The rules of engagement are simple: Stay on the sidewalk.
Don’t be aggressive, and bite your tongue, especially when people flick you on the beak. It’s going to happen no matter what, and getting mad at passing tourists could result in an old-fashioned beatdown. Also, expect anything to happen, because it will, and when it does, just roll with it. Maybe even make it part of the act.
Above all else, if you find yourself wrestled to the ground by three grown men, play dead. Someone will help you. Eventually.
These are the rules that Larry, aka the Vegas Penguin, learned during his three-week tenure walking the Strip wearing a penguin costume. The day after he was laid off from his retail job at the Monte Carlo, Larry was out there, relying on the good will of tourists to tip and protect him.
It seemed, at first, that he would be doing this for a long time; job opportunities were not materializing. Last week, his fate changed, but only after he violated one rule of street performing: Larry got aggressive. He walked into Minus 5 Ice bar at Mandalay Bay, dressed as a penguin. He asked for a job. The manager gave him one. As a penguin. Now, instead of dressing as a penguin for tips, he dresses as a penguin for a paycheck, handing out coupons for the bar.
“The guy is creative enough to show up for a job at an ice bar in his own penguin suit,” Minus 5 manager Marc Siebmann said in an email. “That’s not only aggressive, it’s smart.”
When he was laid off, Larry, 28, didn’t want his father to find out. He still doesn’t, even though he’s gainfully employed. So, for the purposes of this story, he wants to be known as the Vegas Penguin. Or maybe Slushy, he doesn’t know yet. He started a Facebook page, The Vegas Penguin.
“I’m trying to create a brand,” he says. “Maybe become the newest Strip attraction.”
As a freelance penguin, tourists gave Larry a dollar or two to pose for pictures. Some gave him money because they were just tickled to see the tuxedoed bird in the desert. Occasionally, tourists rescued him from other, rowdier tourists, such as the time three guys tackled him for no reason.
“I didn’t know what was happening. I thought I was getting robbed,” says Larry, who did what any prey might do in the wild. “I just laid still.”
Vegas Penguin – V.P., if you really get to know him — was one of dozens of costumed characters working the Strip for tips. Some gnarly things have happened to a few: Batman got slammed to the ground. Super Mario Bros. were hassled. Someone poured Hello Kitty’s tips on the ground.
Larry heard the stories; a guy who dresses as Jesus told him. Luckily, he hasn’t seen or been involved in an all-out brawl, and he wants to keep it that way. He’s kind of a demure penguin.
“As long as I stay on the sidewalk and play by the rules, I’m OK,” he says.
Since he worked at a Strip casino, he was familiar with the costumed characters and thought, after losing his job, that he could make some fast cash by joining them. He chose his costume because it was original, Larry says, and because he had a penguin suit left over from Halloween.
It may seem like all fun and games, dressing in a costume and using a silly nickname. But to Larry, it was a temporary solution to a serious problem. It was either this or porn or something illegal, and he didn’t want to let his parents down, he says.
“I needed to do something,” Larry says.
When he first went out, he didn’t know what he was getting himself into, but he learned fast. It’s hot in that costume, he says, but the tips were better during the day, so he simply endured. The veteran characters could be territorial, too. Some insisted that he stand at least 10 yards away from them. Larry’s happy to be a captive penguin, so to speak, and not at the bottom of the freelance character food chain.
Larry was born and raised in Las Vegas. After graduating from Rancho High School, he joined the Air Force but discovered it wasn’t his thing. He left the military and took some hospitality classes at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, eventually landing his job at the Monte Carlo.
When he was first interviewed for this story, Larry was discouraged about his job prospects. He had been looking for work every day, but the application process for casino jobs takes a long time. He hopes to one day work as a concierge, something he studied at college.
Now, though, he is grateful for the chance to work and prove himself to his new employers. He knows the approach he took – dressing in a penguin costume and asking for a job – won’t work for every costumed character on the Strip. But he hopes his tale of success can inspire others.
Still, Larry offers a word of caution. Or maybe he’s marking his territory. Either way, “being a penguin in Vegas is tough,” he says.
Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at spadgett@ reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564.