In Prague’s central Old Town Square, on a chilly February morning, times are hard for the silver human statue. There may be a large potential market—the square is mobbed with tour groups, following guides with lurid umbrellas towards the famous Astronomical Clock—but there’s also fierce competition.
“It’s not so good at the moment,” says Robert Horvak, the smiley man behind the silver facepaint, wearing his silver jacket, cape and top hat, taking a break from his chirruping bird routine. “There are so many tourists, but it can be hard to get their attention, especially in the low season. I’m lucky if I make 500 koruna [around US$24] a day.”
Looking around, there is indeed a lot of competition. To the north of the square, past the statue of medieval philosopher Jan Hus, there’s a traditional Czech five-piece jazz band, flogging CDs for ten Euros a pop. Over towards the imposing gothic Church of Our Lady Before Týn, there’s a slightly sad-looking Olaf from Frozen, who shuffles around awkwardly in his sagging costume, his brown Merrell hiking shoes just visible underneath.
And, just off the square by the St Nicholas Church, there’s a black-clad old guy called Vladimir Pinta, who’s been in the same spot for 15 years, singing and playing mournful sax on sentimental old classics. I attempt to interview him, but he keeps bursting into renditions of ‘Bueno Sera’, which quickly wears thin.
But Horvak’s bête noire is just a few metres away, on the southwest corner of the square, near the Grand Hotel—the gold human statue. The two couldn’t be more different: Horvak is Czech, while he tells me the gold guy is from Slovakia; and while Horvak’s schtick involves fluttering his eyelids at passers-by, and shocking them with a high-pitched bird voice, the gold statue has a more conventional routine of standing very still. In this vein, the gold statue declines my request for an interview.
“We are not friends,” says Horvak, almost ruefully. I want to know more, but we are interrupted by a young girl, who sidles up and drops some small change in the silver man’s box. “Hello!” says the bird voice, which Horvak activates via a button in his jacket. “Fantastic!”
The gold statue and me. We’re not friends.
I try to continue the conversation, but the silver statue is no longer breaking character. “Great!” he squawks, proffering a thumbs-up. “Fantastic!”
While talking to the silver statue, a bigger attraction has appeared on the other side of the square—literally. I see a 12-foot polar bear with a bowtie, followed by a retinue of small children. Beside the bear is a guy in a weak Santa costume—fake beard, red trousers, red hooded Puffa jacket, San Francisco 49ers cap—who is doing a sort of jig beside the polar bear.
As I wander over, I can hear Santa spouting life-affirming slogans. “Be positive!” “Happy, happy people.” I ask him for a quick chat, and it turns out that Santa is Alex Vygovsky, from Zakopane, Ukraine, who describes himself as a “citizen of the planet”. He has taken his various performances around Europe, from Lviv to Barcelona, Amsterdam, Vienna and Monte Carlo, but has been in Prague for three months.
He goes by the name of Santamatic, and I later learn via YouTube that his signature show involves him miming, playing an electric banjo and foot-tapping a tambourine, like a manic, robo-kitsch version of Elvis. He describes his performances as Festivals of Positivity and tells me, somewhat gnomically, that “I am creating a planet for positive people”.
But, for his latest ploy, he’s ditched the banjo and turned to larking around with over-sized creatures: not just Misha the three-metre polar bear but also a giant panda and a version of Alex the lion, from the Madagascar movie. Misha has wiggled her large polar rear-end on Britain’s Got Talent and its German counterpart, Das Supertalent.
The costumes were built for Vygovsky by friends, who built the them onto old space suits. “It’s an expansion of the Santamatic concept,” says Vygovsky, whose Facebook page features ads for luxury resorts in the Maldives and Alaska (and also lists him as in an open relationship). “I want to find new ways to explore the positivity.”
It’s all a little strange to hear a guy in a Santa costume describe his giant polar bear as if he’s giving an MBA presentation, and I find the whole Santamatic concept a little hard to get my head round. Vygovsky seems to have gone from being the star to being a curious sideshow; a kind of pimp for his more lovable creation.
Vygovsky seems restless to return to spouting meaningless positivity slogans, and I’m weary of listening to the very human realities of life as a street performer on Prague’s central square. So I leave him, and wander over to the polar bear for a hug. I’m six foot seven, so I’m usually the hugee rather than the hugger; the guy who doesn’t snuggle so much as get snuggled. So, it’s weirdly revelatory to collapse into the squidgy, silicone belly of the giant polar bear. I linger in this cosy embrace a little longer than a grown man probably should—and it’s lovely, until it’s a little bit awkward.