The Streets are Alive |

The Streets are Alive

Magic, music and other entertainment woo visitors to Aspen’s downtown pedestrian malls

by Jeanne McGovern
BUSKER BUSINESS The dictionary defines a busker as “a person who entertains in a public place for donations.” Simple enough, with folks doing acts ranging from juggling and magic tricks to strumming a guitar and stuffing oneself in a box. In Colorado, such street performers have historically been seen in the cities; Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall and Denver’s 16th Street Mall are still bustling with buskers today. In fact, someone recently spotted a “statue man” — street performers who paint themselves from head to toe in some theme (this particular gentleman was a cowboy, complete with Stetson, holster and chaps) and stand perfectly still until a passerby stops for a photo — in downtown Denver over the lunch hour and, later the same afternoon, on the mall in Boulder. But traveling entertainers have also been a part of Aspen’s history. From “The Crack Bicycle Rider” in 1898 to Jeep and his tight-rope walking dog and other modern-day acts a century later, the downtown malls were designed to create “messy vitality” in the town’s core. In fact, on the 35th anniversary of the pedestrian malls in 2011, The Aspen Times reported that even this wasn’t the town’s first attempt at creating a pedestrian-friendly gathering place. “It was 50 years ago this summer that the town experimented with a temporary mall, when the town fathers agreed to close a city street for a 10-day period in August, installing benches, shrubs and trees, art exhibits and sidewalk cafes. The block of Cooper Avenue that is a mall today was chosen for the test run after a few businessmen objected to the use of Hyman Avenue.” Theatrical and musical entertainment was planned, along with film showings, fashion shows and dancing demonstrations, to attract pedestrians. The idea, to create a “city center,” sprang from an Aspen Institute seminar on the future of Aspen. A dozen years would pass before Aspen took another stab at creating a central gathering place. This time it would stick, thanks to the perseverance of two Aspen High School students and an amenable local populace. Kathy “Katie” Dutcher remembers returning to Aspen for her 20th high school reunion and seeing the malls for the first time as an intrinsic part of the downtown core. “It was pretty remarkable to walk around and see them pretty much institutionalized,” she said. Fellow Aspenite Margo Dick agreed: “We didn't envision it to be a comfortable pedestrian space in the middle of Aspen. I just love it.”

Aspen often touts the Power of Four, as in the power of its four ski mountains.

But in summer, a different “power of four” can be found — four downtown city blocks, with four different characters holding court, all doing their shtick in the same four-hour window.

These are Aspen’s street performers (and yes, there are more than four of them), and they are much of what makes Aspen, well, Aspen.

“The downtown experience is an essential part of why visitors and locals alike enjoy Aspen,” says Julia Theisen, vice president of sales and marketing for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. “During the summer months, the clowns, magicians and music students bring music and vibrancy to our historic and charming downtown, creating a welcoming atmosphere for those out for a stroll or dining al fresco. We love to see our pedestrian malls alive on a summer night adding to the vitality that Aspen offers.”

Of course, for Merlin the Magic Man, who sets up shop on the Hyman Avenue Mall every summer, it’s really about freedom.

“My only question — how free can you be if you are a slave to anything?” he says.

His fellow buskers seem to share the sentiment. Here are a few of their stories.



“Do you want a heart? A unicorn? A princess heart, maybe?” asks Cory, the balloon man, who’s parked himself and his cart of brightly colored balloons on a brick wall by the Wagner Park playground.

The young girl standing before him can’t decide; she wants them all. In every color. But finally she chooses the latter — a pink heart on a long, lavender wand.

Cory twists the first balloon; it makes a farting noise.

“Oh, excuse me,” he says, making the clown hat atop his head bob around wildly.

The girl giggles softly, and then begins to laugh — loudly. And so do her older sister and mother.

Everyone loves a balloon animal, it seems.

“It’s a good gig,” says Cory, who lives in Arizona and is studying greenhouse technology management but travels in summer to help support his three young children. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years and it’s a great way to make money.”

In fact, Cory has circled the globe twisting balloons and entertaining crowds. In Europe, where he spent 10 years, the profits were greater. But now, as a family man, he’s chosen to stay closer to home. This marks his fourth summer stint in Aspen.

“I used to go to Boulder, to the Pearl Street Mall, until the police started cracking down; it’s like balloon guys become felons down there.

“But I do love Aspen.”

Part of the reason, he says, is the money (of course), but also the freedom it offers him.

“When my family comes out, we rent a condo in Snowmass; otherwise, I just go where I can. And then, when the season is over, I go back home,” he says. “It sure beats $8 an hour doing construction in the blazing Arizona weather.”

The busker life in Aspen: “No fuss, no muss,” Cory concludes.


You can’t miss Daniel Mooncalf on the downtown malls — or anywhere for that matter. And that’s by design.

When Mooncalf (yes, it’s a stage name) first began his street performing career, he needed to capture the crowd’s attention. Kansas City, where he is from, didn’t have a pedestrian mall where a crowd could easily congregate.

“I needed something, and this orange outfit was on sale,” he says. “And it worked.”

And from that point on, Mooncalf has worn orange — from head to toe (including some crazy pointy shoes and a matching bucket hat).

Exchange just a few words with Mooncalf and his affinity for all things different — and dramatic — is quickly apparent.

His name, Mooncalf: “It means fool; it’s from Shakespeare.”

His favorite trick: “The Professor’s Nightmare” (three ropes that appear to continually change length).

His home: “My van, of course.”

His other wardrobe: “Well, I have a long-orange coat and pointy hat for the Renaissance Festival.”

And when Mooncalf opens his trunk of tricks, filled with magic of all sorts, his offbeat sense of humor charms the crowd.

“I’ve always been a theater person; I’ve always been a performer,” says Mooncalf, who first came to Aspen upon the advice of Jeep, a beloved Aspen street performer who now plays bigger stages in bigger cities.

Of course, Mooncalf didn’t set out to be a busker, but his first profession — as a nurse — just wasn’t suited for him.

“It was depressing. You’re supposed to learn to turn off that part of yourself that is devastated when someone is sick or dies,” he explains. “That’s not me; I like to be happy. I like to make people happy. Being a performer gives me the freedom to do that.”


Ask Merlin the Magic Man what he does and his reply is as esoteric as he is: “I exist.”

By that, Merlin — who has worked the Hyman Avenue Mall for a dozen summers — means he sets up a small table, with a deck of cards, and entertains passersby with some serious sleight-of-hand.

“Pick a card,” he says, with a glean in his squinty eyes, which are hidden behind rimmed glasses and flanked by a long white beard and black hat, topped off with an emblazoned flowing jacket.

A card is chosen and mysteriously disappears from the deck; it reappears in his pocket or behind an ear or out of thin air.

“How did you do that?” people ask.

“Yup, that’s what they all say … and I say I live by magic,” Merlin says, choosing to reveal little about his life, except that after three months of “work” he takes the rest of the year “off.”

“It’s my way of doing things. I do OK and I live from the heart.”

Merlin is also a wordsmith. His book of poetry sits beside his magic tricks; he’ll happily recite any of them at any time.

“I love to make people happy; magic and poetry make people happy,” he

says, going on to read the poem “Freedom.”

“That is what it’s all about, my friend,” he says, wrapping up that moment’s performance.


On Trinidad, steel drums create a distinctly Caribbean beat. It fits; Trinidad is, after all, a Caribbean island.

In Brooklyn, the sound is replicated. It fits, though differently; it is Carnival weekend and celebrations with an international flair are everywhere, after all.

In Aspen, the music from one steel drum rises above the din. The Hyman Avenue Mall, near the Dancing Fountain, is alive with sounds. But this one is new.

“When you have a lot of these together, the sound is outrageous, infectious,” says Russell Fisher, an NYU student who studied percussion with the Aspen Music Festival and School.

So Fisher wants others to hear the sounds and experience the joy of this music. It works — people come out of their downtown offices to listen, a wide-eyed boy politely asks if he can try (and Fisher obliges), tourists throw a few bucks in the open drum case beside him.

“This has been an amazing experience … the music school, playing on the mall,” he says.

Which is exactly the point.

“A great thing students take home from their experience in Aspen is a sense of how much the community values them. A person walking down the street in New York carrying a cello doesn’t get much notice, much less encouragement, but in Aspen, someone is likely to stop them and say something welcoming,” says Alan Fletcher, president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School. “This is even more memorable when that student sets up a music stand and plays — the feeling of being appreciated and even honored is very precious.”

It is also an amazing gift to Aspen’s summer scene, as the sounds of music — from classical to Caribbean — can be heard on almost every street corner.

“This works both ways, as passersby are reminded how much the musicians do for Aspen’s summer feeling and economy,” Fletcher says. “The sound of wonderful music being made fills the town, not just the tent. Kids will associate the sound and sight of musicians with Paradise Bakery, which is definitely a good thing for the future of classical music.