behind hollywood’s heroes
The background artists’ motivations performing along Hollywood Boulevard
and the graft issues of the unregulated industry
Written By Callahan Tormey
Photographed By Grace Bukunmi
When Alec Baldwin announced his supposed retirement from show business back in 2014, he griped over the change of interactions with the public — the disturbing evolution of how stars must now be forced to interact with their fans.
Writing in his essay I Give Up, the star bemoaned that no one seemed to be interested in an autograph these days, only photos: “There was a time the entire world didn’t have a camera in their pocket — the first thing that cell phones did was to kill the autograph business … Everyone’s got a camera. When they’re done, they tweet it. It’s … unnatural.”
But what Baldwin didn’t take into consideration in his lament is that this practice began some 20-odd years ago in LA on Hollywood Boulevard where everybody is a star and taking a photograph with a fan is an industry.
Each day Hollywood Boulevard is trampled with tourists searching the stars on the walk of fame and popping into landmarks like The Frolic Room. When you idle past the usual suspects of Marvel and DC comic characters, you may bounce into a towering Harlem Globetrotter named Devon.
Devon’s life is split between basketball training and Harlem Globetrotter impersonator working for tips in between workouts. A West Indies native, he’s lived in LA for over a year, easily falling in love and bonding quickly with the city as it has similar weather to back home and offers him a good shot at getting into the NBA.
“For me, it’s fun when I’m on the boulevard; it’s not work,” he says. “I can play ball fundamentally like a player, but I can also do tricks. I’m very lucky because it’s either be good at basketball or good at tricks; it’s not both. So I was very lucky.”
He starts his day around 9am with a trip to the gym practicing his game for a few hours. Then he heads to the boulevard around 2-3pm with a boombox, basketballs and a tip jar. If he can’t get a good spot, he waits around until another performer moves and one opens up.
More than anything Devon tries to engage with the tourists by passing the ball to them or faking them out with a pass. Interaction, beyond looking the part, is the most crucial element, he says.
If they tip, they get a photo with Devon or possibly a “magic spin” — a spin of the ball on their finger. Averaging $100-200 a shift, Devon says, “I always do well, whatever they give me, they give me. If they don’t, it doesn’t make me mad, it just makes me practice harder.”
However, that delight on the boulevard is not always pervasive among the characters. For others money is, indeed, the motivation and the reason for their special form of burlesque. Competition is tough and crossfire can occur.
Last fall, CBS News Los Angeles reported a brawl involving a Mr. Incredible and a Bat Girl. Seemingly a Chewbaca attempted to break up the fight and a Freddy Krueger, shockingly out of character, stepped in to help resolve the struggle as well. Months previously there was another report of two Captain Americas and a Spiderman in fisticuffs on the boulevard.
These disputes most likely occurred from characters being territorial over their spot. But other disputes occur over the amount of tips a character receives or if they’re working in a group, according to the sources interviewed.
It’s this sort of behavior that has received blowback from the city government, crackdown from the police and prompting possible regulation within the industry.
“For me, if you regulate Hollywood, I would be happy, because everyone gets the same amount,” says Javi.
Javi has been working as Mickey Mouse on the boulevard since November 2013. He’s seen the positive smiles and reactions from the people each day, but he’s also seen the ugly graft from the characters that taint the reputation he’s built for nearly two years.
“About an hour ago a Spiderman and a Superman tried to charge the Japanese people 20 dollars per picture,” Javi says. “Sometimes you will see bad guys, jump in front of the picture then ask $20 or $60 and that’s $140 soon enough, and then you can’t take your kid to a nice place to eat or get a souvenir, and they won’t be able to enjoy Hollywood.”
With part-time jobs in restaurants and working for various businesses in Beverly Hills, Javi has added costume character to his resume as he can earn upwards of $200 on a shift, he says. As he lives nearby, he would pass it many times and noticed that there was something missing — Walt Disney heart and soul. As a father himself, he felt it was important to bring family fun to Hollywood Boulevard.
“I don’t care about the money; it’s about the kids. The money doesn’t mean anything, I just want to see this little kid happy. That’s what Mickey Mouse is all about.”
Since the beginning, he’s stuck to his core principles of honesty and integrity that were instilled at a young age from his father as they worked together farming. Javi doesn’t charge for taking his photograph nor does he harass tourists for more than they can give.
“My dad taught me growing up, if you work with respect, honor, do what you do — just don’t be greedy, don’t follow other people.”
It’s greed and the violence it provokes that has the characters on Hollywood Boulevard under the spotlight. The LA industry is currently being examined since its similar workers in NYC at Times Square has sparked possible government regulation.
The NYC city council heard arguments in November for a bill to regulate the industry, which received much outcry from the performers — some who came to protest in character.
The bill proposes registration for a license to perform in Times Square and that the performers be fingerprinted as well. Their objections ranged from infringing First Amendment rights to the fear of deportation from the US. There has yet to be a decision reached on the bill in New York, so the Hello Kitty’s of Times Square are still able to charge for their hello’s.
In LA, Javi continues to beam with his Mickey Mouse smile and Devon works his basketball moves waiting until he makes it big, both plying this particular trade with their ethics. And if by any chance he’s interested, there is actually a spot in front of Beso restaurant with his name that Alec Baldwin could come out of his so-called retirement and make a living, just by people asking for his picture.