Times Square Elmo Just Wants Some Respect
The members of the newly-formed Association of Artists United for a Smile held their first combined rally and press conference in New York on Tuesday. Many of its biggest stars came out to support the cause: Minnie Mouse and a minion from Despicable Me, the Penguin from Batman, Super Mario, Elmo and Hello Kitty, Woody from Toy Story, and the venerable Goofy.
They are unauthorized editions of those familiar characters, but they want you--and the government of the City of New York--to know that they are out there working hard for a living, and they have rights too.
The rally was held in their workplace, which is right in the middle of Times Square.They and scores of other famous fuzzy faces have formed the quasi-union to represent them politically and publicly as the city fathers move to crack down on street performers in the world's most famous tourist thoroughfare.
The association was formed with the help of La Fuente, a not-for-profit immigrant advocacy group in the New York City area.
Under the Costumes
It turns out that the vast majority of these self-employed street performers are immigrants, mostly young and Latino. They buy their own costumes, which are mostly made in Peru or China. An adult-sized "Professional Elmo Costume" sells for $99 to $199 through a costume vendor that lists on the Chinese retailer Alibaba.com's website.
They patrol Times Square and wave a lot, and pose for pictures with tourists. A costumed performer reportedly can earn about $80 a day in tips. Not a huge sum, but better than the employment alternatives, especially for those who are undocumented or speak little English.
A few such characters have worked Times Square for many years, but there has been a population explosion since 2011, when the city banned traffic from the heart of the theater district and created a pedestrian-only zone.
Sometimes, as many as 80 characters roam the area, including multiples of crowd favorites such as Spider-Man and Elmo from Sesame Street. Some team up, so that Batman has his Robin, and Minnie Mouse has her Mickey. Classic characters are regularly joined by fresher faces, so SpongeBob Square Pants mingles with Catwoman.
This is not as overwhelming as it may seem to those who haven't been in New York lately. All of the characters compete for attention with Broadway's blinking neon signs as well as the live performances staged behind glass walls at MTV studio headquarters, the street performer known as The Naked Cowboy, and miscellaneous other attractions, including at least a couple of stilt-walking, eight-foot-tall, green-painted Statue of Liberty mimes.
Faux Spidey Busted
Inevitably, there have been a few villains in the mix-most notably a Spider-Man doppelganger who was hauled away in handcuffs after punching a policeman in the face. Spidey was angry that the policeman intervened as he was pressuring a tourist for a bigger tip. More recently, a weekend police crackdown netted two faux Iron Men, another Spider-Man and Elmo on charges of disorderly conduct. One was also charged with aggressive panhandling.
The association says those nasty episodes are undeservedly giving all of the performers a bad name. They are now organizing more formally in order to protect their own from new city regulations and tougher police scrutiny. They've even got the support of another freelancers' group with similar issues, the Street Vendors Project.
A City Council member is preparing to introduce legislation creating a mandatory licensing process with a criminal background check for the Times Square characters.
An earlier attempt by the councilor, Andy King, failed to pass. However, Mayor Bill De Blasio and Times Square Alliance President Tim Tompkins now have expressed support for some restrictions on the performers.
"I think this has gone too far," the mayor said in a City Hall appearance. "It needs to be regulated."
The New York Post recently editorialized against the performers as "hucksters" who are "shaking down" tourists in Times Square. Some Broadway theater owners are even blaming them for a recent slump in ticket sales.
A Word from the Penguin
At their press conference, association members pledged to create their own internal regulatory system, including a photo identification requirement, to forestall more onerous action by the city. They also asked the New York Police Department to stop blanketing Times Square with leaflets notifying tourists that tips are optional.
Most of all, they just want respect. "We're people who want to be treated as workers with dignity and not be treated as cartoon characters just because we wear a mask," said Yamil Morales, a Colombian who dresses up as the Penguin, in a recent interview with Reuters.