(NEW YORK CITY) – It’s a motley crew of characters in Times Square. They are there day and night in front of Toys-R-Us. In a matter of seconds, they turn one of the quickest profits in the city. A three step process that has been paying dividends for years: take a picture, collect a dollar in the tip pouch, and move onto the next family.
Only the characters say it’s not a business. Instead they’re expressing their artistic side — and are therefore protected by the First Amendment. However, after the latest incident in which Osvaldo Quiroz-Lopez, dressed as the cookie monster, was arrested for allegedly pushing a two-year-old on Sunday, there are many saying it’s time to do something.
“Can you do background checks on people who are illegally using costumes to begin with?,” asks Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. as he describes the conundrum plaguing the Times Square corridor.
Vallone Jr. is trying to get that and more questions answered. The Chairman of the Public Safety Committee admits that the recent trend of incidents is becoming alarming, “When I was younger Sesame Street didn’t used to be R-rated, but now we’ve got grope-me Elmo and the shoving monster and it’s OK go to be a facsimile of the cookie monster on the outside, but if you’re a real monster on the inside we’ve got to take a look at protecting the public.”
While in Times Square on Tuesday, not one character wanted to take off their costume to talk with PIX11 News. Nearly all had issues with transparency.
All except one.
“Of course,” said Miguel Reyes, who had no problems being transparent. The 75-year-old took off his Elmo costume to show his New York Taxation and Finance credentials. Reyes was adamant that the characters who work the corridor should be controlled, “For me yes, even if you’re illegal they should give a permit to all,” who then quickly added that he is for the requirement of a permit and that all should “pay their taxes.”
So how long would it actually for one to get a costume and dress up as tickle-me Elmo? Well about five minutes. However, making money is a completely different story. The costumed characters know who the regulars are and who are not. So the characters would actually block newcomers in a circle and they would then work for free. The move would ultimately shutout the new individual in costume of any tips. For this reason, most characters work in pairs. One Elmo even admitting to PIX11 News the strategy is known, “Well I’ve heard stories of that.”
David Franco knows the blocking strategy well. He works in the Times Square corridor and has kept a close eye on the characters. Franco says that behind all of the smiles is an organized business. In fact, so organized he equates it to only one other operation, ”This is a mafia.”
PIX11 News did reach out to the LAPD where in 2010 they cracked down on characters in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Their response? ”As with Times Square, its a First Amendment issue,” said a spokesman in an email response.
Is there a solution? Yes, but its challenging according to officials. Ultimately, corporations like Disney would have to target the individuals inside the costumes for trademark, licensing, and copyright infringement.
Until that day comes, those in costume will continue to feed off the discretionary incomes of families and tourists that visit Times Square.