When magician Chris Hannibal performs spontaneous shows on the corner of Trade and Tryon streets in uptown Charlotte, half the trick is getting someone to stop and watch. “It’s the ultimate exercise in salesmanship,” Hannibal said. “Once you’ve got the first one or two, most everyone else follows.”
Hannibal’s sell is part of the time-honored tradition known as busking, or performing publicly for tips, one that is celebrated and demystified in the new documentary BUSK! The film will premiere Sunday, May 19, at 4 p.m. at McGlohon Theater in Spirit Square. The cost is $5 per person. For more information, visit www.buskmovie.com.
“Community art should be based in the grassroots, and busking is the purest form of grassroots art,” said April Denée, the Charlotte writer-turned-filmmaker behind BUSK! The documentary prominently features busking veteran Hannibal, who has turned street performing into a livelihood.
Born and raised in Charlotte, Hannibal learned magic when he was 10. His grandfather showed him a few card tricks, and it stuck with him.
In 1992, Hannibal got a job at New Heritage USA, the theme park’s second iteration following the scandal that brought down Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL ministry. Hannibal was hired to do children’s programming and perform tricks around the streets of the theme park. The revised attraction failed to gain popularity. By the end of the year, Hannibal was out of work.
He started performing on the streets of Charlotte to pay the bills. The following year, he started getting good gigs and performed magic professionally full-time.
Since then, Hannibal has made a career out of selling the experience of magic all over the world. “Often I’ll get hired for tradeshows by a company that wants to stop traffic,” Hannibal said. He consults with companies seeking unique ways to get potential customers to interact.
As many freelancers did, Hannibal had to grind to make ends meet in 2008 when the economy slowed and corporate purse strings tightened.
“Even though the shows didn’t come, the bills had to get paid,” Hannibal, who has always worked to provide for his family, said. “I could stay Uptown as long as I needed to.”
Hannibal’s location of choice is still the EpiCentre, though diverse clientele sometimes works to his disadvantage in the form of heckling.
“When people say to me, ‘Get a real job,’ I answer, ‘This is my real job,’” Hannibal said. “If they laugh then they’re interested. I’ve sold big time shows that way.”
After 20 years of performing there is not much that surprises Hannibal, but saboteurs still get under his skin. Last fall, a religiously-motivated protestor disrupted a crowd of people who gathered to watch Hannibal perform Uptown. After he called Hannibal a sorcerer and his craft a scam, he wished sickness upon Hannibal’s children.
“While he was doing that, a bigger crowd drew to see the spectacle,” Hannibal said. “I made more money in the long term… oh, the irony.”
For all the hardship street performance offers, Hannibal sees positive change happening in the world of busking in Charlotte. In 2010, Denée started organizing artists and has worked to demystify the process for the public and performers. This manifested in the Buskapalooza Street Performance Festival, dedicated to showcasing and celebrating busking in Uptown. The next one is Friday, May 17, from 5 to 9 p.m.
“In one afternoon, busking went from a mild curiosity to a real passion for guerrilla art,” he recalled. “We had a great time and have a ton of memories.”
Now through the end of September, the EpiCentre is making space available for buskers to display their craft. Hannibal and his son, Braiden, will be part of these events every Friday from noon to 7 p.m. and every other Saturday from noon to 4 p.m.
When asked whether or not he has ever considered moving, Hannibal admits it has crossed his mind. He has had offers that would require moving to Hollywood, Calif., and Orlando, Fla., but he stays.
“When the lights go down, I have my family, my client base and I can be a regular person,” Hannibal said. “This is our quiet place, our green city; we love Charlotte.”