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October 1, 2014

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After OK’ing booze restictions on Fremont Street, Las Vegas turns attention to street performers

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Steve Marcus

Las Vegas Gold Statue” Steve McDonald stands behind a sign at Fremont Street Experience on Sunday, July 27, 2014, in downtown Las Vegas.

On a recent summer night along Fremont Street Experience, one SpongeBob Squarepants, two Spidermans and three guys in jockstraps walked the street.

There was also a man in an odd costume that included an overcoat, a fake machete and a mask that looked like a rag with holes cut for eyes. He sprinted after two women who ran away screaming.

Then there were Jerad and Amanda Miller, the husband-and-wife duo who in June shot and killed two Metro officers and a civilian. The Millers had once rented costumes to collect donations on Fremont Street.

Buskers and Panhandlers

Tourists from Riverside, Calif. watch a performance by contortionist Kelvin Gordon at the Fremont Street Experience Sunday, July 27, 2014. STEVE MARCUS Launch slideshow »

With complaints stacking up about Fremont Street performers, the city of Las Vegas is considering new rules to make tourists feel comfortable. From Madrid to New York City to St. Louis, government leaders, entertainers and civil liberties groups are debating whether cities need new rules to regulate street performers and protect pedestrians.

“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback, as well, from buskers who follow the rules that it’s becoming a serious issue to the point that some people were actually frightened," said Metro’s downtown area Capt. Shawn Anderson.

In Las Vegas, the debate comes amid a wave of new city rules over public drinking and drunkenness on Fremont Street, a pedestrian-only walkway in a canyon of casinos and hotels.

City licensing staffers are seeking advice from performers, casino operators and consultants on how to craft a legally sound ordinance that regulates street performers but preserves Fremont Street’s character — and its characters. Any new rules are still months away.

After the recession, the number of costumed characters on Fremont Street and the Las Vegas Strip grew rapidly. Unable to find work, the unemployed donned superhero garb, slipped on rock star wigs or painted themselves gold to entice dollars from tourists.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada has previously sued the city over free speech issues at the Fremont Street Experience.

In a June interview, Tod Story, the ACLU's executive director, acknowledged the Fremont Street Experience has become "a bit overwhelming."

But he also cautioned any restrictions have to be carefully constructed.

“The blanket ban (on protected free speech) was what we were fighting before,” Story said. “You can’t just ban people you don’t like from going into a public space.”

Story added: “They have a right to be there, to associate and to speak or, in this case, perform."

Las Vegas isn’t the only city finding colorful but unregulated characters populating its streets. Other cities are starting to notice problems and they're drafting new rules.

New York City Council members have drafted bills to require licensing and background checks of street performers after a spate of aggressive interactions between police and performers.

Seasoned performers in Las Vegas say they welcome some kind of licensing or registration, as long as it isn’t too expensive.

Michael Duran, who played Strip characters for years, said the new rules would reduce the number of entertainers and make it easier to make a living. It also would help keep out panhandlers masquerading as performers.

“You watch these bums get out of hand, grab parents, grab kids,” said Duran, who often plays Superman. “If you want to be out here, we need to know who is under your mask.”

Guitarist Kenny Payne, who plays a string of classics from The Eagles and Jimi Hendrix, said he wouldn't mind a registration and a small fee. But he also hopes Fremont Street doesn't lose its characters in the process.

“This is Vegas,” Payne said, looking down Fremont Street. “People who want to get away from the rigmarole of their city or town, that’s why they come here and get loose. All of this is just a part of Las Vegas.”

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