September 2014


When Did Theme Park Characters Escape from the Park?



It used to be that if one had kids and wanted them to meet Mickey Mouse, Minnie, Woody, Buzz Lightyear or other members of that cartoon fraternity “in the flesh,” one had to go to Disneyland, or some such designated area within the Disney empire.


At Goofy’s Kitchen in the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, while the kids were eating the ears off a Mickey Mouse-shaped waffle, Goofy himself might come over to the table to sign a few autographs. Later on Main Street, you might catch Cinderella, pretty as a picture, taking pictures with the kids as if a Hollywood celebrity.


I would never be so crude as to insult any of these characters— or the cherished memory of Walt himself—by offering a tip for what the Disney folks call “plussing the experience.”


Similar encounters could be had at Universal Studio, Knotts Berry Farm, Hershey’s Chocolate World in Pennsylvania, etc. It was cute…it was wholesome…and what harm could there be in any of this?


Then somewhere along the line when we weren’t looking, as the kids grew up (and I started to shrink), the theme park characters escaped from the park. They are now roaming the streets of Times Square and Hollywood Boulevard, and who knows where else in between.


What is the raison d’etre for Mickey Mouse and his friends to be in Times Square? And in droves? Perhaps because it has become too “all family,” which can be greatly attributed to Disney itself, what with its Broadway musical invasions.


That has been the lament of many who have longed for the days when it was a grittier more adult place. And each holiday season these characters are venturing further beyond, and here they come right down my avenue to prey on tourists near Radio City.


Beyond the Disney battalion, they have now been joined by action heroes, video game characters and (gag me) those ubiquitous “Statues of Liberty” standing on pedestals, faces painted in oxidized green, torches held shakily aloft.



Two such Lady Liberty’s (men actually) got into a turf war not long ago, and one was arrested for pushing the other to the ground in front of the Marriott on Broadway. (Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to take a “selfie” for a tip/ I lift my lamp at the Times Square door).


Then of course, there was this infamous encounter trumpeted on page one, in the finest tradition of tabloid journalism:


And let’s not forget the Cookie Monster who allegedly became verbally abusive and pushed a 2-year old after the kids parents refused to pay two bucks for the photo op.


This atop other reported incidents which have included a Super Mario groping a woman, another Spider Man punching just an ordinary citizen this time, and the “Anti-Semitic Times Square Elmo sentenced to one year in prison for $2 million extortion attempt from Girl Scouts” (New York Daily News).


Nice folks.


No one is really advocating bringing back the pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers of yore. But the unmasking of these characters, does raise interesting issues that go beyond this being just a New York thing: trademark infringements, governmental regulation, civil liberties, and a question of aesthetics as to just what does constitute legitimate entertainment or performance… to name a few.


These characters are not associated in any way with a franchise. Tourists, especially, assume that the Minnie Mouse they are posing with, works for, or is sanctioned by, The Walt Disney Company. Not so. Minnie is working the streets by herself.


One is surprised that the notoriously litigious Disney enterprise, hasn’t sued for infringing on their beloved trademarked characters. Yet a Civil Liberties Union representative has already stated that putting on a costume and walking around Times Square, appears to be protected under the First Amendment. (And one would assume if they chose to carry a gun under that costume, they would be protected by the Second Amendment as well).


All the same, the city is now considering ways of regulating this motley crew. After all, you need a license to sell hot dogs on the corner, so why not one for selling fantasy on the corner? Police have begun to give stern warnings to what I will call these “Themies,” and have distributed fliers to the public (in several languages) stressing that tipping is completely optional.


“Foul!” cry those in costume, who say they are merely trying to make a living. On a good week, an Elmo can bring home $600 in non-reported “tips.” And Themies consider themselves street performers. As if posing for pictures is a performance. Yet, I guess in a “Selfie” world, one could make that case.


As one who loves the streets, and sees street performers as making a contribution to the city’s vibrancy (see “Shakespeare in the Parking Lot” piece below), I now wonder: where does one draw the line between a performer and a pest? What if there were a cellist on every corner? Or a quartet playing Mozart, creating a crowd, and in my face when I stepped out my building each day? Or God forbid, a menagerie of mimes? Would that be ok?


What makes this all particularly icky, is that it is exploitive of children and their well intentioned parents. Given the sight of a lovable costume, we have assumed the person beneath it to be lovable as well. I used to wonder, “Isn’t it hot under that costume?” Now I wonder, “Just who is under that costume?”


We’re now again talking about the so called Broken Window Theory. (The Squeegee men have been showing up again too. Another story.). First popularized during the Giuliani administration, it states in effect, that when urban disorder of any kind is not put in check, it leads to further vandalism and more serious crime.


If it ain’t broke…don’t fix it. But this window is broke, and there are moves to get it fixed. It has recently been reported, that even the Themies themselves are organizing and uniting to enhance their image. Are we talking about crimes of the century? Of course not. But this is no Mickey Mouse thing either. I couldn’t resist.









Oh to be a fly on the wall

in a lifetime counted
     in days


not a moment could be spared
     to listen


to all that they don’t want you
     to know;


the narrative they deem fit
     to rewrite


the truth they rearrange
     like maggots


on your refrigerator


               —Ron Vazzano







Ten Totems of Obsolescence in Passing



In the business of going about life, one sometimes comes across items that have become virtually extinct, or are in the throes of obsolescence. And in their passing, they speak volumes of changing times and ways of doing things. Or sometimes, simply whisper in the irony, of how silly and laborious the tasks of daily life could be. A life of mechanisms with real buttons to push, and not some digital device that simulates, say, the shutter click of a camera.


Some that I have encountered in recent months, struck me in their “verticalness,” as resembling totem poles of a sort. And a totem pole in essence, is an homage to kinship, legend, and notable events.


In no particular order, I offer ten such “totems,” along with a few free associations, while taking a Proustian stab at remembrance of things past.


The Juke Box… offered songs away from home…ten cents each…three for a quarter…every joint had one …needles on vinyls… push A12 and watch the inner workings silently slide over to Sinatra …never got it wrong…carnival lights as if to trumpet this very big thrill of having music at your command… we walk around now with music in our ears…every song ever recorded…When I was seventeen/it was a very good year


Cigar Store Indian… why an Indian?...politically incorrect?...where do Native Americans “stand” on this?... smoking was cool…cigars had class… good times… celebrations…“It’s a Boy!”…the bands about them— intricate colorful works of art…grandpa…we all lived close by…


100 Watt Bulb… buy four at a time…they burn out…put another one in; throw the old one away with the un-recycled garbage… “At G.E., progress is our most important product.”…a personification of a good idea in bubbles above cartoon heads…as new as the day Edison invented it… till now…who worried about wasting energy?...cared about giving off more heat than light? …these new squiggly things will outlive me…and in a disposable world no less…


Roll of Film… make sure you align the sprockets with the sprocket holes… you could overexpose a whole roll, you idiot…snapshots…developed at Richie’s Drug Store…wait an eternity till they’re ready next Tuesday…red eyes… blurring…someone blinked…a few didn’t come out at all… gotta’ remember to pick up some flash bulbs…Kodak moments… Grand Central Station backlit giant billboard…wow, how clear...we never knew to say “high resolution”…


Wooden Clothes Pin… clothes lines in between tenement buildings…a clothes line in the backyard of the house out in Jersey…same pins…same sun…same grandma…big appliances…post war… modern homes…”A woman’s place is in the home”…grandma long gone …we all lived close by…


Full Length Barber Pole… Edward Hopper…Early Sunday Morning…took up space on the sidewalk…city ordinance now against them?... when?… barbers became hairstylists…not the same smells…not the same price…Sam the barber played the horses and owed shylocks money…my current barber, a woman from one of those Ubetchastans…short pole attached to the side of the place…around since 1928…hot towel on my face… celebrity photos… I’ve never seen Woody Allen there…


Hat Rack… Rat Pack…who wears a hat? ...where do they hang them?...fedoras…Bogie…George Raft …a star who allegedly hung out with racketeers…my father’s was always grey… “I go for men who wear an Adam hat.” …every ad had a jingle…you had to work the crease…no hat rack at grandma’s… someone accidently sat on his hat…a violation of his manliness… he made a big stink about it…


Lighthouse… someone had to tend to the light…live with the light…in your face… how did you get that job?… why?... the only way ships could get their bearings…otherwise wind up on the rocks…marriage… never saw one functioning close up in the night…in the day, yes, non-working…Martha’s Vineyard…the Obamas and Clintons vacation there…Edward Hopper…New England…who can afford to live by the sea?...the Kennedys…Camelot…


Fire Alarm Box… sirens screaming… all in vain…someone pulled a false alarm…good to know they’re there though…I once set off a small fire with an errant cigarette flip down a grating…someone pulled the one on the corner…the fire engines quickly came… call 911!...take cell phone photos till the firemen arrive…fire-persons arrive?…show them the speed at which it is spreading…Smokey the Bore says: “Only you can prevent forest fires.” …I never go in the forest…


Enclosed Phone Booth… …a call was a very big deal…privacy…stack of nickels…we smoked while in there…operator interruptions…a live voice!...did she ever listen in?...friend’s grandfather worked on the development of those accordion doors…“Once There Were Phone Booths… with accordion doors”…a poem…a young man at work… When I seventeen/ it was a very good year?… desperately seeking a Saturday night date (JUNE, 2012 Muse-letter)…


So it goes. With apologies to Kurt Vonnegut. A lifelong smoker of unfiltered Pall Malls, who died from a fall in his home at age 84.







Quote of the Month




        … it's a long, long while from May to December
        But the days grow short when you reach September
        When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
        One hasn't got time for the waiting game


                                                — Maxwell Anderson
                                                    September Song










Shakespeare in the Parking Lot


They gotta’ be kidding. No they’re not. And they have been at this now for the last 20 years: mounting two Shakespearean plays each summer, at a municipal parking lot on the Lower East Side—corner of Ludlow and Broome to be specific.


Why a parking lot? The artistic director of a theatrical group called The Drilling Company— who has taken over production of these plays since 2006— summoned it up:


"It is a tremendously accessible gathering place in the heart of the city. Like most companies that do Shakespeare we are following the spirit of Joseph Papp (i.e. “Shakespeare in the Park” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park). But putting our own spin on it by placing it in a parking lot, making an urban wrinkle.


It has now become a versatile theater where it presents its work, not unlike the Globe was to Shakespeare.”


The plays are presented while the lot is actually in use, although done in the evening when many more parking spaces are available. Still on the night when I was there to see Othello, a car was parked within where the stage area is set up. No problem. The actors, never pretending that it wasn’t there, incorporated it into the blocking of their scenes, even leaning on it at times in improvised moments.


I’m told that plays have actually been stopped while a parked car drives away during a performance, and the audience (usually about 250 people, not counting the stream of passersby who stop to watch for a while, then move on) simply moves its chairs to let it pass through.


Through it all, the superb cast of professional actors, including a friend Robert Arcaro who gave a fine performance as Brabanzio—Desdemona’s disapproving father—soldiers on.


As a New York Times review put it:

“There are so many things working against “Othello” at Shakespeare in the Parking Lot that it’s a minor miracle that the show comes together so well. Traffic noise, funky smells…Even so, by the end, there was more than a little magic in the air.”


The audience as well is put to the test, given a two hour and twenty minute production with no intermission, and with various distractions going on in the periphery of the “stage;” some of which unintentionally funny.


We had all been instructed, that if nature called, to use the bathroom of a friendly bar across the street. And that is exactly what one notices Desdemona doing at one point in between her scenes.


Then there was the cop car that pulled up in the lot, to conduct some business having to do with checking out a suspicious car. At another point, two attractive women in sexy cocktail dresses, stepped out of a car and dropped by to see what was up, while having a grand old time in their apparent inebriation.


In the final dramatic scene, as Othello was approaching Desdemona’s bed with the intent to kill her, a police van this time, crawled through the premises as if being tipped off that a crime was about to take place. And throughout the night, the hammering and drilling from construction going on across the street, though after hours, never really let up.


But ultimately, none of this detracted from this compelling production. In its totality, there was something so exceedingly proletariat about it all—free Shakespeare for the masses and on their own turf. A cutting of Shakespeare down to size, as it can often be so intimidating to so many, given its lofty language (yet common speech in the bard’s day), on lofty stages at lofty prices.


And now, alas Horatio, I knew this parking lot well. Sadly, it is scheduled to be demolished and replaced by an “urban renewal” project next year. Were there such projects in Shakespeare’s day? If so, he would have found another venue, as surely The Drilling Company will. For is not all the world a stage?






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