In the past year, a new menace has appeared on the Strip. Costumed “performers” have taken their place beside smut peddlers, nightclub promoters and timeshare hawkers as street-level nuisances that make passers-by yearn for the days when, if you wanted to have an awkward encounter in Las Vegas, you paid good money to chuckle nervously while Don Rickles insulted you.
This is a new breed. Dressed as Cookie Monster, Captain Jack Sparrow, Michael Jackson or even the Devil himself, caped and uncaped culprits have been staking a claim to Las Vegas Boulevard, creating a growing hazard.
For years, similar performers lined Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. There, it makes a little sense; some tourists come to Los Angeles to see stars, and if you don’t run into Christian Bale at Pinkberry, your next best bet might be some random guy in an Adam West-era costume loitering outside the Hollywood and Highland Center. Last summer, a police crackdown on the performers led some of them to relocate to our city; last December, a court injunction cleared the way for them to return to the City of Angels, but many of them have decided, instead, to double down on Vegas.
Granted, this is Sin City: People don’t come here looking for repose. But, increasingly, those walking the Strip have to run a gauntlet while they’re trying to take in the sights. Visitor reaction has been mostly negative.
“These folks are a nuisance,” wrote blog-poster “BigHoss” on a VegasTripping.com thread about the performers. “I see them as panhandlers on steroids.”
The costume drama recently reached a new level of infamy with a YouTube video of Batman slap-fighting a tourist before being taken down and punched repeatedly in the head.
There are several arguments against the costumed performers: They clog an already-congested pedestrian thoroughfare; the performers provide little entertainment value; they attempt to shake down tourists they think are easy marks; they fundamentally run a business without applying for any business permit or paying any business taxes; they undergo no background checks before undertaking work that permits them physical contact with visitors, particularly minors.
Metro Sgt. Tom Jenkins, who has been working the Strip for 17 years, doesn’t disguise his feelings about the masked marauders.
“I hate this more than anyone,” he says. “I’ve watched the Strip really decline from where it was three or four years ago. These guys are freaks and felons.”
Under one hood, Jenkins found a three-time felon—a guy who’d done a stretch for attempted murder—hugging moms while children wrapped themselves around him. He’s also seen dueling Elvii come to blows over turf, and he recently responded to a report of Freddy Krueger pulling a gun on a passer-by who refused to tip him (by the time Metro arrived, the gun was long gone).
Some wonder why the police don’t do more to rein in such an obvious public safety threat. According to Jenkins, their hands are tied. As long as the performers don’t verbally ask those they “entertain” for money, they can’t be prosecuted under an anti-alms-seeking law that’s already on the books. Putting a tip jar out, even though it’s tantamount to asking for money, isn’t a violation.
“Because they hide behind the First Amendment, we can’t do much,” he says. Fear of lawsuits, he says, has brought pressure to “back off” on running in costumed performers for panhandling.
So far, Jenkins has used another law against the masked minstrels: While it might be legal to perform on a public sidewalk, it isn’t legal to store things there. So the second that performers set up an amplifier or put down a cooler, they’re fair game.
But ultimately, it’s going to take a higher power to clean up the Strip.
“The city and county have to step up,” he says. He’d like to protect the public without violating the “free speech” rights of performers, smut peddlers and other miscreants. The idea would be to limit performers to certain areas where passers-by who want to mingle can seek them out, while those who just want to walk the Strip can do so without molestation.
There’s a lot at stake. Right now, the Strip is an accident waiting to happen, and if visitors don’t feel safe in the tourist corridor, they’ll go elsewhere.
It’s time for the County Commissioners to prove themselves to be the real superheroes by passing an ordinance that can empower the police to clean up the Strip and protect the public.
David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.