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Busted Buskers

news2The Great Morgani targeted by controversial 14-foot ordinance

Play an accordion, go to jail.

The recent controversy surrounding Frank Lima, aka The Great Morgani, appears to support Freud’s assertion that a grain of truth resides at the core of every joke. Fortunately, the irony is not lost on the iconic Santa Cruz street performer.

“I might have to develop a sacrificial lamb costume if this continues,” Lima, 71, says with a laugh. “But seriously, the key is to remain calm and respect all sides. There is no bad guy here.”

For the past 17 years, the stockbroker-turned-street busker has beguiled weekend visitors to Pacific Avenue with his virtuoso accordion playing and outrageously flamboyant costumes. When a Santa Cruz police officer approached Lima to issue him a citation last week, Lima simply refused to sign it.

“I asked him, ‘If I don’t sign your ticket, will you handcuff me, put me in a police cruiser and take me to jail?’ Fortunately, he didn’t have a response for that. Which was a relief. I didn’t want to spend the night in jail wearing that costume. Could you imagine what would happen to me in there?” Lima says. “Really though, it was a very civil conversation.”

The ordinance at the center of the controversy, enacted in October of last year, requires performers to be 14 feet from street features such as buildings, benches, sculptures, ATMs and garbage cans. (“Garbage cans hate accordion music,” Lima quips.) Yet this is not an altogether new development. In 2002, the city enacted a similar ordinance requiring performers to be 10 feet from street features. As a result, Lima obtained written permission from six separate business owners and carried the documentation on his person at all times.

Private business owners, however, have no legal purview over the public property in front of their business. As a result, regardless of written permission from local businesses, Lima and many other street performers have been in violation of city law for 12 years. Until recently, however, these infractions were largely overlooked.

Despite his central role in the current controversy, Lima is quick to point out that he does not represent downtown street performers. If that role belongs to anyone, it’s Tom Noddy, the founder of Bubble Magic and former organizer of the Santa Cruz Street Performers Guild, a currently dormant organization that wrote the original guidelines for Santa Cruz street performers back in 1981.

“We have First Amendment protection and we can fight for all our rights, but it’s more important that we all get along,” Noddy says. “Listen, I once spent 13 hours in jail for juggling three lemons. I grasp the absurdity of the situation.”

The key to resolution, according to Noddy, is rescinding the ordinance that requires performers to remain 14 feet away from buildings.

“After the 10-foot version was enacted in 2002, I pointed out that if you push a good act like Frank out on to the curb, then where does the crowd gather? Right in front of the businesses’ windows,” he says. “Do you really want a crowd of people leaning against your plate glass and obscuring your business? Probably not.”

So if the ordinance has largely been disregarded since 2002, what was the impetus for its enforcement last week? Noddy believes the answer is either one particularly astute police officer or a general conspiracy to “clear out” Downtown Santa Cruz.

“I think it’s a little suspicious that benches and statues have begun to appear downtown which seem to complicate the spacing issue,” Noddy says. “They say there are all these different places where Morgani and others can perform within these new limitations. I’d like to see that on a map.”

Santa Cruz officials such as Scott Collins, assistant to the city manager, have publicly adopted the same conciliatory tone as Lima and appear willing to find a solution beneficial to all. However, requests for comment on this story were not returned as of press time.

“Colorful characters are a big part of the Santa Cruz legacy,” Lima says. “These ordinances change the character of the Avenue to the color beige and turn this into Anytown, USA. If we lose that, why would people come here? That’s the bottom line.”

Legacy is not too strong of a word. Longtime residents of Santa Cruz may remember Tom Scribner. His derby hat and musical saw were fixtures on Pacific Avenue throughout the 1970s until his death in 1982. In 1978, a statue of the man was erected in front of Bookshop Santa Cruz.

Scribner, a local logger and outspoken member of the “Wobblies,” a labor organization group prevalent from 1905 to World War I, was by all accounts “a character.”

“Here’s a street performer who didn’t take crap from anyone,” Lima says. “Now he’s immortalized by a statue. Go figure.”

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