LAS VEGAS>> The Las Vegas Strip is teeming with Spidermen, Elmos and Elvis Presleys of all waistlines.
Nevada’s woeful economy has inspired dozens of jobless and under-employed men and women to dress up like celebrities, movie characters and cartoon heroes in pursuit of a buck. In the past year, fat and fit Elvises, as well as would-be Homer Simpsons, Mad Hatters, and Batmen, have set up shop on bustling sidewalks across this city of vice and excess, offering tourists the chance to pose for a snapshot with someone who kind of looks famous.
The gratuity-driven performances have created tension between Las Vegas’ mighty gambling industry and free-speech advocates who defend the constitutional rights of adults in spandex pants, rainbow wigs and foam muscles.
Casino titans, and government officials who understand where their tax revenue comes from, have eyed the street performers with alarm and, at times, called in police intervention. The Venetian on the Las Vegas Strip allegedly detained a man dressed like Zorro last year after he posed for a tourist’s camera on a public sidewalk bordering the hotel-casino. More recently, the city council relaxed its restrictions on street performers because of legal threats.
"Sometimes the mentality is what’s good for the casinos is what’s good for Las Vegas, and there is a tendency to forget we are in the United States," said Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Nevada. "The Constitution protects expressive activity."
Lichtenstein is representing Zorro, legally known as Jason Perez-Morciglio, in a lawsuit against the Venetian. The lawsuit contends Perez-Morciglio was walking in his Zorro garb across Las Vegas Boulevard last year when a passer-by asked for a picture with him and to hold his sword.
Venetian security guards allegedly responded by detaining the Zorro lookalike and having him arrested for trespassing. The Venetian’s legal team claims the Zorro was trying to sell knives without a vendor license.
Sidewalk performers are not unique to Las Vegas. Creative and enterprising panhandlers are as common as hot-dog stands in urban centers across the nation.
What makes the ubiquitous players along the Las Vegas Strip noteworthy is how swiftly their numbers have grown. In a city where celebrity impersonators have long enjoyed headliner status, sidewalk showmen were mostly unheard of before Nevada’s epic economic fall. The Silver State has led the nation in unemployment for months and, for some, street performance is a final attempt to fend off financial disaster.
"It helps pay the bills, and it lets them go home with a memory they love," said Luis Reyes, an underemployed electrician who poses with tourists in downtown Las Vegas as KISS frontman Gene Simmons.
Reyes, 48, began his sidewalk tribute to Simmons in November after, to his surprise and frustration, his move from San Francisco to Las Vegas put him no closer to full-time employment. His homemade costume includes a studded codpiece, high-heel boots designed to look like angry dragons and a pair of leather black wings. He hopes to parlay his street hustle into a paid gig as a celebrity impersonator.
Police spokesman Bill Cassell said the performers began mushrooming on Las Vegas streets last year. They gained national attention last month after a man dressed as Batman became involved in a street tussle with a tourist near the Monte Carlo casino on the Las Vegas Strip. No one pressed charges, Cassell said, but the video of the fight circulated on social networking sites.
Pavement performers appear encouraged by a series of court rulings nationwide affirming their right to dress like SpongeBob SquarePants in public.
Most recently, a federal district court in 2009 determined that Seattle’s restrictions on street performers were unconstitutional. The case revolved around a balloon artist who opposed the city’s efforts to require all buskers to obtain permits.
The courtroom wrangling is shaping public policy.
Las Vegas for years limited what street performers could do along its bustling Fremont Street, a pedestrian mall downtown bathed in LED-lights and lined with geriatric casinos.
That policy was relaxed in February after a series of court rulings determined city officials could not black-list certain people from public land. The city didn’t entirely back down. Under City Hall’s new rules, costumed characters on Fremont Street must still keep away from doors, ATMs, crosswalks and outdoor cafes.
Mayor Oscar Goodman opposed changing the ban, claiming the street performers could attract other unwanted peddlers, specifically the men and women who pass out sexually explicit leaflets on the Las Vegas Strip advertising escort services.
"I’m not mad, I’m angry," Goodman said at the time. "I don’t like it."
On Fremont Street on a recent weekend night, visitors did not seem to share Goodman’s concerns.
They gleefully lined up to pose for pictures with a parade of celebrity and character impersonators. There was a Wolverine from X-Men lore, a twirling Michael Jackson and at least two Captain Jack Sparrows from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The costumes ranged from the cheap polyester garments found at discount Halloween shops to elaborate homemade concoctions emboldened with handfuls of satin, lace and red fur, depending on the character.
"He sang to me," Leticia Holmes, a 57-year-old Utah mother, boasted after posing with a crooning man dressed as Prince. Holmes also posed alongside a Rod Stewart doppelganger, noting: "My sister-in-law is going to be jealous."
The merriment of the crowds can belie the desperation of the costumed performers who need to make rent. The impersonators cannot demand money for their services, but must strictly rely on tips.
A man who gave only his stage name as G.B. Entertainer is a 55-year-old Rick James impersonator who moved to Las Vegas 11 years ago with dreams of starring in a celebrity impersonation show. Entertainer claimed he began hustling on Fremont Street last year after nearly all his paid gigs disappeared.
Impersonation jobs are increasingly limited. "American Superstars," one of the longest-running shows in Las Vegas, closed at the Stratosphere casino in March.
As James, Entertainer said he earns $75 in tips on his best days. When it’s slow, he might make $14. He poses in a red sequined suit and zebra-printed boots six nights a week.
"You’re the baddest brother on the planet," a passing fan told Entertainer on a recent night.
But the man didn’t give Entertainer a tip. Few people do.
"I’m tired of it really, because I belong on stage," Entertainer said as he collected a few $1 tips. "It’s fun sometimes, but mostly it’s degrading. It’s embarrassing."