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The Strip

What’s the county got against Barney?

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Who wants a photo with Barney?
Photo: Steve Friess

It is something like 156 degrees outside, and I stand at Flamingo and the Strip begging. “Please,” I plead with Luigi, Barney and Mr. Stormtrooper. “I really need your names for my column. It’s a journalism thing.”

And yet, as if they’re Iranian dissidents, Mafia informants or underlings of Sheldon Adelson, they refuse to tell me who they are. The fear is palpable.

“You gonna to get us in trouble,” the big purple dinosaur says with more broken English and less gay giggle than I recall from babysitting my sisters’ kids. “Leave us alone.”

I’d love to, but local politicians have in their sights the poor souls who dress up as fictional characters and take photos with tourists for tips. “We can’t just sit back and allow something like this to happen without addressing it,” said Clark County Commissioner Lawrence Weekly at the August 2 meeting.

Actually, sir, you can. With everything else that’s happening in this town, from the unemployment rate to home foreclosures to Shelley Berkley’s hair, this is the topic you’ve decided requires a panel’s study? Seriously?

Between my blog, my podcast and Twitter, I interact with hundreds of actual Las Vegas customers every month. That’s why I feel pretty authoritative about what I’m about to say: Nobody cares about the fake SpongeBobs and Austin Powerses.

In all these years and through thousands of pieces of correspondence, I have never received one single complaint from any tourist bemoaning this as a problem. Not one. On the contrary, stand out there and watch sometime: Drunk tourists love these guys. Who, I ask in all honesty, wouldn’t want to have a photo with Mrs. Claus in July in front of the Bellagio Fountains to post on Facebook?

I do hear often from visitors who despise the fellows who shove porno and escort materials into their hands. Also quite the annoyance are the time-share hawkers. Resort fees and crappy blackjack payouts, too, offend the masses who pay the taxes we’re too cheap to cough up.

So what’s really going on here? The resorts, evidently, think it’s kind of tacky—hilarious, I know—to have these characters out front amusing people, so they’ve tapped on the shoulders of the politicians they own to do something. Thus we get the spectacle of some lady who believes herself to be a “professional” cartoon character actor telling commissioners that her competition is drug addicts and ex-cons. “I know of sex offenders working on the Strip, and it makes me sick,” said the pious crank who dresses as Bumblebee. Well, duh, I know of them too. They’re called prostitutes.

Barney, Luigi and Mr. Stormtrooper swore up and down that they’re sober and simply trying to provide for their families in tough times. Also, it’s blazing hot and itchy in there, in case you wondered.

What’s even more crazy-making about the County Commission “addressing” this matter is that they must know they can’t do anything about it. Sometimes I think ACLU attorney Allen Lichtenstein ought to cut a generic tape explaining that the Constitution allows a certain level of free expression in public spaces and, oh, by the way, we litigated this a zillion times and we always win. Then he could save the trip to the dais and just ask them to refer to his previous testimony. Or an intern could hit play. Whichever.

The courts have said time and again that there’s very little anyone can do to stop the porn slappers, which is the actual “problem,” if there is really one. And if they can’t stop that on account of that pesky First Amendment thing, then surely they’re not going to concoct some formula that the Ninth Circuit will accept to stop people from donning Tigger or Goofy costumes. There may be something illegal about dressing as a trademarked character, but that’s a problem for the owner of the intellectual property, not the cops.

We journalists usually point out problems, but this is a case of the absence of a problem. Move along, folks. Nothing to see here. Well, unless you want a photo, and you know you do.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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