Image: Mickey and Minnie Mouse
Julie Jacobson  /  AP
James Miller, left, and Robyn Vanderlip — dressed as Mickey and Minnie Mouse — pose with a tourist on The Strip on Saturday in Las Vegas.
updated 6/27/2011 11:41:08 AM ET 2011-06-27T15:41:08

The Las Vegas Strip is teeming with Spidermen, Elmos and Elvis Presleys of all waistlines.

Nevada's woeful economy has inspired dozens of jobless and under-employed men and women to dress up like celebrities, movie characters and cartoon heroes in pursuit of a buck. In the past year, fat and fit Elvises, as well as would-be Homer Simpsons, Mad Hatters, and Batmen, have set up shop on bustling sidewalks across this city of vice and excess, offering tourists the chance to pose for a snapshot with someone who kind of looks famous.

The gratuity-driven performances have created tension between Las Vegas' mighty gambling industry and free-speech advocates who defend the constitutional rights of adults in spandex pants, rainbow wigs and foam muscles.

Casino titans, and government officials who understand where their tax revenue comes from, have eyed the street performers with alarm and, at times, called in police intervention. The Venetian on the Las Vegas Strip allegedly detained a man dressed like Zorro last year after he posed for a tourist's camera on a public sidewalk bordering the hotel-casino. More recently, the city council relaxed its restrictions on street performers because of legal threats.

"Sometimes the mentality is what's good for the casinos is what's good for Las Vegas, and there is a tendency to forget we are in the United States," said Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Nevada. "The Constitution protects expressive activity."

Lichtenstein is representing Zorro, legally known as Jason Perez-Morciglio, in a lawsuit against the Venetian. The lawsuit contends Perez-Morciglio was walking in his Zorro garb across Las Vegas Boulevard last year when a passer-by asked for a picture with him and to hold his sword.

Venetian security guards allegedly responded by detaining the Zorro lookalike and having him arrested for trespassing. The Venetian's legal team claims the Zorro was trying to sell knives without a vendor license.

Sidewalk performers are not unique to Las Vegas. Creative and enterprising panhandlers are as common as hot-dog stands in urban centers across the nation.

Rise in sidewalk showmen
What makes the ubiquitous players along the Las Vegas Strip noteworthy is how swiftly their numbers have grown. In a city where celebrity impersonators have long enjoyed headliner status, sidewalk showmen were mostly unheard of before Nevada's epic economic fall. The Silver State has led the nation in unemployment for months and, for some, street performance is a final attempt to fend off financial disaster.

"It helps pay the bills, and it lets them go home with a memory they love," said Luis Reyes, an underemployed electrician who poses with tourists in downtown Las Vegas as KISS frontman Gene Simmons.

Reyes, 48, began his sidewalk tribute to Simmons in November after, to his surprise and frustration, his move from San Francisco to Las Vegas put him no closer to full-time employment. His homemade costume includes a studded codpiece, high-heel boots designed to look like angry dragons and a pair of leather black wings. He hopes to parlay his street hustle into a paid gig as a celebrity impersonator.

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Police spokesman Bill Cassell said the performers began mushrooming on Las Vegas streets last year. They gained national attention last month after a man dressed as Batman became involved in a street tussle with a tourist near the Monte Carlo casino on the Las Vegas Strip. No one pressed charges, Cassell said, but the video of the fight circulated on social networking sites.

Pavement performers appear encouraged by a series of court rulings nationwide affirming their right to dress like SpongeBob SquarePants in public.

Most recently, a federal district court in 2009 determined that Seattle's restrictions on street performers were unconstitutional. The case revolved around a balloon artist who opposed the city's efforts to require all buskers to obtain permits.

The courtroom wrangling is shaping public policy.

Las Vegas for years limited what street performers could do along its bustling Fremont Street, a pedestrian mall downtown bathed in LED-lights and lined with geriatric casinos.

That policy was relaxed in February after a series of court rulings determined city officials could not black-list certain people from public land. The city didn't entirely back down. Under City Hall's new rules, costumed characters on Fremont Street must still keep away from doors, ATMs, crosswalks and outdoor cafes.

Mayor Oscar Goodman opposed changing the ban, claiming the street performers could attract other unwanted peddlers, specifically the men and women who pass out sexually explicit leaflets on the Las Vegas Strip advertising escort services.

"I'm not mad, I'm angry," Goodman said at the time. "I don't like it."

Working for tips
On Fremont Street on a recent weekend night, visitors did not seem to share Goodman's concerns.

They gleefully lined up to pose for pictures with a parade of celebrity and character impersonators. There was a Wolverine from "X-Men" lore, a twirling Michael Jackson and at least two Captain Jack Sparrows from Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise. The costumes ranged from the cheap polyester garments found at discount Halloween shops to elaborate homemade concoctions emboldened with handfuls of satin, lace and red fur, depending on the character.

"He sang to me," Leticia Holmes, a 57-year-old Utah mother, boasted after posing with a crooning man dressed as Prince. Holmes also posed alongside a Rod Stewart doppelganger, noting: "My sister-in-law is going to be jealous."

The merriment of the crowds can belie the desperation of the costumed performers who need to make rent. The impersonators cannot demand money for their services, but must strictly rely on tips.

A man who gave only his stage name as G.B. Entertainer is a 55-year-old Rick James impersonator who moved to Las Vegas 11 years ago with dreams of starring in a celebrity impersonation show. Entertainer claimed he began hustling on Fremont Street last year after nearly all his paid gigs disappeared.

Impersonation jobs are increasingly limited. "American Superstars," one of the longest-running shows in Las Vegas, closed at the Stratosphere casino in March.

As James, Entertainer said he earns $75 in tips on his best days. When it's slow, he might make $14. He poses in a red sequined suit and zebra-printed boots six nights a week.

"You're the baddest brother on the planet," a passing fan told Entertainer on a recent night.

But the man didn't give Entertainer a tip. Few people do.

"I'm tired of it really, because I belong on stage," Entertainer said as he collected a few $1 tips. "It's fun sometimes, but mostly it's degrading. It's embarrassing."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Welcome to Vegas

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  1. Welcome to Las Vegas

    The Bellagio's fountain show entertains visitors nightly. In the background is Bally's Las Vegas, left, and Paris Las Vegas, which has a 50-story Eiffel Tower replica in front. Over 37.5 million people visit Las Vegas each year. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Fremont Street Experience

    Located in downtown Las Vegas, this exciting pedestrian promenade is home to approximately 16 million lights, making it one of the largest LED screens in the world. (Brian Jones / Las Vegas News Bureau) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Looking for Lady Luck

    Casion visitors play slot machines at the Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dunking Elvis

    An Elvis impersonator performs a slam dunk during the 2007 NBA All-Star Game on February 18, 2007, at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. (Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAEGetty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Grand casinos

    Lights from passing vehicles are seen in front of the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Poker face

    Jamie Gold, right, of California and Paul Wasicka of Colorado go head-to-head on the final table of the World Series of Poker no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event at the Rio Hotel & Casino on Aug. 11, 2006, in Las Vegas. Gold outlasted more than 8,700 other poker players to win the top prize of $12 million. Wasicka won just over $6.1 million for finishing second. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Glitz and glamour

    A Canon display is seen inside the Las Vegas Convention Center at the Consumer Electronics Show. Las Vegas is the nation's top business travel destination, with easy airline access, numerous hotel rooms, low rates, plentiful convention facilities and a wide range of dining and entertainment options. (Karl Polverino / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Over-the-top entertainment

    Performers ride a Volkswagen Beetle across the stage during a preview of "The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil" at the Mirage Hotel & Casino on June 27, 2006, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A New York minute

    The New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas recreates the Manhattan skyline, complete with replicas of the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge. (Courtesy of MGM MIRAGE) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Entertainment mecca

    Kenny Chesney performs "Out Last Night" at the 44th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas on April 5, 2009. (Mark J. Terrill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tying the knot

    From left, Elvis Presley impersonator Norm Jones plays guitar as Bruce Barnett of Virginia Beach, Va., escorts his daughter Gayle to her wedding ceremony at the Graceland Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Graceland is the oldest wedding chapel in Las Vegas and offers ceremonies with or without Elvis impersonators. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Explosive attraction

    The $25 million, newly redesigned volcano display in front of the Mirage Hotel & Casino features 150 choreographed FireShooters sending fireballs more than 12 feet in the air and a custom soundtrack created by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for MGM Mirage) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A night on the Strip

    Hotels and casinos line the Las Vegas Strip. From thrilling roller coasters to erupting volcanos to art museums, Las Vegas' many attractions appeal to people of all ages and interests. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Fight night

    David Diaz and Manny Pacquiao fight during the fourth round of the WBC Lightweight Championship at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on June 28, 2008, in Las Vegas. Pacquiao won in a ninth-round knockout. (Harry How / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Day at the races

    Rookie driver Shawn Langdon earned his first No. 1 qualifying position of his career at the NHRA Nationals at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on April 4, 2009, in Las Vegas. (Richard Wong / NHRA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Fabulous shopping

    The Juicy Couture retail store at The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace is seen before the grand opening February 5, 2009, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images for Juicy Couture) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Stunning shows

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  18. A slice of Italy

    Visitors take a gondola ride at The Venetian in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Get into the groove

    Dina Buell, left, and Carla Giordano, both from California, dance at the pool at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino during Rehab, the resort's weekly pool party, in 2005 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Let’s get this party started

    Party goers gather for the grand opening of LAX Nightclub Las Vegas in 2007. (Chris Weeks / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Big laughs

    Comedian Ellen DeGeneres performs at a taping of ''Ellen's Even Bigger Really Big Show'' during The Comedy Festival at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace in 2008 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A kingly stay

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  23. A dancing fountain

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