Singing for their supper: Best of Mag Mile street performers

By Elizabeth Czapski | Staff Writer

One of the most exciting parts of the Michigan Avenue experience is its street performers. Whether they’re playing music, miming or doing magic tricks, the street’s “buskers,” as they’re called, strive to astound, surprise and entertain—and make a little money doing it.

To find out more about this interesting career, we talked to three of the best. Jonathan Fin has been a musician for about 10 years, and a few years ago, he took his talents to the streets. On a Thursday in late July, he stood in the plaza in front of the Apple Store, 401 N. Michigan Ave., with an electric guitar strapped to his body, surrounded by sound equipment and signs that read, “Karaoke – Sing Your Song!” and “Please Help Me Feed
My Kitties.”

Fin, 42, said his original songs are “singer-songwriter stuff,” but when he’s busking he plays a lot of covers and, like his sign advertises, does karaoke.“I let people sing whatever song that they wanna sing, and I pull it up on my YouTube and try to play along with it while they sing,” he said.

The number of people who brave the microphone varies every day, he said. “Sometimes there’s 10–15 people that do it, sometimes there’s none.”

Fin got his start as a street performer when he was hired by TC-Helicon, an audio company, to make videos where people could test out the company’s vocal effects equipment.“I got a street performer’s license so I could film those videos, and I haven’t stopped playing outside since,‘cause it’s just so much fun,” Fin said.

Kenneth Stringer III, known as “The Original Chicago Tin Man,” does another kind of street performance. Wearing a suit, hat and sunglasses with his body painted entirely silver, Stringer was stationed in front of the AT&T store at Michigan Avenue and Ontario Street on a busy summer Saturday. The speaker he stood on top of blasted music, and sometimes Stringer would break his statuesque stillness, only to whip out a couple of dance moves.
His sign read, “The Greatest Mime of All Time.”

Stringer said he’s been doing this since 2002. “I was working job after job after job, and I was always making money, but the guy that was above me was always making more,” he said. Stringer decided to try out street performing, and it paid more than he made at his day job.

“I quit my job, I quit school at the time, I moved out of my parents’ house, and this has been my profession ever since.”

Stringer doesn’t only stick to the streets. “I do a lot of other stuff as a tin man,” he said, including delivering roses and doing dating consultations. “I wouldn’t call it relationship

Andreas Tsantilis prepares to wow an audience with his street magic show. Photo by Elizabeth
Czapski

advice; it’s more about building yourself and then you’ll be stronger within a relationship,” he said. He also has a stand-up comedy routine.

In front of a table lined with velvet, Andreas Tsantilis stood at the entrance to the Plaza of the Americas at Michigan Avenue and Hubbard Street and made mini-soccer balls disappear and reappear beneath three brown cups he moved around the table. An astonished crowd watched his every move. Eventually, the balls were upgraded to oranges, and at the end of his show, he picked up his bowler hat to reveal a whole squash that hadn’t been there before. A black case in front of his table was painted with the words “Vaudeville Magic Show.”

Tsantilis, 41, introduced himself as being “all the way from South Africa” and said he has been doing magic for about 15 years. He came to Chicago in 2008 and started performing on the street two years later. Before that, he used to do “close-up magic” in bars and cafes when he lived in Greece.

Now, he does magic for the public on the weekends. “The street is freedom,” he said. “No one will arrest you. You do this, it’s like, an allure to get people to stop, make them watch and make them pay you.”

His favorite part, he said, is meeting people from all over the world. His least favorite part? “People that just walk away after the show and don’t even say thank you.”

Published August 2, 2018

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