DOWNTOWN — It’s Friday afternoon and there’s a man screaming on the corner of Arizona Avenue and the Third Street Promenade.
Most passersby would assume he’s just someone having a panic attack but not Promenade Venue Manager Stephen Bradford.
“He’s a performer in an area that doesn’t require a permit,” he says.
Bradford knows him by name, Francis, and that he is a veteran.
Bradford knows the names of nearly every performer on the promenade and they all know him. He stops to pet a passing puppy and asks its owner if she’s performing today. He helps Alonzo, an older gentleman who plays the melodica, get his speaker up on the curb. He reminds a group of breakdancers to watch the volume on their amplifiers. They smile and nod.
An argument could be made that Bradford, who has worked for Downtown Santa Monica Inc. for the last 10 years, has the most interesting city job. He’s the one who keeps the performers within the boundaries of City Hall’s street performance ordinance. And — thanks to that wonderful First Amendment of the Constitution — the boundaries are pretty loose.
“The key is that there’s no audition: You don’t need talent,” Bradford says, waving to a family that is powering an amplifier with a car battery. “All you have to have is a little bit of guts to come out and start doing it. For me, that’s the highlight.”
The promenade is the only venue for some of these people, he says.
“It’s not like you would go to a jazz cafe to listen to some of the types of people because they’re rolling around on the ground,” he said. “The only venue that they would have is the street.”
The lack of auditions, said Downtown Santa Monica Inc. President and CEO Kathleen Rawson, means that there’s a variety of talent: “Some great, and some, well, not so great.”
But the buskers make Downtown genuine, she said.
“One of the treasures of our downtown is that it is real — it is not a manufactured environment,” Rawson said. “We simply help manage the environment to keep it safe — not too close together, not too loud, not too long, and so forth.”
The most common violation on the promenade is that the musicians don’t rotate on the even hours like they’re supposed to. The most dangerous violations are rare, but much more impressive.
Bradford said he’s had to stop people from using flames half a dozen times. Occasionally someone pulls out a sword. One guy would have the audience lock him in a bag and try to escape.
“He would turn absolutely purple in the middle of his act,” he said. “After the police being called three or four times and the ambulance, I think we decided he probably shouldn’t be doing it.”
The problem, he said, is that sometimes the application is too vague.
“They write ‘juggling’ but what they really mean is standing on a two-by-four that’s suspended between two ladders juggling flaming sticks,” he said. “It is juggling but, you know … .”
Some performers are immensely talented, Bradford said. He owns all of the albums by the Etcheverry brothers, Ezequiel and Martin, who shred acoustic guitars in a mix of flamenco and rock styles on the street twice a week. He calls the brothers “an American success story” because they came from Argentina, where they aren’t allowed to perform on the street, to California, where they support themselves with their music.
Bradford knows the most popular spot (in front of the food court), the most popular act (breakdancing), and the most notable person who was discovered on the promenade (Q’orianka Kilcher, who played Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s “The New World”).
He also knows the economic value of the performers.
“I can walk from end to end in seven minutes or I can wait and watch Angela there for three or four minutes,” he said gesturing at a bellydancer. “Let’s say it’s a family: The dad might get bored and go into Sketchers. Or the kids might get hungry. You’ve got a rushing river and they sort of slow it down.”
That extra time turns into dollars, he said.
Bradford did freelance television and film work for 25 years before taking the promenade job so he’s well-equipped to handle the shoots that occur nearly every week.
Bradford lauds the fact that for only $37 a year, performers can do close to whatever they want — from performing in public for the first time, to making a living selling CDs (without buying a business license), to trying something weird, or working on their chops.
The sun is setting on the Apple Store and the Forever 21. It’s unseasonably warm, even for Santa Monica. Alonzo (who declined to give his last name but said, “Steve gets my vote!”) is keying out “America the Beautiful” on the melodica. It swirls into a wonderful, cliché American wierdness.
“Any job that you’ve been at for 10 years you’re going to have times where it’s just an incredible grind, where you’d rather be anywhere else,” Bradford says laughing. “But you know it came at a great time for me. And it beats the heck out of sitting in an office, absolutely, for sure.”