Times Square cartoon characters a headache for New York authorities

Incidents involving 'superheroes' at Times Square, including assault on a policeman by Spider-Man, trigger calls for greater controls

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 3:48am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 4:24am


These are tough times for Batman. His fellow comic book characters hustling for tips in Times Square are giving superheroes a bad name. Spider-Man even punched a policeman last week.

And there's a new mayor with an attitude that does not bode well for the caped crusader, or for the Minnie Mouses, Mickey Mouses, Hello Kittys, Cats in Hats, Cookie Monsters, Elmos and other masked creatures who mill about area.

"Absolutely, I think this has gone too far," Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week when asked whether it was time to rein in the colourful characters. "It needs to be regulated."

This isn't the first time city officials have discussed imposing restrictions on the costumed hordes, who number in the dozens in Times Square. Each time one of them is accused of acting more creepy than cute, there are demands for legislation.

In 2012, an Elmo was captured on video in an anti-Semitic rant. Last year, a Cookie Monster was arrested after allegedly pushing a toddler and yelling at his mother for failing to tip him generously. In January, a man dressed as Woody from Toy Story was charged with sex abuse for allegedly touching young girls.

City officials have been hesitant to act, citing freedom-of-speech issues that give street performers the right to work for tips, but last Saturday's assault on the police officer has given new energy to leaders who want to control what police chief William Bratton has called "the Elmo craze".

According to the police report, the violence erupted after a man and a woman had their picture taken with Spider-Man on Broadway near West 42nd Street. As is the norm, the woman gave Spider-Man a tip. Apparently, it was not enough.

"The female attempted to donate US$1 to Spider-Man, who refused it, put out his hand and told the woman fives, tens or twenties only," police said, citing the account of the officer who had been standing nearby. "Overhearing this, the officer approached the female and told her she can donate whatever she wants to the male dressed as Spider-Man."

Thus began an expletive-laced diatribe, officials said, which ended with him punching the policeman in the face.

It was a quieter Times Square two days later. At least a dozen costumed characters roamed the pedestrian plaza near a toy shop, homing in on parents with young children or on tourists who were obvious by their cameras and giddy smiles.

Pascal Tomasso, visiting from Paris with his family, stopped to take a picture of his two daughters with Minnie Mouse. Instantly, four more characters appeared beside the girls and got into the photograph. Then, each put out gloved hands while dangling signs reading, "Tips please."

Tomasso, who handed over US$5, said he would not have given as much if the additional characters had not appeared.

"But they did it properly. They were polite," Tomasso said, adding that such things were to be expected in New York. "It's a business city," he said.

Danielle and William Holly, who visit regularly from Trenton, New Jersey, with their toddler son, were not as tolerant. They are wise to the ways of the Times Square characters, and William Holly was engaged in a complicated exchange of bills with Hello Kitty after handing over cash for a picture and asking for change.

"I gave you change for nothing," the woman under the giant head muttered to William Holly, who said that behaviour gave others a bad name.

"Batman was very nice," Danielle Holly said, "but you have to be in control here."

William Holly said the characters should be licensed and undergo background checks to ensure none were paedophiles or violent criminal.

In the past, some characters have said they favoured regulation. On this day, no doubt due to bad publicity surrounding the Spider-Man incident, most didn't speak to reporters.

Only Batman would chat, and he denied anybody was pressured to tip well.

"A tip can be whatever you want," Batman said.