Send in the clowns

It was the golden era of Orlando nightlife -- circa 1975 to 1990 -- when a nickel bought a mug of beer, waitresses did the cancan on the bar at Rosie O'Grady's, and tourists hit Church Street by the busloads.

The host of the party was Bob Snow, a Navy pilot turned developer who revamped dilapidated buildings on the north and south sides of Church Street into the Western-themed Church Street Station in 1974, running the venture until 1989 when he sold it to a Baltimore real estate company for $62 million.

Sideshow Snow knew what it took to lure patrons to Church Street. He filled his good-time saloons with valuable antiques, rolled out vintage Cadillacs for photo-ops, and hired Laurel and Hardy impersonators to work the crowd.

He also brought in buskers: fire eaters, stilt-walkers, jugglers, unicyclists and other street performers from as close as Walt Disney World and as far away as San Francisco. The performers got a small stipend, but they made their real money by passing the hat.

Passing that same hat on Church Street today could get you arrested, thanks to stiff anti-panhandling laws, aimed at beggars, enacted two years ago. The twist is that the city wants buskers back to help reinvigorate the moribund downtown entertainment scene. Unfortunately they can't figure out how to accommodate them without violating their own laws.

Last week Mayor Glenda Hood killed the idea of luring buskers to downtown after homeless agencies complained, saying the city would be favoring one kind of exchange over another. In other words, solicitous beggars aren't much different from solicitous buskers.

"It's a gray area right now," says city prosecutor Ken Hebert. "Anyone who can thumb a rubber band -- is that a street entertainer or a panhandler?"

Snow knows the answer to that one. "The difference between a panhandler and busker is showmanship, entertainment and talent," he says. "The panhandler has nothing but sympathy. The busker has entertainment value."

He may not be bound by the same strictures as government types, but Snow has got the ear of the business community and city government. And he loves buskers. "I've been all over the world looking at downtown tourist areas. If they're done right, buskers can be fantastic, exciting and fun."

So the issue isn't dead yet. It could, in fact, rise again after a homeless summit tentatively scheduled for Oct. 1 at the Expo Centre.

Until the mayor killed the idea, city attorneys had considered whether to allow a nonprofit organization, probably the Central Florida Theatre Alliance -- an umbrella organization of theater troupes -- to audition and license buskers. The Alliance was the obvious choice because it could draw on members with a variety of entertainment backgrounds.

"You sure don't want government to make those decisions," says city attorney Scott Gabrielson.

The Alliance, however, is unfamiliar with the busking trade. "Right now, we don't know how to connect with these folks," says executive director Jim Morris.

Of course, street performers are still protected by the First Amendment. But only if they don't ask for money.

Which leaves Orlando at a crossroads: How to bridge the gap between two groups soliciting the public. Snow's idea? Let the beggars find the arts. "If the homeless can learn how to play the harmonica," says Snow, "more power to them."


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