King of the Park: Charlie Barnett | Performances at Washington Square In Jeopardy Again

While searching for more information on Dave Chappelle’s association with Washington Square Park, I came upon the story of comedian Charlie Barnett who died 17 years ago last month. Barnett captivated countless people from all walks of life and gained his street performance ‘cred’ via his act delivered in the Washington Square Park fountain. In reading about his life, I learned that at one point, after his death, a “biopic” was in the works about him, “King of the Park.” Now, we all know which park that refers to. I love that! Apparently, it was supposed to be produced by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard starring Dave Chappelle but then Dave Chappelle cut out performing and it fell through.

Dave Chappelle was greatly influenced and helped by Charlie Barnett. Barnett would cede 5 minutes of performance time to the struggling, up and coming performer; it’s been said that Chappelle “found his voice in the fountain.” Barnett’s life got more complicated as time went on – he went on to become quite known, considered for a part on “Saturday Night Live,” heartbroken when he lost out to Eddie Murphy, but then had success, a role on “Miami Vice,” a Universal movie deal, and then some hard times came. When things didn’t go exactly as he’d hoped, he returned to the Fountain. There is something really beautiful about that.

As I was writing this, I unfortunately received word that performance at the Park is in jeopardy again. After reading about Charlie Barnett and his connection to the park, it’s hard to imagine the city not recognizing the importance of performance and free expression in all parks, but particularly Washington Square. Although I don’t profess to imagine that Mayor Mike Bloomberg would understand the history and beauty of our city when not related to real estate or corporate profits… anyway… on to the story.

From Splitsider: Timing is everything: the story of Charlie Barnett

It took the Village to raise Charlie Barnett.

Born in 1954 to an alcoholic mother and mentally ill father, he lived with his grandmother in the coal mining town of Bluefield, West Virginia until age 11, when, finding little importance in schoolwork, he dropped out and headed north, to be with his mother in Boston. But the socioeconomic obstacles for a black post-pubescent sans education or responsible guardian are nearly insurmountable, and at 19 he is lucky to be alive.

He soon lands in Greenwich Village and begins performing in Washington Square Park which, since the post WW2 Bohemian influx, has served as Ground Zero for some of the most creatively innovative performance art the city/country/planet has to offer, a tradition which continues through the late 70s and early 80s. Each afternoon, artists of every conceivable discipline — poets, jugglers, poet-jugglers — flock to the Park’s amphitheater in search of an audience.

But it is Charlie Barnett to whom the audience flocks. It’s Charlie Barnett who, as the saying goes, “fills the fountain.”

On any given day hundreds surrounded the fountain. Barnett circumnavigates the makeshift oblong stage — his cocksure strut somewhere between that of preacher and prizefighter — and bellows, “I love a New York audience” in a voice as gravelly as the rural Appalachian roads he once travelled just to get here, to this fountain. With most comics, “I love a New York audience!” suggests a trite attempt at audience appeasement, but crowd work is not necessary for Charlie Barnett — they’re chanting his name before he’s said a word — and in his voice there is a palpable sincerity which implies he really truly means it. 

But though he failed to achieve the stardom that many of his peers would experience, Barnett rose above the next-to-impossible socioeconomic hand with which he was dealt to carve out a more than respectable acting career, shape the next generation’s pre-eminent black voice for the next generation and, on any given day in the streets of New York City, bring comedy to the people.

And most importantly, he filled up the fountain.

Dangerous Minds, Charlie Barnett: Legendary NYC Street Comedian, Dave Chappelle Mentor

Although I would imagine that there must be hundreds, even thousands, of videos of Charlie Barnett that were shot by tourists over the years, few of them have made it to YouTube. This clip from the cult film Mondo New York, captures Barnett working the fountain exactly as I recall him doing it, circa 1986. Comedy dates quickly, of course, but Barnett’s work from 25+ years ago retains an edge that is as sharp as ever. This clip still has something to offend everyone:

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This story sort of says it all about performance and some of the history at Washington Square Park and amplifies why it’s important. As for the history of the “performance crackdown” under the Bloomberg Admin, you can read the previous posts here.

Regarding Dave Chappelle, that film he did with director Michel Gondry, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, was pretty great. The house featured in that film, Broken Angel House in Brooklyn, is also in jeopardy. Sign this petition to help, they need 150 more names to reach their first goal.

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