Let Us Entertain You

Mall buskers aren't always welcome.

Since its opening, entertainers have been a crucial part of the mall. Policy regarding what they may do, where they may do it and what, if anything, they should pay the city for the privilege has varied over the years. One longstanding controversy involved Evan Ravitz, a slack-rope walker who called himself "Evan From Heaven." In 1982, the Boulder Downtown Commission banned him from the mall, saying he was tying his ropes to mall property and balancing over the heads of spectators. "I never performed over anyone's head," Ravitz says now. Furious, he collected protesting signatures outside a shoe store, the owner of which was a member of the commission.

After a brief stint in Aspen, Ravitz returned and asked the mall commission to reinstate him. It did. But in May 1983, he was issued a summons for obstructing pedestrian traffic. "I'm not going to play it nice anymore," he said. "I'll go to jail for as long as necessary. The people who want to see this act are going to see it."

The council decided that performers who throw sharp or flaming objects must get insurance (for a while, such acts had been banned). Ravitz did, and in July, he again received a performance permit -- and lost it again that September. But the next year, he was back. In 1986, when his insurance costs rose from $300 to $1,073, the city even waived the insurance requirement.

Today Ravitz no longer performs on the mall. He is working with former Alaskan senator Mike Gravel on an initiative that he says would allow citizen lawmaking at all levels of government (www.vote.org/US). "Boulder never supported its local entertainers, and that's why they're all gone now," Ravitz says.

But street entertainers are one of the most popular mall elements, according to Richard Foy of Communication Arts. As a result, his design firm's proposed spruce-up of the mall includes several more performing areas.

Even before the mall was constructed, however, there was entertainment on Pearl Street. Frank Georgianna, a highly respected Boulder actor and director, and two partners opened the Stage Door Theatre on the street in 1975. "We weren't making money," Georgianna says, "but we were paying our bills. It was a great time."

Many longtime residents recall with pleasure their evenings at the Stage Door. Georgianna put on a mix of musicals and serious contemporary drama; there were sold-out performances night after night. A musical by David Wells called "Now That's Boulder" was particularly popular. It contained songs about macrame, rents in Boulder, Celestial Seasoning's Red Zinger and a touching ballad by a hippie couple wondering whether they'd really accomplished the social good they'd always intended.

"I was amazed at what we could do with a hundred-seat storefront," says Georgianna. "We had the energy, the spirit and the drive. We could change the space; we changed how the audience sat when they came in. We surprised them all the time. We did original work, classics, musicals, satires, a children's show. I was very proud of what we pulled off down there."

The Stage Door was a casualty of the Pearl Street Mall. "They were just putting in the bricks," Georgianna remembers, "when we got word the rent was going up."

Airjazz, the extraordinary Boulder juggling group that later appeared with the Denver Center Theatre Company, on Johnny Carson's show and in other venues around the world, got its start on the mall, first appearing there in 1979. "We experimented with a lot of things," says Peter Davison who, with Jon Held and Kezia Tenenbaum, makes up Airjazz. "We had a carton of eggs and would get someone from the audience to select an egg and crack it into a glass. Then we'd yell, 'Now this person is going to drink the egg.'" Under pressure from the crowd, he says, the person usually did. But "half the time we'd drop eggs and make a mess, and there they'd be until the end of the show for us to clean up. After a month of that, we quit."

Airjazz also juggled with fire until another juggling group accidentally singed a child's hair, and fire-juggling was banned.

"Out-of-towners caused all the problems," Davison says. "There'd be new regulations put in, and local people would have to deal with them."

Back in the Eighties, Airjazz was named one of the best teams in the country by the International Jugglers Association; the group's members made their living on the mall. In those years, according to Davison, all of the performers knew each other. "Now there's a whole contingent from New Orleans," he says. "There's a hard, brash style of performance and a changed atmosphere down there. It used to be more relaxed. People would watch a forty-minute show. Now it's more like a carnival, with performers getting into fights over their territories.

"Now there's so much competition. It eliminates the possibility of subtlety. People screaming their lungs out and waving torches around."

 
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