Tag Archives: Surf City Nights

Please Support Your Local Buskers: Without them, Surf City Nights would be a duller event

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

Every Tuesday night from 5 – 9 pm you can visit downtown Huntington Beach on Main Street and be entertained by the buskers who perform for Surf City Nights, the city’s weekly street fair.

Buskers are people who make their living by performing for you on streets, sidewalks, subways, parks and other public places. In Huntington Beach, you’re most likely to find buskers in the downtown area, on any given day, but especially on Tuesday evenings at Surf City Nights.

Buskers have a proud tradition, mostly. Some great buskers in history include Benjamin Franklin, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, B.B. King, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few.

Musicians probably make up the majority of buskers at Surf City Nights, but since it started four-years-ago there have been Russian acrobats, break dancers, the guy who rides the highest unicycle in the world, magicians, tap dancers, bubble makers, mimes, human cars and people who juggle lit torches, bowling balls and long knives.

Wikipedia tells us that there are buskers all over the world, that their name has Spanish roots (“buscar” means “to seek”), and that busking dates back at least to ancient Rome where street performances were governed by “The Law of the Twelve Tables,” which demanded the death penalty for buskers who dared to satirize government officials.

Surf City Nights buskers are governed primarily by the rules of the Advisory Board of the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID), a collection of downtown merchants.

The BID isn’t as strict on buskers as was ancient Rome, but you have to follow its somewhat arbitrary rules if you want to busk at Surf City Nights. Would-be buskers can’t just show up on Main Street on Tuesday evening and start performing. They must first apply and audition for the BID. If approved, the busker will be assigned a time and place to play.

Warning: buskers who sing happily about pot will be banned for life, but Irish bands that happily glorify getting shit-faced drunk (a perfect fit for downtown on any other night) are welcome back anytime.

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Other than that, Surf City Nights rules for buskers are pretty sensible and simple—compared to Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, which is the busker capital of southern California. There the city runs the (daily) show and the rules are stricter and more complicated. Buskers rotate on a first-come first-serve basis and city inspectors use sound measuring tools to ensure that buskers don’t get too loud.

Without its buskers, Surf City Nights would be a much duller event, just another outdoor market. Buskers created a night (or four hours to be more exact) of entertainment downtown that never existed before—minus the drunks that stagger out of the bars and head back to their cars on any busy night.

For all its charms, busking full time is clearly a lifestyle choice that nobody should select without careful forethought.

Busking is hard work and it takes great determination and talent to even modestly succeed at it.

Buskers depend on “donations” from the crowds they draw in order to buy food, pay bills and fill the gas tank for their return trip home.

The acrobats, break dancers, tap dancers, unicyclists, and magician buskers, who gather the crowds for regularly scheduled shows, usually pass the hat around to collect money; first, as they build up the excitement and expectations of the audience and then after their big finale, which might be juggling bowling pins while riding the world’s tallest unicycle (over 15 feet) or somersaulting over a row of 10 people bent at the waist.

Musician buskers, who usually sing continuously save for short breaks, often leave their money basket, jar, bucket or open guitar case in front of them on a table or the ground to collect donations from passersby. Sometimes they offer self-made CDs in return for larger donations.

Some buskers use “pitchers,” people who go out into the audience proactively soliciting donations or signing up fans for future notices.

Buskers usually don’t like to tell reporters how much money they make for their work. They fear that if the public finds out that they can make several hundred dollars in one night it might cut back on donations.

But a busker who makes $300 at one Surf City Nights event might make only $40 another time. He or she might not be able to find a good location to work at on the other days of the week. That $300 might be all there is to live on for the week.

It’s a story that Eric Kufs, a Surf City Nights mainstay since its inception four years ago, cleverly, self-mockingly, and at times sardonically, weaves into his songs as he pleads for donations.

While casually strumming his way through a modified version of Paul Simon’s song, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” he sings about his life-altering decision to move from New York to Los Angeles to become a folk singer.

People say I’m crazy because I’ve got diamonds on the souls of my shoes.
They say I’m crazy for many other things too.
Like singing out here on the street for all of you.

Most buskers don’t end up with careers like Hendrix or B.B. King, or Ben Franklin for that matter, but many of them are accomplished performers, some of whom deserve the fame and fortune that has alluded them so far.

But the road to commercial success, much less stardom, is fraught with struggles. Kufs had to work several other jobs, including being a bouncer and a barista at Starbucks (which he ridicules in his music), just to survive before he was able to make a living solely by performing music.

You will be paid
You will be paid
All your conflict and trouble will be repaid
Don’t be afraid
Put your faith in the hands of the union maid
When you’re lost at sea
You’ll hear the sweet melody…

–From “Union Maid,” by Eric Kufs, based on his attempt to unionize buskers.

Kufs got the folk-singing bug when he was 12 or 13. “I needed a reason to just go sit alone in my room and not talk to anybody,” he recalls.

Kufs is, without doubt, the most talented and accomplished folk singer—out of many—who have played Surf City Nights. He also plays regularly at the Third Street Promenade and at private and public gigs across the country with his equally eclectic band, Common Rotation.

Kufs is a true original. He writes his own songs, which he describes as “sort of morose.” But they are actually lyrical, catchy, poetic, blues sung with an incredible countertenor voice that he can make sound exactly like a trumpet when he sings standards like “Hard Times” by Ray Charles.

“It’s folk music,” Kufs says of his own material. “You know, a little bit of pop in there. But it’s folk music. I’ve got a lot of songs without bridges, you know. When you don’t have a bridge, it’s a folk song.”

Eric Kufs and Chelsea Williams, playing on Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, 2008. Photo: Courtesy Eric Kufs

Kuf’s incomparable voice and guitar playing allow him to sing everything from pop hits like “You’ve Got a Friend” to folk classics like the uncensored version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” with honest and heart-felt panache.

Kufs doesn’t draw the larger crowds that some of the bands or other singers do. Pop singer Adam Ho, another Surf City Nights mainstay with star potential, and Seis Cuerdas, the dynamic classical/flamenco guitar duo from Argentina, often draw a large circle of spectators as they spectacularly slash their way through dazzling guitar riffs.

But Kufs lures his audience a few at a time as they stand in line for food or stroll by. Using pop standards and his self-deprecating wit as the bait, Kufs sometimes throws in one of his original songs after his small group of listeners is hooked or just at random.

A small group, college age, are listening as they wait in line with other people to buy kettle corn where Kufs is playing – at the junction of Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway, just across from the pier. He just finished singing one of his own songs and says, with his usual refrain, “Thank you ladies and gentlemen. My name is Eric Kufs. That’s one of my songs. I have CDs and a tip jar. Please support local music. Thank you.”

One of the youths asks him to play something by Boston.

“I can’t even tell you what’s a good Boston song,” Kufs laughs.

“Play some Journey,” the same youth asks, singing the words, “Take the midnight train.”

It’s a song much better suited for pop specialist Adam Ho, not a folk singer, but Kufs plays along, singing the lyrics, “just a small town girl,” in an exaggeratedly high voice. “That’s not me,” he laughs. “That’s not my voice.”

“Do your own rendition of it.”

“Uh, yeah! I’ll just whip that up right now,” Kufs jokes. “I’ll whip up the version of that tune that’s better than Steve Perry’s. Yeah, great!”

But Kufs skillfully continues to engage them. “People come up to me on the street and say, ‘Yo Dawg, that last song was pitchy.’ I’m like, ‘You guys are totally ruining busking.’”

His listeners laugh and ask for some Andy Garcia, another request that doesn’t suit Kuf’s style or repertoire. But he leaps into an hilarious imitation of a Garcia song for a bit, then stops.

His tiny audience laughs and applauds enthusiastically, but Kufs tells them “That’s enough” and goes into a satirical song about American Idol.

“I hate that show,” he says. The song is catchy, hard hitting and funny, reminiscent of Phil Ochs, but his young audience, having already tipped him, is mostly oblivious and starts to drift away.

On a cold winter night last year I filmed Kufs singing a set of his own songs at the exact same location where he had been bantering with the Journey fans. We met before prime time in order to minimize the financial loss that he would take by not singing his array of well-known pop/folk standards.

“It’s kind of funny,” he says about half-way through the set. “You know, I can’t make a dollar unless I play a song that people know.”

By playing his own songs, however, Kufs reveals a much higher level of talent that, given the right break, could take him off the streets forever.

I don’t want to die alone
A last resort
Or a bag of bones
I will serve my time and then I will come for you


You were born with a face that I’d never seen
And a head too strong to ever know what I mean

I had watched him perform a handful of his own songs to perfection when he cut the next one short. It was time to start making money by singing the songs that people knew. Noting the obvious conflict between art and commercial success, I asked him how he decided to be a folk singer in the first place.

“I used to write pop songs that I thought people would like,” he explained. “But then I only started doing anything interesting when I started doing what I liked to listen to. So, this is what happened. This is what became of that experiment.”

“Anyway,” he added, “this is a song called ‘Bitter Honey.’”

Then he whispered, “This will be my last one.”

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Eric Kufs: Surf City Voice Artist of the Month

By John Earl
Surf City Voicee

Eric Kufs, folk singer, is the Surf City Voice artist of the month. Kufs performs in downtown Huntington Beach on Main St. most Tuesdays from 6-9 pm. He dishes out his own original, catchy, and sometimes blues-like, folk songs with a great countertenor voice, guitar, and wit. He sings all the pop tunes too and knows how to entertain, but isn’t afraid to play uncensored Woody Guthrie, even behind the Orange Curtain, and realizes that, in the end, it’s all about the music. As this video shows, Kufs takes (usually well) a few punches that come with being a busker; but, above all, he lifts the art of folk music to a higher level, making him the best folk singer, and one of the best performers, in the three-year history of Surf City Nights. Like Guthrie riding the rails, Kufs travels the busker circuit from Santa Monica to downtown Huntington Beach and does gigs across the country with his equally eclectic band, Common Rotation.

A full profile will follow.

Intrusion of the Transformer

The band is great, but the Transformer guy in the cheap plastic outfit seems like an annoying distraction, taking away tips that should go to the band. On the other hand, it seems that the plastic superhero brought a much larger audience than the band would have had otherwise, which is a shame because it plays original songs with a great beat, as you can hear and see in this video report. This dual (or duel?) performance was part of the fine talent offered every Tuesday from 5 p.m. – 7 p.m. during Surf City Nights, a combination street fair and farmers market, located on the first three blocks of Main Street in downtown Huntington Beach.

Downtown BID Director is Removed

Editor’s note: This is Connie Pedenko’s farewell letter to her workers after being let go as executive director of the Huntington Beach Downtown Business Improvement District. She was also in charge of Surf City Nights since its beginning. Surf City Nights occurs every Tuesday on the first three blocks of Main Street that combines a farmers market and street fair atmosphere, including a wide variety of street entertainers. No word on whether her sudden departure will mean a change in direction for Surf City Nights.

Dear HBDBID Members:

A very surprising turn of events, have me regretfully sending this final message as your Executive Director.  As you may or may not know, I was relieved of my duties as Executive Director on April 7, 2010.

It was my distinct pleasure to serve as the BID’s Executive Director during the past four years, and to share my consulting expertise in organizational development in helping to shape our common goals and vision.  My longstanding relationships with city and local officials as well, as the business community at large, served me well in directing the branding, building and development of “the BID.”  It is these relationships, as well as a reputation for honesty, integrity and commitment to excellence that I hold most dear.

I am more than satisfied with the achievements of the BID, under my direction. With the help of some very forward-thinking board members and an overall supportive group of merchants, I was able to institute practices used successfully by business organizations and create a more cohesive program of goals with measurable accomplishments. We were able to revamp and expand the current events, create new and exciting events, and discard those things that simply did not help us achieve our goal of promoting downtown as a family-friendly environment.  Through careful planning, smart marketing, and creative advertising, BID assets grew from $57,000, when first established as a 501c6 in 2006, to our current assets of $125,000. I sincerely appreciate and applaud those of you who helped along the way, and even those who chose a less cooperative approach; obstacles and unfounded negativity energized those of us who chose to strive constantly for success.

I will close by saying that I sincerely hope you will find (or have found) a person to continue to move this organization forward on a path that benefits all the varied tenants of the downtown business community. As you know from your own experience, an organization like this, without someone at the helm in a professional capacity, does not function successfully. Whatever strengths you think I brought to the position, I hope you will be careful to choose someone who can bring those same skills and talents. My devotion to the many friends I have in the BID will not end with my tenure as Executive Director, and I want you to have the best possible leadership to achieve what we began together, and beyond.

Good luck and much prosperity to each of you.

Connie Pedenko

Surf City Nights: Not just blowing in the wind, the weekly event may expand

By John Earl

When it started three years ago, the main idea behind Surf City Nights in Huntington Beach was to recapture the first three blocks of Main Street—the biggest beer-bar village in Orange County—for families who normally avoided it.

New Surf City Nights manager, Mary Ann Senske was the chair person for the Wings Wheels and Roters Expo. Photo: www.wwrexpo.net

For just one night a week from 5 p.m. – 9 p.m. kids and adults could come together for family oriented fun on streets closed to noxious car fumes and the rowdy party-hearty crowd that normally owns the downtown during evening hours.

Surf City Nights got off to a great start.

Vendors selling fresh produce, bakery goods, crafts and clothing were joined by a cache of talented buskers, including singers, bands, dancers, acrobats and magicians, some of them younger local people seeking to improve their craft and gain public exposure. Together, they attracted thousands of obviously pleased visitors every Tuesday.

The city managed and subsidized the event at first as part of an experiment with the goal of handing over management and costs to the downtown business owners represented by the Downtown Businesses Improvement District, which collects fees from member businesses.

Some city subsidies are still flowing, but complete operating control was handed over to the BID by the city a year ago last January. Looking for a change of direction, the BID fired the city’s SCN manager and hired its own manager, Mary Ann Senske, on a ninety-day trial basis.

Crowds, along with buskers and vendors, had seemed to be trailing off a bit more than normal even for the cold winter months, but on Senske’s first Tuesday on the job SCN looked on the brink of collapse.
At least nine vendors didn’t set up, leaving a huge empty space on the first block of Main Street, normally filled with artisan and candy booths. Only a handful of the regular buskers showed up and crowds were sparse.

The city’s economic development staff went downtown that night to investigate and left worried. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one staff member confided that his department was disappointed with the management of SCN and concerned for its future if things don’t change.
The same staffer said that the BID’s new manager didn’t have the right type of experience for managing a farmer’s market and that it was too big a job for the BID to do by itself full time.

But a quick look at Senske’s background online indicates that as the chair person for the annual Wings Wheels and Rotors Expo at the Alamitos Army Airfield, an event that features “aircraft, helicopter rides, fly-bys, car show, music, food courts, vendors and family entertainment,” according to a calendar blurb in Orange Coast Magazine last October, she should be well qualified to handle anything that might come up on Surf City Nights.

Another city insider insisted that the vendors were upset with new fee increases and said that there had been many complaints.

But a public records search indicates only one recent complaint about Surf City Nights on record with the city: a Thai food vendor who asserted that fees for the event were higher than fees at similar events in other cities.

One of the first things Senske did with the BID’s blessing was to change the fee format for vendors from a percentage basis to a flat fee. Artisans will pay $60 a week in the winter and spring months and $125 per week in the summer, for example.

Entertainers, who earn money only from tip donations for their performances, don’t have to pay but go through a fairly strict application process.
Contacted by the Voice on March 11, Connie Pedenko, the BID’s executive director, insisted that all was well and that the vendor vacancies had been due to the wind and nothing more.

“[T]he wind came up and the vendors on the first block said ‘We can’t put our merchandise out.’…So we allowed them to pull into any slots we had open on the other block and park their cars as a wind barricade.”

Pedenko acknowledged that program changes are under way and that “Whenever there is change people get upset,” but said that the changes were meant to uplift a sagging program.

Adam Ho jamming during Surf City Nights. Photo: Surf City Voice

“When this event started, actually, it was for economic vitality for downtown and to bring business downtown on a Tuesday,” she said, referring to local families who weren’t coming previously.
Surf City Nights is not just a farmers market, she added, but a fair. “We’re going back to that idea and will have different things going on.”

One of those things, the Art Walk, isn’t on Tuesday but fits the family concept that Pedenko wants to emphasize for the downtown. Every third Wednesday from 6 p.m. – 9 p.m. downtown businesses host an artist. In February 20 downtown businesses exhibited the work of various artists, excluding nudity or “shock and awe,” of course.

The new manager is also trying to rebuild relationships with entertainers that Pedenko says the BID lost contact with previously. “You will see the ones we originally started with … and they were excellent performers. So you’re going to see them coming back.”

Pedenko promised that things would get back to normal soon. “It will be fine, trust me. Give us a few weeks before we start judging everything.”

Three weeks later it seems that Pedenko has been fully exonerated. Most of the empty booth spaces have been refilled and the crowds are also back enjoying SCN veteran entertainers like folk singer Eric Kufs, guitar blazer Adam Ho and others.

But there’s more good news: Pedenko revealed for the first time that Surf City Nights may expand to the Strand and up into 5th street after the summer months and some other special attractions may be offered too.

Without a doubt, the Strand could use a little excitement. It stands relatively isolated, utterly boring and sparsely visited—can’t we think of something besides clothing boutiques, hamburger stands and yogurt shops? But with its narrow street and sidewalks that are clean and wide, it is also the ideal setting for a street fair and farmers market.

Pedenko admits that the idea will take a lot of planning to pull off. “We ask everyone to be patient because we have some very experienced people who are doing the coordinating. … Everything we do is family oriented. That’s our goal.”

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