For Jeff West and his family, a stop in Boulder is a must when they visit from Chicago. That stop always includes the Pearl Street Mall for some shopping, some dining and some unique entertainment.
“We’re looking for a guy who folds himself up into a clear box,” West said.
That may sound strange unless you’re familiar with one of Pearl Street’s longest running tenants. Up the mall, about 50 people gathered around Ibashi-I while he artfully folded his 6-foot tall, 160-pound body into a 20-by-20-inch clear, plastic box.
“Some people call it contortionist,” Ibashi-I said. “I call it Rasta yoga, because it’s my own style.”
Originally from St. Kitts in the Caribbean, the 61-year-old street performer has called Boulder -- and the Pearl Street Mall -- home for the last 27 years.
The mall’s relaxed-yet-fun atmosphere was a big part of the draw for him.
“You don’t have too much crime, you don’t have too much of -- nonsense going on here,” he said. “So, it’s much easier to be here, you know, and keep me focused on what I’m doing.”
Because while it may look like all fun and games, busking on Pearl Street can be serious business. The mall consistently ranks amongst the top places for street performers -- from jugglers to magicians to fire breathers.
Escape artist Casey Moore lives in Texas, but spends his summers in Boulder. After 18 years of performing, he’s found that larger cities don’t always mean better shows, and even a bad show in Boulder is worth it.
“It’s one of the only spots where performers like us can do it,” Moore said. “There’s only probably 10 in the country that’s actually workable […] and Boulder’s one of the best ones.”
“The people: they’re educated, they got money,” he said.
Moore is sort of joking, but he’s not wrong.
There’s a symbiotic relationship between the mall and the buskers, according to Lane Landrith, Boulder’s special events coordinator.
“Now going on 40-plus years, (Pearl Street is) the heart and soul of the city,” Landrith said. “We also hear, ‘Keep Boulder weird,’ so I think that the buskers and the performers are part of that.”
But even on Pearl Street, if you’re going to jump through a flaming hoop, you need to jump through a legal one first -- and get a special entertainment permit.
“We only require that of the folks that are doing some really crazy and out-there stuff,” Landrith said. “Like using fire; any kind of juggling of a projectile whether it’s a knife or a bowling pin; if they’re using any apparatus like a unicycle or a slack-line that’s over 6 feet high -- those are the folks that we need insurance from.”
And there’s the key word: insurance. Busker’s like Moore -- who also uses fire in his act -- are required by the city to carry liability insurance.
While Moore has never had to file a claim, he said he knows performers who have. Once he saw a fire juggler lose control of one of his props.
“His fire rolla bolla -- his diabolo -- flew off and hit a lady in the glasses,” he said. “If he hadn’t had the insurance, he would have been in a world of trouble. Luckily, he had the insurance. They bought her new glasses and paid a little money, and it was over.”
Other than a permit, Boulder’s street performers mostly rely on self-policing. Which is why at almost every show, at some point you’re bound to hear the performers telling the audience to come closer -- not necessarily so they can see better but so they don’t block the sidewalks and cause officials to shut the show down.
While Brent Fiasco has been juggling most of his life, he’s only been doing it on Pearl Street for three summers. The rest of the year, he lives in Phoenix, Arizona.
“There’s really nowhere else -- especially this close to my home -- that this happens,” Fiasco said. “It’s a really special thing, I think.”
To make it worth the trip, Fiasco said it’s important to have a good working relationship with the city and business owners. That’s why performers are at the forefront of things -- keeping walkways clear, making sure their shows are family-friendly and handling their own scheduling.
“It kind of keeps the performers on the hook and makes sure that everybody out here knows what they’re doing and is professional,” he said.