Maybe it’s unfair to lug a video camera to Downtown Pittsburgh on Memorial Day, shoot the empty sidewalks and ask aloud why there are no street performers. But that mildly snarky sequence in the new documentary On Every Corner has a point: Pittsburgh’s largely 9-to-5 Downtown can’t by itself cultivate enough foot traffic to sustain a strong busking culture.
With On Every Corner, Aaron Bernard and David Cable of Tonerwoods Productions not only document Pittsburgh’s buskers, but try to pollinate a scene. The scruffily charming documentary introduces some two dozen of the city’s street performers and attempts to unite them for a climactic concert in Market Square.
The 72-minute movie was shot mostly in 2004, just after Bernard, now 32, returned from a decade working in Orlando, Fla.’s entertainment industry. Gerry Tonti, his partner in the newly formed Tonerwoods, was making audio recordings of street musicians; On Every Corner grew from Bernard and director Cable’s impulse to add visuals.
Bernard was struck by the contrast between Pittsburgh’s scattering of performers and the density of buskers he’d seen in New York, Los Angeles and Orlando. He, Tonti and Cable were also saddened by how the Market Square they’d often visited as kids — they grew up in Brookline together — had gone from lively to moribund, even seedy.
A rough-shaven, antic Bernard — at Universal Studios theme park, his jobs included playing such live-action characters as Beetlejuice and Back to the Future’s Doc Brown — emcees the documentary, which rounds up a diverse crew. Performers range from the anarchic Sketch Master Flexx to old-school eccentrics Banjo Francis and “Crazy Bridge Man,” from fixtures like booming baritone Bill Dorsey and gypsy-style violist HerBow to such polished pros as Zany Umbrella Circus and the fire-eating Daring Douglasses.
With help from the then-fledgling advocacy group Busk Pittsburgh, the work-in-progress On Every Corner became an exercise in community-building: Against all odds — including a raindate courtesy of Hurricane Ivan — that Market Square event did happen, with modest attendance but heartwarming camaraderie.
Tonerwoods, based in Squirrel Hill, specializes in educational videos, and that’s how Bernard sees On Every Corner: as a way to teach Pittsburghers that buskers are legitimate entertainers, and that tipping them is proper. Busking advocates, like buskers themselves, are keen to distinguish between people performing for tips and panhandlers. Some viewers of the film, in fact, might object to implications that panhandlers (many of whom are homeless) are less deserving of passersby’s change less are buskers (most of whom have other income).
Bernard says that he doesn’t hold that view himself. But the man whose own show-biz gigs have ranged from busking (as a living statue, in St. Augustine) to serving as Orlando Bloom’s stand-in on Pirates of the Caribbean 3 does say that shooting On Every Corner gave him new insights about buskers. “I was changed by it,” he says. “I just got a better appreciation for what they’re doing.”
Shooting 40 hours of footage also led Bernard to conclude that Pittsburgh’s busking culture is spread so thin because of our live-in-your-neighborhood, work-elsewhere lifestyle. Only Squirrel Hill, he says, has enough week-round “town culture” to sustain buskers, who otherwise make do with home-game stadium crowds, the Strip District on Saturdays, or the South Side on weekend nights.
Starting with the 2004 First Night celebration, Downtown, Tonerwoods has screened excerpts of On Every Corner locally; now that the movie is complete, it’s been submitted to a couple of film festivals. It world-premiered July 26, at Cefalo’s nightclub, in Carnegie — an event Tonerwoods promoted busker-style, with nighttime outdoor video projections of excerpts on the sides of buildings in neighborhoods including the South Side.
As for the buskers depicted, even some who had yet to see the finished movie said they enjoyed the process. As Chris Young, of the Chinese troupe Steel Dragon Lion Dance puts it, “Who doesn’t like being filmed, especially if you’re a performer?”