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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

The Money Is No Joke: These Performers Make A Living On The Street

Catherine Flaherty does a one-handed handstand on top of pedastal on Burlington's Church Street.
Carolyn Shapiro
Cate Great - who's real name is Catherine Flaherty - performs a one-handed handstand as part of her act at the Festival of Fools in Burlington in early August. Flaherty makes her living as a street performer.

If you’ve ever stopped to watch a street performer and dropped a few coins or dollars into the hat, you might think it’s just chump change. But many of those magicians and jugglers work the streets as a full-time job – and manage to make a good living at it.

The acrobat and juggler Cate Great stands on top of two pedestals more than 12 feet off the ground as she comes to the end of her show.

“For my grand finale, you guys, I am going to attempt a one-handed handstand high above the audience on top of this thing,” she explains to spectators, who laugh in response.

Cate Great’s real name is Catherine Flaherty. She wears a red dress with a big white star and has worked the pitch, as performers call their street spot, as her only source of income for about a decade.

Catherine Flaherty stands on a pedestal on Burlington's Church Street as part of the Festival of Fools.
Credit Carolyn Shapiro / For VPR
Catherine Flaherty - aka Cate Great - lives in Boston and came to Burlington to perform in the Festival of Fools earlier this month.

Early in August, she came to Church Street in downtown Burlington as part of the Festival of Fools, an annual three-day celebration of street performing.

Al Millar, another festival entertainer, has made a career of contorting himself into unusual positions and squeezing his lean, tattooed body through an 8-inch squash racquet. He calls his show "Alakazam."

Hailing from Australia, Millar is now 40 and lives with his wife and dachshund in Boston.

“I’ve been a full-time professional since I was 20 years old, basically,” he says between shows. “And I’ve always done this. I travel the world. I’m financially free. I own a home. I own a car.”

For that kind of comfortable lifestyle, a busker can’t be shy. Every show includes frequent hints, and then a big ask for money.

Millar stands braced to a pole, 20 feet high. Before he starts juggling three machetes with a spinning cross of knives in his mouth, he cuts to the chase.

“If I made your day a little brighter, show me some love at the end,” he says, adding a little joke. “Most people put in $400." 

"Now, seriously folks, I’ve dedicated my life and my body to this art form," he continues. "I give you half an hour of jokes, dangerous stunts. Honestly, I think it’s worth more than just a dollar. Now if you agree with that, make some noise.”

Off the pitch, though, street performers avoid talking about their earnings. Julio Santiago, a member of The USA Break dancers crew that performed at the festival, wouldn’t budge on the subject.

“Most veteran street performers don’t discuss what they make,” Santiago says after wrapping up a performance with his partner. “But we make a living."

A living — or better, in some cases. Some of the Festival of Fools performers say they know colleagues who are wealthy.

"Most veteran street performers don't discuss what they make. But we make a living." — Julio Santiago, The USA Break dancers

But, like the best sleight of hand trick, there’s more to the business of busking than meets the eye.

Some performers supplement their street earnings by picking up steady gigs, such as cruise ship contracts. And, behind the scenes, the richest performers boost their bank accounts by investing in real estate or the stock market.

Still, they need cash for that – and it comes from their knack for drawing a crowd. More than 300 people gathered for some of the Alakazam shows that weekend in Burlington.

Amos Baehr, a Charlotte resident who watched the act, gave the contortionist $5 afterward.

“I’ve got a nephew who does some street performing, and you know, working his way in, trying to get gigs,” Baehr explains of his support.

Festivals like the one in Burlington bring a captive and interested audience, ready to spend money, Millar says.

“At a festival, you’re definitely going to get like 60, 70 percent of people putting money in,” he says. “A regular street show, you’re looking at 50, 60 percent.”

That’s a clue to a busker’s finances. If even half an audience gives an average of five bucks each – some give more, some less – that would amount to $750. Multiply that by 10 shows, and then by eight festivals all summer, and you’ve got $60,000. And, that doesn’t count regular street work in between.

But it also doesn’t include expenses. Festivals might cover hotel and travel, but the entertainer has to buy equipment and permits – it costs $65 for an annual license to perform on Church Street, outside of the Festival of Fools event. Plus, the performers pay taxes and, of course, for health insurance, which is important for someone who juggles knives as a profession.

"Seriously, ladies and gentlemen, I choose to make my living out here on the street because I firmly believe that live theater should be for everyone." — Cate Great, to the Burlington crowd

“Seriously, ladies and gentlemen, I choose to make my living out here on the street because I firmly believe that live theater should be for everyone,” Flaherty says during her big ask, as she comes to the end of her show.

When she isn’t at festivals, Flaherty does as many as a dozen Cate Great shows per week in the summer at Faneuil Hall in Boston, where she lives. If it’s at least 50 degrees, she’ll go to work. In the winter, she picks up a few shows in Florida or Australia, but otherwise rests and develops new material for her act.

“When I was in the circus, the tickets were $50, and a popcorn and a Coke was 10 [dollars]. But with this show, literally anybody walking by can stop and watch the show,” she tells her audience earnestly. “And at the end, you guys only give what you think the show was worth to you, personally. And, you guys, I think that that is a fair deal, and that this is an honest way to make a living.”

Oh, and if you don’t carry cash, that’s OK — Flaherty accepts electronic payments through Venmo, Paypal or a credit card swiper on her smartphone.

Carolyn Shapiro is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vt., who writes about business and technology, food and agriculture, and health and science. She previously covered business and consumer issues as a reporter for daily newspapers in Virginia and upstate New York.

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