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On Ocean City's Boardwalk, Costumed Performers Prompt Legal Debate

A Cookie Monster is one of many costumed performers on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Md., this summer. Kids can pose for a photo with them, and then their parents are expected to leave a tip.
Chris Parypa for NPR
A Cookie Monster is one of many costumed performers on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Md., this summer. Kids can pose for a photo with them, and then their parents are expected to leave a tip.

Late August is peak vacation season, and boardwalks up and down the coasts are crowded. Many beach towns attract musicians, jugglers and costumed characters who work the boardwalk for tips.

Ocean City, Md., is grappling with an influx of new boardwalk performers — some of whom are generating lots of controversy. The trend may be the unintended consequence of a couple of legal victories for the town's street performers.

It's a hot summer night, and the Ocean City boardwalk is packed with tourists and street performers. Ocean City Police Lt. Mark Pacini is in charge of patrolling the boardwalk and finds himself standing face to face with Donald Duck.

"You need to take it off," Pacini says. "I need to speak with you."

The person under the mask is a 16-year-old girl. Pacini stopped her because she was standing on the property of a popular hot dog stand, which is a violation of what's left of the town's law concerning street performers.

"I work here," the girl says.

"You work for them?" the officer asks. "Are they paying you to be out here? They are? Who's paying you to be out here? ... Ma'am?"

Pacini and I follow the girl and a night manager at the hot dog stand into a back room. The manager confesses that the costume belongs to the store's owner, and he hired the girl at an hourly wage to stand in front of the store and draw attention.

"Here's what I'm going to tell you guys," Pacini says. "This is a violation of city ordinance. He's severely in violation of his business license to have someone working on the boardwalk, paying them and then collecting money, so I will discuss that with him.

"Your performance is over," Pacini tells the girl. "I'm asking you to cease and desist. If I see you out here again in this instance, I will give you a citation up to $1,000. Are we clear?"

Costumed performers are everywhere on the boardwalk these days. Basically, kids can pose for a photo with SpongeBob SquarePants or Olaf the Snowman, and then their parents are expected to leave a tip.

On this night, there are at least three of these costumed characters for every guitarist, magician or caricature artist working here.

Pacini says the city basically had to do away with its permitting process since losing court battles brought by two street performers in recent years. Since then, he says, it's like open season — there's even a pole dancer performing for the crowds these days. Pacini says the city's hands are essentially tied.

Dan, who declined to give his last name, is an escape artist who performs Houdini-esque routines on the boardwalk. He says he's not a fan of the costumed characters.

"Not at all ... . The skeleton pirate, he makes his own stuff. That's his art. ... She's playing the violin, he juggles. ... But there's costumes out there that just stand there for tips," he says.

And the costumed characters are adding to the strain of an already poor relationship between buskers and business owners.

Pacini says some boardwalk merchants, like the hot dog stand owner, are taking matters into their own hands.

"They believe the merchants are getting a raw deal," Pacini says. "They're very upset that a person that doesn't have to pay rent, doesn't have to pay licensing fees, doesn't have to pay any of that is able to be out here and collect money."

So now those merchants are doing it themselves, he says.

Illegal or not, other businesses on the boardwalk are getting in on the trend and making fast cash by hiring people to wear costumes on the public boardwalk, which is illegal.

And when hundreds of thousands of people are walking up and down the famous wooden walkway each week, you can imagine how quickly the tip buckets fill up.

There are still plenty of people working independently, with or without costumes. For instance, the pole dancer: Her story grabbed national headlines, and now the city is looking into hiring a First Amendment rights lawyer for advice about what to do.

Bill Hassay Jr. is a boardwalk violinist who challenged the town of Ocean City over its noise ordinance and won a battle in court last year. He says the city should leave the pole dancer alone.

"You have people walking up and down the boardwalk all the time in very skimpy bathing suits," Hassay says. "That one happens to dance with a bucket in front of them. I don't see where that's such a big deal."

There are plenty of people who disagree. And while the town wrestles with the issues, it's apparent the court decisions that protected street performers' rights to showcase their talents and be paid for it have perhaps altered the definition of what busking is.

Here in Ocean City, busking is becoming less about art and a tip bucket. Sometimes it's just a business looking for a little tax-free revenue. And the money is enough to make jaded merchants out to make a quick buck pose as artists — or, at the very least, as your kids' favorite cartoon character.

Copyright 2020 WAMU 88.5. To see more, visit WAMU 88.5.

Bryan Russo