Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Friday the 13th to Remember!

Ready to draw! (No, not draw blood,
draw people).
You might know a few people who stay home on Friday the 13th because it's a bad luck day, and leaving the house for unnecessary errands would just be tempting fate. I not only left home, I drove a couple hundred miles and dressed up like a nurse! (Luckily there is a costume / fetish shop near my house where I was able to pick up a last-minute nurse's hat to go with super-red lipstick.)

See, I know a few people who see Friday the 13th as a great reason to throw a party. This past weekend I traveled to Southern California to participate in a really wacky event that is part outreach, part fundraiser, part "I dare you" party, and part reunion.
Margaret Downey introduces her volunteer staff of "doctors and nurses," ready to help "cure" the crowd of any lingering superstitions.

In addition to the table centerpieces, there was an area with
food  and food-related superstitions.
Margaret Downey, a longtime activist, equality warrior, and friend of mine, has been throwing these "Friggatriskaidekaphobia Treatment Center" parties in different parts of the country for nearly two decades now. The event always draws interest from the secular and skeptic communities, and news stations see it as an interesting angle to highlight during a dreaded Friday the 13th. As you may have figured out, "Friggatriskaidekaphobia" simply means "fear of Friday the 13th." It's not the only superstition highlighted at the event. A walk around the tables provides an educational tour of many historical and cultural-specific superstitions you might not have been aware of, as each table was topped with a unique centerpiece illustrating a particular item and it's superstitious significance.

This mid-1990s look for the MGM was putting off too many
rich Asian gamblers, who thought it was a little too close
to "walking through the mouth of a lion."
Superstition might be all fun and games (as certainly they were that evening), but many skeptic writers have explored and criticized how this type of thinking can be detrimental. Buildings avoiding the label of a 13th floor, people not shopping on unlucky days--all of it adds up to a dent in the economy and bizarrely missing elevator buttons. Here in Las Vegas there's a famous local story (one that cost our economy millions of dollars) involving the MGM lion. The gigantic Strip resort had invested much time and money into a glamorous art-deco lion entrance during the 1990s, but developers had to scrap the entire frontage soon after reopening. The architects had placed the main entrance right under the lion's mouth, and that's very bad mojo according to Asian superstition. So pretty soon the whole front of the MGM was scaffolded up again so the hotel could be resurfaced with better feng shui in order to entice wary (and highly superstitious) Chinese gamblers.

But economics aside, some superstitions are a deadly business (in a literal sense for both those words). There are some African superstitions that claim albino people can bring good luck--and not in a cheerful way, like you should befriend an albino person or buy them some coffee, because they are lucky to be around. No, to gain luck from an albino person you must (according to the superstition) steal parts of their body for use in magic spells and luck-bringing potions. The killing and mutilating of albinos, called muti murders, are a continuing problem in Africa. According to the Red Cross, at least fifty albinos have been murdered in Tanzania and Burundi in recent years, as Ben Radford mentions in a recent writeup for Discovery News.

The anti-superstition bash at the Fullerton Howard Johnson was a lighthearted affair, however, so there was not much talk of death and murder. Black cats were brought out by the Kitt Crusaders, who facilitate adoptions and fostering of cats and were there to educate people on how black cats are adopted at far lesser rates (and therefore euthanized at much higher rates) due to the superstitious baggage associated with them. No one at the party was able to adopt then and there, but the cats got lots of cuddles and pets, and literature was taken home.

Now, I had drawn at a Friggatriskaidekaphobia party a few years back in Philadelphia, so I knew sort of what to expect. In fact, it was nice seeing so many folks walking around in a shirt I had designed: a few years ago Margaret had asked me to craft a logo for these treatment parties, and I'd settled on an adorable little rabbit amputee. That, along with a trash can full of luck charms, adorned the signs and t-shirts around the event. We even put up balloons (in bunches of 13) and there were little quotations about luck put up all over the ballroom. Margaret really does think of everything.
Ladder limbo!

I was introduced with an ambiguously hyperbolic "She is the best caricature artist in the world of skepticism!" . . . which I think is sort of like being the best tapdancer in the world of taxidermy. For a suggested donation of $13, guests could get their caricature at the party--and I did get things started with a few freebies just to warm up the crowd. It was hosted by the California "backyard skeptics" so I was to expect a little skepticism! In fact, many made that joke as they sat down. "I wasn't going to get one until I saw you were good--because, you know, I'm a skeptic, got to see it to believe it!" Those silly skeptics, jeeeeeez. But skeptical or not, they all plunked down varying donations, some quite generous, and I ended the night with over $200 to contribute to the hosting organizations.

Dancing under umbrellas, while "unlucky" added a fun little
  intimacy for couples hiding their pre-Valentine's day kisses!
As I drew, I got a nice view of the goings-on: there was a crowd umbrella dance, where couples swayed under open umbrellas on the dance floor as crooner Dave Deluca belted out some classic Frank Sinatra. Between musical acts and the dancing, Buck Bowen, the energetic emcee, led folks through ladder limbo, a ceremonial smashing of a mirror, and "level the leprechaun" bowling. Volunteers dressed to the nines as doctors and nurses put people through a superstition obstacle course of sorts, having them spill salt or duck under a ladder. There was a playfulness with all of it that helped people mingle and enjoy themselves. 
Some of the happy couples who (skeptically) sat in my chair at the party.
Once my time in the chair was up, I happily turned off my spotlight and headed to the drink gypsy (doesn't every good party have a drink gypsy?) and purchased one of her $13 "love potions." Normally I NEVER would imbibe at a gig, but this was a pro bono event for a friend, and these were my people. Little did I know, a $13 love potion would probably make up for all my previous parties of staying dry. It was sixteen ounces of solid alcohol and radiated a strange blue hue that should have warned me away from ordering it. Yeah, I got a little tipsy by the end of the night. (Thank you, Margaret, for kindly hosting me and driving to and from the party!)
Fangirling with Wendy Hughes.

As I nursed my giant blue radiation-infused drink, I was able to enjoy the skeptical comedy of Ian Harris, who delighted the crowd with his monologues about meandering through an irrational world. The horoscope rap done by Buck Bowen was delightful, and I even got to meet up with Wendy Hughes, who helps run and contributes to the podcast Skepticality with stories of seemingly wild coincidences (then breaks down the odds with the help of statisticians).

There were a few luminaries in attendance that were not in the entertainment lineup. There were two fellows running around with a film camera and a fake mustache and wig, filming little snippets of the wigged actor "freaking out" over various superstitious omens. He asked one of my models if they were worried I was "stealing his soul" while I drew the caricature--the guy responded dryly "What's a soul?" A camera man and interviewer from one of the local news channels showed up. And Brian Keith Dalton, also known as "Mr. Deity," swung by. Luckily he enjoyed his time and we did not have to face his omnipotent wrath! Roy Sorge, retired captain of the Queen Mary, also attended.
Margaret checks Mr. Deity for signs of everlasting life.

A surprising guest was Mr. Scott Smith, a local photographer whom I did not even recognize at first. Last time I had seen Scott, it was the 1994 Northridge earthquake. He is the brother of my original cartooning mentor, Gary Smith, who lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland. Gary and I had visited southern California around the time I graduated college, and Scott had kindly hosted us (his home was just a few miles from the epicenter). I had joked about how cool it would be if there was an earthquake during our visit--and then immediately we got one! So Gary of course blamed the earthquake on me and said it was "very bad luck" for he and I to travel together . . . . so it was fitting to hang out with his brother again at an event refuting the very existence of luck and superstition!
Me (in sunglasses, because I was SO COOL) surveying the damage back in '94. I think Scott actually took this picture. Then there's me and Scott now, 21 years later. I think we held up pretty well--earthquake damage notwithstanding!

At the end of the night, Margaret and her head nurse Christine Jones did a little routine to the Secret Sisters' "Good Night, Good Luck, Goodbye" as they tossed (artificial) rabbits' feet into the crowd. Then the lights came up and many of the volunteers and some of the braver participants lined up in a group hug/dance, everyone swaying to John Lennon's "Imagine." It was a fun night of meeting new faces, reuniting with a few old friends, and learning new things. So glad I was able to be a part of it.

The next day was Valentine's Day, and I relaxed with Margaret and we swapped stories. She told me about various death threats she had received from Boy Scouts back when she was leading the fight in court to make them accept all boys regardless of religion or sexual orientation if they were going to use public money and be linked with the US military. Apparently Boy Scouts can be pretty graphic when describing how they're going to kill you, the Eagle Scouts especially! I've had no death threats aimed at me, personally--though a few coworkers had experienced the ol' death stare and "I'm gonna kick your ass!" from angered patrons who took offense to their caricature. And Margaret did enjoy hearing a few of the very very inappropriate offers I'd heard from drunk men (or couples!) while I drew them. I'm grateful for Margaret for fighting the fights, while I sit back and draw funny pictures. (Though the next day she texted me with news of the cartoon-inspired shootings in Denmark and said that maybe my job WAS more dangerous than hers.)

As a final bit of "good luck" after this event, the Southern California highways were clear and my drive home was smooth sailing! I may have to thank Mr. Deity for that little miracle--I was able to get back to my husband (and interrupt his bachelor anime fest) well before the stroke of midnight!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Life and Death of a Retail Booth

Well, this is my 50th post. A milestone of sorts. And unfortunately, it's not a happy post.

Retail caricature artists everywhere know that the one constant in this business is change, and a booth near and dear to my heart has, unfortunately, succumbed to the changing tides here in Las Vegas.
One of my more recent shifts at the ol' booth.
(It was a Tuesday night, which explains my
ennui-fueled selfie.)

Doug Citizen ran the booth at Planet Hollywood's Miracle Mile Shops for over a dozen years--a good run by any stretch. I had first met Doug when he was an assistant manager for Steve Fasen's impressive Excalibur location. He became a booth owner soon after I started with Fasen. And, as the years went by and Fasen's presence dwindled, booth by booth, many artists who had cut their teeth at Fasen's locations ended up working at Doug's booth. With just two chairs it was never a crowded ship, but there were many who drifted in and drifted out. Robert and I stayed fairly regular there. It was only in the past year or so that we began filling our calendars more with gigs than with retail shifts. Even then, I valued the occasional night at the mall just to get some desk time and plow through commissions.
Robert shows off one of his more crowded
booth drawings, done from a class photo.

I doubt I'll ever work under a more pleasant "boss." And yes, I'm using scare quotes because as we all know, we aren't employees and they aren't supervisors, strictly speaking. As independent contractors, we work WITH them, not FOR them. Doug was generous to a fault with his operation, and that cultivated pretty strong loyalty with his artists. For quite a stretch of years Doug made a tradition of taking the whole crew out to midnight showings of anticipated movies: nothing beat closing up the booth and heading right to the theater with your coworkers. He offered a higher percentage than any other local operator and kept offering that same percentage even when booth finances changed to his disadvantage. There was even a stretch when foot traffic at the mall ground nearly to a halt. The Aladdin was transitioning to Planet Hollywood and its entire frontage was scaffolded up in a rather uninviting way. During that Dust Bowl-esque period, the businesses inside the Desert Passage Shops were all expected to stay open, much to the ruin of many proprietors. Doug told all of us to do whatever we had to. "Draw people for free, get tips, I know you all have families to feed." The five of us actually got together one night and had an informal meeting to see how we could make sure Doug got some part of the tips, since he was left out of the equation entirely. I think that marked the first time ever, anywhere, that a group of retail artists felt the need to meet because they felt the "boss" wasn't getting enough of a share of the profits. (He refused, by the way, to take any of our shilled tip money).
Doug, myself, and Rob gigging at some hotel, forget which.

But we weathered that, and had a few more good years afterward. The booth saw a few celebrities: Mike Tyson watched for a while, commenting on how cool the caricatures were. Chef Gordon Ramsay had his kids drawn there while he was in town opening his BURGR restaurant. (Rob drew two of the kids. To my disappointment, he told me Chef Ramsay was kind and had nothing but praise--he did not yell at Rob to draw faster, or criticize his technique, or call him a donkey.) I drew "Fieldy," the bass player from Korn; his wife said they collect caricatures everywhere the band tours. Criss Angel once walked by dressed as a woman, leading around three cigar-smoking, tattooed little people wearing diapers. As part of the goofy filler stuff they filmed for his "Mindfreak" show, he asked if I would draw his "little angels," to which I said "Uhhhh, can they sit still?" "FUCK NO!" said the cigar-chomping fellow in the diaper. Later on they were relaxing on a bench nearby and Criss looked down at his dress and laughed at himself, musing "What has happened to my career!" The little person in the diaper looked at him and said "Ha! YOUR career?" and snuffled.

Yeah, lots of good times at Desert Passage / Miracle Mile Shops. There were also the New Years Eves, where like clockwork we would come in and find vomit on our booth somewhere. And the many many tourists who could not hold liquor as attractively as their $60 light-up, shoulder-strapped souvenir cups.
Boredom comics by JW Cornelius and Rob.

And what are bored retail artists to do with this parade of life before them? We drew it. At Doug's booth we produced more than one or two little booth comics lampooning the mall culture and one another. Okay, "little" is an understatement, these things stretched on for over 50 pages. We illustrated panels featuring so many sick and twisted little happenings, giggling to ourselves as we awaited the night shift so they could see what we scribbled and then add to the plot. It's a darn good thing Doug was never officially my boss, because HR would have had quite a talk with me after I drew him naked, chained to a dungeon wall, recovering from being roofied by mall retail supervisors. Other complicated plots played out. Zombie hordes took over the entire mall. Old coworkers showed up with diabolical plans. Casinos came to life, sprouted mechanized arms, and did battle with each other like in a bad Japanese matinee. Genies popped out of lamps and sexually humiliated people. Artists went rogue, climbed the walls, and threw their own poop from the rafters.

Good times.

Wow, no one had EVER swept under there.
It was a somber moment helping Doug wheel the booth out to a U-Haul and chuck the worn-out drawers that had held our paper and plastic bags for so many years. As we pulled up the benches and floor mats, we uncovered years of detrius. I found a pencil sharpener I'd lost in 2011. As we took out the air compressor, unhooked all the lights, and prepared the hoist the rig onto wheeled dollies, sure enough two young ladies walked by and said "Oooooh how much are they? Uh . . . are you closed?" Yes, dears, we are so very very closed. Sigh. The landscape of the mall is changing--there will no doubt be a new kiosk there soon, selling magnetic therapy bracelets or giant plastic beads and sunglasses. You know, things for douchebags.

Tom Richmond recently touched on the shortgevity of retail booths and how the market viability of a caricature stand can suddenly change. His November 2014 blog post on theme park operations made me all the more aware of just how quickly things can end at any retail spot.

The landscape here in Vegas has indeed changed, and I'm wondering myself about the future of retail caricature anywhere here. The Stratosphere booth, where I sometimes warm a chair, is likely safe due to the ol' captive audience factor (getting up to the tower will cost ya $15, and once you're up there you want to do a few things before taking the long elevator down). The booth at Adventuredome is, I believe, still up and running--but if I recall they also have facepainting, illustrated names, the whole works. Doug's location had been the last remnant of airbrush caricature here, which I do love and find to be one of the most elegant ways to ply our trade. Freemont Street has a very nice decked-out booth, but the open-air market ambience means there is competition from buskers.
Goodbye, sweet booth, enjoy your slumber.

Buskers have blossomed all around the Strip like fungus. And I should not throw stones at the fungus among us: some of my friends busk. Some have even organized and have a person who hustles customers while others draw. Not a bad business model, I suppose, since it seems to be working. No rent to pay, and from what I understand it's legal as long as you don't have set prices. Much like all the celebrity lookalikes, the faux showgirls, and the guys in Transformer costumes, you just rely on the public to tip generously when they partake of your services.

It's the same kind of mentality we took on during our Dust Bowl year of construction at Miracle Mile. That was, I had hoped, a temporary way of doing caricature only borne of desperation. I do hope I'm wrong when I worry that this type of economy will put an end to standard caricature booths around town. Streetwalkers and pimps might do just fine, but I'm a brothel kind of madam. I like having a brick-and-mortar operation with quality artists and a place to set my jacket and lunchbox. It just seems more . . . stable? Surely, I have worked next to a couple of terrible artists here and there at booths. But on the whole, booth culture tends to lean toward a homogeny of skill; those who suck eventually get better with training, or are let go. Buskers can run the whole spectrum in terms of quality, as no one is herding those cats. Just look at Times Square in New York if you want to see what can come of a busking-only environment. Some good artists, surely, but many many more that are not skilled.
Sorry, no more caricatures here until further notice. 

If I can help it, I'll never fully give up retail. Not because it's a cash cow (boy is it not). But because it keeps your chops up and makes you work. Party guests are thrilled with their freebie souvenir drawings, but give me a picky grandma reluctantly shelling out $25 to get their grandkid drawn and THERE you have a challenge. THERE you have a level-up opportunity. Call me masochistic, but I like getting myself into that situation every now and then, it keeps me on my toes.

Retail booths will always be built on shifting sands. The management at any shopping venue often believes (wrongly) that a caricature booth can put up numbers similar to merchandise stores, when we are hindered by the fact that every item we sell has to be crafted on the spot. It takes ten or fifteen minutes, whereas a $8-an-hour teenager can sell $500 worth of Ed Hardy tee shirts in that same amount of time. Proprietors of caricature booths have to really talk up the atmospheric benefits of having live caricature art. People like watching us. If lower booth rent can be had, then there's hope. But there's always the chance that the rent might get upped the next year, or the next, either drastically or incrementally. Many folks operate at a loss for quite some time, hoping something will change. One of my first mentors in the business had to close up his shop in Baltimore after a long stretch of increasing rent and decreasing foot traffic finally used up his patience and his savings. His last words to the leasing team there, after they hiked his rent yet again, were "I've been bending over for you guys for years, the least you could have done was use lube."

I still get calls from people who are googling "Caricature in Las Vegas" and just want to find a place on the Strip to get drawn. I suppose I'll be telling them to look for the buskers now. And why not? Everything else in this town is a gamble, right?

Thank you, Doug, for all the years of steady desk time and camaraderie.