All the Campus's a Stage for Eccentric Performers

Photo: Stoney Burke entertains students on Dwinelle Plaza every Tuesday. Burke, a taxi driver, has been performing on campus for 30 years.
Salgu Wissmath/File
Stoney Burke entertains students on Dwinelle Plaza every Tuesday. Burke, a taxi driver, has been performing on campus for 30 years.

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Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a two-part series on campus personalities.

"Are you guys happy with your artificial reality?" Festus Chris King screams at a couple walking on Upper Sproul Plaza and talking on their cell phones.

UC Berkeley is infamous for campus characters who preach to students about everything from conspiracy theories to the evils of technology. The individuals are not homeless, but rather choose to spend their time "performing" on campus.

Two such characters are King, who stands on Upper Sproul Plaza and verbally abuses students who are using cell phones, and Stoney Burke, who comes to Dwinelle Plaza on Tuesdays to poke fun at students and current events.

King first started "lecturing" in 1986 on Henry Miller-inspired theories about the merits of consensual public sex and on the evils of cars. Nowadays, he sets up shop near the front steps of the student store at 1 p.m. to start his hour-long "Phuckfest," an anti-cell phone lecture. "Phuck" is a term he coined to define what he sees as the "zombification of society" because of our dependence on technology.

"Do we want a carbon-based life or a silicon-based life?" King said to a few additional followers who dropped by. His supporters laughed as King spotted a girl sporting both an iPod and cell phone and jeered, "Look at that! She's phucking two machines at once!"

King was a senior math major at UC Berkeley in the late 1980s when he realized he was in the prime of his life and yet unhappy. He gave up his car, started public speaking, got his first girlfriend and dropped out of Berkeley-all in the course of one month.

King said he has been living off the fortune his grandparents left him.

"I got money in the bank and no debt," says King, whose past jobs have included a stint as a Moe's Bookstore employee.

Of his relationship with his dad, who died of a heart attack when King was thirteen, he says, "We were close-close enough for him to hit me."

[King was a freshman at UC Berkeley when he began listening to ]Burke, who dresses as a clown and reads from newspapers while yelling his reactions.

Although King is able to come daily, Burke comes to campus once a week because he works as a taxi driver.

Burke's routine as a "street performer" started shortly after he left his hometown in Michigan to attend the University of Oregon, where he first began performing through mime.

"I saw the Bible thumpers on campus and thought, 'Why isn't someone on the other side of that?'" he said.

After working as a Kmart custodian, cemetery worker and apple orchard tour guide, he earned a degree in speech and communications from San Francisco State University in 1991.

Burke, who has been performing off and on the UC Berkeley campus for thirty years, then chose to settle here permanently because of its tradition of accommodating "off-centered people." He got a modest start with his first act-dangling a banana on a string, making it "dance" for a quarter.

Burke now has a steady crowd on campus and believes Bay Area newspapers should profile him on their front pages.

"I'm one of the greatest free-speechers this side of the Mississippi since the turn of the century," Burke said.

King also calls himself the "main show on campus."

While Burke sees his performances as a chance to advance his career as a street performer and Screen Actors Guild actor, King says his anger about the war and the environment fuels his talks.

"Yes, I'm angry. But if you're not angry, you're crazy. We're living in a military dictatorship," King says. "I could be a little quieter, but if there's no shock value, who is going to listen?"

However, Burke's angry whistle-blowing at iPod-toting students is part of an act.

"I build up this character who looks like a homeless person and is going to scare us from mass technology," he said, noting that it is easy to "make up truth" since he's good at it.

Although one is acting and one is acting out, both characters know their messages are overshadowed by perceptions of them as mentally unstable.

King is not oblivious to his reputation as somewhat of a lunatic, though he did not say whether or not he currently suffers from any mental disorders. However, he did say that he was sent to spend a day at a Berkeley mental health center in 1992 as treatment for manic depression.

"I'm considered insane," King says. "But what do I do that's crazy? I don't drive a car-that's crazy. I think walking around talking to a machine is crazy. There is so little public interaction now that I'm considered insane."


Contact Selina MacLaren and Desiree Matloob at [email protected]

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