Dawn of the tramp

He spins a surreal, exaggerated exchange with a Woodward panhandler, uttering no words as he tiptoes with jerky, skittish movements around a streetlamp as if pretending to abscond. With an eerie white facial complexion, a center-parted black wig peaking from under a derby hat, heavy eyeliner and penciled-in Hitler 'stache, you can almost see the ghost of Mary Pickford behind him. Later, he's at a popular Ferndale bar crafting balloon animals and booty dancing with a string of attractive women. He's seen gallivanting the city armed with a cane, popping up at street fairs, parades, bars, and "basically any place that will let [him] in."

Meet Bruce Race, professional entertainer and Detroit's own Charlie Chaplin impersonator.

Tonight Race is decked out in his Keystone Kops-era tramp garb; pants two sizes too big, tailed jacket, and leather shoes, (everything black), worn with a vest and ratty tie. This is one of Race's three complete Chaplin ensembles, each varying in class and formality.

Race's first Chaplin was on Halloween 15 years ago, though he has been interested in silent films and classic cinema since he was a kid. As Chaplin, Race fakes a fine cockney, rarely acting mute. "Mimes are kind of spooky ..." he says carefully, adding "I have a tongue and I can speak; I believe in communication." His gaze is wide-eyed; pupils dart about as he speaks. With those big, dark-rimmed eyes, it's hard to tell if the makeup hides hints of genuine sadness.

Race is an entertainer of all sorts, a kaleidoscope of his imagination. Beyond the Chaplin gig, he hits town in grandiose get-ups as Star Wars characters, clowns and pirates. He does comedy, puppets, and magic. (Race once saved two baby pigeons off the street and raised them, employing the birds for his early "disappearing dove" magic tricks before setting them free). He even worked a haunted-house gig, masked as a mad scientist, or a zombie, or whatever. Whether street-hustling or hired for private events, Race has made money in disguise since the mid-'90s. "I am walking on the shirttails of dead celebrities," he says. And he sees the genius in Chaplin.

You'd half-expect a guy who braves four nights a week in costume to exude some fetishistic degree of freak, but Rice's sensitive, aware and respectful. He feels at home as Spiderman or a singing telegram gorilla, but prefers not to dress in drag or, as he puts it, "do girl parts."

So what does he do for fun?

"I dress up and go to bars," he shrugs. "I make balloon animals, do an occasional magic trick. Sometimes people buy me a drink, give me tips." He tells of a massive and bizarre puppet-building project in his home. In addition to five ventriloquist dummies, Race has constructed 30-odd "Muppet-puppets," elaborate creations of feathers and fur, fashioned with glue guns and ping-pong balls. He says these rarely-used treasures will be unveiled one day on cable TV.

"Everything (in acting) comes from the self," Race says, seated on a cement stoop in a Ferndale alley. The sun is setting in a streaky pink sky, and Race's derby gives his face a strange weight, his five o'clock shadow disrupts his pale, painted skin. Down the alley, a little boy on a bike takes one look at Race and pedals away, his eyes like saucers.

With those telling kohl-ringed eyes, Race finds joy seeing others laugh — an entertainer still getting over being the butt of jokes as a kid. He talks about the separation of himself and his characters: Images and illusions, Race says, are often what people fall in love with. He outlines a recent relationship where, over time, Race realized the other person was actually falling more in love with his Chaplin. "When the makeup comes off," Race says, "the part's over ... I definitely have the sense to know the difference."

Race chats of future plans, such as making connections with larger, like-minded groups, including an association for clowns and the International Puppeteers' Guild. His life's goal? Moving to Cali or Vegas and making it as a stage or screen entertainer. He also dreams of forming a franchise to feed his inner-entertainer, of building a small stage, and of hiring a puppeteer troupe to assist him. "I want to live those dreams," he says, adding immediately, "Wow. That sounds like Oprah." Race sees himself as having "one million and one" interests in the entertainment industry, and as a master of none. He's waiting to be recognized.

Bruce Race may be contacted at 248-250-1708 or 248-543-4417.

Laurie Smolenski is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
Scroll to read more Culture articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.