I’ve lived in Hollywood, right in the thick of the renaissance, for the past decade. This has its pros and cons, but one thing I’ve enjoyed about living here is that it’s been fascinating to witness the renewal of Hollywood, to see the formerly glamorous town gone bad return to being a desired destination. It’s gotten to the point in the last several years where even celebrities are back, although they tend to only come out at night and then stick to their designated celebrity hangouts. Another upside has been the influx of tourists who, after years of disappointment, finally get to see a shiny, vibrant Hollywood that meets their expectations.
One particular group of locals that has benefited from the tourist-infested rebirth of Hollywood are the street performers who hang out on Hollywood Boulevard dressed as iconic movie and TV characters. They congregate mostly in front of the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theater, sometimes drifting as far as next door to the Virgin Megastore and Hollywood & Highland complex.
Why do they do it? Apparently, it’s a living. They pose for pictures with tourists, hoping for tips in return. In general, they make the tourists happy, which is important, even if they frequently run afoul of local business owners and the LAPD.
The cast is seemingly endless. The Star Wars universe is represented by Darth Vader, Yoda, and the occasional Storm Trooper. Superheroes abound: Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, and Mr. Incredible. Stars of yesteryear live on in the forms of Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin. In fact the best Chaplin impersonator I’ve ever seen was a woman who worked as The Little Tramp out in front of the Chinese Theater a few years back.
Mickey Mouse makes frequent appearances and an amazingly authentic Captain Jack Sparrow is a regular. Disney characters on parade never fail to amaze me since the Mouse House is known for hyper-vigilance of its trademarked characters. I’m not sure if they somehow miss these particular unauthorized uses or if they choose to turn a blind eye. Either way it’s not like them, but again, it makes the tourists happy.
The Incredible Hulk, Pinhead from Hellraiser, a diminutive Chucky and the Scream Ghost Face Guy lurk about. A sequined, single-gloved Michael Jackson is still around, moonwalking for the tourists. Apparently the former King of Pop is still big with the Japanese, and of course, Elvis still lives (and poses for pictures) in Hollywood.
Characters on the boulevard are so much a part of the area that they make multiple appearances in Joseph Wambaugh’s 2006 LAPD novel Hollywood Station. I dare you to read this book and not laugh out loud at the mere mention of “Smellvis”, the hygienically challenged Elvis impersonator.
Locals aren’t spared. I once walked into the Hollywood & Highland post office to find myself in line behind The Cat in the Hat. I was also in line at a Hollywood Boulevard drug store recently when Captain Jack Sparrow came in to stock up on eyeliner. The guy wears more makeup than I do.
Another time, I witnessed Mr. Incredible and Elmo cuffed and leaning against a black and white, their “heads” removed and sitting on the car’s hood, after LAPD busted them for bullying tourists about tips despite having been repeatedly warned by law enforcement against doing just that. I still wonder if any kids present that day are still traumatized by the experience of seeing these characters exposed as just guys in costumes.
Although I see them constantly, one thing I’ve never tried to do with this cast of characters is get any closer to them than passing them on the street. It’s hard to take them seriously; I think of them as a bunch of aspiring actors who aren’t talented enough to wait tables. I always have an overwhelming desire to inform them that McDonald’s is hiring. Sometimes I even feel kind of embarrassed for them.
The 2007 documentary Confessions of a Superhero profiled four of these people — all aspiring actors — who earn their living dressing up and mingling with tourists on the Walk of Fame. I can’t say it was the best documentary I’ve ever seen, as there were a few moments when it dragged a bit, but I can recommend it as something worth watching at least once, especially if you live in the area, are thinking about visiting, or if you’re just fascinated by unapologetic crazy people.
Jennifer Wenger is a small-town homecoming queen who always loved performing. She came to L.A. and works the starred sidewalks as Wonder Woman. She’s very pretty, seems to be a decent actresss, based on what we see in Confessions and, in my opinion, is the one of the four who could actually make it in this town. In fact, I’m kind of surprised she agreed to be part of what could be viewed as a freak show exposé. It probably has something to do with the adage “no such thing as bad publicity.” She’s definitely the most obviously normal of the four.
Joseph McQueen sold his Super Nintendo for bus fare to L.A. around the time of the Rodney King riots. This guy has the benefit of wearing an outfit that completely obscures his identity: He’s the Incredible Hulk, with a full mask. The downside is that when the temperatures rise, he faints in the costume. Initially I thought he was another in a long line of head cases who come to L.A. with delusions of grandeur, but when he tells his story of being homeless for four of the many years he’s been in town. and how he still managed to not only survive but audition during this tough period, it really brought me over to his side.
It’s hard not to give him credit for perseverance and admire his love of acting. His joy at receiving news that he’s been hired for a small part in a low-budget film is so genuine and infectious that by the end, you can’t help but pull for him. Stardom is highly doubtful, but maybe he’ll at least make a decent living acting. That would still make him one of the fortunate ones.
Maxwell Allen. Okay, here’s where things start to go downhill. He’s Batman by day and has anger management issues by…day and night. He frequently alludes — both to us the audience and to his visibly uncomfortable therapist — to a dark, murky past working for some very bad men and that basically, while a part of that world, he uh, in so many words, killed a man. At least he’d like us to think so. His own wife is dubious about this claim.
Allen informs us that his biggest obstacle to stardom (besides all the other baggage) is that he’s a George Clooney look-a-like. That’s not his ego running wild; he really could be Clooney’s twin. His evil twin. I don’t know why he hasn’t at least gotten a job as Clooney’s stand-in the resemblance is so startling. I noticed it before Allen ever mentioned it.
But he doesn’t have the irresistible Clooney charm, and eventually we’re treated to local news footage of Batman getting busted by LAPD after an altercation with some construction workers near the Chinese Theater (a Madame Tussauds Wax Museum is being built next door). When we last see Allen, he’s working security on a local shoot. Let’s hope he doesn’t fall back on old, supposed bad habits and kill, kill, kill! Assuming he ever really did. You can’t help but wonder if he doesn’t see that as an oh-so-mysterious back-story if he were ever to become famous. No such thing as bad publicity, right?
Then there’s our leading man, Christopher Dennis, aka Superman. Oh dear, where to start? He doesn’t just play Superman for the benefit of tourists; he lives and breathes the Man of Steel. Saying he’s obsessed is showing great restraint. The documentary shows multiple exterior establishing shots of his apartment building — which appears to be in a part of Hollywood untouched by the renaissance of the past decade — in which he houses an impressive, wall-to-wall collection of all things Superman. This collection is apparently quite valuable, in the neighborhood of $90,000 according to Dennis. One can’t help but wonder how long it will be before someone ID’s the building and robs the place. There’s a lot of stuff packed into that apartment and it’s got to be worth something.
The veteran of our costumed quartet (he’s been at it for over a dozen years) also claims to be the son of Oscar and Tony Award-winning actress Sandy Dennis, despite her family’s claim that she never actually had a son. He also claims he never had any Hollywood aspirations until his mother begged him to go into acting on her deathbed. Now he has big aspirations, but I have a feeling this documentary will be the apex of his “acting career.” Dennis proposes to his girlfriend (it’s true, apparently there is someone for everyone) at a Superman convention and yes, he wears the Superman costume for the ceremony.
It had to be tempting, but to their credit the filmmakers never stooped to mock the performers, allowing them to present themselves on their own terms. Any disturbing weirdness that comes across is directly from the individual performer to the viewer. And again, to their credit, I did feel some sympathy for these denizens of the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, even if I still think they’re crazy in their own varying ways. Hollywood has always drawn desperate dreamers and it probably always will. At least they can say they tried.
Plus, they make the tourists happy, and that’s important in the new and improved Hollywood.