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Hometown U.S.A.: Las Vegas

Turning the sidewalk into a stage

Street performers on the Strip jostle for space with promoters, peddlers and pedestrians. County officials recently announced a plan to tame the space, but for now, it's anyone's game.

August 21, 2011|By Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times
  • Michael Jackson impersonator Chris Gardener and Elvis impersonator Tony Gallardo ply their trade with a tourist while Elvis impersonator Robrigo Gonzalez, right, watches.
Michael Jackson impersonator Chris Gardener and Elvis impersonator Tony… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

The Michael Jackson dance-alike toiled for three hours to prepare for his performance: arching his eyebrows, reshaping his nose with tape, airbrushing his skin to King of Pop perfection.

He wriggled into a black military jacket and black floodwater pants that mirrored the singer's style, down to the bunched white socks.

He headed to his usual haunt on Las Vegas Boulevard: outside gilded Planet Hollywood, near the busy crosswalk to fountain-fronted Bellagio. Atop a stool, he balanced a black fedora and a single glittering glove.

Photos: Costumed characters on The Strip

Then Jalles Franca chitchatted with out-of-towners and mugged for photos in the kind of heat that stings the skin. For hours, he experienced the ecstasy and indignity that come with turning the sidewalk into a stage.

In recent years, Franca and dozens of other starry-eyed showmen have tested the core mythology of Las Vegas on its bustling Strip — that with moxie (and perhaps some sparkling apparel), anyone can transform himself into a moneymaker. Or an entertainer.

The idea is so powerful that Las Vegas Boulevard and downtown's casino corridor now teem with Chuckys, Super Marios, Mickey Mouses, bagpipers and feather-adorned showgirls, as well as rose peddlers and bottled water sellers.

Like many Vegas fantasies, the reality has proven far more pedestrian. So many buskers and hustlers have crowded onto booze-drenched walkways that turf wars have broken out. Police have struggled to root out troublemakers, and casino security has sparred with the likes of Zorro and Elvis.

County officials recently announced they would task a panel of community leaders with figuring out how to tame the Strip. Performers responded: Good luck.

Franca, 29, has been doused with beer and burned with a cigarette. Drunks have tried to pick fights. Tourists have mooned him.

On a recent night, a passerby taunted: "Michael Jackson is a pervert!"

Another joined in: "Michael Jackson is a female!"

Franca shrugged.

"As a fan, I take it personally," he said. "But I love it when people applaud. In that way, they keep Michael alive."

Years ago, authorities said, few costumed characters preened on the Strip — save green-suited Lucky the leprechaun, who was employed by the down-market casino O'Sheas.

But around 2005, Los Angeles police started busting self-employed impersonators who posed for tips on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. L.A. authorities have arrested an Elmo, a Freddy Krueger, a Mr. Incredible and a dark-hooded "Scream" killer, among others. A Chewbacca reportedly yelled "Nobody tells this Wookiee what to do!" before head-butting a tour guide.

"Some lost perspective on what they were doing, and were genuinely upset when they weren't noticed or tipped," said filmmaker David Markey, who spent a year with the likes of Superman and Captain Jack Sparrow for his documentary "The Reinactors." "Some of the egos matched that of the stars they were portraying."

Some buskers fled to Las Vegas, where a rush of casino openings had crowded the sidewalks with tourists and few rules existed to rein in street performers. Their presence inspired down-on-their-luck locals.

Franca, for one, was laid off from the MGM Grand nightclub Studio 54, where he had performed as a dancer for years. Then auditions pretty much dried up. Then he thought of the Michael Jackson wannabes he'd spotted on the Strip.

"I'm not going to say they're not good, but they were not doing him justice," he said.

After moving from Brazil to Las Vegas in high school, Franca had grown enamored with Jackson's music and moves. He eventually made costumes from various Jackson eras, such as the red jacket and springy curls of "Thriller," and won costume contests.

When Jackson died in 2009, Franca got his right leg tattooed with an image of the pop star dancing.

Franca now twirls and gyrates outside Planet Hollywood up to six days a week — sometimes for as long as 15 hours. He's also been hired to perform at clubs, weddings and a church service, where he sang "Man in the Mirror" (he doesn't try to mimic Jackson's voice). The work helps sustain him and his wife, Ashli, a nightclub server on the Strip, and her 7-year-old son.

"It also feels good," he said. "This is what entertainers live for: applause."

Dozens of buskers have joined him on the boulevard.

Before the economic crash, Armando Pique often mocked the Strip's Hello Kittys and Star Wars fanboys. Then the recession pummeled business at the grocery store where he worked and his hours were dialed back.

In February, he approached a man on the Strip who played Darth Vader by day and a stormtrooper by night. The performer told Pique he made as much as $70,000 annually.

At 4-foot-9, Pique considered which character might suit him. Mighty Mouse? Mini-Me? He settled on the King of Rock 'n' Roll, and paired a $200 red- and gold-trimmed jumpsuit with a black wig and white boots that add three inches of height.

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