The Celebrity Impersonators Fighting Los Angeles Gentrification
Hollywood characters have been fighting to preserve their way of life for nearly a decade, battling a city they believe is trying to push low-income families out of the area.
Kevork Djansezian / Courtesy of Getty Images
Matthias Balke, a middle-aged man in a collared shirt and blue hoodie, is taking a call at Kelly's, a C-list coffee chain next to Hollywood Boulevard's Dolby Theatre, where the Oscars take place. He looks like any other guy discussing a startup over a lukewarm mocha, but he's the opposite of a disruptor. For nine years, he has dressed up as Batman for a living, and he's fighting to preserve his way of life.
It's been a rough few years for Hollywood characters, as Los Angeles locals refer to the men and women who dress up as superheroes and Minions on Hollywood Boulevard. Last year, Kerry Morrison, executive director of the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance labeled the performers "an absolute embarrassment to our city," and the City Council considered forcing impersonators to get a pass to do their jobs, limiting the number of artists on the street. The city ultimately decided to let street artists and vendors to continue to operate on Hollywood Boulevard, but costumed performers remain on edge.
In the same way real estate companies team up to promote their businesses, Balke and three other actors have organized the Association of Hollywood Characters. Now they are combatting business owners to keep their right to impersonate for money.
Kelly's, which is in the Hollywood & Highland mall, functions as the office for the several impersonators who run the association. "The kids love taking pictures with us," Balke gushes. He and other Hollywood characters view themselves as affordable entertainment for working-class families who couldn't afford $110 Disneyland passes. "A lot of the people I take pictures with, 50 to 60 percent are Latino families from southern California," Balke notes. He fears the city wants his colleagues and clients booted from the street.
"Certain businesses consider these people to be low rent people that they want out of Hollywood… It's gentrification at its worse," Balke explains. "They can tell these people to leave all the want. Where are they supposed to go? Bakersfield?"
A source close to Mayor Eric Garcetti maintains that the city lacks unilateral city planning efforts, but Hollywood characters have been fighting for their rights for close to a decade. In 2010, Balke and three other street actors sued the City of Los Angeles and members of the LAPD in federal court. They claimed police arrested them on false charges for "obstructing" a sidewalk. Balke was handcuffed, taken to jail, and ordered to pay bail, according to the suit. As he puts it, "The First Amendment was eliminated on the block."
(Through a press representative, Hollywood Property Owners Alliance declined to comment. The Los Angeles Police Department, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, and Hollywood & Highland did not return Broadly's request to comment.)
Other performers supported their suit. "We pretty much all know one another," says Joe Ansalvish, who dresses up as Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. "We don't live together in the same room, but some of the same buildings."
US District Judge Dean Pregerson ruled in the Hollywood characters' favor, writing, "The court is further sensitive that although costumed performance may not be a traditional form of speech, it is without doubt a protected one." Or as Paul Louis Harrell, who has performed as Iron Man since 2009, puts it, "If it looks like a sidewalk, it's a sidewalk... They were sued, thus proving the fact that we live in America not some crazy dictatorship."
But as many have learned, freedom is not guaranteed in America. On June 18, 2013, Jason Joel Wolstone, a homeless panhandler, fatally stabbed Christine Calderon because she didn't pay to shoot a photo of him. (A judge later sentenced Wolstone to two years in prison.) The characters worried that the city would associate them with the violence, so they formed the Association of Hollywood Characters.
"Hollywood was booming in the press [with headlines like] 'Hollywood is unsafe,' Ansalvish recalls. "We knew there were going to be things in the works to counteract that, and we wanted to let them know, hey, we're still here." They built relationships with the city. "We're very good friends with the LAPD, Chamber of Commerce and all that," Ansalvish says. "We try to be a help to the community."
"You're never gonna get rid of that Hollywood vibe, the blood spilling out over the stars."
Asalvish, Balke, and their friends separate themselves from other character actors who badger people for tips. Harrell recalls one impersonator who would organize a pack of thieves and harass women. "He would be like, 'I'm gonna do one where I kiss you on the cheek,' and then he would turn their head and kiss them on the lips actually," Harrell claims. "A good character will not approach you. We always say, 'I take picture for tips' before a picture.'"
Harrell and Balke, the Batman performer, spends hundreds maintaining their homemade costumes. "When the company that I worked for for 14 years went belly up and laid me off… I figured I'm done working for the man," Balke says. He had heard that "the establishment Batman had moved to Vegas," so he built himself a batsuit. Although he has since flipped cars acted in plays and film projects, Batman remains his steady gig.
He prides himself on investing in his costume and frown upon cash-hungry newbies who show up in costumes they bought at stores, like the Sylvester the Cat wearing a onesie you can buy on Amazon and the blue Avatar impersonator grinding to "Drunk in Love" outside Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum.
Inferior costumes both demean their profession and harm the Association of Hollywood Characters' cause. Harrell thinks Hollywood characters should love art and sees his own self-employment as an extension of his acting. (For several months earlier this year, he was filming a movie in Prague.) The boulevard's street art scene allows him to act and pay his rent.
"It is a working class job, except for it's completely crazy and you're dealing with any type of energy," Harrell jokes. "You're dealing with the homeless, you're dealing with people from other countries, you're dealing with sometimes gang members, alcoholic people that are drunk."
The Association of Hollywood Characters dreams of crime leaving Hollywood, but also want the neighborhood's rent to remain low. Last year in Los Angeles, rent grew by 5.2 percent in 2016 alone. "My rent is rent controlled, but they're smashing down buildings that are rent controlled and some of these buildings are from the old Hollywood section," Harrell complains.
In an email statement, Alex Comisar, the mayor's press secretary, responded, "Angelenos have sent a clear message that they want a future with more affordable housing and communities oriented around our growing transportation network. Mayor Garcetti is committed to realizing that vision in an inclusive, equitable way that keeps families and neighborhoods together."
Harrell and his colleagues question their intentions and worry Hollywood could lose its historical flavor in the wake of Los Angeles's on-again, off-again plans to destroy the Parker Center, a mid-century modern landmark that once housed the LAPD. "This is sacred ground we're standing on right now," Ansalvish points out. "This is the ground where Greta Garbo walked, where Clark Gable was at, Marilyn Monroe. We kind of take a lot of pride in this is our neighborhood."
"I'm from Germany originally. I came to Hollywood the first time in 1990," Balke reminiscences. For 15 years, he says, he has lived in a historic building where Marilyn Monroe once resided. "I loved that history," he admits like a starstruck tourist.
Harrell idolizes Hollywood as much as his cohorts, but he knows for every movie icon there's a murdered starlet or a wannabe who started a cult because his career never took off. In his view, neither characters nor the city can remove these Babylonian elements from Hollywood.
After all, one of Los Angeles's few underground Metro stations, Hollywood and Vine, pumps people from all over the city—and the world—onto the Boulevard.
"You're never gonna get rid of that Hollywood vibe," Harrell says, "the blood spilling out over the stars."