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A slimmed-down cadre of Inner Harbor performers still a hardy tribe

Inner Harbor hosts fewer performers than it once did. But they are a hardy, talented bunch.

Michael Rosman violates boundaries.

He'll walk the aisles of the Inner Harbor amphitheater, fixing strangers' hair, crossing and uncrossing their legs. When he "falls" off his 9-foot unicycle into the crowd, he lands on audience members with a hug. At one recent performance, he snagged a stroller containing a little girl, pushed it over to an unrelated couple and instructed them, "Pretend this is your baby."

The crowds erupt in laughter.

After 30 years in the Waterfront Street Performers program, he gets away with all of it.

"There's a freedom when I'm street performing and an artistic freedom when I'm performing at Harborplace," said Rosman, who typically performs on the weekends. "I can start when I want. I can end when I want. When I go to a corporate job, there's a certain start time and a certain amount of minutes I have to do."

The 49-year-old Reisterstown resident has the longest-running act in the program, a holdover from when the Inner Harbor was a new tourist attraction.

Nowadays, the number of performers has dwindled to about 15 from a onetime high of around 50. Ever since last year's Freddie Gray-related unrest, visitors leave earlier, performers say. And tips have decreased, too.

Yet those who persist in street performance embrace a timeless art — even as they adapt to carry Square devices to scan credit cards for tips, the only compensation they receive for their acts. And there are small signs of a rebound under new management.

The street performers program, originally run by Harborplace, has brought jugglers, magicians, dancers and the like to the Inner Harbor since 1980.

John Pezzulla, who managed the street performers' program from 1988 to 1991 and 1995 to 2000, remembers it being more robust, hosting acts from all over the world to create a distinctive feature at the Inner Harbor. Now, people are drawn to attractions in Canton and Harbor East, said Pezzulla, vice president of retail assets at Bozzuto Group.

Still, the program is a signature of the Inner Harbor, he said.

"Even though there are other opportunities and things to do in Baltimore compared to 20 or 30 years ago, it's the 50-yard line in Baltimore," Pezzulla said. "It's still an awesome place for events and street performers."

In January, Waterfront Partnership took over the program, which schedules acts at the Harborplace amphitheater, Bicentennial Plaza and the Constellation Dock. It has added three acts to the roster. Organizers hope to add more, such as school and military bands, and to increase the number of performance spaces on the waterfront.

The goal, said Sarah St. Clair, Waterfront Partnership's director of marketing, is "creating a lively, active and inclusive experience for all of our visitors."

Rosman certainly is all three. A full-time entertainer who has taken his talents to Japan, Sri Lanka and the White House, he says the Inner Harbor is one of his favorite places to perform. The comedian juggles knives, torches and the occasional running chainsaw while unicycling in a kilt.

Beth Gibson of Seattle and her grandson, Marcus, of Charlottesville, Va., caught sight of Rosman's show from the nearby Constellation before making their way to the amphitheater. She volunteered Marcus to be Rosman's unofficial assistant, helping pump up the crowd as he juggled knives and torches.

Gibson said Rosman's wit made the show.

"He's right there," she said of his jokes, snapping her fingers. "I just thought it was great."

Rosman has learned to improvise — not only for comedy's sake, but because weird things happen. A seagull once dropped something unexpectedly into his show. Children have run into the middle of his act. He even broke his foot while unicycling.

"Unicycle Lady" Lisa Polinori, 52, of Baltimore is a unicyclist and juggler who has been doing daring splits midair for more than a decade — sometimes with her Boston terrier, Enzo, in tow.

She, too, deals with the unexpected.

"As a female, you have to be very confident in what you do to be able to handle people — you're putting yourself out there," she said, recalling the occasional drunken or belligerent stranger.

She comes back for the thrill and the challenge.

"People don't have to stay and watch. They don't have to be polite. It's up to you to make it entertaining for them," she said. "They're not necessarily going to come [up] with any sort of tip unless they got some sort of entertainment."

The program, which began this year in April and will run through October, hosted its annual audition April 10 and added three acts, among them Dimitri Reeves of West Baltimore — best known for his impersonations of singer Michael Jackson — and Japheth Clark.

Clark, 26, of Parkville plays tunes ranging from Frank Sinatra to Beyonce to Stevie Wonder on his flugelhorn. His slogan is "playing until my lips bleed."

Clark has been performing for the past six years. Joining the program gives him a permit authorizing him to play in parts of the Inner Harbor from which he could otherwise be ejected, he said.

Though his throat and feet might hurt, and some notes might not come out right by the end of the fifth hour, Clark said the work is more enjoyable than laboring for someone else. What he earns in a day is often up to him, he said, and he likes that.

His goal is to make at least $800 a week, putting in at least five to six hours a day.

But performers said their earnings vary by day. Acts get rained out, Polinori said, and there are often distractions, like ships pulling in and the noise of ambulances and helicopters.

"If I make $200 or $300 in a day, I'm extremely ecstatic," she said. "Waitresses and waiters make more than street performers."

Clark said he gets more compliments and people snapping pictures of him than he does dollar bills, and he's had his tip bucket stolen. But then there are people who sit next to him for hours, tipping multiple times, he said.

Other performers said tips have decreased over time, and many have opted for money-making alternatives.

Evan Young, 34, has commuted from his home in Lancaster, Pa., for the past 10 years to perform for the program. He makes roughly $40,000 a year as a performer traveling the East Coast, often to colleges. He also picks up side jobs, including a gig as a part-time photo assistant. He said some visitors carry only credit cards.

Young, who accompanies his fire juggling and ball catapulting with cat jokes, now carries a Square, which attaches to his phone.

"But it's really tedious and cumbersome to take a Square, and some people don't trust a street performer with their credit card," he said.

Since the unrest last year, Young said, visitors also leave the harbor earlier.

"It definitely affected us financially," he said, noting that the performances usually end by 9:30 p.m. "It just dies off quickly."

On slow days, he hopes to make just enough to cover gas and parking.

"When the city does good, we do good," Rosman said.

Brenda Hardy, who has been making shapes out of balloons for the past 14 years — nearly eight for the program — started her own business, Balloons by Brenda, and works at birthday parties and corporate events.

The 61-year-old Mount Vernon resident can still be found in the harbor equipped with dozens of balloons. She crafts superheroes, Disney's "Frozen" characters Elsa and Olaf (which she says are in demand) and wearable balloon art, such as her signature jet pack, with yellow and red balloons spiraling from the pack like a firey exhaust. It's how she keeps her skills sharp.

"The locals, they're not really into you as much as the tourists are. But the tourists, I can have so much fun with them because they're always intrigued by our program," she said. As are children.

She twists and ties together red and blue balloons, a creation for 2-year-old Wyatt Morville. His eyes light up as she hands him the finished product.

"Spider-Man," Wyatt whispers.

That's her favorite part of the job, she said.

"That's why I'm not ever going to quit the program."

bbritto@baltsun.com

If you go

Visitors will typically find the Waterfront Street Performers on and off between 11 a.m. and 9 p.m. most days through October at the Harborplace amphitheater, Bicentennial Plaza and Constellation Dock. For scheduled times, check baltimorewaterfront.com.

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