By Sabina Mollot
Meet New York City’s subway superstars.
From Natalia the saw playing lady at Union Square to Alice Tan Ridley, the rhythm and blues singer who recently landed a spot on “America’s Got Talent,” performers who make their living “busking” or working for tips on the streets and subway stations will be celebrated at an upcoming show at The Players.
Suzanne Stout, a board member of The Players, said she’s producing the event, along with two other organizers, because she enjoys watching buskers perform. In addition, she was particularly impressed with them as a lot after seeing them hustle their way through this year’s particularly brutal winter.
“Busking has been around since the beginning of time,” said Stout, “and most people don’t even know what it is.”
Though the job can be tough when straphangers are stingy or just uninterested, it also has its upsides for performers. “The audience continuously passes by you. You don’t have to please anybody but yourself,” said Stout. “There’s a real ethic to it.”
Additionally, what became clear to her, especially after meeting Tan Ridley, was that busking is as much of a lifestyle as it is a gig for those who do it.
Despite having been a contender on “America’s Got Talent,” and having a daughter who shot to fame as the star of the 2009 film “Precious,” Gabourey Sidibe, Stout noted that even now, Tan Ridley “doesn’t mind being called a busker.”
It was after all how she supported her family for two decades, before AGT led to other opportunities.
And on Tuesday, May 13 at 7 p.m., Tan Ridley will be the mistress of ceremonies at The Players’ first-ever Buskers Carnival. The event is free to the public, though naturally, hats will be passed around for tips.
When interviewed about her long busking career, Tan Ridley, who used to work as an early childhood educator, said she got into it by chance, as did her brother, Roger Ridley.
Tan Ridley, who moved to New York at the age of 21, was no stranger to performing even then, since she sang in two rhythm and blues bands. It was her friend, busking musician Jimmy McMillen, who got her into singing on the subway. (McMillen is now better known for his mutton-chopped “Rent is 2 Damn High” persona and his attempt at becoming mayor) “He introduced me and broke me into the buskers,” said Tan Ridley. McMillen played guitar, also rhythm and blues, in the subway. As for Tan Ridley, she wouldn’t start performing there herself until one day when she was taking the train home from work and passed through the 59th Street station. Roger was singing there as part of a subway program. Needing to pass by him anyway to get to her next train, Tan Ridley waded through the crowd, while rapping to the song Roger was singing.
“The people around me started parting ways so I could get next to him,” she recalled, “and when he was finished, we got the biggest round of applause from across the platform and on the platform I was standing on. That’s what got me to want to go out and do it again.”
She soon became a hit, crooning pop ballads at stations like Union Square, the 34th Street LIRR stop, and 42nd Street by Port Authority as well as Times Square. But, she admitted, it’s always helpful for buskers to have another way to make money. “You have to supplement it with something else, because people are not rich.”
Buskers also, since they usually work alone, have to be their own advocates.
Despite her loyal YouTube following and being an Emmy winner for her part in the 2007 documentary “Military Families,” Tan Ridley would still sometimes get stopped by cops while working.
However, when told to take her act elsewhere, she would just show the officer a permit she had to perform in the subway at certain times. “I was always there at the times I should be there,” Tan Ridley said. Still, an officer once gave her a summons anyway. In response, the veteran crooner “took down his name and reported him, because I had a right to be there.”
These days, she performs mostly above ground. On June 5, she’ll play at the Village’s Café Wha? and next year, she’s scheduled to perform with the Cab Calloway Orchestra in Florida.
Along with Tan Ridley, a few of the featured buskers to appear at the festival at The Players will be Geechee Dan A.K.A. The Singing Dragon (a Cotton Club veteran), the Irish Street Trio, celtic harp player Mia Theodoratus and Denny Daniels, the curator of the Museum of Interesting Things. Daniels plays the barrel organ, one of the oldest busking instruments. Then there’s Natalia Paruz, better known as the “Saw Lady,” who’s a fixture at Union Square as well as Times Square.
Paruz, who used to work selling souvenirs at a Broadway theater, said she got into busking when a friend dragged her into it — literally. Previously, she’d practice playing the musical saw during her breaks in a remote corner of the theater’s parking lot. A friend tried to talk her into playing in front of the theater, since there were others already busking in the area. “I said, ‘No way,’” said Paruz. “Playing the saw was just a hobby for me.”
But while she was practicing near work one day, that same friend led her by the arm to a neighboring theater, where audience members were going outside to smoke during an intermission. He then plopped a box in front of where Paruz was standing. Seeing the crowd’s eyes on her, she felt obligated and began playing.
That’s when she noticed, “Their eyes lit up. They started complimenting me and then they starting leaving donations.” So many donations in fact, that Paruz earned as much from her playing the one set than she normally earned in a whole day at the theater.
After that, she was hooked and began performing on the streets regularly. When the winter came, Paruz headed underground “to see what it was like.” One time performing was all it took for her to realize she liked playing her saw in the subway even better.
“All of a sudden there were great acoustics,” said Paruz. “Outdoors the sound was very thin. Indoors it was phenomenal.” Also, when on the platform, people would take the time to chat. “People open up to street musicians. I get to see the city from a different angle.”
Though she also plays more mainstream concerts and has had numerous TV and film appearances as the saw lady, “Playing in the subway is what I love more than anything else,” she said. “Even if I won an Oscar or if I was a millionaire, I’d still perform in the subway. Busking is an art form on its own.”
Those interested in attending the Buskers Carnival at The Players, located at 16 Gramercy Park South, are asked to RSVP to (212) 475-6116. Besides Stout, the producers of the event are Lorcan Otway, owner of the East Village’s Theater 80, and Robbin Richardson, operations manager at The Players.