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Costumed characters play for tips on Strip

Hello Kitty beckons to passing tourists by waving her paws and blowing cat kisses into the air.

In her pink pajamas, pink mittens and brassiere made of seashells, she seems oddly out of place in front of Paris Las Vegas on the Las Vegas Strip. Until you watch her work and see how people respond.

Nearly everyone points. Parents hand their toddlers to her and snap photos. Others cajole their older, less trusting children to greet the anthropomorphized feline.

“Go on, hug her. It’s Hello Kitty,” the parents say.

After the laughs have been had and pictures snapped, Hello Kitty gestures to her sand bucket with the dollar bill taped to it, then watches as moms and dads drop tips in it.

Hello Kitty, played by Manuel from Los Angeles, has been working the Strip for the past three months. He declined to give his last name because his student visa expired years ago and he’s afraid of being deported.

Manuel is one of dozens of costumed characters working the Strip for tips. They are on the sidewalks in front of almost every major resort. Their presence has garnered media attention, police attention, casino attention. A lot of attention, which, at times, has caused tension. For an example, visit YouTube and watch the video of Batman (played by Maxwell Allen) getting body-slammed to the ground by a dude who took his picture.

Then there’s the man who dresses as Zorro; he is suing The Venetian, alleging that he was detained illegally by hotel security last year. Those are the more extreme and infrequent cases, but plenty of bad stuff happens to costumed people on the Strip. Woody from “Toy Story” had his head knocked off. Luigi, of Super Mario Bros. fame, was tackled recently. Someone once picked up Manuel’s bucket of tips and poured the money over his own head.

“This is a dangerous job because you don’t know who you’re dealing with,” Manuel says.

He started performing his cat routine on the streets of Hollywood more than a year ago. Then he, along with several other costumed characters, was arrested last summer for aggressive panhandling, he says. Several of them decided to try their luck here because they heard that there were more tourists in Las Vegas, says Manuel, who took to the costumed life after he was laid off from his manager job at El Pollo Loco.

Some people object to their presence, but, Manuel says, what he, Zorro, Batman, Mickey Mouse, Goofy and the others do is well within their First Amendment rights. They’re just trying to earn a living. Manuel refused to say how much money he earns during a typical shift – he works about eight hours a day, five days a week — but good days can bring more than $100.

On a holiday, some costumed characters can make as much as $250, says Jorge Muro. On a slow day, they may bring in $50 in tips.

Muro holds a unique place among the characters, as he serves as supplier for many of them. In November, he started renting out costumes to would-be street performers for $40 a day. He has costumes for Donald Duck, Goofy, Mickey Mouse, Super Mario Bros., Sonic and about 15 others.

At any given time, Muro has from six to 13 costumes out at a time. After his customers pay him, they keep what’s left over.

“And if they don’t make enough to pay the rent, I work it out with them,” Muro says.

Muro moved to Las Vegas in 2007 and got a job as a server at the Flamingo, he says. His hours were reduced and, even though he got called to fill in for vacationing people, the work wasn’t steady enough. A friend who dresses as Elvis and works the Strip for tips suggested Muro rent out costumes because people asked him almost daily where to get one.

So Muro ordered some costumes online, costing $400 to $600 each, got a 16-foot box truck and some coolers and opened for business. The $40 price includes personal service: Muro delivers the costume to renters and includes a cooler full of ice and bottled water. Most of his customers work the Strip near Bally’s. Rentals come through word of mouth, he says.

It hasn’t made him rich, but he’s earning enough to pay the bills. While police occasionally have asked the costumed characters for identification, they don’t attract a lot of attention from them, Muro says.

Some of the veteran characters don’t appreciate what they view as an outsider honing in on their territory, though.

“I know some other characters that have been on the Strip are kind of mad at us. It’s competition for them, but the people who rent the costumes from me, it’s people who don’t have a job. They’ve been struggling,” Muro says. “Thousands of people walk the Strip every day. There’s enough to go around for everybody.”

Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at spadgett@ reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564.

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