David Darwin didn’t mean to scare the bejeezus out of 5-year-olds. Unfortunately, that’s usually what happens when a 6-foot-7-inch dude with long hair and creepy clown makeup bursts into a birthday party with balloon animals intending to bring the joy.
“Yeah, kids were terrified, crying, all of that,” grimaces the 33-year-old as he recalls the early days of his career. “It was awful—but things got better for me.”
Today, the soft-spoken Philadelphian (by way of North Jersey) is the self-billed “One-Man Sideshow”—professional entertainer, practitioner of circus arts, member of the city’s fraternity of vaudeville/variety performers. On a really good day, he can make a couple thousand bucks amusing corporate execs or college kids with his 45-minute act. On a not-so-good day, he might pull in 50 bucks doing the exact same routine at a Philly bar. Most importantly, though, Darwin has supported himself entirely with some version of his ever-changing act for all of his adult life.
In the beginning, balloon animals weren’t really his schtick. Juggling was. At 15, he learned from his father how to juggle three baseballs, and by the time he got to Penn State, Darwin was good enough to make a few bucks performing shows around State College with the magician buddies he’d fallen in with.
And then part-way through his senior year, he and his buddies got to hang out for a few hours with his heroes, Penn & Teller, who gave Darwin some definitive advice: “Don’t get a day job, because once you get steady money you’re never gonna let go of it.”
So Darwin went home and informed his dad that he wasn’t going to use the journalism degree he was about to earn. He was going to be a juggler. “My dad said, ‘Wow.’ And then he said, ‘OK. I’m not gonna give you any money.’ And I said, ‘OK.’”
The first two years were rough. All Darwin could get were a few birthday parties each week, at $75 a pop, but he was able to scrape by since he and three friends were sharing a cheap two-bedroom apartment in West Philly. In hindsight, it was a valuable experience. “It is so important for any sort of entertainer to learn how to entertain children,” he says, “because it prepares you for drunk adults in a way that nothing else will.”
By 2002, he was getting choicer gigs, like bar mitzvahs and Cub Scout banquets. He left the balloon animals behind, focused on his juggling and slowly added more tricks to his repertoire: fire-breathing, hammering nails up his nose, and sword-swallowing (suffering second-degree burns and extreme sore throats along the way). Early on, Darwin decided to be more of a classic dry-witted vaudevillian and set himself apart from the brash, in-your-face, tattooed-and-pierced types de rigueur in today’s sideshow-performer world. “I’m just not that guy,” he says.
Darwin caught a break in 2006 when he successfully auditioned for the debut season of NBC’s America’s Got Talent. Out in L.A., he laid on a bed of nails, walked on broken glass and wowed judge David Hasselhoff. Host Regis Philbin couldn’t get enough. Darwin made it to the semifinals, then lost out to a Celtic fiddle-and-dance act. But the notoriety got Darwin more work here at home, including higher-paying corporate gigs. He’s made a steady, decent living from his act ever since.
For variety performers in Philadelphia, that’s pretty much the definition of success. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, it was a little easier to get established: Headhouse Square and the adjacent South Street, then the city’s counterculture meccas, were the spots for magicians, jugglers, comedians, contortionists and other performers to make some cash and maybe a name for themselves (Penn & Teller cut their teeth in Philly during that era). But when the neighborhood gentrified, that all disappeared and never really re-emerged anywhere else in the city.
“It’s a big gaping hole for us [performers] that there isn’t a place in Philadelphia that people know they can go to on a warm Saturday and see a show,” Darwin laments. Breaking into the biz is even tougher considering the dearth of Philly nightclubs that serve as proving grounds for up-and-comers. Around here, variety entertainers are forced to spend more time hustling for gigs than perfecting their talents.
But Darwin says moneymaking avenues exist for the dogged. “I know guys who do high-end trade shows, and if you can convince a corporation that you can bring all the boys and girls to the yard, they will pay you.”
Some performers dream of joining the circus, but with he and his wife expecting their first child in August, Darwin’s grateful he can make a living in Philly doing what he loves and still sleep in his own bed every night. As he’s learned from even the most veteran performers, if that means swallowing your pride sometimes, so be it.
“They’ve told me, ‘Hey, when everything else in your career goes to hell, kids are still always gonna have birthday parties.’”