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.


  1. Happy 50th post. Kudos to Doug. Hope more doors will open for him. And you!

  2. My gosh! Good luck on all future endeavours! Sounds corny, but but greater opportunities must be on the horizon Celestia.