“Avoid stepping on Bela Lugosi
‘Cos he’s liable to turn and bite,
But stand close by Bette Davis
Because hers was such a lonely life.”
-The Kinks, Celluloid Heroes
Most of the characters have been working Hollywood Boulevard for years. This means that the main cluster, the ones who dress like figures who are more than likely coming to a theater near you this summer or next, frequently know each other. Its not unusual to see Superman and Thor chatting at a coffee shop, with the original Robocop in line behind them, as though their universes had quietly overlapped. Lattes and mochas in hand Superman, Thor, and Robocop will make their way up a few blocks then cross the street to Kings Shanghai Theater, where Spider-Man and a heavily padded Hulk are already posing for tourists.
It’s Kelly and Michael who interest me, though, both because they’re unlike anyone else on the Boulevard. They’ve worked it long enough to see more than two dozen of their fellow players come and go, in addition to fights over everything from territory and copycatting to outright muggings of other costumed crusaders.
The origin of dressing up as famous characters from movies, or taking advantage of a resemblance, aided with makeup, to a living or dead film star and letting tourists have their picture taken with you is obscure. Doubles were used to promote films even in the days when you could see a Chaplin feature for just a nickel. But people who do it regularly, who aren’t promoting a specific film, are something very new. Its also a bicoastal phenomenon–you can find many of the same characters in New York, but Hollywood Boulevard is, if not the epicenter, then the place that has the greatest concentration.
Some collect money. Is it a job, then, or a hobby? For many, Kelley and Michael tell me, it’s just a hobby. If I come back on Saturday I’ll meet a Star Wars Storm Trooper who has been doing it just for fun for almost ten years. The ones out here on Wednesday morning, though, are mostly like buskers, hoping strangers who’ve opened their cameras will also open their wallets when the hat is offered.
Is there any resentment toward the weekend warriors? I ask.
“No.” Kelley’s answer is decisive. “If you dont get along with the other players you don’t last on the Boulevard.”
“And it looks bad if there’s bad blood,” Michael adds. “A couple of years ago there was a big fight, and it blew up all over the internet. People didn’t realize it got so much press because it was so rare. We still talk to people who think fights happen all the time, or who think they’ll get punched if they don’t pay us for taking a picture.”
I don’t tell Michael that I’m familiar with the incident–or at least one of them. I have a file of stories, starting with a person in a filthy Elmo costume harassing tourists in New York that first piqued my interest in sidewalk characters. The file is thin because such incidents are rare. Because they’re mildly sensational they get attention, and this explains why even players like Kelley and Michael, who aren’t shy about offering the hat, insist they’re not in it for the money. Those who don’t contribute are still thanked for stopping. What Kelley and Michael, and some of their fellow players, really hope for is to be noticed. Thats why the prime spot is in front of King’s Shanghai Palace: it’s the most famous movie theater in the world, home of more premieres than any other. It’s also the starting point for the hundreds of tourists who make a pilgrimage to Hollywood Boulevard to study the names on the Walk Of Fame, or to look at the hand and footprints of bygone stars and marvel that Douglas Fairbanks could do such fantastic stunts with such little feet. Seeing characters who, mostly, look like they’ve stepped right off the movie set onto the sidewalk is an added bonus.
And yet Kelley and Michael have staked out territory in front of the less famous King’s Babylon Theater. Older than the Shanghai, three blocks away, but also built by Samuel King’s partnership, it’s an artifact of art nouveau opulence, a beige rectangle framed at the front with bas relief palm trees. It’s topped with a ziggurat where, according to legend, William Faulkner would sit on moonlit nights with a candle and a bottle of bourbon and punch up scripts. It fell into disrepair in the seventies, but was restored in the late nineties, and now attracts a steady, albeit small, stream of enthusiasts. Does Hollywood keep these monuments out of reverence for an imagined golden era of the silver screen, or will they only stand as long as history is profitable? Either way it’s comforting, especially when contrasted with the other side of the street. Directly across from the theater is the coffee shop which has become my observation post, and which has a sign proudly boasting new management. On one side of it a sandwich chain is moving in, the traces of the burrito chain that moved out still lingering. On the other side is an empty space for rent, one of the front windows smashed, and the interior littered with wine bottles.
The location Kelley and Michael have staked out is unusual, but even stranger are the looks they’ve chosen. When they started they, like the rest, dressed as recognizable characters.
“I was Wonder Woman,” Kelley explains. Her costume was from the campy 70s TV show, since Wonder Woman is one of the few heroes who hasn’t gotten a big budget makeover yet. “But I got tired of the leers, the pawing during pictures. Wonder Woman was a hero to me when I was growing up. I liked her. A lot of guys like her too, but for different reasons. Too many wanted me to kick them in the nuts. Not that I wouldn’t have liked it in some cases…”
Michael was Magneto. Even then he took the odd tack of being a super-villain, ”but only because I thought I couldn’t pull off the hero look,” he says with a trace of bitterness. At just five-foot-six he also lacks Ian McKellan’s stature. And, in spite of the success of the X-Men franchise, he was still the Boulevard player most likely to be asked, Who are you supposed to be? Aside from Darth Vader villains occupy a much lower tier than heroes.
When Kelley and Michael began working together they decided to do something different.