Op-Ed

A permit to pose as Batman? Council's proposed rule would ruin Hollywood's street scene

I have a not-so-secret alternate identity as a superhero. I’m Batman (specifically Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight version) on Hollywood Boulevard near the Dolby Theatre, where several nights a week I pose for pictures with tourists.

My haunt, the 6800 block of Hollywood Boulevard, is among the busiest tourist destinations on the West Coast — in part because of those of us who dress up like superheroes and other movie or TV characters. But now the Los Angeles City Council has proposed stringent limits: Costumed actors like me would be required to get a pass to perform and there will be a limit of 20 — handed out daily on a first come, first served basis — for the whole block. I fear this will wipe out the vibrant street scene.

There are problems in Hollywood: Some people dressed in costumes grab tourists, pose for pictures as if doing it for free, then rudely demand tips. (I’m thinking of you, fat Spider-Man.) Some gang up on tourists, intimidating them into handing over a tip. The problem is generally just aggressive solicitation, which is already illegal. At times, however, these obnoxious people reach into tourists’ purses or wallets, which crosses the line into outright robbery.

The people behaving that way hardly care about existing law (or civil behavior in general) and they certainly will not care about getting a permit. They will either operate undeterred on the 6800 block of Hollywood — the only block covered by the street performer permit proposal — or congregate just to the east and west.

There are bad apples, but most of us are law-abiding and courteous. Indeed, most of us donning costumes see ourselves as ambassadors for Hollywood, L.A.’s most well-known global product.

We have a 1st Amendment right to ask for tips, and many do so before any pictures are taken so that people can easily decline. I prefer not to mention tips. I find that with a top-notch costume and a friendly and professional demeanor, people express their appreciation of their interaction with me. After all, another word for tip is gratuity. I believe it’s my job to earn that gratitude.

Often the experience is more important than the tip. Many times I’ve been startled by tiny arms suddenly wrapped around my knees. I look down to see a 3- or 4-year-old beside themselves with joy at discovering Batman. My most treasured memory is of a young serviceman who asked for a picture back when I used to dress as Wolverine from “X-Men.” He told me, excited as a little boy, that he was going to put it on the wall in his barracks. He was about to ship out to Iraq.

Getting your picture taken with “movie characters” is known worldwide as part of the Hollywood experience. I personally have been on the cover of a German travel magazine and on several international TV shows, as have many of my peers. More importantly, though, many visitors to Hollywood are from around Southern California. The tourists from afar come to see the Walk of Fame and the Chinese Theatre. The locals come here for the street scene, then stay and spend money.

In 2010, when the Los Angeles Police Department cracked down on all street performers and vendors, even arresting some of us, it killed the scene for five months. I live just blocks away so I saw the result firsthand: At the height of the summer tourist season, the sidewalk was empty. No one was lingering. There was no energy.

I was one of the Hollywood characters who went to federal court that year to assert our constitutional right to be street performers — and won. But after that victory, it took another six months for the street scene to reestablish itself and draw the locals back. No one wants a repeat of that.Some action is needed today in Hollywood, but issuing a limited number of permits is unconstitutional. In 2009, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down similar permitting provisions restricting where and how street performers could work in Seattle. Street performance of any kind is free speech, and the city simply cannot require a permit to exercise free speech.

The solution is better enforcement of existing legislation. If LAPD Chief Charlie Beck is convinced that his officers can enforce a permit law, then why can't they enforce the law against aggressive solicitation? For instance, we’re often lucky to have LAPD officer Cesar Corona on the beat, and he shows impeccable integrity and character and cares about our community. When he is on duty on our block, the bad actors melt away. So I know it can be done.

Three years ago, my fellow costumed characters and I organized as the Assn. of Hollywood Characters and we have tried many times to work with the police and the city. We need to be heard, not legislated out of existence. After all, we are part of the Hollywood community too.

Matt Balke is an actor and screenwriter who lives in Hollywood. He’s portrayed both Wolverine (2007-2009) and Batman (since 2012) on Hollywood Boulevard.

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