Council bill would regulate Times Square costumed characters

Councilman Andy King says his bill would require performers who
Councilman Andy King says his bill would require performers who “alter their appearance” with a full costume or face paint get a background check, photo identification and a $175 two-year license. Photo Credit: Newsday/Matt Davies

Elmos, Mickeys and Bat Men who pose with Times Square tourists for tips may have to pose for photo IDs under a bill from a Bronx lawmaker that would set up a licensing system for concealed performers.

Councilman Andy King in Times Square Monday said he will introduce his bill Wednesday to require performers who “alter their appearance” with a full costume or face paint get a background check, photo identification and a $175 two-year license.

“You can come out here, we’re just saying we want to know who you are,” King said. “That’s not an infringement on anyone’s First Amendment rights.”

The bill is a response to the sordid tales of being ripped off, hassled, and shoved that tourists and New Yorkers have been telling since at least last year. Meanwhile, the performers — many of whom had organized to improve their relationship with the NYPD and their industry’s image — have said they feel harassed by police officers and that they are targets for assault.

Lucia Gomez, director of La Fuente, a group that helped more than 100 performers organize, said she would have preferred more dialogue with city officials to keep the troublemakers out of Times Square before moving on a bill. She joined with about two dozen performers at a Times Square rally.

“We haven’t dissected all the negatives,” Gomez said. “We don’t need more criminalization of poor people in the City of New York.”

Berta Guerra, 50, who works as a Mickey Mouse, was curious as to whether licensing would reduce competition for tips.

“Maybe if you have a permit, more people won’t be coming,” she said.

Licensing could raise the reputation of “peluches,” as the costumed characters call themselves, so she supported the idea: “One person does something really bad,” and disgraces everyone, she said.

King touted his bill as a safety initiative that protects the costumed characters as well as tourists. The bill had input from the Times Square Alliance.

“Quirky is fine. Creepy is not,” said Tim Tompkins, the group’s director.

Under the legislation, costumed characters and performers with heavy face paint like the Statue of Liberty — the Naked Cowboy would get a pass — must sport a visible ID and get a background check to help determine whether a license should be issued.

“You can look at the Cowboy and identify him. Someone under an Elmo head — you can’t identify them,” King said.

The Naked Cowboy — born Robert Burck — gave his blessing to licensing people in costume he said were just “hard selling” photos for tips.

“If you scare the people away,” he said, “the legitimate businesses are going to have a problem.”

The Department of Consumer Affairs would handle the licensing and background checks, King’s spokeswoman said. The bill will also say that sidewalks and subway stations must be clear and that “aggressive” solicitation of tips is prohibited. The fines for performing without a license range from $25 to $100, while a civil action could include a maximum $500 penalty.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has said there is a need for regulation and his administration is working with the council on a licensing scheme, but has not specifically endorsed King’s proposal. A spokesman for Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said she will review the bill before taking a position.

Elizabeth Holland, a 26-year-old who dresses up like a cop with her boyfriend, who performs as Batman, had said she worried the licensing system would be a lengthy hassle for people who are working to feed their families. After the news conference, however, she said there were provisions that could be beneficial.

“It’s going to be more professional,” she said.

 Holland’s boyfriend, Jose Escalona-Martinez, 41, said he could abide by the licensing plan as long as he is free to perform in Times Square.

“I don’t need to be hiding,” he said. “I think it’s a great idea.”

Julio Flores, 40, who works as the character Minius, opened his pouch in Times Square and showed two $1 bills that he said reflected four hours work. “No me gusta!” he said of the proposal, adding that $20 to $25 a year would be a more reasonable fee.

(With Sheila Anne Feeney)