By late June of ‘78 I had been back from L.A and living in Detroit for a few years and even had spent a few month of ‘77 in Malibu CA. But I was restless and had outgrown Detroit and had made up my mind to live in California for good. It meant saying my good byes to Black Betty my trusted van that had safely taken me back and forth to California four times, leaving my friends and family behind me.
I set my sights on San Francisco this time because I had family living there (a cousin) and I had no clear goal of what to do once I got there. My cousin and I started performing magic when I was 16 years old and he was 13 but by the time I was 21. I had grown tried of tricking people and wanted something more, so once again I headed back to Detroit. My cousin kept performing magic and by 1978 he was doing street magic at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and drawing in huge crowds that would spill into the street, and for this he almost got arrested a few times for blocking the street.
My flight got into SF at 2am and I spent my first night at my cousin’s house in the heart of downtown SF. Early the next morning we were off to Oakland for a Day on the Green concert with the Rolling Stones at the Oakland A’s stadium, it was the Rolling Stones Some Girls Tour. A beautiful sunny day, it was June 26th 1998 and Mick Jagger’s birthday, and to this day I can remember a helicopter flying overhead and dropping inflatable adult dolls over the audience and everyone in attendance singing Happy Birthday to Mick.
I arrived in SF with some cash but needed to find a job and had no idea of what I wanted to do, so to get by, I took a job pumping gas at a Shell station. I had started reading a booked called Think and Grow Rich when the idea hit me to me a car sales man. My thinking at the time was if you sold cars they would let you take one home with you (naive of me, they didn’t). I created a resume and let’s just say that I might have embellished it a tad but I got hired on the spot and sold two cars the first week – pure luck on my part!
At the same time a huge building project was underway at the end of Fisherman’s Wharf, which was created from noting but the timbers from old abandoned piers. From concept to complication it only took 24 months and was built out of reclaimed wood from piers 37 and 39, and was called Pier 39.
Pier 39 was a collection of shops, restaurants, arcades, a high diving act into a small pool at one end of the pier and three stages at various locations, for street performers to entertain the thousands of tourists. Built at a cost of about four million dollars, it was an overnight hit and a ‘must see’ for all visitors to SF. It was built and funded by one man, and most of the SF City Supervisors had stores on the Pier.
The man who built Pier 39 fell in love with an act he had seen in Silver Dollar City a theme park in the state of Missouri. The idea was simply a truck that could make it rain and he recreated it at Pier 39 complete with two hidden radio controlled sprinkler systems. He was a man used to getting his way and when Pier 39 opened he hired an actor to play the part of the Rainmaker. A gig that would last two weeks before the actor quit out of frustration.
Timing is everything and as it turns out I had arrived in SF just as the Pier was getting ready to open. My first four months in the city seen me go from pumping gas to selling cars. In my spare time I would hang out at the wharf watching all the street performers do their act, like Harry Anderson doing the needle though arm or A Whitney Brown and his dog Brownie Breeze Bottom, the little dog would always steal the show from Whitney. So when they ran an ad in the local newspaper looking for someone to do a Rainmaking show I didn’t answer it until the second week and then only because my cousin urged me do it.
The interview was short but only because I was the only one who answered the ad, and I had to come back the next day with a five-minute script. I brainstormed with my cousin and we came up with a funny five-minute routine and I got the job the next day. The concept was simple, yet highly effective; there were 2 hidden sprinkler heads, positioned just under the rooflines of the building opposite the Rainmaking truck. Whenever I hit the remote to activate the ‘rain’ the sprinklers would go off for about 3 seconds – just enough time to gently wet the audience, but it had disappeared when they turned their heads to see where the rain was coming from. As fate would have it they gave me both of the remote controls for the sprinkler systems to get a feel for the range of the remotes as I practiced my show. I had lent a mime/escape artist some money a few months back and he never tried to pay me back. I had the remotes and the Rainmaker stage had been empty for the last few weeks, so he’s performing his straight jacket escape right on the stage with the sprinklers and he had no idea I just landed Rainmaker the job. I waited until he got a sizable crowd and I let him go though his whole straight jacket escape routine, and when he passes the hat for tips, I hit the remote and the stage is covered in rain. People are running, and not dropping coins into his hat and he can’t understand what just happened.
He lets about an hour go by before he decides to do his act again. During this time, I had moved onto the arcade, which was owned by Pier 39. I introduced myself to the bumper car operator as the new Rainmaker, and he allows me to ride fro free for as long as I like. The arcade is new and the bumper cars run on electricity but no one has thought to calibrate the power so the cars have some real speed. If you hit someone on the side of there car it would almost knock them our of the car.
It was a little bit over an hour and as I came out of the arcade, remotes in my pocket and there he was, with one last strap left to get out of the jacket and the crowd was spell bound, he freed himself and as he passed his hat for donations, wouldn’t you know it rained again…
© 2015 Excerpt from the upcoming book: Stories For Lambykins by James Szeles