weather icon Clear

Las Vegas busker lottery plan still controversial after 2 years

Updated September 3, 2017 - 12:12 am

They number only three dozen among thousands in the technicolor landscape, but they’re easy to spot, perched on poker chip decals and encircled by onlookers.

Their talents vary: A double-jointed dancer writhes and twists, a man uses his lips to summon a cigarette that appears to float in midair, and men and women clad in bawdy garb beckon passers-by.

This isn’t a fun house or a fever dream. It’s the scene after dark under Fremont Street’s canopy, where buskers captivate crowds in downtown Las Vegas for tips.

Complaints about racy attire and vulgar signs once flooded City Hall. City officials for years tried to alleviate congestion and enhance safety with regulations for Fremont’s casino-lined, oft-rowdy public pedestrian mall, but they faced legal challenges arguing the efforts infringed upon performers’ First Amendment rights.

The most recent try, a performer lottery system that the Las Vegas City Council passed in September 2015, has largely stuck.

But the rules have met with mixed reviews, and some of the lines that were drawn over the issue remain. City and Fremont Street Experience officials insist the atmosphere is better for visitors, while some buskers say the rules are inconsistently and arbitrarily enforced.

“From the city’s point of view, it’s doing what we hoped it would do. It spreads people out. It moves people around,” City Attorney Brad Jerbic said. “For safety, congestion — by spreading people out and saying you can perform and enjoy all the First Amendment rights you want, you just can’t do it on top of one another.”

Performers tussling over turf was one reason city officials gave for assigning spaces, leading to the six-foot poker chip circles that dot the five-block Fremont pedestrian mall, from Main Street to Las Vegas Boulevard.

“People are vying for these places like they’re real estate,” said busker Jared Carle, who performs as a satyr, the mythical man-goat.

2:53 p.m. Friday, Aug. 18, Fremont Street Experience

A man scrapes pieces of palm off the poker chip decal. He’s been weaving palm fronds into small flowers, but he needs to be gone before the performer assigned to that space for the 3 p.m. time slot arrives.

The hallmark of the city’s 2015 rule is a lottery system that randomly assigns the 38 poker chip performance spaces every night. The lottery is computer-generated, assigning performers to poker chip spaces for two-hour windows between 3 p.m. and 1 a.m., the busiest times under the Fremont canopy. A judge threw out the city’s requirement that all performers participate in the lottery after busker Bruce Peck challenged that part of the ordinance.

Peck argued the city’s ordinance laying out the lottery system was unconstitutional in a lawsuit he filed in October 2015, days before the lottery ordinance took effect. Peck, who represented himself in the suit, took issue with a number of features in the ordinance. U.S. District Court Judge Jennifer Dorsey largely upheld the city’s rules, finding they do not aim to regulate the content of performances and are “narrowly tailored to serve a government interest.”

Dorsey did, however, rule the city can’t mandate all performers participate in the lottery, so if a poker chip is free after 3 p.m., any performer can use it.

The free speech fight was set up by the city’s previous attempts to regulate buskers along the public pedestrian mall that’s managed by the private Fremont Street Experience.

Performers were cited or arrested for “expressing their rights,” said Tod Story, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.

In 2011, the city and the ACLU settled a long-standing lawsuit over “expressive activities” on Fremont. The ACLU then helped craft the 2015 regulations.

If the city wants to make changes to the ordinance, it will be with the ACLU’s input, Jerbic said.

“We learned our lesson the first time,” he said.

10:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12, Fremont Street Experience

They blend in more than the buskers, but they are another common sight in the entertainment area. On this crowded summer night, four of the uniformed Fremont Street Experience security officers split a line of customers waiting at an outdoor bar to lead a man toward a side street.

The private security officers cannot arrest or cite people — that authority is for Las Vegas city marshals or the Metropolitan Police Department. But buskers say the officers hassle them because management at the casinos along Fremont don’t want the buskers there.

Carle said he has been detained and intimidated by officers, and what’s considered entertainment or a performance is subjective.

“It depends on which security guard rolls up,” he said. “They’re going to make a determination of whether it’s entertainment or not, and whether they belong in a circle.”

Balloon artist Heather Baressi said she has been attacked multiple times, and she doesn’t think the performers’ safety is valued.

“There’s nobody making sure our rights are protected,” Baressi said.

A team within the security force, dubbed the “blue shirts,” works with the buskers and educates people on the ordinance, Fremont Street Experience President and CEO Patrick Hughes said.

“We don’t work for the casinos. We don’t work for the performers,” Jerbic said, responding to allegations of unfairness. “We work for the public. We are here to strike that balance.”

Hughes has helmed the nonprofit Fremont Street Experience for a year and a half, stepping in several months after the City Council approved the lottery ordinance.

“The environment has improved from what it was,” Hughes said. “Now you have 38 performance zones versus a free-for-all.”

11:15 a.m. Friday, Aug. 4, Las Vegas City Hall

Multiple lottery registrations for a Batman character with the same email address, the same physical address used twice — these are signs to the city that some people submit multiple registrations to boost their chances of getting a performance space, Jerbic said.

A solution that’s been floated is requiring identification in order to register.

“Do we have dual, triple registrants, people trying to game the system? Yes,” Jerbic said. “We preferred not to require ID, but if we can’t get the system so it’s fair enough without that, we may change our minds.”

Any changes to the ordinance would need City Council approval, but requiring identification would be a no-go for the ACLU, Story said.

“I understand what they’re talking about, and the concern,” Story said. “We would maintain there’s got to be a different solution than requiring ID.”

10:59 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12, Fremont Street Experience

The miniature Michael Jackson impersonator is finishing his set. The young boy sweeps past the semicircle-shaped audience that’s formed around his chip, fedora overturned in his hand. He kisses the hand of a woman in her 20s, but no one offers tips. Then he’s on his way, making room for the performers with the spot’s last lottery time slot of the night.

Some chips may be unavailable during “special events” like the one this night, when Rick Springfield plays a free concert under the canopy. Pieces of paper taped to nearby poker chips said they were out of the lottery.

Some buskers contend there have been times when far fewer than 38 poker chips have been available, but the computer-generated lottery has assigned the spaces, leading to chaos when performers reach an assigned-but-unavailable chip.

Jerbic acknowledged there have been glitches, but he said unavailable chips are supposed to be removed from the lottery. Overflow performance space is always available just outside the Fremont Street Experience canopy on Third Street, where there are fewer restrictions and no poker chip decals.

2:59 p.m. Friday, Aug. 18, Fremont Street Experience

The turquoise one-piece straps over his shoulders and culminates in a thong and a piece of fabric covering his genitals. A young woman walking by asks if the get-up gives him odd tan lines. He shifts a strap to show her his skin underneath, but she balks and keeps walking.

“I’ve gotten the complaints and the letters, with ‘How can you allow this to happen?’” Mayor Carolyn Goodman said.

There also have been complaints in the past about some buskers’ aggressive behavior soliciting tips.

Goodman said complaints have decreased significantly since the ordinance was enacted.

Some buskers see it differently.

“Some of the dirty costumes are gone, but not all,” Carle said. “They got rid of a percentage of what they wanted.”

Instead, Carle says some talent has been driven off Fremont Street, leaving more people panhandling. Unlike performers, panhandlers on Fremont are not required to stand on the poker chips. Meanwhile, buskers, many of whom make their living performing on Fremont, can accept tips but are not allowed to charge a fee for a performance.

The enormous screen, zip line and terrestrial features have made the Fremont Street Experience into a major tourist attraction, and maintaining a good environment is Hughes’ top priority.

One of the biggest complaints tourists levy is about the people Hughes calls the “F-U sign holders,” people who use expletive-riddled signs rather than outright asking for money. Since they’re not performing, they’re usually not in the poker chip spaces.

“To be perfectly honest, we would love for our customers to not see content like that. But that’s not in our purview,” Hughes said. “Our job is to do whatever is possible to ensure there are great experiences. They’ll walk away with those stories, and that affects whether people come back to our city or not.”

Contact Jamie Munks at jmunks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0340. Follow @JamieMunksRJ on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Politics Videos
The Nevada caucus in photos
Best shots from the Review-Journal photo staff's coverage of the Nevada Caucus, Saturday, February 22, 2020.
Bernie Sanders announces his Nevada caucus win to supporters in Texas
At a rally in San Antonio, Texas, Bernie Sanders announces winning the Nevada Democratic caucus.
Joe Biden addresses supporters in Las Vegas
Joe Biden energizes a crowd of supporters at the IBEW Hall in Las Vegas after the Nevada Democratic caucus.
Tweet highlights from the 2020 Nevada Democratic caucus
Confusion, flaring tempers and misinformed volunteers highlighted Review-Journal tweets during the Nevada Democratic caucus.
Voters comment on Nevada Democratic caucus - VIDEO
Nevada caucusgoers comment on the process from locations across the Las Vegas Valley, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Doolittle Community Center hosts caucuses - VIDEO
The Doolittle Community Center hosted six precincts in one room for the Nevada Democratic caucuses, and voters engaged in debate and discussion about who to lead each precinct, Feb. 22, 2020. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Desert Oasis High School has wait for caucus check-in - VIDEO
James Strange has been waiting in line to caucus for the first time for 45 minutes and some said they have been waiting for an hour at Desert Oasis High School for the Nevada Democratic caucuses. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Conservative guru encourages Republicans to vote in Democratic caucuses - VIDEO
Republican activist Chuck Muth encourages his fellow GOP members to change party affiliation for a day to elect Bernie Sanders. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Nevada Congresswoman Susie Lee at Desert Oasis High School - VIDEO
Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev., stopped by the Nevada Democratic caucus at Desert Oasis High School in Las Vegas, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Caucus day in Summerlin - VIDEO
Out-of-state caucus observer Ken Valz speaks about the Nevada Democratic caucuses at Palo Verde High School, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Doors open for Nevada Democratic caucuses - VIDEO
Caucusgoers are lining up Saturday morning to take part in the Nevada Democratic caucuses across the state (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Caucus day at East Last Vegas Community Center - VIDEO
Registration begins at the East Las Vegas Community Center for the Nevada Democratic caucuses, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
It’s caucus day in Nevada - VIDEO
Democrats will gather at over 250 locations across the state to declare their presidential preferences in the Nevada caucuses, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Democratic caucus-goers lined up to register at Liberty High - VIDEO
Democratic caucus-goers lined up to register at Liberty High in Henderson, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Elizabeth Warren holds rally with Julian Castro
Elizabeth Warren held her Get Out the Caucus Block Party with Secretary Julián Castro at the Clark County Government Center Amphitheater.
Trump caps western swing with campaign rally in Las Vegas
President Trump speaks to an enthusiastic crowd of thousands gathered at the Las Vegas Convention Center during a tour across the western United States.
Anti-Trump Protestors at LVCC Rally - Video
President Trump speaks at a Keep America Great rally as a small group of protesters gather outside the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Thousands gather for Trump rally
Thousands showed up for President Donald Trump’s rally Friday morning, forming a line that stretched nearly a quarter mile around the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Trump supporters camp outside the Las Vegas Convention Center
Trump supporters camp outside the Las Vegas Convention Center on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, where President Trump will held a rally on Friday in Las Vegas. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
President Trump lands in Las Vegas - VIDEO
Donald Trump landed in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, as part of a four-day western state swing. (James Schaeffer/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Long lines during early voting in Las Vegas - VIDEO
The final day of the Nevada Democratic Party’s early presidential caucuses wrapped up Tuesday, as thousands of Democrats lined up at 55 locations around the state for their last shot at filing an early preference card before the traditional caucuses on Saturday. Long lines were seen at CSN Charleston in Las Vegas. (Alexis Egeland/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Last day for early voting at Culinary Union - VIDEO
Voters were still in line just before 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, as early voting in the Nevada Democratic Party caucuses came to a close. (Shea Johnson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Pigeons wearing MAGA hats in Las Vegas - VIDEO
A flock of pigeons wearing Make America Great Again hats and one sporting a Donald Trump hairdo invaded downtown Las Vegas late Tuesday, following their release by an anonymous group: P.U.T.I.N. (Pigeons, United to Interfere Now). (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Tuesday is last day to early vote in Nevada Democratic caucuses - VIDEO
Early voting in the Nevada Democratic caucuses ends Tuesday, with sites open throughout Clark County. (Michael Quine and James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Democratic candidates Elizabeth Warren and Tom Steyer talk pay for child care workers - Video
Elizabeth Warren and Tom Steyer talk to care in action about the importance of Medicare for All, paid leave and child care. (Nathan Asselin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Elizabeth Warren barnstorms Nevada ahead of caucuses - VIDEO
Warren is trying to drum up enthusiasm about her campaign after finishing fourth in the New Hampshire primary. Her rally drew about 400 people to the student union of the College of Southern Nevada’s Henderson campus. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Sen. Jacky Rosen encourages early voting at Culinary Workers 226 - VIDEO
Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., spoke to those casting early caucus votes at the Culinary Workers hall on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. Early voting in the Nevada Democratic caucuses continues Tuesday. The Nevada Caucuses are Saturday, Feb. 22. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
2020 candidates rally in Southern Nevada ahead of caucus - VIDEO
2020 candidates Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders held rallies all over Southern Nevada on Saturday ahead of the Democratic caucus. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
First day of early voting - VIDEO
Nevada Democrats turned out in force on Saturday for the first day of early voting in the Democratic presidential caucuses.
Biden and Sully Sullenberger speak in Henderson - VIDEO
Presidential candidate Joe Biden and famed pilot Sully Sullenberger spoke at Sun City MacDonald Ranch to get out the vote for early voting for the Nevada caucus. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada Poll: Bernie Sanders leads Democratic presidential candidates - VIDEO
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders leads the presidential field by a solid margin among likely Democratic caucus-goers heading into Nevada’s four-day early voting period, with with 25 percent of respondents expressing support. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada Poll: caucus vs. primary - VIDEO
A new Nevada Poll finds two-thirds of likely Democratic caucus-goers surveyed in a Review-Journal poll say they’d like to see Nevada replace its caucuses with a secret-ballot primary election to determine support for a presidential nominee. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Caucus events Leading up to Caucus Day 2020 - VIDEOl
As presidential candidates make their way to Las Vegas, here's a look at events, dates and times for the days leading up to Nevada's Caucus Day 2020 on Feb. 22. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Election 2020: Nevada Caucus and Early Voting - Video
AARP's Nevada Caucus discussion with Steve Sebelius about the Nevada Caucus and early voting.
Election 2020: Nevada Caucus - Video
AARP's Nevada Caucus Discussion with Steve Sebelius. Join us as we discuss the Nevada Caucus process.
Las Vegas ready to enforce homeless camping ban - VIDEO
Las Vegas police will begin enforcing a controversial camping ban on city streets on Saturday, but officials say they expect to impose the penalties available under the new ordinance only in rare instances. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Yvanna Cancela Speaks on Supporting Biden - Video
The RJ Politics podcast crew sits down with Nevada State Senator Yvanna Cancela to discuss why she is supporting former Vice President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential race.
Tom Steyer on Donald Trump and the economy - Video
Tom Steyer joins the RJ Politics podcast to talk about his campaign presence in Nevada and how he plans to take Trump on when talking about the economy. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas City Council Votes On Homeless Ordinance - Video
The Las Vegas City Council on Wednesday will discuss expanding on a controversial camping and sleeping ban aimed at deterring the homeless from bivouacking on city streets to include hours when public sidewalks are being cleaned.
Pete Buttigieg Speaks At Black Empowerment Event - Video
Pete Buttigieg speaks at a black empowerment event to talk about his Douglass plan.