Will Soto entertains a sunset crowd at Mallory Square
From Shakespeare to show biz, in every country in the world, street performers have used nothing but the ground as a stage and the sky as a backdrop. For over a decade, Mallory Square in Key West, Florida, has been known internationally as one of the most picturesque street theatres. Every evening as the vivid hues of the sunset deepen over the harbor, the dock comes alive.
There are many types of acts at Mallory Square -- mimes and magicians, tight-rope walkers and tap dancers -- but almost all of them incorporate juggling. In fact, the Cultural Preservation Society (CPS), an organization formed by the Mallory Square performers and artisans, considers learning the cascade as part of their initiation!
Like many street scenes nationwide, the occupation of Mallory Square by artists and craftspeople beginning in the early 1970s has not been universally welcomed in the community. However, in the past three years, according to Bounce the Clown (Steve Margill), the authorities have left the artists in peace. The CPS has been a strong political voice in maintaining the property for performing. The 200-yard dock is now crowded from end to end with performers, craftspeople and tourists for 90 minutes before sunset each evening, especially in the busy months of December to April.
To celebrate the rebirth of street theatre, CPS has organized the First International Street Performer's Festival-Busker's Fest, Jan. 14-18, 1987. The CPS hopes that a large turnout from all over the world will create a Mardi Gras-type atmosphere that will rival Key West's other highly successful festivals -- Fantasy Fest in October and Hemmingway Days in July.
Most of the Mallory Square regulars will participate, including festival organizer Will Soto, a CPS board member and regular at the pier almost since its inception. Soto is a big crowd pleaser on the square as he walks a wire suspended over the harbor and juggles sabers and torches. Strong tropical breezes occasionally make the stunt very tricky.
"If you're real polished, real effortless, people assume most of the danger is gone. You have to always push yourself a bit, have a challenge to stimulate yourself," Soto said. "When you work for yourself, it's up to you. Nobody's going to tell you to get up and go to work. You have to establish good habits, like a little clock on the side to keep appointments."
Like many of Mallory Square's performers, Soto is a "busker," he lives by passing the hat. The term is derived from the name of the floppy hat used by former English street performers to hold spectators' coins.
Bounce the Clown and Mademoiselle Ooo La La also perform regularly in Mallory Square, blending juggling, humor and an elegantly attired French poodle named Sparkplug into an entertaining show. They pass torches while Ooo La La stands on the shoulders of a volunteer and Bounce stalls his zig-zag unicycle. In another routine, she leans from his side, hooked with a cord, and juggles knives while he spins balls on each finger and a mouthstick.
Bounce claims to be the first juggler on the pier, arriving in February 1975 to perform after seeing street entertainers there two years earlier. He worked there regularly with Locomotion Vaudeville worked for ten years straight before the group broke up recently. Now he and Ooo La La carry on the tradition from December to April, touring the country during the other months.
"It was a touchy thing with the city at first," Bounce said. "The authorities looked on us as panhandlers rather than as artists providing a service to the city. The police would prevent people from passing the hat."
Even though there's no more harassment, Bounce says Mallory Square presents other challenges to entertainers. "Of all places I've performed, this is one of the most difficult," he said. "There is so much competition happening at once, 10-15 other acts, that you die if you can't hold the crowd.
"Nobody's down there until the 90 minutes before sunset, so you haven't got much time to earn your day's wages," he continued. "Most people get to do two shows, with the second one timed to end right before the sun goes down."
Bounce's poodle, Sparkplug, is not the only canine comic on the square, however. Matthew Bonnett, who came to Key West in 1979, performs with a boxer named Sarah. Although she has a face only a mother (and Matthew) could love, Sarah's own style of "singing" melts hearts in the audience. She also provides Matthew with moral support, leading the sighs and aahhs when he makes a particularly amazing or astounding move.
Two hours practice daily on the beach have built some astounding moves into Bonnett's repertoire. His six ball shower and three-in-one-hand torch routine are close to perfect.
"I came to Mallory Square because it's the only place where a performer can make an honest living," Bonnett said. "I do what I like and on a good night I make money, too."
Other juggling regulars on the square are Cyrus P. Koski III, Bounce's former Locomotion Vaudeville partner, and Scotty Houghton.
Someone is there every evening of the year just before sunset. It's even a good place to try your hand (or hat, as the case may be) at street performing. Bounce warns that it's not easy, but there's a wonderful spontaneity on the square that is encouraging to the novice and veteran alike. There are no admission charges, roped-off sections or special preferences. Just bring your props, a hat and a smile and you'll be welcomed into the special guild of Mallory Square performers. The only rule is to have a good time and help others do the same.
For more information on the First Annual Street Performer's Festival - Busker's Fest, contact Will Soto, festival director, c/o CPS, Box 4837, Key West, Fla. 33041.