New York City Has a Costumed Characters Problem

A Cookie Monster gone rogue may finally precipitate a crackdown in Times Square.

Image
Reuters

A Cookie Monster gone rogue may finally precipitate a crackdown on costumed characters in New York's Times Square, making the crossroads of the world safe for toddlers once more.

Dressing up as popular kid-friendly characters such as Dora the Explorer or Hello Kitty and posing for pictures has been a booming sub-sector of New York’s tourism industry for a couple of years now. Dozens of enterprising folks who make their living this way stroll around Times Square day and night, wearing low-quality knockoff outfits that often look a little deranged but nonetheless have a magnetic appeal for those under the age of five or so. After the parents snap a photo of their kids with the fuzzy creatures, the performers often demand payment. Sometimes things get ugly.

The most recent incident involved a man dressed as Cookie Monster who allegedly pushed a 2-year-old and called him and his mother some choice names when the mom, who didn’t have cash on hand, sent the boy’s father to an ATM to get money for a tip. The woman, a Bollywood actress named Parmita Kurada, told the Daily News she and her son were shaken by the incident:

“(The monster) was right next to me saying, ‘Come on, come on! Give me the money!’ ” recalled Kurada in her Stamford, Conn., home. “I was getting scared. I thought he was going to attack me or he was going to hit me.”

This isn’t the first time one of the Times Square characters has acted up, providing fodder for gleeful headline writers at the city’s papers and websites. Last fall, it was “Anti-Semitic Elmo,” (aka “Shackle Me Elmo”) who repeatedly spewed vitriolic comments about Jews, finally getting hauled off by an NYPD officer who reportedly said, “I just arrested racist Elmo!”

Then there was the Super Mario who allegedly groped a woman walking past the Condé Nast building on 42nd Street, and the Spider-Man who allegedly punched a woman who didn’t tip him. That incident ruffled some feathers among the costumed performer set, according to the Post:

“Getting arrested isn’t good for any of us,” said Times Square worker Christian, who dresses as Big Bird. “It makes us all look bad.”

The costumed characters have been multiplying ever since the cops stopped ticketing them about 18 months ago in tacit acknowledgment of their protection by the First Amendment as performers. When they’re not cuddling star-struck toddlers for the camera, they can often be seen hanging around the Times Square area subway stations and office buildings, smoking and looking like enormous furry delinquents. The corporations that own the rights to the characters, including Disney, the Sesame Workshop, and Nintendo, haven’t bothered to go after these renegades yet, although that could change as the number of transgressions mounts.

But while New York council member Peter Vallone is calling for the city to regulate the ever-multiplying Winnie the Poohs and Minnie Mouses (Mice?), it may not be so easy. Council president and mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn sounds like she’s not ready to campaign on the issue:

"It's very challenging legally because dressing up in a costume and walking around Times Square is, we believe, a First Amendment-protected activity," said Quinn.

Here’s the kind of great thing about all this: After the city got cleaned up, starting in the 1990s, there was a lot of hand-wringing about the “Disneyfication” of Times Square, an area that had once been home to legions of proud hucksters, hookers, and other “entrepreneurs” dealing in everything unsavory under the sun.

People shouldn’t have worried so much, apparently. The Deuce, as 42nd Street used to be known in grittier days, is having its revenge. What we’re seeing now is the Times Square-ification of Disney.

Top image: Costumed characters take a break to check their phones in Times Square in New York. (REUTERS/Andrew Burton)

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.