Yesterday I was ‘tagged’ in photos posted on Facebook by my former partner in theatrical crime Lee M. Ross, and the swinging seventies came flooding back to me. Thanks, Lee.
The day I first arrived in Amsterdam, in 1976, I was arrested within an hour. My heinous crime was playing my yellow fiddle in the Kalverstraat.
I’d done some street theatre in Australia and spent time busking at London tube stations and street markets. Despite my crimes against musical good taste I’d seldom been in trouble with the law. I’d never visited ‘The Continent’, as it was then known to Britons, and I assumed that playing in the street would be allowed in the freedom-loving city of Amsterdam.
But the Dutch constabulary were having some sort of clean-up day, clearing undesirables from the city, so they bundled me into the back of a police car, along with an English drummer and a Spanish bagpiper who confided that his name was Juan Corazon Serpiente, or “Juan Heart of Snake”.
At the police station they confiscated our instruments, so we were stuck in Amsterdam for a few days while we begged various city officials to let us have them back again. We pleaded our ignorance of Dutch street regulations, our instruments of crime were returned and we were let off with a stern finger-wagging warning about disturbing the peace. ‘If you want to earn money, try selling hash like everybody else here does’.
But we heard that Amsterdam was soon to host the annual Festival of Fools, and the police suggested that a young Australian idiot should feel right at home there.
The Festival of Fools, a ‘comedy convention of the nouveau clowns’ was an event attracting comics, circus artists, cabaretiers and street performers from around the world. It ran in Amsterdam from 1975-84, until it became too foolish for the sensible Dutch and moved to Copenhagen. I believe versions of the event now take place in Spain and Northern Ireland.
The Festival of Fools offered me paid piano bar gigs in the Melkweg and Shaffy Theaters, as well as a licence to perform on the street. Through this work I met Pigeon Drop, a group of American dancers, clowns and musos. A bad Australian fiddle player who could juggle three balls and was used to public embarrassment was just what they were looking for, so I joined them.The photos were taken in La Rochelle, France. Pigeon Drop travelled there in Lee’s red ‘ugly duckling’ Citroen van (six of us plus instruments crammed into it somehow – this was before seatbelt laws). We slept on a sheet of plastic on the beach or in fields. Lee reminds me that we were once woken by a circus arriving, informing us that we were sleeping on their spot.
Yet we earned enough money to eat, occasionally to drink vin ordinair and to fill the Pigeonmobile with fuel. There were often embarrassingly meagre pickings, but there were sometimes exciting performances with good hauls of cash. Memorable was the day Chip and Steve accidentally attracted a big crowd by tossing a frisbee in the street . Frisbees were new to France apparently. So we kept the boys throwing and catching, passed the hat around, and dined very well that night.
We learned a few tricks about street performing… Creating the expectation of something about to happen will draw a crowd better than starting the act itself. The act doesn’t matter much. Do anything at all with energy and confident good humour. If you project the feeling that you are enjoying your work, the audience will forgive your lack of skill. Pass the hat before you finish the performance. Lead the audience to believe that if they stick around they’ll see something amazing, then collect the loot, then do the act. If anyone feels let down, it’s too late – you already have their coins. If you wait till it’s over, most of them will just split and go shopping.
I left Pigeon Drop at the end of 1977 and went back to Australia to try my luck in more serious theatre. The remaining group members, freed from the shackles of my appalling fiddling and basic clowning, briefly became famous in theatres, clubs and festivals around Europe. They earned good money and wisely invested it in good fun. Well done Lee, Chip, Steve and the boys of the new band. Thanks too Karen and Barbara for the good times we had in the heady Pigeon Drop days.
I still have the yellow fiddle and play it often (whenever Mevrouw T leaves the premises, actually), with no noticeable improvement. I have seldom performed on the street since, but I enjoy seeing people who do it well and cheerfully put money in the hat when I see effort and enthusiasm.
It would be nice to do it myself again one day, but I’m afraid I may have used up my lifetime’s supply of bravado during 1976-77.