The Disneyfication of Times Square really has come full circle—the formerly gritty crossroads of the world has become so family-friendly that it's starting to become seedy again, thanks to a mob of street hustlers dressed as cartoon characters demanding tips from tourists. On Sunday, a man dressed as Cookie Monster allegedly shoved a child and cursed at his mother when she didn't tip fast enough, and several other characters have been arrested in recent months. The situation has attracted so much media attention that now regulation is being considered.
On Saturday night at 7 p.m., the Times Square Alliance, which pays for private security in Times Square, counted a whopping 52 costumed characters working in Times Square. The group says their numbers have increased dramatically since last spring, and the recent widely-reported arrests are just the tip of the iceberg.
"Super Mario groped the woman," says Times Square Alliance president Tim Tompkins. "Elmo was ranting anti-Semitic things. Spider-Man punched a woman in the face. Now a kid was attacked by Cookie Monster. And those are just ones where there's been an arrest! We've anecdotally heard there's a lot more that's been happening. One of my staff members said an Elmo patted her backside when she was walking through Times Square on a crowded day." Tompkins also pointed us to a photo of a man dressed as Toy Story's Woody urinating in a doorway (photo #6).
"I totally acknowledge that some of these folks are just good people trying to make a living," Tompkins tells us. "But when you have this many, and anonymity, and no regulation, things start to get creepy. It's become a problem that's got to be dealt with. We've talked with some of the [entertainment] companies about copyright laws. But there are a lot of First Amendment lawsuits in regards to things like panhandling. If somebody has a table or a chair or an amplified instrument, then the NYPD has some hooks and precedents for being able to say you can't do that on a crowded sidewalk.
"But if they're just standing around soliciting tips it's difficult to enforce it. So maybe it's time for the city to look into whether there are any appropriate regulatory actions that would pass legal muster."
Indeed, City Councilmember Peter Vallone says the time has come for costume character regulation. "The laws are very nebulous in this area," Vallone tells us. "There are anti-mask laws, but you need at least two people working together. There are 'blocking the sidewalk' laws but they're difficult to enforce in this situation. They claim they're street performers and don't need licensing. They say it's not a cash business, and kids are fooled by this but maybe adults should stop being fooled. Not only is cash expected but cash is demanded."
Vallone says he's looking at other cities to study how they regulate this kind of busking. But it's a complicated issue, because the people in the costumes are technically just standing around in Times Square like everyone else. "There are obviously First Amendment issues here, but we've got to come up with a way to make this safer, with an eye toward background checks and licenses. Maybe I'm old but when I was a kid Sesame Street wasn't R rated."
Today, on the same day that the abusive Cookie Monster made the covers of the NY Post and the Daily News, it was business as usual for the costumed characters in Times Square. Approximately 20 of them were hanging out and posing for photos, in addition to people costumed as the Statue of Liberty and the "Naked Cowgirl." No acts of cartoon violence were observed, but one helpful sanitation worker helped keep the peace by walking down the street yelling, "Don't be beating no kids, Elmo!"
Additional reporting by Sophie Kleeman