The City of Lawndale is moving to outlaw costumed sign-twirlers, like this gorilla-suited worker for Cash 4 Gold on Hawthorne Boulevard.
The City of Lawndale is moving to outlaw costumed sign-twirlers, like this gorilla-suited worker for Cash 4 Gold on Hawthorne Boulevard. (Sean Hiller / Staff Photographer)

What do the Statue of Liberty, a gorilla and the Hamburglar have in common?

If you said they've all stood on sidewalks of busy streets advertising nearby businesses, you'd be correct.

And if you've driven along Hawthorne Boulevard, chances are you've seen them: men and women in costume, beckoning to passing motorists by waving large signs advertising income tax services, cash-for-gold businesses and fast-food eateries.

But the popular advertising trend could be nearing an end in Lawndale, where a new ordinance aimed at revising restrictions on roadway signs - including human sign holders - is being crafted.

The proposed law, honed through the last year by the city's Planning Commission, actually allows more signs advertising local business - so long as they are erected on a temporary basis.

Decorative flags - or feather signs - and other portable advertisements would be allowed. The council discussed the proposed guidelines Monday and is expected to consider approving the ordinance in January.

The new ordinance would allow human sign holders, but restrict them from operating within 12 feet of any intersection. No more than six human signs per business would be allowed to operate at one time.

But at least one councilman is pushing for more restrictions on sign twirlers - and banning the use of costumes.

"I'm in favor of sign twirlers, but I'm against the costumes," said Councilman Pat Kearney, adding he is concerned the costumes inhibit sign holders from being fully aware of their surroundings.

"You can't see behind you," he said.

Councilman Larry Rudolph, who was absent from Monday's meeting, also voiced concerns about costumed sign twirlers during a public hearing in October, when the council discussed the ordinance.

In Lawndale, the men in gorilla suits standing near the intersection of Hawthorne and Artesia Boulevards with signs advertising a nearby cash for gold and payday loan business have become local icons.

Melanie Johnston, the store's manager, said sign twirlers - and their costumes - are protected by federal free speech laws.

"Wearing a mask is a First Amendment right," Johnston said. "To deny that would be to deny a constitutional right."

Johnston estimated that up to 90 percent of people who walk into the store say they came in because of the costumed sign twirlers.

"It's unbelievable how many people see these guys and the kind of interest they generate," she said. "The return we're getting on the gorillas is unbelievable."

The employees have been donning the gorilla suits for two years, working five-hour shifts and making minimum wage - $8 an hour.

Johnston's employees prefer the suit to hide their identity. Outlawing costumes on sign twirlers could lead to job losses across the city, she said.

"These guys live locally, so they like anonymity," Johnston said.

Sign twirler Michael Miller said he had no safety concerns over his gorilla suit.

"I can see fine, I can breath easy," he said. "I'd like my job to stay where it is because no one else is hiring."

But some see the costumed twirlers as a nuisance.

"This would only take us back in time and stop our city's progress," said resident Janice Givens. "Plus, it looks tacky."

For the ordinance to have legal standing, it would need to clearly define specific safety issues regarding costumed sign twirlers, said Richard Palmer, chairman of the political science department at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

"The ordinance, in order to stand muster in the court, would have to be pretty specific in terms of defining what are the safety issues involved and what the governmental interest is being served," Palmer said.

Roadside sign twirling is a growing advertising trend across the country.

"We're noticing more cities across the U.S. allowing it as opposed to cities that don't," said Josh Trees, president of Eyeshot, a Temecula-based marketing agency that specializes in human directional services. "As long as it's done in a tasteful matter, what's wrong with it? People want to hire sign spinners because it works."

Cities have taken different approaches to restricting or banning sign holders. 

In Redondo Beach, there are no specific prohibitions on human sign twirlers, but every possible sign they could hold is banned under the city's Municipal Code.

In Tustin, sign holders operate under strict guidelines, including the mandate that "human signs shall not spin, twirl, swing or gyrate."

Commercial speech - advertisements for business - has less constitutional protection than political speech, said Charles Thomas, an assistant professor of business law at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

"Free speech and commercial speech are two different things," Thomas said. "Because these are for commercial purposes, they're on more tenuous legal ground."

For some businesses, sign twirlers offer a way to circumvent laws banning placing commercial signs on public areas.

"If you want to place a commercial sign on public land, the city is probably going to tell you no," Thomas said. "The way to skirt that is to have someone walking around. In essence, you're playing a game of cat and mouse."

For Johnston, the safety concerns about costumed twirlers are unfounded.

"I don't think it's really a safety issue," she said. "It's a way to sugarcoat it. They're just trying to restrict business."

douglas.morino@dailybreeze.com

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