Robotic 'wavers' cutting in on human sign twirlers

Robotic 'wavers' cutting in on human sign twirlers
A man walks past a sign-brandishing mannequin outside a North Hollywood hair salon. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

"Sarah" was reeling in the business, gyrating for hours on end outside a Canoga Park gaming center and a nearby juice stand when her stamina for the job just seemed to vanish.

The diagnosis? Motor malfunction.


On street corners and sidewalks across L.A., the ubiquitous sign spinners dance and hurl arrow-like placards into the air to promote hair salons, fast-food joints, cellphone companies and quick-lube businesses. But a now a new breed of attention-grabbers has hit town.

Sarah, along with Ginger and dozens of others, are robotic mannequins capable of working 10 hours a day, seven days a week, never asking for a break or as much as a bottle of water.

Davis Fines, a marketing executive, was renting out human sign twirlers when one of his customers threatened to sue him because of an altercation he'd had with one young spinner.

On his wife's advice that he might do better with a robot than a person, Fines started up Sign Waving Robot Co., which molds sidewalk dummies out of plastic and fits them with wigs and clothing. They come with a rechargeable battery — good for 15 hours of waving.

Premium models go for about $2,000, but merchants can rent mechanical wavers for $30 a day. So far, 472 of them are on the job.

Soloman Levy got his idea for a robotic waver one scorching day when he was watching a sign twirler sweating as he toiled. "Poor guy," Levy thought. "He should have a machine doing what he's doing."

"My dad put a couple of them together and immediately sold them," said his son, Adir Levy, who has headed North Hollywood-based Sign Dolls since his father's retirement last fall.

Levy imports his battery-operated mannequins from China and rents them out at $370 a month. They can be purchased for $797, though the plug-in models go for about $50 less.

Although male mannequins are available, "the females outsell them 99 to 1," Levy said. "We have a busty model and one with a regular figure. The regular one is more popular.

"I personally think the busty one is overdone," he added.

While the mechanized twirlers never complain or ask for a raise, they do have their "off" days.

A robotic sign waver that drummed up business for the Planet Cyber gaming center in Canoga Park and its companion shaved-ice refreshment stand has been sidelined by a motor malfunction, said Omar Ortiz, a computer technician at the center.

And a mannequin in a short chef's skirt and hat is off work at the Baker Bakery & Cafe in Woodland Hills because of a broken arm.

"A couple of cooks were wheeling her out one morning and she fell apart," said Shamiran Alkhas, an assistant manager. "Although I think it was silly, she did draw in a few customers."


Server Kevin Sy agreed that the sign waver "caught a lot of people's attention. They'd say that it was cute — I think people actually came in here because of it." Sy blamed "the sun beating down on it" for the robotic waver's demise.

Angelica Fleming, owner of the Hair Station Plus salon in North Hollywood, acquired her mannequin three months ago. It is dressed in a Superwoman suit and goes by the name Ginger.

"It works very well. I get extra customers because of her," Fleming said. "People can be crazy, though. I had to stop one person who was trying to take a picture under her skirt."

Professional human sign spinners, meantime, say they don't view the robots as a threat.

"We really don't worry about the mannequins," said Christian Altamirano, general manager of AArrow Sign Spinners' Los Angeles office. "Our team members smile and dance and react to the public.

"They definitely have a stronger presence than a robot."