Tony Vera: Washington Square Park Legend

Posted: April 10, 2011 in Street Performers

Courtesy of Tony Vera

A lot has changed in New York City. Our favorite lunch spot/study spot/lounge spot known as Washington Square Park was once the stage for some of the best street performers–ever. The likes of Philippe Petit and Tony Vera used to call the spot their stage for performing acts ranging from the classic Vera fire eating/chair balancing or the Petit slack roping routine. Back then, much more was allowed in the park and people knew what they were coming to see.

I recently caught up with Vera, who now is retired and living in California, and we discussed the good old days:

The ambition and learning to perform: I was trying to make some money because I was young, and working at Madison Square Garden selling beer and cotton candy. I worked the circus and hung out backstage, that’s where I perfected my chair act.

Favorite Performing Spots: Sixth and Seventh Ave. and Bleecker Street, but doing shows in Washington Square Park is different, they see the show as theater.

The formula for a successful act?: I do the fire eating to draw people in, you have to do the hook. The crowd starts to surrounds you then. I used to pick people out and eat anything, usually it was cigarettes. Then there was my grand finale, I’d grab a girl from the audience and balance her on the chair on my chin. My show was always different, I did a lot of ad-libbing because the people were different for each show.

Tough Times: New York is brutal. I spent 13 years in New York City, and in the winter months went back to the Garden during the winter. You can’t perform then. I got arrested and was in jail for one day because of the fire show I was performing-“The Village Voice” put me on the front page that day.

Moving out to Venice Beach, Calif.: There I could do my act all year long, and not worry about the weather. Doing my show out here, you play music; it’s really theater. You have to talk to people and be a real showman to work the crowd. I spent 22 years on the boardwalk as a street performer.

Final Street Performance: My last day I met Michael Richards; that was my last day as “Tony Vera: The Fire Man.”

Where is he now: I’m 51 and working as a paparazzi. I got into a fight with Mike Tyson in an airport.

Parting words for aspiring street performers?: Back then, the ones who made the money were the ones who were the rebels, those days are gone though. The street performing life is hard and vicious. If you’re smart you’ll make it; if you’re drinking and smoking, you’re not going to make it.

If you want more Tony Vera, check out his website for galleries of photos as well as some videos from his time as a street performer in Washington Square Park, all around the city, and Venice Beach, Calif.

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