting, his follower would already be there. “There was that, ‘Oh my God,’ in my head,” says Jarvis. “I have to share the territory.”

At this early point in his career, the samurai doesn’t know the gentleman’s rule of the street—you don’t busk in another guy’s territory. At first, Jarvis says nothing to his unwanted follower. Instead, he waits until he leaves for the day and only then reclaims his spot. He might be happy to share the corner, but the new guy is taking over completely. After five days, it’s time to have a chat.

Jarvis walks up to the samurai, hoping to strike a compromise. “You’ve been here for a couple of hours, man,” he says. “We’ll have to figure out some way we can make this work.”

“I’m not done yet,” replies the samurai. “But I’ll be done in an hour.”

Sensing the samurai isn’t ready to back down, Jarvis threatens to reclaim the turf—he points to a hot dog stand a few metres away and tells him, “I’m going to go over there in an hour and a half.” The samurai agrees on the time, but Jarvis, still not convinced he’ll give up the post, says, “If you don’t, we have to go head to head.”

 When Jarvis returns, the samurai still hasn’t moved. So the two living statues start fighting for tips—the samurai with his long, menacing staff and Jarvis flashing silver on his pedestal. “It’s just the way it is,” explains Jarvis, who lasted over an hour before calling it a day. “If you’re not going to change the guard, you have to make your point. If I back down, he’ll own it.”

IN EUROPEAN CITIES like London and Barcelona, where buskers line up face-to-face and side-by-side on major boulevards, head-to-head street battles like this happen everyday. (I once walked down Barcelona’s Las Ramblas in awe, squeezed between other sweaty tourists, street-side vendors and lines of painted, living statues under a canopy of trees. Jostled back and forth by so many bodies, it was impossible to escape the performers’ enchanting glances and ornate costumes).

But in Canada’s biggest city, performers respect fellow performers’ pitches—lucrative busking spots like Dundas Square and Queen and Yonge—and most agree no one owns the street. Whoever gets to a pitch first, rules it for the day. They admire each other tremendously, but those who don’t show consideration for fellow performers don’t get in on the love. It’s not that Toronto performers wouldn’t welcome more competition, (they do and think that, given the right conditions, the bourgeoning scene will burst), it’s just hard to give up a great pitch because there are so many rules and regulations governing public space.

Street performing is one of those ancient professions like prostitution and teaching. As long as people have clumped together in villages, towns and cities, they’ve wanted to be entertained. The art’s roots run especially deep in Europe where troubadours and minstrels were revered by the public and members of royal courts. Even today, while we in North America often think of street performers as glorified beggars, they call them artists. Some countries’ busking permits even outline the role street performing has in cultural diversity, and call performers employees of the city.

In Toronto, the busking community is tight—and sometimes eccentric. They train together, party together and feed off each other’s creativity. Most are proud of our grungy city and think of it as a world-class pitch.

Kate Mior, 26, is a corporeal mime, juggler, living statue performer and last year’s Buskerfest poster girl. She’s also a Ryerson film school graduate and an animator who’s been a part of films featured in the Toronto Film Festival. Over the past five years she’s completely immersed herself in busking’s semi-underground world while taking a break from the film industry to save her artistic integrity. She’s honest, a bit edgy, but also quite charming. “I have my values that I won’t compromise,” she explains, her straight, jet-black hair hanging blunt near her face. “I won’t use my art for somebody else’s vision.”

For her living statue act, Mior dresses up in blanched, whimsical costumes and covers her skin in white makeup to perform various similar looking characters: a ghostly but flirtatious Marie Antoinette; an angel lighting her lover’s way home; and a bawdy mermaid. Standing on a white box on the sidewalk as Marie Antoinette—a tower of white wig piled on her head—she stretches her hand out to a man walking by. As soon as she has his attention, she beckons him to kiss it. She’s coy. He’s brave and kisses her cheek. When the courtship ends and her suitor walks away, she brings a paper fan to her mouth and looks out over the top of it seductively. Satiny gloves stretch from her fingers to her arms where thick, white and muted-gold sleeves drape from her elbows.

Mior has traveled all over the world—Italy, Austria, the U.K. and China—but holds Toronto up as one of her favourite places to busk. “Mark my word,” she says, “the next couple of years we’re going to have an influx of street performers as they all hear through the grape vine that this is a good city.” She already knows of performers who make Toronto a stop on their tours: a death-metal loving Finnish juggler she made friends with last summer and Japanese didgeridoo player, Shibaten who moved to Toronto this year.

When cities become so saturated with performers—many busking without permits—police go through and basically shut the scene down, Mior explains. In gypsy fashion, performers move from city to city to city, looking for new hotspots. “What happens is global pitches go through cycles. Covent Garden in the U.K., that one got swept; South Bank gets swept every once in a while,” she says. “Police typically do these sweepings every now and then to control the area. Toronto is now going to be the place for everyone to go.”

But don’t get too excited about Toronto’s potential for everyday, open-air theatre yet. In the city—home to two-and-a-half million people—there were 171 street performers with permits last year. And while performers like Mior and Jarvis see the scene growing, they see it growing in very specific kinds of ways.

AT A COFFEE SHOP on the corner or Queen and Bathurst Streets, Jarvis (a self-taught disco champion) is out of the Silver Elvis costume, but in a Spiderman hoodie and a black, Superman-themed jacket—with a silver “S” logo on the front left breast. Between sips of coffee, he talks about learning disco’s staple moves as a kid by copying contestants on the 1970s show, Dance Fever. He taught himself the robot on long rides to his family’s cottage in Collingwood using the panoramic, James Bond–style rearview mirror in his father’s Grand Marquis.

Sitting in the back seat, he’d watch the reflection of his head—fit perfectly between the mirror’s top and bottom edges—and move it mere millimeters at a time. His eyes light up with boyish excitement as he explains. “Because of the limitations of the mirror it actually gave me the technique to be precise with sliding the head in a horizontal fashion,” he says, demonstrating the moves in short, jarring motions. “I remember sitting in the car and moving my arm with the same precision—I had my arm imitate my head.” It took him a year to master each limb.

Now 49, Jarvis, who started busking 10 years ago, is a latecomer to street performing, but has been in the scene long enough to notice changes and make predictions about its future. When he started, his theatre-like act was novel. He did a lot of “hard street” (non-festival sidewalk performing) and eventually crowds got used his show. Now that he’s older, though, Jarvis prefers the stability of the festival circuit to the sidewalk, and thinks Toronto’s street performing scene will gather momentum through Toronto Buskerfest rather than the more spontaneous hard street.

Since moving from city hall’s hot tarmac to a more European-feeling St. Lawrence Market, Toronto Buskerfest has grown exponentially. It now attracts top-quality performers from all over the world for several days each August when the streets close to traffic. As residents and tourists walk around, taking in the talent, they learn how to interact with street theatre and get a glimpse what everyday street culture could be.

As a North American metropolis, Toronto doesn’t have the same hype and centuries-old tradition as Europe and city bylaws keep hard street from growing to the point of saturation. In other words, even though city streets are public space, activities on and around them are strictly regulated. According to the Toronto Municipal Code, performers can’t busk in front of display windows, less than nine metres from an intersection or directly in front of an entranceway. And musician buskers can’t perform less than 50 metres from other musicians.

Busking in the subway is regulated by the TTC who started holding auditions for coveted licenses in 1974. Now, up to 170 musicians compete every year for 89 licenses to perform in 25 of Toronto’s 69 stations. TTC special event representative Jane Garofalo says holding auditions assures, among other things, that subway stations are filled with a wide variety of talent. So yes, the stations host diverse musical acts—historically Toronto’s most prevalent type of busker—but there are no jugglers, mimes or living statues lighting up the subway’s tiled halls.
These tight regulations are a loss for Toronto’s street culture. According to Antonio Gomez-Palacio—a city planner for private planning firm Office for Urbanism—buskers are not only a fun aspect of this culture, they’re essential to the city’s health. He compares performers to endangered spotted owls in the forest, saying you can only find them where pedestrians flock and the urban environment is healthiest.

“Ideologically, I think it’s ridiculous and funny” says Mior of the city’s busking regulations. “Practically, I understand why it’s done and I fully support and endorse that. But ideologically it’s kind of silly considering the nature of this job.”

ON A FREEZING SATURDAY in late February, Dave Johnston, 38, sits on the sidewalk in front of the Sears rotating-door entrance on the corner of Yonge and Dundas, hunched over his sidewalk-art masterpiece, a Caravaggio copy. To the north is a shouting evangelist holding a Jesus-is-saviour sign on Yonge. To the south are two clean-cut men in long wool coats passing out black-history pamphlets. Tin containers filled with an array of coloured chalk and an open book for reference lay splayed around drawing’s perimeter, close to black urns collecting tips and a note printed neatly in white chalk:

Hello humans! I’m here to make your eyeball(s) smile with my pretty colours of kick-ass-ness. If you like what you see please make a donation. If you don’t like it simply reach into the pocket of the person next to you and give me their money. P.S. I love you?
Chalk Master

It’s at least -10 C, but Johnston is wearing only a black fall jacket and a ball cap. His rough, blackened hands have been bare for eight hours holding gritty chalk mixed with dried salt off the sidewalk and they hurt. While still friendly to the bundled crowd gathered around, the temperature is starting to get to him. “It’s freezing,” he says. “I just want to go home.” But instead of packing up, he rustles through his tip-urns while the man hovering close to his spot watches intently and smiles. “I’ve never taken any of your stuff,” he repeats a few times. Johnston doesn’t know the guy’s name but he hangs around his spot a lot, sometimes badgering onlookers.

“I know, man,” answers Johnston, who then finds a single cigarette and offers it to the guy. “Here, I don’t smoke,” he says.

After his buddy takes the cigarette, Johnston sits down on the cold concrete, picks up a stick of chalk and gets back to his drawing. Sweeping his arm in arcs across the surface, he pushes colour into the sidewalk’s sharp grooves, stopping intermittently to talk to the crowd.

Johnston, a big guy whose eyes open wide as he talks quiet but fast, grew up in Scarborough. Cracking jokes every few sentences, he works to entertain and inserts expletives every now and then for emphasis. But as dominating as his body and personality are, he feels harmless. “Drawing, I guess you could say that was my escape from reality,” he explains. “Life was really, for the most part, fucking horrible. I’m like from one of those little Jerry Springer families.” Pausing, he rethinks this. “But now looking back it doesn’t seem so bad. Every kid thinks their life sucks, right?” he asks, not waiting for an answer.

These days Johnston, who is also good friends with Mior, travels a lot between Toronto and Halifax to visit his 10-year-old daughter and will be making stops in Montreal when his six-year-old son moves there in a couple of months. He’s also traveled and busked in Singapore, Norway and Denmark. He has no major qualms about how the city treats buskers here—they’re big supporters of Buskerfest—but says sometimes staff just doesn’t think about how decisions will affect performers. For instance, they recently put a giant garbage can at Dundas and Yonge Streets, right on a spot where he draws.

“You could make this city amazing, fun, cultured and talented. Why do you think most buskers go over to Europe all the time? They have it set up because they know it draws crowds, it’s good for the economy, people love it,” he says. “Who doesn’t like the masses gathering in certain areas to have fun and be happy? It’s much better than riots. It’s much better than economic disparity. It’s amazing, but here you need about 4000 different permits.”

MOST STREET PERFORMERS share charming eccentricities and a potential for spontaneity. Dan Cole is no exception. The seasoned performer, affectionately known as “Jester of Kew Beach,” is dying of terminal lung cancer. But instead of wallowing in self-pity, he’s celebrating the end of his life with friends and family in an exuberant variety show—a living wake at the Centre of Gravity, an old vaudeville theatre and circus training studio on Gerrard Street East. The centre is a second home to many of Toronto’s street performers. Cole has lost a lot of weight. His face is a gaunt outline of what it used to be, and he uses a cane for walking, but charisma still radiates from under his ill-fitting suit.

Mior stands in the middle of the centre’s small lobby. It’s the first Saturday of this April. She’s perfectly still in her mermaid costume and powder-white skin and doesn’t acknowledge people walking in, just stares blank-faced straight ahead through the lobby doors. Inside, the theatre resembles a large, low-lit brick cavern with a built-in stage and the mood is jubilant.

A 20-something with tattooed sleeves selling raffle tickets balances a bowler hat on his nose (he later licks and juggles fire on stage). A clown-nosed, curly-haired woman in a black-lace, short skirt, low cut shirt, and tiny fairy wings poses for a picture with two other women. The un-costumed girls pull down the front of their shirts to match their friend’s bubbling-over cleavage. People drink, laugh, hug and say I love you. You’d never know they’re at a strange wake where the dead man is not dead, but dying and smiling with them.

When the show finally starts, Cole sits behind a desk at the back of the stage under his name in twinkle lights, lit up on a red sign. He acts as host, calling on acts and interviewing them from a Letterman-esque set up. A gong hangs beside him and he bangs on it every so often to heckle friend-performers on stage. Long mirrors hang next to hoops, ropes and a unicycle on one theatre wall, reflecting the audience’s image back into the room at them. Look, you too are merely mortal.

At intermission Mior is half out of costume, still wearing a corset and white make-up, but with a more casual skirt and cardigan. She met Cole a few years ago when they were both booked to work a New Year’s Eve show in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood. It was a rainy and miserable night so the two decided against performing and headed to a bar instead. Since then, they’ve trained and worked together, forming the busker bond—a family-like attachment that grows between performers because of mutual respect and understanding. Before tonight, Mior hadn’t seen Cole in three weeks and only recently found out about his illness. She was slated to perform another act in the variety show but decided against it, worried she’d become too emotional on stage to finish.

Jarvis is also attending the show, and when he runs into his friend Cole outside, he stretches out his big arms, wrapping them around the juggler’s shrinking frame. The two men embrace in a masculine hug—their arms smacking each other’s back and then gripping tightly around torsos. Jarvis and Cole performed together at a casino in Windsor a few weeks before, but Cole didn’t tell him about the cancer. “You could tell he was alluding to it,” explains Jarvis, “but he didn’t say anything.”

As part of a self-legacy, Cole is working to make busking legal at his longtime haunt, the Beaches waterfront, where many performers, sometimes Cole included, can’t get permits. They go down to the boardwalk and busk anyway, often getting fined more than $200.

Jarvis says bylaw enforcers don’t have a lot of patience for illegal performers in the Beaches and it’s a shame. “It’s a great place to see a show,” he says, “because it’s down by the water where the breeze is, where people can actually stand out of the heat and watch.”

If Cole succeeds in creating his legacy, it could be a precedent-setter in Toronto and open up other city parks, squares and streets to more performers. Imagine the city’s corridors bustling with spontaneous and eclectic entertainment. The broad sidewalk on Queen West and Soho Streets a stage filled with a steady stream of pedestrians, and the Beaches littered with jugglers, clowns and mimes to entertain swimmers and sunbathers. In Trinity Bellwoods Park, we might sit on the grass or a bench and for a couple of dollars, watch a circus’ worth of acts as we breathe in the city’s gritty air.