Hollywood Boulevard Just Isn't Big Enough For Elmo and Friends
Interlopers Don Costumes For Tips, Tussle With Law; Batman, Kato Duke It Out
By PETER SANDERS
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
October 24, 2005; Page A1
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Last Wednesday, the furry red Muppet named Elmo learned that Hollywood Boulevard is a long, long way from Sesame Street.
In plain sight of children and tourists, Elmo -- or at least, a man named Don Harper in a knockoff Elmo costume -- was arrested here by the Los Angeles Police Department. Elmo was taken down by a special task force created to combat a growing nuisance in the Hollywood tourist district: famous costumed characters who try to be photographed with tourists and sometimes badger them relentlessly for tips.
LAPD officers, posing as clueless foreign tourists in front of Mann's Chinese Theater, also busted Mr. Incredible, the superhero from the animated hit "The Incredibles," as well as a man dressed as the villain from the "Scream" movie franchise. All three icons were arrested and could face charges ranging from illegal vending to aggressive begging.
"The Characters," as they're known in the neighborhood, are getting out of hand these days. This famous Los Angeles tourist destination has long been a place where a few out-of-work actors, dressed up as Elvis or Michael Jackson, posed for pictures in hopes of being tipped. They are all free-lancers, unaffiliated with the companies that own or created the characters.
Don Harper (right) was arrested last Wednesday in front of Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
But today, police estimate anywhere from 70 to 80 characters work the one-block stretch that includes not only the Chinese Theater, but also the Kodak Theater (home of the Academy Awards) and a new retail and entertainment center called Hollywood & Highland.
"When I first started here 13 years ago, you had Charlie Chaplin hanging around [the] Chinese Theater, and that was it," says Leron Gubler, president and chief executive of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. "Now, they're multiplying like rabbits."
The characters -- whose roster now includes everyone from Catwoman to Shrek's Princess Fiona and the murderous doll Chuckie -- have gotten more aggressive both with tourists and each other. Fights erupt over precious sidewalk space, especially when two of the same characters show up. Characters grab tourists as they walk down the street. Some of the scarier costumed entertainers jump out at the crowd and frighten children. Perhaps most worrisome is the practice of demanding tips from foreign tourists who don't know the custom, language or currency.
Tourists notice the hubbub, though they aren't always alarmed at being pestered by Shrek. "It's not that different than walking down the main street in Cancún, where people are handing out fliers and trying to take your picture," said Tom Hungerford of Denver, observing the scene on Thursday. His wife Linda nodded and said: "Everybody's got to do their job."
LAPD Officer Michael Shea has spent nearly 25 years patrolling Hollywood and he says this is the craziest collection of characters he's ever seen. Responding to complaints from tourists, business owners and civic leaders, Mr. Shea about a month ago gathered 68 of the characters in a room (many in costume) and candidly informed the Supermen, Batmen and Darth Vaders about the laws that apply to them, which the LAPD vowed to enforce.
For the city, it's a tricky issue: The sidewalk is a public thoroughfare and there are civil rights to be considered. The city only got involved when "tourists were not experiencing a voluntary contribution or donation, but rather much more of a shakedown and some reports of a few characters just taking money out of people's hands," says Bill Kysella, deputy city attorney in Hollywood.
Though many characters left the meeting excited about their roles as responsible "Hollywood Ambassadors," the aggressive solicitation did not abate. So last week, an undercover operation was launched.
Mr. Harper, the 40-year-old Elmo, says he was set up by the cops. But upon returning to his spot a day after his arrest, he conceded that things are tense these days among the characters, who form cliques and alliances to defend their turf and make money. Mr. Harper, for example, says his Elmo is a foe of Batman and Superman, but in cahoots with Mr. Incredible, SpongeBob SquarePants and at least one of the half-dozen Spider-Men who prowl the street.
Members of Elmo's clique often pose in pictures together and split tips when the dollars are flowing. Because many of the costumes have no pockets, wads of cash are often visibly clenched in characters' hands. But as a Saturday stroll down the boulevard showed, other characters are alone and adrift, often wearing ragged costumes and seeming to horn in on others' turf. One Spider-Man and a Puss 'N Boots character, for example, jumped into other characters' pictures at the last minute, then tried to wrangle some of the tip. Both declined to be interviewed.
The hotly competitive environment underscores basic divisions among the characters. Some are weekend hobbyists who take their performance seriously and aren't so concerned about getting paid; others see the gig as a full-time job in which they must scramble for every dollar.
In the former camp are two very passable Johnny Depp impersonators -- Jim Calibur, who portrays Captain Jack Sparrow from "Pirates of the Caribbean" and Brandon Hillock, who plays Willy Wonka from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" -- who work together. They pool their resources and give tourists a double dose of Mr. Depp. Both men have spent more than $1,000 on their costumes.
"We want it to look like Johnny Depp's character has literally stepped off the movie screen and onto the street," says the 36-year-old Mr. Calibur, who thinks there should be official standards regarding costumes and even background checks for characters who work on the street. They never mention tips -- either before or after tourists snap their pictures -- and blame the full-time characters for poisoning an atmosphere that is supposed to be fun.
But those who are trying to make a living at it can grow frustrated when the public doesn't understand the tipping ritual. Tobias Santigo's Charlie Chaplin has worked in front of the Chinese Theater for the past five years. While he also hires himself out to parties and events, his living depends on the tourists who smile under his miniature parasol. "People treat me like a rag doll and think they can do whatever they want," he says. "But if we react to it, then we're the ones in trouble and that seems unfair."
Maxwell Allen earns about $100 a day as one of the top Batmans on the boulevard, thanks to a work ethic that keeps him in tights and a cape 12 hours a day, seven days a week. But he has sometimes clashed with both fellow characters and tourists. A few years ago, Mr. Allen duked it out with Kato -- a character from the Green Hornet comic book -- who he and other characters thought had gotten too arrogant. "I guess I was the better martial artist," he brags, though he claims that he and Kato today are friendly.
But Mr. Allen -- who only refers to his Batman character in the third person -- admits his temper has flared at tourists, as well. The LAPD's crackdown "has taught me to have more patience with the tourists, and I'm getting better."
Peter Sanders at email@example.com
"Looks like another perfect day...I Love LA!!!"