Anything goes with Las Vegas street performers — and that’s the problem
The Lost Baby is having a slow night.
Forty-four-year-old Gerald Morrissen stands in the crowded pedestrian mall in downtown Las Vegas known as the Fremont Street Experience dressed in white diapers, baby bib, sneakers and an umbrella hat, a red plastic tip cup dangling suggestively at his waist. His face contorts like he’s teething.
The self-proclaimed Lost Baby of Las Vegas relies on the kindness of strangers, making goo-goo eyes at passing tourists hoping they’ll fork over a few bucks to have their photo taken with a bit of Sin City outrageousness. He brandishes a $1 bill like a sour pacifier.
“This,” he sighs, cigarette in hand, “is five hours’ work.”
But the night is still young on the downtown drag that could be known as the Fremont Street freak show, a rogue’s gallery of in-your-face provocateurs whose exhibitionism rivals the raciest show on the Strip, or worst of casually dressed Walmart shopping.
Imagine a collection of out-of-work Far Side cartoon characters competing for your attention and you get the idea of what it’s like to walk this goofy gantlet and, this being Vegas, most likely with a drink in your hand.
Regulars include a 77-year-old man in a skimpy slingshot leotard (camera click!); a 265-pound man in a red stretch bikini who bats fake eyelashes at passing old ladies and poses with young bachelors (click!); and a 54-year-old woman with straggly gray hair and a rotund belly creased by an angry scar, dressed in a see-through blue hula skirt, her breasts slathered with gray electrical tape (double click!). Tips follow.
But now the performers (and we use that term loosely) are unhappy because city officials enacted new rules designed to dampen the debauchery. Due to take effect in November, the regulations will confine performers, panhandlers, buskers and other tip-seekers to 6-foot-diameter circles so they can’t hound passersby like petulant children.
The city also is launching a daily lottery for two-hour time slots in 38 small public circles scattered along the covered mall littered with dime-store Indians, bar ads for the “world’s largest pint glass” and signs touting 99-cent shrimp cocktails.
On a recent weeknight, the fly-by-night photo seekers included an adult-sized yellow Minion, a black whip-wielding dominatrix, zombies and trolls, all trying to make eye contact with tourists as customers of a zip-line business zing past overhead, like sloshed superheroes.
Pushy street performers aren’t unique to Sin City. On Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, competition for tips has touched off brawls between costumed characters. This year Mr. Incredible was convicted of battery for punching and body-slamming Batgirl in front of the TCL Chinese Theatre.
The most violent incident came in 2013 when Christine Calderon, 23, came across panhandlers near Hollywood and Highland who held a sign decorated with a four-letter insult. She snapped pictures but declined to tip. Dustin James Kinnear, 27, fatally stabbed her and last year was sentenced to 11 years in prison for voluntary manslaughter.
But such violence is rare. Mostly, the performers irritate more than threaten.
In New York, city officials on Thursday unveiled a proposal to control performers in Times Square, including its most infamous denizens — the “desnudas,” bare-breasted women who wear little more than body paint.
In Vegas, performers insist the new regulations will violate their 1st Amendment rights. This is a public place, they reason, and therefore anything goes, especially in a city specializing in round-the-clock titillation. Some plan to picket the day the rules take effect.
Michael Troy Moore, an attorney for the Sonic Laborers and Visual Entertainers Union, which represents the performers, mailed a cease-and-desist letter to the city and says he will file for an injunction.
“We’re not stifling anyone’s free speech,” insists City Councilman Bob Coffin, who wrote the regulations. “We’re bringing order to the chaos.”
Rules passed in 2011 designated certain areas as no-go areas. Now, instead of telling performers where they can’t be, regulations lay out specifically where they can. They will be enforced between 3 p.m. and 1 a.m.
Coffin solicited input from the American Civil Liberties Union, which for months conducted walking tours to help assess where performers crossed the line. “We looked to define and protect people’s rights to be themselves and express themselves,” said Tod Story, executive director for the ACLU of Nevada.
He drew the line, however, at officials collecting data on performers as part of the lottery for public circles. “They can’t just collect personal information on people just because they’re curious,” Story said. “None of that is constitutional.” The city scrapped the idea.
Coffin says the rules target behaviors he described as jaw-dropping.
“We can’t approve the level of taste, but we can stop these people from bothering tourists,” he says. “I’m talking about the guys in jock straps with their butts hanging out, ‘nuns’ in pasties flopping their breasts around. They have no talent, and we’re hoping they won’t earn any tips if they don’t have any talent.”
David Joslin, a hulking New Jersey native in spiky green hair, blue fishnet gloves, bunny ears and an itsy-bitsy red bikini, clucks his tongue: “Ridiculous!”
The 44-year-old Joslin, who bills himself as Bunny Vegas, makes good money playing to the worst Sin City nightmare: “Remember that pretty blond you picked up last night when you were pretty drunk? I’m the girl you wake up to!”
Joslin is joined by a clownish Rat Pack — an Elvis impersonator, a Danny DeVito look-alike and a hairy angel in pink pasties and red wings who says he couldn’t support himself as an auto mechanic.
But there are rifts on Fremont Street. Performers say panhandlers give the costumed crowd a bad name: the homeless vet with his tin cup, the woman with the sign “Single Mom. Stage 3 cancer” and the bedraggled fellow with the placard “Need food and diapers. Huggies. Size 5.”
Joslin shoots Huggies Man a withering stare: “He’s been hustling Huggies out here for two years. Either the guy’s kid’s a Pygmy or he’s a liar.”
Near the Four Queens casino, a festooned pirate queen scoffs at Bunny Vegas and his crowd of near-naked photo hustlers. “Those naked things get on my nerves,” says Renea LeRoux. “I make my own clothes. I’m an artist, not some frozen statue.”
But the Lost Baby doesn’t care what anyone thinks. He’s on one knee, offering a bogus marriage proposal to Clarice Berg, an 82-year-old tourist from Winnebago, Minn.
“I think he looks great,” says Berg, as the man-child kisses her hand. “We don’t have anything like this back in Winnebago.”
Berg’s son hands the baby a tip.
As the night wears on, and alcohol flows, wild-eyed tourists with mixed drinks and cigarettes dangling from their mouths laugh louder at the antics of the performers who, in turn, get more insistent, sometimes blocking the path of tourists.
But the hula woman, who calls herself Star, stands as still as a miniature Statue of Liberty. Most of her patrons love it. She says she got a $100 tip one night.
“They’re driving us out of business,” she says of officials. “I’ve got a 16-year-old son to support and I can’t get a job because of my age. I’m too old even for McDonald’s.”
Nearby, a man in a werewolf costume spots a tourist sneaking a photo without offering a tip.
“Hey!” he shouts. “We’re working for donations here!”
For other news from Las Vegas and the West follow @jglionna on Twitter.
The Latinx experience chronicled
Get the Latinx Files newsletter for stories that capture the multitudes within our communities.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.