By Denise Sullivan
DECEMBER 8, 2014—“If you have, give. If you need, take.”
That’s comedian and San Francisco native Margaret Cho’s simple, seasonal message to the people of her hometown, and so far the directive is working: Staging impromptu street performances, Cho is devoting two months to raising awareness and much-needed funds and supplies for homeless people here, in memory of her philanthropic comic inspiration, Robin Williams.
“With Comic Relief he raised $70 million for homelessness causes,” Cho says of the series of televised charity shows and events hosted for more than 20 years by Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, and Billy Crystal.
Calling from San Antonio where she was performing her stand-up act over the weekend, Cho explained, “He had written into his contracts that a certain percentage of homeless workers had to be employed on the set. He was very conscious of homeless people and he turned in perhaps the greatest performance of a homeless person ever in The Fisher King.” The loss of Williams this year she says, was more than the death of a dangerously depressed fellow comedian and street theater vet. “We lost a passionate activist.”
It was comedian Michael Pritchard who first suggested to Cho, “Don’t grieve Robin, be Robin,” which created a hook and hashtag for her pop up performances and online #BeRobin campaign benefiting primarily homeless young people and Larkin Street Youth Center with further proceeds to be split between men and women’s shelters all over town. “It’s such a simple thing,” says Cho. “It’s my version of Comic Relief.”
On the morning of November 15, Cho announced on her Facebook page she would be busking for dollars to help the homeless. She announced her locations on Twitter.
The first event went down on November 17 at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, the neighborhood where she was first introduced to post-hippies, drag queens and punk rock as a child of the 1970s. With appearances at Market and Castro, Ellis and Polk and Powell and Market, she’s raised more than $15,000 toward her $20,000 goal, helped along by physical donations and support from comedian Rosie O’Donnell who sponsored the November 26 Larkin Street Youth event featuring singer-songwriter, Bob Mould.
“It started with just me and Gerri Lawlor (BATSImprov) and it’s grown into a very successful Go Fund Me campaign,” says Cho.
Joined by local musicians like Mia Simmins, Ari Gorman, Roger Rocha and Andy Moraga, Cho has special guests slated for tomorrow’s rain or shine event at noon, under the marquee of the historic Victoria Theater on 16th near Capp Street. The theater is situated in the seat of a hard-pressed stretch that is undergoing major stress with the pending development at 16th Street BART plaza that could displace residents of SROs as well as neighborhood workers and offices.
Cho acknowledges the needs of the city’s homeless and near-homeless differ from neighborhood to neighborhood, though the basic need for shelter remains the same.
“We’ve collected food, warm socks, hats, gloves, things like sanitary pads and tampons for girls and women—the last thing anyone wants to spend money on but it’s very important that we deal with and talk about that— along with underwear and shoes.” Rain ponchos were donated during last week’s downpour, though one has to wonder why a city like San Francisco, with its present wealth to burn, cannot further assist its citizens more consistently and routinely, whether they are chronically or more recently homeless.
The latest displacement crisis has most dramatically impacted low-income workers and communities of color, resulting in a kind of systemic removal of longtime working class San Franciscans. Many are decades-long residents, people with HIV/AIDS, second, third and fourth generation natives. And then there are the artists.
The city’s own street performers have it harder now than they ever have; it’s a far cry from the days when performers the likes of magician Harry Anderson, Grimes “the Human Jukebox” Poznikov, mimes Shields and Yarnell and Williams himself lined the streets from Ghirardelli Square to the Cannery, down the piers and toward North Beach. Street music scenes went on to flourish in the Haight, the Mission and downtown.
Though performers have historically risked citations for busting noise ordinances or “blocking the sidewalk,” they have largely been tolerated, but the permitting process for street performers remains arcane. Amplification seems to be the main complaint, though in more recent years, the world famous, recently deceased Bushman was chased off his spot for trying to make a living on the street. Longtime street players like Carlos Guitarlos andThe Space Lady couldn’t get much respect on the streets here in the 1990s, though after leaving San Francisco, they came to national attention and began to regularly play indoors.
Cho left San Francisco electively in the 1980s, to pursue show business in LA. After a break in television, she forged a career telling tales of Hollywood’s racist, sexist and sizeist biases: The ground she broke was likened to Richard Pryor’s impact on the stand-up form.
Cho’s memories of attending school and growing up in San Francisco, the daughter of Korean immigrants who owned the Paperback Traffic bookstore in Polk Gulch, informs everything about her work, infused as it is with a personally political edge that was born in the Harvey Milk-era of tolerance. The city was packed with working creatives, contributing to an environment that not only supported them, but where they could support themselves, in some cases by street performing. She jokes when she was 14, inspired by Williams’ own street performances, she announced to her family she planned to make her living as a comedian: Her mother replied, “Maybe it’s better if you just die.”
Thirty years later, with average apartment rents here topping $3,000 a month, her mother’s voice was prophesy. “The divide is so huge, it’s almost insurmountable,” says Cho. “All the tech stuff, the shift away from the quirky alternative place as oasis, the capital of the politically progressive…It’s a different city.” Street performers are not as persistently present or beloved, except for in sponsored locales like the un-ironic Crystal Geyser Alpine Spring Water Stage at Pier 39.
Lucky for Cho, “The Mayor’s office has been very much on our side—it’s not been an issue,” she says of the impromptu, amplified performances. “In an atmosphere of frustration and anger at the state of things, we are keeping our message simple: If you have give and if you need, take.”
But her innocent philanthropic project benefitting homeless youth also signals a last gasp for the oddball arts that once defined San Francisco culture. “There is a weird energy and excitement in street performing,” says Cho. “But someone walking down the street, focused on themselves and their social media, might not hear or see that—or the homeless. We are trying to remind people: That is someone’s kid out there.”
Margaret Cho and friends will be performing again beginning tomorrow and and at the following locations this month:
December 9 , 12 PM, Victoria Theater, 16th and Capp Streets
December 19, 3-6 PM indoor-outdoor party at the Condor, Broadway and Columbus
December 20 4 PM Fillmore Auditorium, Fillmore and Geary
December 23, time TBA, final marathon at the Eagle, 12th and Harrison