During the COVID shutdown, a seasoned group of French Quarter street performers create an online platform to raise money for fellow buskers in need.
- by Reda Wigle
The word busker derives from the Spanish buscar, to seek. Practiced cross culturally for centuries, busking is part of the patch-worked tapestry of New Orleans. When the COVID crisis caused two months of complete French Quarter shut down, street performer and sleight-of-hand magician Douglas Conn helped the city’s buskers seek new stages.
In late March, Conn launched the Facebook page Big Easy Busker Bonanza, defined as, “A small group of eccentric artists banding together to get through weird times.” Conn’s intention was to create a platform for performers and audiences to connect in the era of social distancing.
“The majority of the street theatre community thrive on performing. That’s the heart and soul, artists that love their craft and want to be able to practice it as often as possible,” Conn explained.
Throughout April, Conn and his band of merry buskers hosted FacebookLive events that featured several notable street performers. Magician and musician Mick Stone opened the first show with the bonafide pandemic bop, “What’s Underneath Your Bandanna, Hannah?” He was joined by NOLA newcomer the Loud Mime, who recorded his performance in a sunny, albeit empty, Jackson Square.
Top-hatted neighborhood staple Warpo, whose magic act, forty-five years in the making and includes snorting a lit cigarette, broadcast from his own home.
In conjunction with the live and recorded performances, Conn created a Facebook fundraiser to help the city’s struggling performers.
“Facebook asks you to a set a goal for fundraising. I didn’t want to put a number on what we’re worth - I wanted to say $8 million, I went with $5000. Maybe we’ll get there, maybe we won’t. The point is, these guys get to do their art.”
A few of the Busker Bonanza performers
Lured south to New Orleans decades ago by the promise of warm weather and deep pockets, Conn learned the art of the busk from mentor and magic legend Jim Cellini.
“I ran away from home at eighteen fully prepared to be a street performer,” recalls Conn who has made a career of large scale magic shows and more intimate, sleight of hand performances. “I learned from the great Jim Cellini that sound, movement, and color were three of the main things that you needed to work on the street.”
Conn maintains that finding success as a street performer in New Orleans, then and now, is baptism by fire.
“It’s the most challenging of all American cities to work in. There’s oversaturation [of performers], and a large homeless population. It can be sensory overload for visitors. But, if you can make it work here, you can pretty much make it work anywhere.”
In the new light of quarantine, that "anywhere" became the internet for Conn and his compatriots, though he admits organizing his fellow buskers was akin to amateur cat wrangling. “This line of work attracts a strong-willed and independent individual who relies on themselves and isn’t used to participating in organized activities.”
While the work may call to the outsider, the community that’s fostered by street performers is tight knit, and as of late, sorely missed.
“I miss seeing the other buskers and the comraderie we have in Jackson Square. We’re somewhat of a big dysfunctional family, but a family. On some levels we all have to work together, or it doesn’t work.”
That spirit of comraderie persists in spite and because of the challenges of the ongoing pandemic. Conn noted that one of Warpo’s performances "generated a sizeable donation and he opted to share some of that wealth with his fellow buskers.”
Nearly $1000 was donated to the Facebook fundraiser, money that was split between the performers. Moving forward, Conn plans to continue supporting the busking community through the Facebook page. "I do plan to produce more content. We're just not sure what the next thing is right now."
Conn, who stayed in New Orleans through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath remains hopeful that the city’s street performer community will revive itself as it has before:
“We’ve been through the fire and emerged. We came back. We did it.”
And so they seek to emerge again.
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