Street performers draw visitors to Michigan downtowns

A man on a unicycle passes a hat along a holiday parade route.

A juggler in the street wows the circle of admirers gathered to watch.

A musician plays on the downtown corner as passersby drop coins and bills into an open guitar case and that night performs again as part of a group on a summer festival stage.

Face painters, jugglers, mimes, magicians, balloon artists — street performing takes many forms, and it all has a rich tradition across Michigan.

Street performers enliven downtowns, entertaining residents and tourists alike, and add to the cultural fabric of a community. The performances, for many, also contribute to their livelihood.

"Street performers add energy and vibrancy to a downtown. Filling the
sidewalks with activity adds another reason for community members and
visitors to spend time in downtown," says Dana Walker, director of the Michigan Downtown Association. "The performers add an additional layer of interest to the streetscape and encourage visitors of the downtown to keep strolling to see who is around the corner."

More and more small downtowns are adding street performers to their summer itinerary, she says. "It seems to be an economical way for downtown organizations to provide entertainment while encouraging visitors to shop and dine main street," she adds.

In Alpena, a nonprofit group -- Alpena Street Performers -- formed a few years ago to provide performers with more places to play as well as provide cultural experiences for the community. Performers are assigned locations and dates according to their styles, and paid stipends thanks to financial support from the Alpena Downtown Development Authority, the Community Foundation for Northeast Michigan, the First Federal Foundation as well as support from the community through the giving Tuesday campaign.

"Our street performers — and live music events in general — have been a catalyst for our downtown’s revitalization and a unique draw to bring people to our district," says Anne Gentry, executive director of the Alpena Downtown Development Authority. "We have live music from street performers in public parks and areas every Friday evening and this year added Wednesday lunch hour performances as well."

Under the city's ordinance, registered street performers can play anytime between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m., "so we’ve had individual musicians and bands offer “pop up performances” throughout the summer months outside of our organized times," she says.

"Even though we’re a small town, we’re proud of the vibrant arts community we have here in Alpena, and having live music gives locals and visitors a way to engage with the arts in a low-key, casual environment," she says. "With our Social District, on Friday evenings it’s common to have “standing room only” in our parks and plazas with people walking around, enjoying a beverage, and taking in the live music throughout downtown Alpena."

 
The idea for street performers came from Chris "Crown" Lawrence, an Alpena musician who had lived in other cities that had vibrant busker and street performers. He wanted to bring that kind of entertainment to Alpena, so he brought the idea to the DDA, which embraced the proposal and handles the administrative side of the program.


Among the buskers and musicians is Lee Kitzman, 75, who has been performing for decades and helped form the Alpena Street Performers. He's also a
 DJ  for a low power FM station WXTF 97.9LP, streaming at 979harrisville.org.

“It’s a fun thing to do,” Kitzman says of the street performances. “You just get to meet so many people, as opposed to doing a stage gig.”

Rather than confine the draw of street performers to a single festival, the Alpena group has scheduled performances throughout the summer. On Friday nights street performers are scattered all over the downtown, offering live music from blues to jazz to country, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. 

"Live music is a great outlet for artists and allows the community to come together and share our beautiful downtown,” says Lawrence, a musician who also performs with Kitzman and helped form the Alpena Street Performers.

The organization is open to all genres of music and encourages unique talents such as balloon twisters, face painters, magicians, hula hoop artists and actors.

During COVID-19 there weren’t opportunities for musicians to express themselves in traditional venues such as restaurants, bars and coffee shops,” Lawrence says. 

“Downtown Alpena still had large outdoor areas where we could perform. This was a major reward for the community and gave us a chance to offer a sense of community through the difficult times,” Lawrence says. “The biggest reward is seeing people walking through downtown enjoying our music and sharing everything that Downtown Alpena has to offer."

East Jordan

In Northern Michigan,  many buskers’ roots have been nurtured at Blissfest, an annual music festival in Harbor Springs that draws thousands to celebrate folk music and live entertainment.

That’s where Tom “Tommy Tropic” Petrie got his start 40 years ago.


These days Petrie, 61, is the entertainment director at the Boyne City PirateFest, held Aug. 6-14, and is on the nonprofit’s board of directors as well.

The festival is billed as “a celebration of Michigan lakes” and the nonprofit’s mission is “committed to furthering education and protection of our natural resources, enjoying the bounty around us, and having fun doing so while engaging the community and visitors alike.”

Petrie is also an organizer of this year’s UpNorth BuskerFest in his hometown of East Jordan, on East Jordan's waterfront. The event will be held July 15 and 16.

He says the festival, a circus on the streets, will be similar to those he has organized in previous years in Mackinaw City.

“East Jordan had a giant ironworks that just moved out of town and they're just starting some big changes in that town to go from industrial to tourism,” Petrie says. The waterfront has been developed with parks and a pedestrian bridge.

 “We're going to put on circle shows,” Petrie says, where the audience gathers in a circle around the performer, on both sides of the lake. Face painters, solo musicians and smaller acts will be stationed between the circle shows.

As Tommy Tropic, Petrie’s own signature juggling move is to pass a flaming stick under his leg while riding a high unicycle — a trick he has performed countless times across Michigan and in Florida, too. 

In the summer, he rides his high unicycle, passing the hat in parades or around the audiences that gather at city festivals. Winters, he juggles on skis, entertaining at Northern Michigan ski resorts.

For a decade, Petrie worked as entertainment director at Mackinac Crossing, a busy shopping center and tourist draw in Mackinaw City. “It was packed all the time and I did 6,000 individual performances in 10 years,” he says.

If that sounds excessive, Petrie dismisses the idea. “You know, I grew up doing construction,” he says, “and if you pour concrete for eight hours a day, doing 10 shows in a day isn't that hard.”

Southern Michigan

Musician Dan Agne might agree.

For nearly 50 of his 66 years Agne has performed in clubs, restaurants, churches, concert halls, private parties, country clubs, festivals, political rallies, senior centers, and even nursing homes.

He’s entertained audiences in Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Holland, Benton Harbor, St. Joseph, Marshall, Battle Creek, Elkhart, Three Oaks, South Haven, Saugatuck, Plainwell and Otsego “and even in Bellaire once.”

“It has never felt like work,” says Agne, who has played rock, folk, Dixieland, big band, small jazz combos, blues, and musicals. He sings and plays electric, acoustic, and bass guitar, as a solo act and in small groups.

Payment types vary from cash to checks to just tips, “to sometimes nothing at all,” Agne says.

“Take home from busking is better in a location where you are likely to be playing for out-of-towners” or in a tourist town along the lakeshore, he says, where he might bring in $100, $200 or more. “But it's unpredictable.”

“Art and music are definitely being embraced more in downtowns,” he says, “ but the pay has not increased in my experience.”

That’s not a huge problem for him, though— as a retiree, he doesn’t depend entirely on the income from playing.

“The best part about performing is easily the playing itself,” he says.

Even with the logistics — hauling and setting up equipment, driving and parking, tasks that become more daunting each year— “it’s almost totally about the music for me,” Agne says. “I like to tell people that I have worked all my life in order to support my music habit.”

Sault Ste. Marie 

Brian Chapman, Sault Ste. Marie city manager, is a great fan of the enthusiasm live music can bring to a city, especially after a long Upper Peninsula winter.

The Downtown Development Authority of Sault Ste. Marie sponsors a concert series that includes a variety of music, from solo country acts to a steel drum band.


Sault Ste. Marie, population 13,000, hosts a summer concert series, held from mid-June through the end of summer, featuring local and regional acts.

Musicians are paid a stipend thanks to the local businesses that sponsor the series, Chapman says.

This year’s Wednesday night line-up kicks off in Soo Locks Park at 7 p.m. June 22  with The Pub Runners, and follows weekly with Soo Theater, Tyler Roy, Blue Water Ramblers, Petoskey Steel Drum Band, Dominic Fortuna, Night of Native Music Neil Dorver and Finish Raggae.

“It brings a lot of activity to a normal Wednesday night, and visitors really look forward to the concert series. Everyone from kids to seniors” attend, Chapman says.