Lawmakers look to regulate Elmo, Spider-Man and other Times Square costumed characters

times square character elmo
An Elmo impersonator sits in Times Square.
Credit: Bess Adler/Metro

Elmo may be getting his own ID.

After a string of incidents and growing concern, officials are hoping to regulate costumed characters that solicit money for photos in Times Square.

“It seems crazy — wanting to give IDs to people who dress up in costumes — but there have been so many complaints,” said Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance.

The performers have become more noticeable in recent years, partially following the arrests of several characters, including Mario, the Cookie Monster and Woody from “Toy Story.”

In the most recent incident last month, a man dressed up Spider-Man was accused of groping a woman.

“I ‘grew up’ with the Naked Cowboy,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said of the “creepy” characters. “This is not something I’m used to.”

times square character elmo
A group of Times Square character performers pose for a photo.
Credit: Bess Adler/Metro

Officials said the number of characters has proliferated. During a survey on a recent Saturday, the Alliance counted 76 costumed performers in Times Square. The most popular were Elmo, Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

New York City is known for quirky characters. But officials said the costumed performers often harass and threaten people in Times Square, demanding tips and scaring children.

Councilman Dan Garodnick, whose district includes part of the popular destination, said tourists and parents will pay the characters because they feel scared.

“They don’t know what to do other than hand over money,” Garodnick said.

For tourists, “That shouldn’t be their first welcoming,” Brewer added.

Visiting from India, Angela Zonunpari said the characters added a “certain charm” to Times Square.

“But being constantly asked i f I want to take a photo with them gets a little frustrating,” said Zonunpari, 25.

times square characters minions despicable me
A woman in Times Sqaure pays two people dressed as minions from “Despicable Me.”
Credit: Bess Adler/Metro

The characters, along with CD peddlers and tour bus hawkers, may also be having an impact on the area’s theater industry, said Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League. Though overall Broadway attendance is up, the percent of suburbanite theater-goers has decreased, from 19.5 in the 2011-2012 season to 17.1 in the 2012-2013, according to the league.

St. Martin said the characters are partially to blame because they change the atmosphere of Times Square. 

“You see costumed characters with their hats off and smoking a cigarette,” St. Martin said.

Lawmakers are drafting legislation that would regulate the characters, proposing a license requirement and background checks. Officials are also concerned with copyright infringement.

Bronx Councilman Andy King plans to introduce legislation July 24. He said he’s worried about children.

Just last week, a Strawberry Shortcake impersonator took of her head in front of King’s 5-year-old granddaughter during a visit to Times Square. She began crying and several adults around began yelling at the woman in the costume, who started cussing in return.

Seeing a beloved character act that way — or with a human head — can confuse children, King said.

“We want to make sure we protect the innocence,” he said.

times square character elmo
A man wears a Mario costume without the head.
Credit: Bess Adler/Metro

Tompkins said a regulatory system would also help stop the “bad characters.”

“If Elmo 36 is doing bad things to people, we can track him down and take his license away,” Tompkins said.

The difficultly, lawmakers said, is regulating the characters without violating the first amendment, including freedom of expression and the right to panhandle. Officials are working with lawyers to ensure any laws would balance those rights while curbing harassment.

A few of the characters seemed open to regulations on a recent afternoon. Paul Smith has only been dressing up as Spider-Man for a month but said several characters can get aggressive.

“There are definitely some of them who shouldn’t be here,” said Smith, 50.

times square characters elmo minnie mouse
Elmo and Minnie Mouse impersonators in Times Square, without their masks on.
Credit: Bess Adler/Metro

Tompkins said he doesn’t want to ban the characters outright.

“The whole point of a regulatory scheme is to help the people who are trying to honestly earn a living,” Tompkins said.

Despite the “bad apples,” Smith said a few characters already tell passers-by they want to charge for photos before they’re taken.

“That’s what’s needed. Some etiquette,” he said.

Recent incidences involving costumed characters:

— A Spider-Man was arrested for allegedly groping a woman in June.

— A Woody from “Toy Story” was charged with forcible touching in January.

— A Cookie Monster accused of shoving 2-year-old in April 2013 got one day of community service.

— Another Spider-Man was convicted last month of harassing a woman in February 2013. He was accused of punching a mother when she wouldn’t tip him. Batman had to intervene when she threw snow at the character’s head.

— A Super Mario Brother was arrested for groping a woman in December 2012.

— An Elmo’s antisemitic rant was caught on tape in June 2012.

Samar Khurshid contributed reporting. Follow Anna Sanders on Twitter @AnnaESanders


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