OCEAN CITY — Each Monday morning at City Hall in Ocean City, the eyes of every street performer hoping to get a slot on the resort’s famous Boardwalk are locked on City Clerk Diana Chavis. She reaches into a canvas bag and plucks the next name in the city’s weekly lottery draw.
As each performer’s name is called, he or she walks up and chooses a spot for the week, and then one for the weekend, on a laminated map that sits on the table in front of Chavis.
“I hit the jackpot two weeks in a row,” says a violinist known as Lucian, who hobbles up to the table and marks his spots for the next seven days with a highlighter on the map. “Luck of the draw, I guess.”
This scene repeats 32 more times over the course of the next 90 minutes as the highly coveted performer slots south of 9th Street are allocated for the next week. Some performers are pleased with the spots they get, but others are visibly and vocally less than thrilled with the process and their selection.
“It’s awful and it just stinks,” said Bill Campion, a ventriloquist and balloon artist who at 82 is the oldest of the performers on the Boardwalk. “The city shouldn’t have any say in where we go up there.”
But, the city went to great lengths to remedy a situation that it deemed out of control in recent years and the Mayor and Council appointed a Boardwalk Task Force two years ago to fix the regulations in hopes of making things better for all parties. That task force, which included a street performer and several Boardwalk business owners, recommended a lottery system this past offseason that has become the preferred option in street performer regulations in cities like Las Vegas.
The lottery system is thought to not only level the playing field for performers and community stakeholders, but it also puts a proverbial cap on the number of performers on the Boardwalk at any given time during the day or night.
While street performers largely don’t care for any sort of regulation on the Boardwalk that tells them where they can or can’t be, most of them agree that the lottery system has remedied one of their biggest points of contention with the city from last summer.
“This definitely beats sleeping on the lawn in front of City Hall a few times a week just to get a spot,” said another performer who wished not to be named.
He’s referring to the almost bi-weekly scenes last summer in which the city’s “first-come, first-served” policy for the allocated spaces south of 9th Street indirectly forced many of the performers to either camp out overnight to be first in line, or in other cases, hiring people from Craiglist ads to stand in line for them and secure a spot.
“This has created a better environment for the performers,” said Chavis. “It’s much better than last year and it is a fair process for everyone.
Some performers certainly agree with Chavis, but there are others who don’t. The minutes before the lottery system are usually rife with complaints from street performers railing against their theorized shortcomings of the city’s law.
Others, like Mark Chase, the spray paint artist who sat on the Boardwalk Task Force and, despite his vocal opposition, helped pass through the lottery system, are still very much opposed to the rules and regulations regarding street performers.
“The only way to truly fix this is to go back to the first-come, first-served way that it used to be, and get the government out of our business,” said Chase. “If someone was in our spot before, we would move onto another spot. We weren’t locked in a little 10 by 10 [foot] jail cell up there and told when we could or couldn’t be there based on a luck of the draw lotto system.”
Yet, that ship seems to have sailed for street performers, as the lottery system, at least in the early stages, appears to have cooled an often cantankerous debate that had been burning brighter and stronger than at any other point in the resort’s history.
The city now knows who should be on the Boardwalk at any point during the day, and it feels that it is appeasing business owners’ pleas to circulate performers to different spots on the Boardwalk each week.
A performer also cannot chose a particular street in successive weeks, so at most, one performer will only be seen on 2nd Street, for example, two weeks or weekends a summer.
This week, as a result of the lottery, there are 11 music acts and eight costume characters making up the majority of the street performers on the Boardwalk, with the remaining spots made up with a diverse group of buskers ranging from escape artists and living statues to magicians and spray paint artists.
“We still get complaints, but it’s mostly about noise or a performers being too close to a store,” said Chavis. “It’s still a touchy issue, but it seems we are getting fewer complaints so far.”
Another thing that is also “fewer” on the Boardwalk is the total amount of performers.
Buskers say the city’s regulations have forced many travelling performers to skip out on Ocean City altogether, while others complain that the city’s lottery system indirectly thins the so-called herd on the Boardwalk.
“Young guys or even old guys like me can’t be on that Boardwalk 24 hours a day performing,” said Campion, “so, if everyone is allotted a spot 24 hours a day for a week or a weekend, you see the majority of the day when there are no street performers in those spots.”
Campion says during the weekdays, there are long stretches of time when there are less than five street performers in the city’s 33 lottery spots.
Chavis says performers can split a spot for the week, but both have to be present at the lottery draw to sign up.
Chase and other performers say the city’s regulation has inadvertently reduced the number of performers on the Boardwalk while on the surface protecting their rights.
Other performers believe if this is in fact the new normal, the city needs to be more forthright with ensuring that the spots they so carefully assigned, are filled with the proper people.
“Costume people should be identifiable so we can make sure that the person who signed up for a spot is actually in that particular spot,” said Bill Hassey, Jr., the violinist who won a 1st Amendment rights ruling against the Town of Ocean City two years ago. “When the police walk by me, they say, ‘there’s Bill playing his violin’, but when you walk by the costume characters, how do you know it’s the person who was awarded the lottery spot under there?”
Hassey says another loophole-tactic used by performers is to get a friend or spouse to come to the lottery and secure a spot with no intention of actually using it.
Either way, it seems the lottery system has capped a powder keg that had previously blown up in the city’s faces via two lost lawsuits in as many years to street performers.
The city believes it has finally gotten its regulations right, and while street performers are largely unhappy with it, they will continue to show up every Monday morning and hope that Chavis calls their name and the spot they want to perform on is still available on the laminated map of the city’s wooden walkway.