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kirstenanderberg Bed o' Nails (1) Bed O'Nails 11 Aug 05


A Bed Of Nails and an Underwater Escape on the Street
By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)

In the late 1990's, I spent a Sunday in May street performing at the University Street Fair in Seattle. Due to meticulous journals dating back to 1973, I have notes of my journeys as a street performer, and thought I would share a day in the lives of street performers with you, as that subject is barely covered at all throughout history, as well as in contemporary sources.

I began the day, walking up to my usual spot, at the intersection of 43rd and University Way. University Way is closed to traffic the weekend of the fair, and thus the intersections are open to street performers. Street performers tend to find a groove and stay in the same general areas over the years, so, my favorite spots have changed time and again, but in the late 1990's, I was playing the intersection at 43rd, usually with the duo Amber Tide (www.ambertide.com) and Leif Olson, the juggler. But this year a new act showed up in the line up as well. They were two 14 year old boys, Andrew Pulkrabek and Pepper Fajans (http://www.seanharding.com/portfolios/news/pwsmash1.html). It was clear these kids had been bitten by the vaudeville/street performer bug, and were taking it seriously. Their routines were well-rehearsed, and their banter was professionally presented.

They did a classic straightjacket escape routine, then rolled out a bed of nails (that Andrew's dad made for them). Andrew laid down on the nails and then Pepper put a 30 pound cinder block on Andrew's chest and sledgehammered it to pieces to the thrill of the audience. This is a classic vaudeville act, yet rarely do we see it done by young kids with such finesse. It gave all the older street performers a warm fuzzy feeling to see another generation of vaudevillians following in our footsteps.

As the day wore on, Andrew got a visit from his mom. I have a son the same age as Andrew, and his mom and I started talking as she watched her son's act. She had not seen the act before and was a bit horrified. I am sure over the years she has gotten more used to it. Last I heard, Andrew was rolling in broken glass on the street, or something crazy like that, so those first years may seem tame to her now in retrospect. The bed of nails and cinderblock act is old as can be, and looks much more drastic than it actually is. The more nails a bed of nails has, the less it hurts, for one, as the weight is distributed among more nail heads. And even though it leaves red imprints in the back, when evenly positioned on the nails, it is relatively safe. The same with the cinderblock on the stomach, when executed correctly, this is a pretty standard vaudeville routine. My friends Amber Tide have a picture on their website of Sandahbeth lying down with a cinder block on her stomach, and Thaddeus breaking the cinderblock on her stomach with another cinderblock, because they had no sledgehammer available.   

When I talked to Andrew and Pepper, it turns out they had been inspired by Jim Rose's Freak Show, but because they were minors, no one would let them do anything very risky. They had been studying some of the Northwest's most gifted street acts, such as Reverend Chumleigh, Hillbilly Willy, Leif Olson, Charlie Brown, etc., and seemed very serious about street performing and vaudeville as an art. (And in the years since, I actually brought Andrew and Pepper to the Oregon Country Fair (OCF) stages and the OCF Midnight Show, because I think it is important that other younger people see people their age entertaining as inspiration. And now, I have seen them continue on as incredible performers into adulthood.)

Anyway, at the street fair that day in May, acts came and left our lineup, but Andrew and Pepper, and myself, performing as Mother Zosima, doing political satire, stayed. And it was getting hard for us to rotate every half an hour by the end of the day as our voices and bodies were wearing out from filling an intersection over and over, and more frequently, as the day, and weekend, wore on. So the boys and I went out to find some acts to share this intersection with us. We finally recruited Rev. Chumleigh from the spot he was on at a less crowded intersection to the south of us.

Chumleigh showed up at our intersection with a 4 foot long snake, a Sparkletts Bottle full of water and a big "Water Escape!" sign. Chumleigh began his show with a standard key-bending trick with people from the audience. Then he undressed to reveal his risqué leopard-print, over-the-shoulder leotard ( with removable tail) and began his "water escape" act. At this point, he had about 150 people around him in a circle in the intersection. Chumleigh had an audience member ready to chain his wrists together and lock them up, in preparation for Chumleigh's underwater escape, but he could not find the keys necessary to unlock the lock and chains, to lock his wrists up. He realized he had locked his keys inside his car a few minutes prior to coming to the spot to perform. He began to panic, searching for the key, trying to hold the audience, as he searched all of his belongings in vain.

Chumleigh began begging the audience comically, as well as passers-by, for a padlock and key! And miraculously, during all this commotion, the crowd grew. Finally, someone produced a padlock and key to the cheers of the crowd. But Chumleigh still needed to find wire cutters to get the old lock without a key off of the chains for his wrists. We realized the kids had a sledgehammer. So, Chumleigh sledgehammered the old lock off the chains, as the crowd grew even bigger. With freed chains, a lock, and key now, Chumleigh finally had his wrists wrapped in the chains and padlocked by an audience member. He then placed his hands inside what he called "an antique hippie stash bag, which doubled as a hat at Grateful Dead shows and hasn't been washed since Woodstock."

TO READ THE REST OF THIS STORY, GO TO http://resist.ca/~kirstena/pagebedonails.html


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