Skyway cellist missed at Government Center

Share this:
October 13, 2003 // UPDATED 11:05 am - April 30, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

David McGee played soothing sounds near contentious courts; was his eviction a matter of public safety or a cold shoulder for public musicians?

The contrast was sharp. The soothing sound of Bach emanating from David McGee's cello in the skyway, versus the professional hum of the Government Center.

McGee, 45, often played classical pieces in the skyway linking the courthouse with a parking garage over 4th Avenue South. Some welcomed his music after a long day in court, while others grimaced or gave him the cold shoulder, he said.

More recently, some viewed him as a threat.

McGee was cited with trespassing a couple of weeks ago and ushered out of the skyway by security guards, he said, after someone alleged he had followed people with his cello into the parking garage. (The confrontation preceded the recent shooting on the Government Center's 17th floor.)

The order bars him from playing in the skyway until Oct. 22.

Roberta Haight, Hennepin County security manager, said McGee has been asked to leave the skyway before.

She said security personnel don't mind if he sits and plays music there. They ask him to leave, however, if his behavior becomes "erratic" and "unbecoming," she said.

Security personnel will usher him out based on complaints they receive.

McGee disputes the allegation he harassed people with his cello and has contacted a lawyer about possibly challenging the order. He insists he has a First Amendment right to play his music in the skyways and also believes he might have a slander claim against the women who made the allegations.

Albert Goins, a lawyer looking into McGee's case, said he believes the skyways meet the Supreme Court's definition of a "public forum" under the First Amendment.

Goins is investigating whether Hennepin County has legal authority to ask musicians like McGee to leave the skyways. He said security guards seem to be singling out McGee in an "arbirtrary" manner.

The skyway musician knows a thing or two about the law. He studied it for two years at the University of Minnesota Law School before leaving to pursue his musical

ambitions. His older brother is the late William McGee, a former chief Hennepin County

public defender.

New venue Some lament McGee's absence from the Government Center skyway.

Paul Smith, a Minneapolis zoning inspector, saw a number of security guards usher the cellist out of the skyway near the county courthouse.

Smith said he has heard McGee play a number of times, adding some have wondered about the cellist's whereabouts. He called McGee a "soothing" presence.

Smith recalled leaving court after a contentious hearing recently and entering the

skyway to hear McGee's cello. He said he was struck by the contrast in environments.

"I remember thinking how nice it was; how his music had this calming effect," Smith said.

McGee found a more hospitable skyway. He recently played in one linking Marshall Field's with the Highland Bank over South 8th Street. He has since been asked to leave that skyway, too.

On a recent morning, he played a sampling of Bach and Hayden for passersby. Some paced by briskly; others smiled and acknowledged his presence.

One man paused to listen more intently to the cello. He dropped in a tip to McGee's cello case and said, "You are one fine artist."

The kudos came from John Fenn, a local teacher and playwright who worked as the playwright-in-residence at the St. Paul History Theater.

While McGee can't help but notice the expressions on the faces of those who walk past him, he said he tries to focus on his art. When asked about the key ingredient in his music, he replied: "putting your heart and soul into it."

McGee said he hopes to go back to the Government Center after the trespass order lapses.

He said he has a lot of friends from his law school days who walk by and greet him. They have since become judges and prominent lawyers.

McGee said he has thought about going back to law school and becoming a copyright or intellectual property law attorney to protect "artists' rights."

Colder climate As the seasons change, McGee performs in the skyway to escape the cold.

He said he's been doing it for years.

However, in recent years, the climate in the city's indoor walkways has become "colder" to musicians, he said.

"There are far, far, far fewer than there used to be, unfortunately," McGee said. "There's kind of a cold environment in a certain way toward artists among the business community. Maybe courting the business community is not wise."

An astrologer told him that the "people" in Minneapolis would never warm up to a musician like him who plays in public places traversed by mostly well-heeled business types.

McGee said he sometimes ponders moving to a city like New Orleans or San Francisco where street performers "don't feel alienated," he said.

However, McGee said he plans to continue playing in the skyway for now, adding

he won't move because of an unreceptive audience.

He said he earns enough playing his cello to "live modestly."

"It's not enough to flourish or anything like that, or to have a family. But I'm a bachelor, you know, so I can scrap here, scrap there," he said. "But my sights are much higher than that. It's good to know that I can survive doing it. I think it might be kind of a spiritual thing -- an artistic thing."

McGee, who studied philosophy at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. has worked as a telemarketer in the past. He plans to pursue work at Orchestra Hall in telemarketing and teach the cello on the side.

For now, he can earn enough money playing in the skyway to cover rent on an apartment in North Minneapolis, he said.

Damon Noga, chair of the Downtown Skyway Advisory Committee, a panel that advises the City Council on skyway matters, said there's not supposed to be anything in the skyway impeding the traffic flow of walkers.

He said he suspects McGee would fall under that category.

Enforcement of the skyway policy is at the discretion of property owners, he said. The policy applies to skyway linking public as well as private buildings.

When McGee played his cello in the skyway near Marshall Field's on a recent morning, he sat in the middle of the skyway, tucked against the window. He said he's been playing in the space since the early days of the skyway -- when it lacked carpet and its giant windows.

One man was so moved by his music a few years back that he agreed to give him a few thousand dollars for a new cello, he said.

"It has been an adventure," he said. "I've seen some really interesting things."