Superheroes or Villans? Cities Grapple with Costumed Performers

Superheroes or Villans? Cities Grapple with Costumed Performers

Ah, street theater. Buskers, break dancers, the sidewalk artists that sketch – they bring a city to life, and they attract tourists as well. The right ones – like the guy I saw do a marionette show to music in Charleston, South Carolina last summer – can be so charming. But is it charming to see a guy in a bad Cookie Monster costume shoving a toddler because he didn’t like the tip her mom gave for a photo-op? That’s the issue  New York City is grappling with as they try to harness the, ahem, talent that is running free in Times Square and through the city.


If you have been to the Big Apple (or a clutch of other cities too actually) you have seen the costumed performers. Batmans, Supermans, Mickey Mouse and Minnie, Sponge Bob – you name them, they are there, and for a modest fee you can get your picture taken with them! For years, anyone who buys a costume has been able to show up where the tourists are and set up shop. Some of the costumes are first rate, but (from my observation at least) many are not. Maybe it adds to the charm though, to be photographed with a Donald Duck who looks like he would never be welcome at Disney.

The costume party is getting a little ugly though, as this article from City Lab details. Street performers are not regulated by anyone, so their behavior is not necessarily Disney squeaky clean. Incidents ranging from the toddler-shoving by Cookie through to Spider-Man punching a cop and inappropriate behavior from Toy Story’s Woody have been reported. Accordingly, one New York City Council member has introduced a bill to get the heroes in line.

On the table is imposing some sort of regulation for street performers: charging the characters $175 a year, making them subject to a background check, and having them wear identification badges at all times. While such measures would not weed out all of the bad behavior or bad actors, they would go some distance towards getting things under control. No one wants a repeat of last year’s situation in Los Angeles, when Batgirl and Mr. Incredible got into a fistfight, and Chewbacca and Freddy Krueger had to intervene.

The whole street performer thing brings up other economic questions, like whether is actually okay for someone to buy an Olaf costume and use it to make money wherever they feel like. In fact , I’m kind of surprised that Disney, who is not exactly loose on that kind of thing, has not stepped in to stop it as yet. As well, it seems quite unlikely that those bills shoved at Shrek ever end up being counted as income and taxed. Given that some of the performers apparently make a tidy living, that might be something that needs to be handled as well.

Times Square these days is a kind of circus, in a good way I guess. Tourist dollars stream into it, and people apparently feel a lot safer being there than was the case a few decades ago. It is an environment where the costumed heroes can thrive – but they may have to clean up their acts in the same way that the city once cleaned up the area.


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