Tragedy is easy. Balloon animals are hard.

Street performers gather to compete at West Port Plaza

You will find one in Chicago, near North Beach, in the form of a saxophone player who has chosen to play in a concrete pedestrian tunnel with a remarkable reverberating quality. You will find several working as "living statues" in the heavily touristed French Quarter of New Orleans, standing stock-still for hours. They play acoustic guitar in San Francisco's Upper Haight and blues guitar on the public squares of Beale Street in Memphis. In St. Louis, as you may discover on May 27, they juggle, clown, unicycle, dance and perform magic in West Port Plaza.

Whether you consider street performers romantic, mildly diverting or just annoying, it is hard to dispute that there will be a number of unique spectacles to take in when they gather for the 10th annual Street Entertainers Competition and Audition on Saturday night.

Performers like comedic tap dancer De Juan Collins, Buster Keaton-style silent clown and unicyclist Matthew Duncan, and mysterious master of the spinning top Hiroshi Tada compete for cash prizes and simultaneously partake in an audition for the chance to appear throughout the summer at West Port.

The competitors do their busking, as it is termed in Europe, in the controlled environment of the indoor/outdoor mall. With restaurants like Patrick's and Robata of Japan, two Sheraton hotels and a gleaming gold office tower, West Port invites upscale traffic and that sense of artificial mall tranquility. Performances scheduled for the weekends to follow the contest come with a modest paycheck from the Plaza landlord, to pad the tips thrown in the hat. So the busking here is neither as impromptu nor quite as unpredictable, income-wise, as it usually is.

The show occurs on a stage erected in the Plaza's main courtyard, in front of World News and Casa Gallardo. Each act takes only seven to 10 minutes, but between them there are set changes to negotiate. That's when Street Entertainers Competition creator, producer and emcee Dale Jones keeps things humming. The local celebrity is known as a master juggler who has excelled despite having the use of one of his hands limited by a childhood accident. He will perform during these lulls.

The former Ringling Bros. circus clown is a veteran of many state fairs, corporate gigs, parties, festivals and a few TV shows such as the sorely missed Real People. Jones uses comedy to enhance his act, explaining that you can't just juggle -- you need music or commentary or both.

He says that street entertainers have to be really good to survive. "They have to get people to stop and stay and stand the whole time," he says, not to mention the critical epilogue -- getting them to drop cash into the collection hat as it passes. "Street performing in general has a very good self-elimination process," he adds, "because if people don't do well, they don't come back because they don't make enough money."

Jones describes a man in a previous competition who could make excellent balloon animals but didn't really have what you could call an act. Then there was the fire-breather who strayed too close to a flammable awning, prompting the prohibition of acts involving fire.

This year's mix includes De Juan Collins, who combines serious tap dancing, comedy and audience interaction. The St. Louis Tap Festival mainstay travels the country showing off his acrobatic, "vaudeville street" style of tap. A former winner on Star Search, Dance Fever and Puttin' on the Hits, Collins promises a memorable interlude of hot tap and "old jokes."

Keith Jozsef is a magician specializing in sleight of hand. He intends to perform the famous trick that involves borrowing money from an audience member and recovering the missing cash from an "impossible location." When not separating people from their wallets, he is senior majoring in communications at St. Louis University.

Bob Kelmer is a clown. Doodles the Clown is his stage name. He dabbles in juggling, magic and balloon animals. Give him a few balloons, and he can make a flower, a sword, a teddy bear or a motorcycle. With nine balloons, he can make a rainbow. The kids really dig that one. If you have two kids, they'll fight over the rainbow. In 20 seconds the rainbow is a happy-colored pile of limp shreds on the pavement. Kelmer also does standup comedy. This has been known to involve erotic balloons. They are also popular.

If there is an unknown quantity amid these competitors it is surely Hiroshi Tada, expert in the arcane art of toy-top-spinning. The fearless senior citizen and part-time Washington University professor of engineering boasts that he can take a "plain old primitive top" and spin it in his hand, switch hands, throw it 30 feet into the air and catch it, still spinning and under control. As hard as it is to believe, he says that he can spin a top sideways so that it is almost horizontal, spinning on a vertical surface yet not falling to the ground. The laws of gravity are putty in the hands of this guru of the gyro.

University of Chicago grad student and McCluer High alum Matthew Duncan is a maverick. An old-fashioned two-piece men's swimsuit, floppy hat and red clown nose comprise a costume of his own design. He juggles and walks a tightrope and plays an accordion atop a 6-foot "giraffe unicycle." He lets his facial expressions and a silly-sounding whistle do the talking for him during the otherwise silent efforts of his "one-man circus," as he calls it. You won't be able to take your eyes away from this daring young experimenter.

The Street Performers Competition and Audition takes place in the main courtyard of West Port Plaza, I-270 and Page, at 7 p.m. May 27. Admission is free. Call 576-2727, ext. 211, for more information or 636-227-1049 to compete. Street entertainers may be found in various spots at the Plaza on Fridays from 6-9 p.m. and Saturdays from 6-10 p.m. through September.

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