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It is now safe for superheroes to walk the streets of Hollywood again. The Los Angeles Superior Court issued a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit filed against the City of Los Angeles by some of the costumed characters.
Matt “Wolverine” Balke, Terrell “Batman” Tomey, Melissa “Catwoman” Beithan and Paul “The Joker” Herrell are all listed as defendants in the lawsuit, which is aimed at putting an end to the arrests of street performers dressed as superheroes on Hollywood Boulevard.
“The injunction] states the police are not to enforce certain sections of the municipal code unless they are witnessed by the officers,” explained Larry Webster, supervising attorney at the Hollywood branch of the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office.
“It prohibits officers from arresting them for open solicitations and loitering,” said Carol Sobel, an attorney for the defendants.
The injunction, issued Nov. 17, cites Berger vs. the City of Seattle, a case that concluded street performers were protected by the First Amendment. It also prohibits officers from arresting the superhero characters for blocking the sidewalk.
“It enshrines the rights of street performers under freedom of speech,” Balke said.
Balke, who is listed as the lead plaintiff, used to dress as ‘Wolverine’ from the ‘X-Men’ movies before he was arrested on June 4, along with Beithan and Herrell, for blocking the sidewalk.
“We were just standing there,” Balke said. “The police were dealing with a shoplifter and once they were done with him they made a beeline for us.”
The arrests began in May as a crackdown on the dozens of street performers who were present on Hollywood Boulevard. It was aimed at performers who were allegedly harassing tourists and strong-arming them for tips.
“The city has been dealing with these people for five or six years,” said Kerry Morrison, executive director of the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance. “This has been a problem that has grown as the resurgence of Hollywood has grown.”
Morrison said there have been reports of aggressive behavior such as groping, blocking the sidewalk and scaring children. Some who were arrested had criminal records.
“One had a child molestation charge,” said Morrison, who added that others had been found guilty of vandalism and driving under the influence of alcohol. “These are not Disneyland characters.”
Chris Dennis, who has dressed up as “Superman” for more than 19 years, agreed there are some characters who do not belong on the boulevard because of their aggressive behavior, but insists those are the minority.
“A few rotten seeds do not ruin the whole batch,” Dennis said.
Dennis added that there had never been a complaint filed against him during the time he has been dressing up.
“I do it for fun,” he said. “There are most of us who just want to make it fun for everyone. That’s what it’s about.”
The arrests last summer did have a significant effect on the number of superhero characters plying their trade along the famous street. Balke, a motorcycle messenger for 13 years, dressed up on weekends for fun, but after his arrest, he shaved his signature “Wolverine” sideburns to make himself less recognizable to police, and thus less of a target for arrest. Dennis recalled counting 89 performers on the street at one time, but added that he has seen that number dwindle to approximately 15 since the actions by the city.
“It was a free-for-all at one point,” Morrison said.
Morrison blamed the amount of performers on the absence of a performance district to regulate the estimated $1.8 million a year business of street performing on Hollywood Boulevard, a number Morrison thinks may be modest.
“I have asked a few of these performers how much they make a day,” Morrison said. “Some of them boast they make as much as $1,000 a day.”
Dennis said those estimates may be too high, considering the unsteady nature of the business.
“There are days you make good money,” Dennis said. “But there are also a lot of days where you could make fifty dollars for a whole day of work.”
Requiring performers to get permits would have been one solution to the over-saturation of characters, but neither Morrison nor Dennis could make any progress toward that end.
“The problem is the legitimate performers left,” Morrison said.
Many performers moved to Santa Monica, Venice and Las Vegas.
“I would be more than willing to pay a licensing fee,” Dennis said. “But there are a few people out here who do not have the mentality to be here.”
The court injunction also makes it unlikely that issuing permits to performers will become a viable option.
“Berger vs. Seattle states that issuing permits is an infringement on our first amendment rights,” Balke said.
Balke plans to dress up again next year after he takes a vacation to Europe.
“I may do another character next year or ‘Wolverine’ again if I get fake chops,” he said. “Now that the injunction is in place, I can.”
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