Characters suit up for Halloween




Lu Martinez, 22, takes a rest from panhandling in Times Square.

Lu Martinez, 22, takes a rest from panhandling in Times Square. Costumed street performers have recently come under scrutiny following a string of arrests. Photo: Joe Ramsawak.

The recent crackdown on costumed characters in Times Square may have added new pressures to the job, but the Halloween season still manages to attract a new crop of performers.

At one of the red patio table sets in Times Square, between Broadway and 7th Avenue, Lu Martinez, 22, takes off his Cookie Monster head and sets it on the chair across from him, plugs in his headphones and makes a few calls on his Android smart phone. A dark-haired, Spanish-speaking man walks out the Walgreens and up to Martinez, offering him a sandwich he has taken a single bite of, still in the Walgreens bag. Martinez accepts after a short exchange of gratitude in Spanish, takes a few bites, and continues swiping at his phone’s touch screen.

A native and resident of Passaic, New Jersey, Martinez makes the 45-minute daily commute to Times Square, using the morning subway ride as the backdrop for his transformation into the Sesame Street character. As one of several Times Square Cookie Monsters, Martinez poses with tourists and children in exchange for small tips. But ever since this summer’s string of arrests involving aggressive costumed characters, the situation facing street performers has taken a turn for worse.

According to the Times Square Alliance’s September 2014 press release, nearly 60 to 80 costumed characters on any given day make competition for tips fierce. But in recent weeks, a few new characters have appeared, including an elusive Malificient in drag, and a Predator from the film series. According to a report by WBCS 880’s Jim Smith, even the Naked Cowboy admits it’s getting crowded.

Not everyone is enthused to see more characters. Passing through Times Square, Shelby Jackson, 23, said she had heard about the crackdown on costumed characters and believes more regulation is necessary.

“They epitomize the coldness of New York City,” said Jackson, a recent New York transplant from Oklahoma, who now works for the city-based non-profit Harboring Hearts. “You think all is fun and games, but then they yell and chase you for money.”

Jackson’s first encounter with costumed characters was a few months ago when her parents visited. “My mom—who is all giggles and had never been to NYC—couldn’t help but pose with them. Then my dad was forced to pay,” she said.  “This happened over and over again.”

New York City native and grad student at NYU Polytechnic Garth Harding, 44, hadn’t yet heard about the crackdown, but after learning of the arrests, said he wouldn’t take a photo with any costumed characters.

Martinez thinks people—both costumed characters and tourists—are scared, and is certain the media aren’t helping.

“Right now it’s slow,” Martinez said. “Ever since the news broke, it’s been hurting our business.”

During this past summer, two Statues of Liberty were arrested after an altercation broke out; one Spider-Man was arrested after allegedly groping a female tourist, and another was convicted of harassment. Another Spider-Man allegedly punched an NYPD officer in the face, and after a fight broke out between one Batman, a Spider-Man, and one rowdy heckler, all three were arrested.

In a study conducted in Times Square by Turnkey Intelligence, an independent market research firm contracted by Times Square Alliance, 45 percent of the 988 survey participants reported an “unpleasant interaction” with a street performer, and as many as 31 percent said they feel “less safe” around characters in costume.

Of those he’s seen come into contact with the law, Martinez said, “There are a few bad ones,” but emphasized that many street performers “get provoked.”

“They might exaggerate a little bit when they ask for a tip, and sometimes they get caught,” he said.

But Martinez remains convinced that he has a worthy gig. “There are more characters everyday—why not?” Martinez said enthusiastically. “There’s nobody here to boss you around,” he said. “I’d rather be here than be in a store or a restaurant. I can walk freely—I can take breaks.”