Veteran Harborplace performer 'Unicycle Lady' delights crowds

Another article in a series about the people and the jobs that define a Maryland summer.

Every time Lisa Polinori takes the open-air stage at Harborplace, she wonders. Will she draw a decent crowd? Will spectators stick around to watch her juggle and joke atop a 6-foot unicycle? Will some drunk guy heckle her?

And, not least: Who out there has some money? Because these days, she says, people all too often walk around with plenty of plastic in their wallets but not so much cash for tipping. "I need to start taking credit cards," she says.

Tuesday evening, Polinori — aka Unicycle Lady — ventured once again into the unpredictable world of street performing. She's one of 32 acts deemed worthy by Harborplace management to show their stuff at the high-traffic Inner Harbor amphitheater.

This year's roster includes two escape artists, two pan flutists, several magicians, an aerialist, a dance troupe, a guitar duo, a sword swallower called "Thomsellectomy" and a handful of variety acts. Harborplace doesn't pay any of them a dime. They earn whatever spectators think they're worth.

For the 46-year-old Polinori, who's been entertaining Harborplace crowds for a decade, summer is prime time as throngs of tourists and area residents fill Baltimore's waterfront promenade. Shows run seven days a week from late morning until around 10 p.m.

After years of promoting her act, Polinori earns enough from paid gigs at private parties and corporate events that she's not some starving artist who relies on tips to eat. But the harbor shows do give her a welcome income boost and an unbeatable venue to advertise her talents.

Besides, she still gets a thrill out of performing in public. "It's a huge adrenaline rush," she says.

She emphasizes audience participation, though people sometimes take that to an extreme. Once she was chased around by a woman inexplicably wielding a shoe. The woman eventually calmed down and Polinori, doing a mime act at the time, gave her a balloon heart as a peace offering.

Another time, while gazing out at the audience, she saw a man who twice before had dangerously and annoyingly insisted on "dancing" with her while she unicycled. Determined to avoid a third time, she enlisted nearby police officers to perform a magic trick of their own: They spoke to the pest, who soon vanished from view.

"The majority of the audiences are pretty good to me," Polinori said. "If I hear laughter in the crowd and if people stay and watch the show, then to me I've done a good show."

For Tuesday's performance she did her circus skit. It's a mime act set to music, and she looked the part in red Converse sneakers, red leggings, black skirt, red and white striped vest and an assortment of hats, one goofier than the next.

She didn't actually ride any of her four unicycles until midway into the 45-minute set, instead pleasing the crowd by juggling machetes, using balloon swords to fence with a girl and reeling off a series of gags. Once she began riding, though, she was on a roll, dancing with various men (on her terms), spinning around a girl by holding onto her ponytail and even maneuvering between one (tall) man's legs.

Toward the end, she donned red shorts and blared the "Rocky" theme from speakers. After a couple of false starts, she climbed atop the 6-foot unicycle dubbed a "giraffe" and soon was juggling three clubs while spinning a plate on the end of a stick that she grasped with her mouth. The audience, well more than a hundred strong, cheered and clapped its appreciation.

Polinori has been riding unicycles most of her life. She learned at age 11 in her hometown of Alliance, Ohio. As she got older and her friends jumped to bikes and cars, she remained a one-wheel wonder. In high school she studied while riding her unicycle to class. In college she made small grocery runs on her unicycle. Even as a 20-something living in Washington, she stuck with the unusual mode of transit that turned heads.

She first performed in her late teens, inspired by a dream in which she danced on a unicycle. Rather than shrug it off as an odd nocturnal musing, she set out to make it reality. Hours of practice paid off, she says, when she performed in that year's Miss Ohio pageant.

It wasn't until the mid-1990s, after she turned 30 and had refined her juggling, that she became a true street performer in Old Town Alexandria, even quitting her office job. A few years later, she tried out her act in Baltimore and in 2000 successfully auditioned for a coveted Harborplace spot.

Street acts have been a fixture at Harborplace since the shopping complex opened 30 years ago. The amphitheater is a public park, but Harborplace picks and schedules the performers in partnership with the city, said Carmel Gambacorta, senior marketing manager at Harborplace & the Gallery.

For Polinori, who lives in Little Italy, a big draw of Harborplace was the guaranteed time slot. In Alexandria, there was always a chance she'd go to her favorite spot only to find it occupied by some clown. On the other hand, the amphitheater lacks shade, brutal on scorching days. She usually requests evening slots, when it's cooler.

The harbor area presents other challenges. She's had an ambulance drive onto the promenade, siren blaring, during a show. Boat whistles are common, and she's learned that occasionally the historic USS Constellation booms mightily with ceremonial cannon blasts.

Polinori, who performs at the harbor once or twice a week, says tips vary wildly. She has made zero (rainouts) and as much as $1,000 in one day (she took the spots of two no-shows and lost toenails on both feet by the time it finally ended). She has made $7 and $150 doing essentially the same show for two similar audiences.

The recession has taken a noticeable toll, she says. Few spending categories, after all, are more discretionary than tips for street performers. That said, she recently got a $100 bill from one fellow who was particularly appreciative if a little sauced.

"You never know if people are going to like what you do," Polinori said. "And you want to make them laugh. If they leave, you have to figure out, what did I do wrong? What did I say? Or is it too hot, or do they need to go eat now? Is it me? Is it them?"

Tuesday's performance went smoothly apart from a few juggling errors. No crazy shoe lady or hecklers pursued her, and most in the audience stayed to watch. And as the show wore on, appreciative spectators, or usually their children, dropped a steady stream of bills into her tip hat — mostly $1s but also some $5s and at least one $10.

"It's a pretty good hat for that crowd," she said afterward, her face glistening with sweat.

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