In hopes to catch smiles from those who pass by, Ronald Koch, 56, a brightly dressed minstrel show entertainer and busker, energetically performs daily on Tombstone’s sidewalks.
Koch, also known as Johnny Bones, in many ways represents a part of Tombstone’s past that some may not realize.
“There’s many historical factors in what I am practicing,” Koch said. “In the 1880s, in Tombstone, shop owners used to hire musicians and entertainers in front of their shops to draw people in.”
He plays rib bone castanets, an instrument commonly played in 19th century minstrel shows. In the late 1800s Tombstone’s minstrel shows were a popular form of entertainment held at the Bird Cage Theatre and at Schieffelin Hall.
“Minstrel [performers] always dressed outrageously on stage. They were the first glam rockers way back when,” Koch said.
Johnny Bones has been performing on Tombstone’s streets for a little over seven years. Being an Old West entertainer seems to be more of a passion than a job.
“I got this desire when my dad used to take us to a place called Frontier City (in Ohio) when we were kids. They would do gunfights out in the streets, full stunts, (things like) getting shot off the roof,” Koch said.
He added, “It wasn’t comedy, it was drama.”
Koch explained that the first time he saw an Old West reenactment he was scared.
“I hugged up on my dad. He said, it’s OK, it’s just pretend, and I just got hooked,” Koch said.
Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Koch moved to Phoenix in 1988. He lived there for 16 years.
“There was just no work. I was a roofer, (and) it was feast or famine,” Koch said.
While living in Phoenix, Koch met someone who formed a Civil War and an Old West reenactment group. He became part of it and for two years performed minstrel shows for Civil War and Old West events in Arizona.
“A guy from Old Tucson taught [me] all the professional stunts. I got to do my dream,” Koch said.
He came to Tombstone thinking he would continue his passion of Old West reenactments and gun fighting, but explained that he, “really just didn’t want to do it anymore.”
“I tried doing what I’m doing now, once, on the boardwalk, just being a walk- by entertainer, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” Koch said.
Music is another interest of Koch’s. He started playing the mandolin, then the tenor banjo, and then went to playing the bones.
“Every minstrel group always had a Mr. Bones on stage. (He played) the major rhythm instrument of America’s 1800s pop-music,” Koch said.
“I use to play heavy metal guitar,” he added.
For Koch, being an entertainer on Allen Street has had its struggles. In 2012, the city of Tombstone issued an ordinance to remove Koch from Tombstone’s Schieffelin Historic District.
“In their ordinance they wanted (me) to remain by the visitor’s center and by the park, which are dead zones for busking. For a short spell while I was going through the court system I played by the visitor’s center and my tips went down by half. Why that is, I don’t know,” Koch said.
In March 2012, The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona wrote a letter to the then-mayor, Jack Henderson. The letter stated Koch was protected by the First Amendment. Koch explained that because busking usually refers to those practicing artistic free speech, it is protected under federal laws.
“The thing is, because busking it protected by the Constitution, I can (entertain) anywhere I want, up and down the street,” Koch said.
Since city hall received the letter Koch returned to Allen Street, and the city has taken no further action.
He normally entertains alone on a vacant lot by the Shady Lady and leaves right before sunset. On Mondays, he and two men join in on the minstrel sidewalk show.
Among the men who play with Koch on Mondays is guitar player and singer, Burt Webster, 61. For Webster, Jonny Bones is important to Tombstone for several reasons.
“He introduces people back to the minstrel show, which a lot of people have forgotten. He’s bright and he’s chipper. He makes the children laugh and makes the adults think. I think it’s very appropriate for him to be on the street. He’s a definite asset,” Webster said.
“Honestly I haven’t met any other bone players. I’ve met some spoon players, though, and he’s better than that,” he added.
For Koch, who described himself as a starving artist who doesn’t starve, busking is the world’s second oldest profession. It’s an old English word, which means to prostitute oneself. But he sees himself as more than that.
“I am a gardener of smiles. This makes me feel fulfilled because my position in life right now is to make people smile. Sometimes people walk by and they totally break out laughing. Honestly, I’m trying to be serious here,” he said.