Stroll down Valencia Street on a warm spring evening and you’re likely to find, within barely two blocks of one another, two variations on a theme: Mobile theater.
One is Mr. Brandy in his van – the ex-Texan pianist lives and works out of a van draped in sparkly fabrics and oddball decorations, crammed in next to the piano he has affixed to the interior. He started busking by happenstance, realizing that he could turn his practice time into just enough cash to scrape by on.
“I decided to start playing out of the back of the van spontaneously last August, just for some extra tips I wasn’t sure what I was gonna do,” said Mr. Brandy who plays in the back, while listeners peer into the van through its back doors, flung wide. “I don’t make that much money doing it, but I’m surviving.”
At 18th Street, you might catch the Dark Room Truck, which was rocked by show tunes – many of them original compositions – on a recent Tuesday evening. They were performed by a trio complete with bassist, guitarist, and singer.
The truck, no relation to the shuttered Dark Room Theater on Mission Street, is the brainchild of photographer Ben Youngerman, who runs a video production company but took on the truck as an additional project with his wife Miranda Ferriss Jones, who works in musical theater.
“It was kind of a crazy idea, and then we kept talking about it, and started going on Craigslist and hunting trucks,” Youngerman said. Eventually, they found a good match – a former delivery truck that had ferried everything from mail to prison uniforms.
Youngerman’s truck boast maybe twice the interior volume of Mr. Brandy’s van. But both vehicles live double lives.
Mr. Brandy’s truck also serves as his living space. While Youngerman’s truck also serves as a photo booth.
Living in the van, says is “tight.” “There’s just a hair enough room for me to stretch out,” he said.
The 56-year-old musician toured in early 2000 with a band called Low Brow. After bouncing between Texas and California for years and six years ago moved to Pacifica with his girlfriend, with whom he was developing a band and musical career. She unexpectedly passed away shortly after their arrival.
“I went back to Texas,” he said. “I was devastated. I came back here to get things put back together.”
It was then that Mr. Brandy began practicing his compositions in the van.
Even without formal work at the moment, he manages on his tip jar.
The Dark Room Truck, with a little more interior capacity, actually invites a handful of audience members inside to have a seat. It started as a photo booth and still works as one.
When there’s no performance, Youngerman and Jones funnel guests at special events through an anteroom that doubles as a costume green room and into an actual photo booth. Afterwards guests retrieve their instant prints from the glove compartment.
“There’s a flow to moving through,” Youngerman explained. “We’ve done events with two thousand people. We’re really built to handle large scale events.”
The setup, whether for performance or photography, manages to bring in a little bit of money for the pair, but for now, it is still largely an adventurous side project.
Vastly different in their function and form, the truck and van nonetheless share a few surprising characteristics. For one, both operators come from the film world. Mr. Brandy worked for 20 years in film production, while Youngerman still owns and operates a video production company in San Francisco.
And of course, both Youngerman and Mr. Brandy are out on Valencia and other city streets almost entirely for the fans.
“People love it. When people are there and we’re in the moment of putting on the show, there’s definitely a little bit of something in the air,” Youngerman said. “ People want to stay and talk to us. There’s just a lot of excitement and it sort of fuels us.”
Working out of a truck or living in a van and playing for anyone who walks by can be tough. But when a connection is sparked, it’s worth it.
“That is the most magnificent benefit of playing out of the back of this van so far: It’s the people I’ve met,” Mr. Brandy said. “I really hadn’t thought about that ahead of time – I just thought, man, I need some money. But I have a notebook full of names and numbers and all kinds of information that is music oriented.”