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At Hollywood and Highland, All the Sidewalk's a Stage

Entertainment: Street performers are drawing crowds at the complex, creating a lively scene that occasionally spills off the curb into traffic.

September 04, 2002|GEORGE RAMOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The latest attraction at the ritzy new $615-million shopping and entertainment complex at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue isn't in the stores.

It's out on the sidewalk.

There are groups of break dancers, whose choreographed routines draw large crowds that block the sidewalk on Hollywood. There are magicians, mimes, clowns, tarot card readers and others who offer entertainment for donations.

And there's the motionless Mercury Man, a silvery costumed living statue, who specializes in doing, well, nothing.

Audiences drawn to the performers have grown so large, police say, that the sidewalk sometimes ends up getting blocked on weekend nights. Some pedestrians are forced onto the busy boulevard, just to get by.

But some say that's part of the price for the popular sidewalk spectacle that has surfaced at Hollywood and Highland since the complex opened last November.

"To me, this is Hollywood," said a tourist, Amy Johnson, who was visiting recently with her husband and two toddlers from Oregon City, Ore. "Performers, the stars' plaques on the sidewalk, the footprints at Grauman's [Chinese Theatre]. I love it."

Her husband Bruce agreed.

"The crowds, the people performing ... that's why we came to visit Hollywood," he said. "We'll tell our friends to come here. This is fun."

Street performers are commonplace at some of the most popular shopping districts in Southern California: the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Colorado Boulevard in Old Pasadena and the Brand Avenue business district in Glendale, to name a few. There's also an assorted lot of earthy street folks who entertain at Venice Beach.

The money can be good. Some performers, who'd prefer not to boast about it publicly, say they can make as much as $500 on a good night at the Santa Monica promenade.

On Hollywood, performers can make $200 to $400 in a few hours.

If recent Sunday nights are any indication, things can be downright crowded at Hollywood and Highland.

At one corner, a group of break dancers moonwalked to a Michael Jackson song. Just 10 feet away, a clown fashioned animals from balloons.

Another break dance group, the color-coordinated costumed Troopers, ran through three-minute routines to songs blaring from a boombox. The performances brought hearty applause from onlookers.

The Troopers are "doing the art we love, and the people love it," said Rodney Banks, a group member who goes by the name of Scrap while dancing.

"They love to check us out."

Among the acts on the sidewalk is 26-year-old Victor Cretella, the Mercury Man, who says he can stand motionless for five hours.

He stands still until someone puts a donation in a can in front of him.

"The Mercury Man thanks you for supporting Hollywood," he says suddenly to more than a few startled visitors, motioning to shake hands or waving to acknowledge the tip.

Looking more like an alien from outer space than from his native New York, Cretella gets some interesting reactions.

"Are you tired?" one girl asked the Mercury Man the other day.

No answer.

"Do you want to get into a staring contest?" one teenage boy asked.

Still not a word.

When one onlooker fashionably dribbled a basketball near him, Cretella, out of character, suddenly asked, "You might want to join the Lakers?"

"You see that?" the dribbler blurted out. "He moved! He talked!"

For their part, the operators of the Hollywood and Highland complex like the street performers' routines.

"It's great entertainment for our customers," said LeeAnne Stables, the complex's chief marketing officer and spokeswoman. "We've hired a few of them to entertain on our property. It's a great part of Hollywood."

The sidewalk scene isn't without some problems, however.

LAPD officers on foot patrol in the area say they constantly have to remind the performers not to impede foot traffic.

"I must have talked to these guys a dozen times," Senior Lead Officer Mike Shea said. "Some of the break dancers do flips, and they come inches from the crowd. They're the ones who cause most of the problems. We have to immediately stop them.

"Sometimes it's out of control," he said. The dancers have been an off-and-on problem for about five years, he went on, "but never to the degree it is now."

Banks said he has been cited four times for blocking the sidewalks because of the large crowds that watch the Troopers perform.

The Mercury Man was incredulous when he was cited recently for blocking the sidewalk. "How can I block the sidewalk if I am perfectly still?" he asked.

Cretella said he is sensitive to police actions against street performers because he ran into the same problem--though he still wasn't moving--while doing his thing in a subway station in New York.

"The cops treat you like you're a vagrant, a bum," he said. "They don't see what we do as viable."

Not true, Shea replied.

It's good to have people flocking to Hollywood, he said, but "pedestrians literally have to walk into traffic lanes to get past the crowds of people watching the street performers. It's a very unsafe condition."

So far, the street performers seem to be winning the test of sidewalk wills. Banks said he has beaten in court the four citations issued against him.

And Cretella said the citation against him was dismissed last week.

"The city attorney agreed with me that it's physically impossible for me to block the sidewalk," said the self-styled master of stillness.

Meanwhile, the visitors seem to agree that the street action is good for Hollywood.

"What's the harm?" asked a first-time Hollywood visitor, Gale Henderson of Buffalo, N.Y. "Just like Spider-Man, Superman and Batman, these people make Hollywood what it is--a place to have fun."

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