It’s a Saturday night in Old City, and 27-year-old magician B. Magnificent has just made a red sponge ball appear in his palm.
Black magic? Possibly. Smoke and mirrors? More likely.
Only one thing is certain – the ruse prompts near-hysteria from an audience of about 10 outside the Khyber Pass Pub on 2nd Street. The oohs-and-awes are followed by a flurry of dollar bills. B. Magnificent humbly accepts and excitedly moves on to his next sleight of hand.
B. is a traveling magician based out of Centerville, NJ. Though he travels up and down the East Coast, he likes to frequent Philadelphia – he claims it’s one of his favorite cities in which to perform. Despite his mastery of now-you-see-it with the sponge ball, B. confesses he’s a “new magician.” He’s really only been performing for a little more than three years.
“When I started out, all I knew how to do were card tricks,” he admits. “There was no rhyme or reason to my show – it wasn’t static or stable.”
But B.’s time on the streets has sharpened his wit. He likes to inject a steady stream of comedy into his act, now. Tonight, he makes two sponge balls disappear and tells a nearby audience member to check his pockets.
B. Magnificent at work.
The unsuspecting man grins before plunging his hands into his jeans. Then, confusion sets in. “There aren’t any balls!” the man proclaims, digging ferociously in maddening anticipation.
“You might want to get that checked,” B. quips. Laughter ensues.
Meanwhile, near the outskirts of the crowd, a jester is carefully watching.
The jester is one of Philly’s most recognized street performers. You might know him as the guy who balances bikes on his face. That maneuver is Kyle the Jester’s pièce de résistance.
“Outside of Philadelphia, no one does anything close to what I do,” Kyle says with pride. He’s been balancing stuff on his face since he was 11 years old. Then, four years ago, Kyle lost his job. “I said, ‘I have this god-given talent. Maybe I can put a show together.'”
So, Kyle the Jester started showcasing his gift in North Philly, where he lives. After a year and a half of tightening up his act, Kyle took his show on the road to Old City and Northern Liberties. Soon enough, he began making enough money to feed his wife – a joke he never fails to implement into his balancing act.
“I say, ‘If you’re entertained, your generosity is appreciated. I have to feed my wife, she’s big and needs a lot of food.'”
Wait – you can actually make a living doing this and only this?
“I might entertain 10 people and they’ll only give me a dollar,” he says, “but that 11th person might watch and give me a $20 bill.” Kyle processes credit card payments with Square — it’s his solution to audience members telling him they don’t have any cash. He says he’ll get paid about once a week with a credit card.
“I’m different from a panhandler,” he explains. “I’m providing a service. You have to remind people that when you see a movie, you pay for a ticket.” For Kyle, $5 is all it takes to get you a front row seat to his entire balancing act – including not only the bikes, but knives and pool cues. He’ll do anywhere from 10 to 20 shows a night, from 10pm – 2:30am in East Kensington, Northern Liberties and Old City.
“It’s taxing, both physically and emotionally,” he professes.
Tonight, though, Kyle takes a break from his act to watch B. Magnificent work the crowd. There’s no exchange – Kyle just smirks and moves along. There’s no bad blood between B. Magnificent and Kyle the Jester. They’ve never formally met, but both are aware of the other’s existence. They need to be.
The competition is thick for street performers in Philadelphia, so some form of structure is needed for business to boom. The structure is made manifest by a set of unwritten rules – a “Code of Street Performers,” according to Kyle.
THE CODE OF STREET PERFORMERS
– Be respectful of your fellow performers and their audience
– Perform at a respectful distance from your fellow performers
– Inform your fellow performers of impending trouble (i.e. rowdy crowds, meddlesome panhandlers, etc.)
“It’s mostly a security thing,” says B. Magnificent. “We do a very good job at policing each other. If one of us goes down, all of us tend to go down.” In other words, if you break a tenant within the Code, you will likely be ostracized by your colleagues.
Snitches get stitches. And in a dense city like Philly, word of a performer’s lack of adherence to the Code gets around quickly.
B. Magnificent was sharing turf with two separate music acts on South Street one day when a third entered the scene; a young guitarist with a massive amplifier. To this day, information on the actual level of volume is pure hearsay. B. swears the musician’s amp was turned up to 11. Regardless, the cops arrived within minutes to disperse the crowd and shoo every performer in sight off the streets. Nobody made money that day, and the guitarist is now considered rogue.
The Code does more than protect street performers from internal strife. Aside from occasional bickering over turf, relations are usually pretty cordial. One major point of purpose for the Code’s existence is to establish a unified front against panhandlers preying on an occupied audience.
How does Kyle handle those threats? “First, I patiently and politely say…’Get the hell out of here! I’m in the middle of a show!’”
More important than the Code itself is the need for a good street performer to put on a show so damn good, stingy passersby are rendered charitable. That’s the nature of the business.
“I enjoy what I do,” Kyle boasts. “As long as people want to see it and keep paying me to see it, I’m gonna keep doing it.”