YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Paving Way for Top Street Performers

Veteran busker Robert A. Nelson--Butterfly Man-- uses his contacts to attract unique performers to Universal CityWalk's annual festival.


Street performance seems like the world's most spontaneous art form. Pick a street corner, juggle some knives, and voila, the audience appears.

It should be so easy.

While a few places still welcome anyone with an instrument to play or a sword to swallow--Venice Beach comes to mind--in the world of street performing, organization is the root of all spontaneity.

It all started in 1972, explains performer Robert A. Nelson, when a Very Big Corporation bought Boston's Quincy Market and wanted to encourage pedestrian traffic outside its specialty shops.

Al Krulick--one of the comedy-mime-juggling team the Shakespeare Brothers--transplanted some talent from Harvard Square. He organized them, assigning them areas to work and times to be there. He understood the delicate balance required in this time-honored tradition: Too many jugglers spoil the soup.

(Krulick, by the way, is now challenging Florida Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Longwood, for his seat in Congress.)

In those days, Nelson was an aspiring juggler and college student. But Krulick's methods made an impression, and when Nelson wound up in San Francisco six years later, he arranged a similar system at Pier 39.

It is perhaps fate that he moved to Los Angeles the same year Universal CityWalk attempted its first International Street Performer Festival. Four years later, the burgeoning festival has the benefit of not only Nelson's unique act--a combination of juggling, comedy, fire eating and unicycling--but his contacts.

"It's my world," says Nelson, sitting in Gladstones before the Friday night dinner rush. "I have a database on my computer of performers you wouldn't believe."

This wasn't always his world. Nelson, a.k.a. The Butterfly Man, was born in Baltimore. His father and namesake was by age 26 a Nobel-prize candidate in medicine. Nelson's childhood was a whirl of great cities--Barcelona, Paris, London--where his father had visiting professorships. At 6-foot-2 with a thick mass of white hair--and dressed exclusively in black and white--the senior Nelson was a striking figure physically as well as intellectually.

Nelson speaks with bald admiration for his father--"he was a fantastic human being"--and says he tried to follow in his footsteps, even aspiring to be a doctor. He went to the University of Florida and studied zoology and chemistry. Then he headed to Vanderbilt to pursue a doctorate in pharmacology. Two-and-a-half years into graduate school, he auditioned for a summer job as a clown at Opryland USA. He never went back to academia.

His father, who died in 1982, "was extremely proud of me, much to my dismay," says Nelson. "My mother said, 'Jeez, do you think you could have at least been a dentist?' "

The answer was no. Nelson worked odd jobs and then headed to New Orleans, where he made up his first real act. He also made his nickname, The Butterfly Man, permanent by having a butterfly tattooed on the top of his shaved head. At the end of his show, he figured, he could whip off his hat and get a big laugh.

"To me, it sounded so plausible," he says. The top of his head is still shaved, but when he's in public, Nelson now wears a hat.

Out in CityWalk's center court, Nelson sets up his cart and starts setting torches on fire. Flames always draw a crowd, and before long, he's juggling five balls in time to Herbie Hancock's "Rockit." "Fire eating was invented 500 years ago by an idiot," he then tells the crowd, "and I'm keeping it alive today." He swallows some burning torches, juggles some others, duels someone in the audience with a foam sword, and then, with a bow, whisks off his hat.

His tattoo gets a few laughs--mostly from tourists. What was outrageous in New Orleans in the '70s is tame by '90s Los Angeles standards.

Nelson kept Angelenos specifically in mind when recommending acts to Ricky Day, the special events coordinator for CityWalk. Nelson is the festival's unofficial advisor: "I'm being called 'Ambassador' of the festival," he noted on a fax cover sheet dominated by a sketch of his trademark pate. He's tried to draw in acts that have a certain edge.

Among the 15 visiting acts will be the Canadian team Spin Cycle, known for their graceless acrobatics and flamenco stilt dancing; Bill Ferguson, who claims to be able to juggle any three objects that weigh less than 10 pounds; the energetic Russian rock group the Red Elvises; the Dancing Caballeros, a trio with a zany act of high-speed juggling; and a tap-dancing saxophonist named Shoehorn.

From midafternoon until 11 p.m., anywhere from two to five acts will be scattered throughout CityWalk. Highlights include a fire show tonight at 7:30, and a vaudeville show Sunday at the same time.

Los Angeles Times Articles