Human Jukebox plays tunes for curious


On the brightest summer day, the Human Jukebox plays in the darkness of a self-made prison that pays.

You will come upon his cardboard box somewhere on a Baltimore street, the mint-green color and the chirps of a wind instrument causing you to stop and stare. You will pore over the selections written in Magic Marker on the front, and the little money slot that says Thank You!, and you'll wonder whether somebody is really in there playing.

Try opening the little window at the front of the box to find out what's inside, like catching the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. Go ahead. The knobs you pull yield nothing but a length of string.

Then out pops Robert Clark, a 41-year-old artist and musician-of-all-trades in paint-splattered jeans and a Dizzy Gillespie T-shirt, playing the tunes he learned by ear on a $6 plastic recorder. In the most public of places he enjoys a dark, hot, private rehearsal hall -- two pieces of a futon box held together with binder clips and tape.

Mr. Clark has been a street performer for more than a year, drawing sketches and rolling out the tunes on his recorder. He received no more attention than most performers get. But now people crowd around, reacting with delight when he suddenly appears in the window to ask what they want to hear.

"That's the whole idea -- curiosity," Mr. Clark said. "You could be Coltrane out here, but you can't get people enrolled into what you're doing," he said. "When I get into the box, it's not boring -- now they can watch TV. They would rather get into the peek-a-boo of it."

It all started about a week ago, after Mr. Clark, who does work for a futon shop in Fells Point, saw a juke box outside an antique store.

He thought about the boxes the futons come in, and that "it would be nice if I could jump out of there and entertain people with my flute."

Mr. Clark went to the library to do some research and found he was not the first to hit on the idea. A fellow named Grimes Poznikov erected a juke box of canvas and wood at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf in 1973.

Other versions have sprung up in New York City and Venice Beach in California. But Mr. Clark appears to be the first human juke box in Baltimore. He is a juke box on the move: from the Inner Harbor hotel corridor to North Charles Street, from the Cross Street Market to Fells Point as the mood dictates.

The list of tunes on his box stands at 26 with room for more. There's the Beatles' "Something" at No. 24, "Danny Boy" at No. 5 and "Greensleeves" at No. 17. There are several Irish tunes, perhaps because they offer great trilling opportunities. And yes, he will play "Misty" for you -- a snappy, improvised jazz version.

That's what Frank Chiarella wanted to hear Thursday night at the corner of Thames Street and South Broadway. "This is what we need, more creative people," he said, dropping Mr. Clark some change.

But being a juke box brings its price, too.

"I'd say it's fairly dehumanizing rather than sad," said James O'Kane, a sociology professor at Drew University in Madison, N.J. "He has to have a shtick. To survive as an artist in our technological society is very difficult."

Already there is trouble with panhandlers who try to horn in on the act, and the vulnerability of willingly confining oneself on streets that can be dangerous. Some children on North Charles tipped the box over with Mr. Clark in it, causing him to stay away from there for a few days.

There is the possibility of copycat juke boxes cropping up around the city. There is the notion of becoming dependent on this alternative identity; of letting juke box overshadow human. But for now Mr. Clark plays on, knowing that in the heart behind every human's shell is music, or the yearning for it.

"On the physical plane, I guess it's all machine," he said. "Until they feel the spirit. The sound is what tells them where I'm coming from."

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