The sound of silence

Local recording mimes find it difficult to get their art taken seriously by music fans

A mime (actually, Pittsburgh mime Dan Kamin, not the mime in the story).

A mime (actually, Pittsburgh mime Dan Kamin, not the mime in the story).

5:30 a.m. Thursday, April 1; at Atlantic-Richfield Arena, One Watersports Parkway; with a bunch of idiots in whiteface trying to climb imaginary walls onstage; $150 ($148.50 with senior discount).

The slight young man in the black suit waddled theatrically toward the window. Abruptly, he stopped halfway across the room, thrusting his open palms forward at shoulder level as if he were feeling an imaginary wall. He slid along to the right, feeling his way with his hands, and then reached down with his right hand, grabbed something and pulled it up. Then he made a serpentine motion with his upper body, as if he were sliding a strap over his head onto his shoulders.

Then he began jamming furiously on his air guitar.

“He thinks he’s Yngwie Malmsteen,” a bright red lobster—actually, a small girl dressed in a bright red lobster suit—remarked snarkily from her perch on an old Samsonite chair. “I think he sounds like one of those lame Limp Bizkit rejects.”

The air guitarist stopped. He resumed his Chaplin-esque waddle, this time toward the lobster child. The mime pointed at the lobster, pointed at his midsection, rubbed his belly and smiled broadly.

“You’re not going to boil me,” the lobster said, pouting. “You’re not going to eat me for dinner! You don’t scare me.”

The young lobster turned in her chair. “He’s such a tool,” she said. “Ever since he found a copy of Marcel Marceau’s Greatest Hits in that thrift store, he’s been latching onto this crazy idea about becoming a rock star.”

That last word was barely out of the lobster’s mouth when the mime gestured wildly, theatrically planting his feet a yard apart, bending his knees and squaring back his shoulders while plucking at his imaginary guitar like a cartoon rodeo clown.

“Oops, I forgot,” the lobster said. “He’s a country and western star. If he wasn’t so French, I’d swear he was Toby Keith.”

The mix of whiteface buffoonery and country music may be a novel development, but the parallel stream of mime and music has a long history. Classical composers, for example, long have favored mimes over their polar opposites, clowns. In the American popular vernacular, minstrelsy is clearly influenced by mime. And there are written accounts—by field-recording technicians from such early labels as Gannett, Black Swan and Claxtonola—of blues singers, jug-band members and washboard virtuosi demonstrating a deep knowledge of mime-performance techniques while under the influence of bathtub gin. In fact, one prominent school of mime, the Close Cover Before Striking College of Circus Arts in West Ouagadougou, N.Y., was turning out an exciting skein of mimers who moved in concord with the jazz records of the day. The practice was stopped after a performer who was visually approximating Charlie Parker’s alto-sax solo on his 1945 Savoy single, “Koko,” spontaneously combusted onstage at Carnegie Hall.

But mime made a comeback during the post-hippie era, beginning in 1969, when Verve Records released the seminal Marceau set, originally recorded for its French affiliate Disques Barclay. Mime appearances in the 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap (Billy Crystal) and 1992 film Shakes the Clown (Robin Williams) cemented the role of the mime as a staple of the contemporary performing arts.

As recording artists, though, mimes have made less of an impact. The overall trend in recording has been toward more noise, not less, and when the silence-to-noise ratio is skewed too far toward silence, the resulting CDs become too difficult to sell, even in New Age bookstores. That difficulty has forced recording mimes to become genre-specific—you no longer find country mimes cutting jazz sides, for example, or death-metal mimes plotting the silences between baroque-music notes. (One exception is the burgeoning field of hyper-minimalist post-classical music, which way too many mimes perform.)

According to the girl in the lobster suit, the lack of success to be found for recording mimes doesn’t bother her friend, the rodeo mime (who would not give his name, sign it or even mime it, charades-style). “You think anyone who spends most of his day doing a bad Charlie Chaplin imitation, without saying a word, cares?” she asked. “Contrary to popular opinion, mime ain’t exactly money.”