Street performers are an undeniably iconic part of the Strip experience, but that may not be the case for long. Last week, county commissioners took steps toward issuing new ordinances that would make it significantly more difficult for street acts to perform in high-traffic public areas like the Strip and Fremont Street Experience.
It remains to be seen whether these performers would be given more leeway than handbillers, unlicensed vendors and others that the commission is seeking to stop. But there is more to them than superhero costumes and panhandling.
From comedic magicians to young musicians looking for a break, meet the street performers you might miss if the county cracks down.
Jungle Josh, magician-comedian
“Getting something from nothing –- this is the hardest part of the job here,” says “Jungle” Josh Weinstein as he gathers a crowd for one of the 10-minute magic acts he performs for about 4 hours a day 5 to 6 days a week in front of Paris’ Mon Ami Gabi.
Like a fisherman casting his line, Weinstein locks his sights on a sequin-topped passerby and calls out, “Hey, glitter top! Are you Canadian?” The purposely obtuse question stops her in her tracks, and before she can finish answering, he’s placed an oversized coin in her hand and begun explaining its magic properties. Glitter top smiles and waves her friends over. Et voila! A crowd.
Weinstein, an animal trainer by trade who has had shows at Planet Hollywood and Harmon Theater, began as a street performer in Las Vegas 3 1/2 years ago when the Harley Davidson store hired him to do tricks out front as a promotion. Today, he performs in “Rockin’ Comedy Show” at the Plaza and in a show at Rumor; he busks as “filler” in between those gigs to help bring in money and practice new routines.
His sleight-of-hand tricks are sharp and worthy of the crowds they draw, but it’s his comedic accompaniment -- snappy and self-deprecating -- that gets them to stick around.
Still, not everyone appreciates the act. “I asked a guy once if he was Canadian, and he threw his margarita in my face. All the salt and lime ended up in my eyes, so it took a few minutes to get the stinging to go away.”
Weinstein is committed to street performing -- he counts on it for a chunk of his income -- and he doesn’t believe the city’s steps toward stricter regulations on the Strip would prevent him from doing so. However, he does understand the struggle underlying it.
“Instead of the casinos railing against the street performers, what they should do is audition and hire them, and then they’d have control over the situation,” he says. “Instead, they’re trying to shut down whatever doesn’t bring them money. The wise thing to do would be to take advantage of it.”
Barely bigger than the toddler he poses with for a picture, Las Vegas’ Tiny Elvis is committed to staying in character.
“We do this to make people feel welcome to Las Vegas. We’re doing the city a service,” he says, popping his collar and smoothing his ’do as if they were involuntary reflexes.
The miniature King is one of the Strip’s most iconic street performers, swiveling his hips in a powder-blue rhinestone jumpsuit as towering tourists stop to pose for pictures with him.
It’s a gig he began 7 years ago after NBC asked him to perform as Elvis on a network anniversary special. The act was a hit, so he took it to the streets and now relies on it to pay his bills. But it doesn’t pay much; Elvis (who prefers to keep his real name anonymous) is quick to clarify that street performing is a personal choice -- not easy money.
“All the hotels think we make a lot of money doing this, but that’s not true. We do it because we love it, and because we love our city,” he says, explaining that he takes real pride in adding to visitors’ quirky, fantastical Strip experience. “I love our city, and I want people who come here to feel welcome. For their experience, but also because it’s to the city’s benefit. City representatives should come down here and do what we do for a day. They should see [tourists’] reactions.”
It’s on that note that Tiny Elvis is actually somewhat in favor of the city’s ambitions to clean up the Strip; he agrees that handbillers and other unsavory solicitors sully the city’s image and are inappropriate for the many families that visit. However, he believes performers such as himself add to the city’s value and therefore have a right to be there -- and to the money they earn; and if that means getting a permit to do so, Tiny Elvis is more than willing.
Anthony Williams, violinist
Williams, 22, has been wowing tourists with his virtuosic violin playing since he was 18. Accompanied by a single amplifier playing a variety of hip-hop beats from his iPod, Williams improvises his complex jazz- and classical-influenced pieces on his electric violin; beside him, a hand-written sign that reads “Trying to pay for tuition, anything helps.”
According to Williams, it really does help -- street performing has helped pay the bulk of his tuition as an online student with Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he’s studying music production and performance.
While he’s dabbled in side jobs in the service and real estate industries, Williams proudly says, “Music is my first and only job.” He began playing violin in sixth grade and was a standout performer at Las Vegas Academy.
Now in the home stretch of his studies, Williams hopes to use his education toward a career as a music producer. You can find him on the weekend and some weekdays performing in front of Planet Hollywood, as well as at restaurants and venues in town.
Scarlet Ray Watt, ventriloquist
You can find Watt, from London, performing his comedy ventriloquism act at Fremont Street Experience a few days a week from morning through afternoon. A seasoned stage performer, Watt has spent the past 2 months in Las Vegas as part of a year he’s devoted to busking.
“I wanted to bring ventriloquism to the street,” says Watt, who has made his living as a ventriloquist since he was a teenager. He spent time street performing in Venice Beach and Santa Monica in Southern California before coming to Las Vegas. “It’s one of the greatest, most fun experiences I’ve ever had. You meet all sorts of people.”
Street performing isn’t so much about money for Watt as it is about trying new material, which he says he’s shaping to pitch for a network show. If city officials do crack down on performers, he’s not worried about it affecting his livelihood, though he sympathizes for those whom it will.
“I can see it bringing a lot of misery for them,” he says. “But at the same time, I understand that if you have people standing around in shabby costumes, it doesn’t make a good impression for the city.”
Watt says he’s fully prepared to get a permit to perform should the city require it and was surprised to find Las Vegas didn’t, as such regulations are standard practice in Santa Monica and Venice.
You can find Watt performing on the east end of Fremont Street Experience for a few more months, but, he adds, “If there’s any advice I can give from my year of doing this, it’s that this isn’t a long-term gig for anybody.”
Diego Morales, saxophonist
At 12 years old, Henderson resident Diego Morales might be the youngest performer showing off his talents on the Strip today. With his father standing nearby as a chaperone, Morales charms passersby playing alto-sax renditions of Las Vegas favorites like “My Heart Will Go On” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
The pint-sized musician, who has been playing sax for about 2 years, stands proudly as tourists applaud and drop donations in a shoebox decorated with the words “Diego M.”
“I’m saving up to buy a new sax,” Morales says, adding that he hopes to be a professional jazz musician one day. “And it’s a good way to practice.”
He’s been playing on the south end of the Strip for the past few months, usually on weekends. The money varies, sometimes amounting to $200 a day, but more often it’s far less. Morales is aware of the impending regulations against street performers but doesn’t seem too worried.
“My dad told me about what was going on with that, but I just told him it’s the First Amendment. They can’t take the First Amendment away.”
But if performers do get cleared out? “I guess I wouldn’t have a way to save up money,” Morales says.
The pierced and tattooed Grndl has been performing his sharp, quirky magic act for more than 2 years in front of the Bellagio Fountains. Heavy on sleight-of-hand, his act was born from what he describes as “a lifelong love of magic.”
He says his intimate performances, which draw sizable crowds, are constantly evolving and double as a way to hone his skills in a low-pressure environment. Grndl performs 5 to 6 days a week for 3 to 4 hours at a time; it’s all part of his commitment toward his ultimate goal of landing a stage show.
He was recently hired as a stagehand for a larger Strip magic show but still relies on street performing for the bulk of his income, as he has for the past 2 years.
Like many other buskers, Grndl doesn’t worry about getting pushed off the Strip by an ordinance but says that if that should happen, he’d simply find other places in town to perform.
It’s clearly a labor of love:
“I’ve had guys come up to me and push me over in the middle of a performance. Drunk guys,” he says of his experiences on the Strip. “But you just learn to understand that that sort of thing comes with the territory. You can’t let it faze you.”