When you spend a lot of time at theme parks, you start to think it’s just the norm to see costumed characters at tourist spots. So when I strolled down the Hollywood Walk of Fame during a trip to Los Angeles last month and encountered one character after another — Spider-Man, Darth Vader, Jack Sparrow, Catwoman — offering to pose for photos in front of Grauman’s Chinese, I assumed they worked for the theater or the chamber of commerce. If they didn’t, wouldn’t Grauman’s run them off the property?
But then I noticed that the characters mostly stayed on the public sidewalk and avoided the theater’s forecourt — the one with celebrity handprints in concrete. Some of their costumes were shabby. And discreetly or not, some were soliciting tips. The Michael Jackson impersonator held his gloved hand high, ostentatiously showing off a fistful of dollar bills.
Does Snow White expect a tip when you take a photo of her with your own little princess at Disney World? Does Mickey hold out a white-gloved hand, palm up, at the end of your photo opp? Of course not.
It turns out these characters are independent operators, many of them wannabe actors. They’re almost their own institution along Hollywood Boulevard, with a, um, colorful history that includes temporary bans on character appearances and meetings with police in an effort to keep order. One brawl among several characters escalated until Catwoman pepper-sprayed Jack Sparrow. On another day, SpongeBob SquarePants got into an altercation with two members of the public. In separate incidents, superheroes Spider-Man and Batman have been arrested or taken into custody by police, as was Chewbacca after he head-butted a tour guide who told the wookie to quit harassing tourists.
None of these was a sanctioned character, all were just people wearing the costume, who were disavowed by studios and creators. But it’s an interesting commentary on the intersection of entertainment, tourism and commerce — at the very geographic spot where all three come together.