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Robert the Umbrella Man
Goldies 2007: Critics' Picks
Best Downtown Street Performers
By Paul Davis
You either love 'em or wish they would go set up outside your competitor's business. Whichever camp you fall into, there's no denying that Santa Cruz has quite a colorful history of downtown street performers and street personalities. Some have risen to the realm of legend, while others have disappeared with time. (Anyone else remember the guy who would throw up devil horns at random passers-by and yell "G.G. Allen, Man?" Many don't.) To preserve Santa Cruz' own skewed version of American Idol for posterity, Metro Santa Cruz and friends offer our fave downtown street performers, personalities and local celebrities of 2006.
Robert the Umbrella Man
The Umbrella Man is Pacific's reigning contender, this year, last year and the year before. Walking down the street ever-so-slowly in makeup and wearing—let's face it—a vaguely maniacal, yet unnervingly placid smile, the Umbrella Man remains a confounding mystery to many (Metro Santa Cruz attempted to get to the bottom of it back in 2004). He told us back then that he would continue walking the line until he found something else to do. After a short stint hanging out in a plastic trash bag during a '04 presidential bid, Robert has spent most of the past few years methodically traipsing down Pacific in a get-up that would do both Charlie Chaplin and Aladdin Sane-period Bowie proud. Here's hoping he doesn't find anything more interesting.
The Great Morgani
This venerable favorite has a more established act than many of his contemporaries. Why, the Great Morgani even has a bona fide website through which you can book him for your next grand opening, corporate event or theater of the absurd. According to Morgani he will "play everything ... except 'Lady of Spain' and Metallica," but despite such arbitrary ground rules, there's a scope to his repertoire that few can match. It's not Morgani's repertoire that makes him a memorable addition to the Pacific music scene though—that is reserved for his outfits, body-covering affairs that have included a fruit fly, Santa Claus, an owl and a skin-tight tropical get-up that purely defies description. There's no doubt he's a true original, yet if the Morgani was being a bit more business-savvy, he would hire a couple more stand-ins and take those absurdist lightweights in the Blue Man Group head-on.
Kevin, the God of Shamisen
The Great Morgani won't play you Metallica, but Kevin Kmetz, the self-proclaimed God of Shamisen, likely will run through the entirety of Master of Puppets for you on his fretless Japanese lute. Kmetz has been thrashing away, head down and brow furrowed, playing the three-stringed traditional instrument like a man possessed on Pacific Avenue for nearly a decade now. Kmetz isn't interested in any happy-go-lucky cross-cultural exchange or dialogue; instead he's a crazed longhair intently and intensely turning out the world music equivalent of Slayer.
Cheeseburger Soul Man
Not to be confused with the perennial "visions of a cheeseburger" chap, or perennial Beach Boardwalk favorite Jimmy Buffet, you've likely passed the cheeseburger soul singer without even realizing the content of his gospel-tinged laments. Take a listen to the words, and you'll slowly come to the realization that his beautiful laments often concern themselves with that most prosaic of topics: cheese, onions, lettuce and beef on a hamburger bun. With one of the most soulful baritones you've likely ever heard, he holds court on Pacific Avenue with such a commanding air that he could be singing about candy from Marini's and it would likely break your heart. His appearances in town are seasonal; perhaps his fast food muse travels northward at times.
Others on the list are known for their ostentatious dress as much as their performances. Yet Squeezebox Guy, a recent addition to the downtown flavor, mostly blends into the sea of people walking on a normal afternoon. Unlike many who are performing to the crowd, Squeezebox Guy keeps to himself and looks as if he could be just as easily playing in the middle of an empty field. A favorite of The Devil Makes Three's Cooper McBean (an enthusiast of street performers who offered his input for this list), Squeezebox Guy's "usually wearing a scarf and a coat and a fisherman's hat and he's got a little tiny diatonic according squeezebox thing. He's not out that often, but he just stands there minding his own business. You'll turn the corner and he'll just be like, "do-do-de-do-do-do'!"
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