NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Jimmy Thibodaux is a fake.
He might look just like one of the silver-painted mimes you see on the streets of the French Quarter. And he might pose just as motionlessly, like a living statue. But here’s the thing, Jimmy isn’t living.
He’s made out of plastic plumbing pipe, coat hangers, old clothes, imitation hair and spray paint.
Jimmy is Robyn Barrett’s business partner. Every morning, Barrett puts Jimmy on the handlebars of his bike and pedals to the French Quarter, where he props the dummy up on a trash can. Barrett places a tip bucket beneath Jimmy’s feet and steps back. Jimmy does the rest.
Tourists pose for pictures with the scruffy, gnome-like, metallic personage with the hoodie, sunglasses and ZZ Top beard. Some of them speak to him. Barrett says he loves it when someone asks Jimmy, “Are you real, are you real, are you real? Hello? Hello?”
Sometimes they bargain, Barratt said. They say, “If I give you a dollar, will you talk?”
Some people touch Jimmy, just to be sure he’s a dummy and not a painted dude. Barrett wishes they wouldn’t, because afterward, he has to straighten Jimmy up again.
Barrett says he never asks anyone to tip. Jimmy does all the work. But, he said, as long as he and Jimmy show up in the Quarter, they can pay the rent with gratuities. It’s an example of working smart, not hard, Barrett said.
Occasionally people get “mad, mad, mad,” at Jimmy’s recalcitrant attitude. On St. Patrick’s Day, Barrett said, someone became enraged and threw the counterfeit mime in the river. Barrett went in after him.
“I was sopping wet,” he said.
Barrett said he was born in Los Angeles 40 years ago, earned an associate’s degree in theater at Sauk Valley Community College in Illinois, visited a friend in New Orleans in 2009, and never left. He’s worked restaurant jobs, installed pools, busked with his guitar, and costumed as Pikachu in the French Quarter for tips during the Pokémon Go craze.
Barrett sees Jimmy as the focus of an ongoing sociological experiment in which people reveal their inner selves via the dummy.
“He’s like a mirror,” Barrett said.
Jimmy’s a little spooky, but that’s OK. “People want to be mystified, they want to be humbled,” Barrett said.
Anthropologically speaking, Barrett said that Jimmy is an example of “liminality,” an agent of disorientation.
Jimmy wasn’t Barrett’s idea. He credits the concept to Michael “Magic Mike” Gifford, a veteran magician, juggler, costumed Homer Simpson impersonator, and former silver mime.
Gifford, 50, said he was born in Morgan City, but at age 14 moved to the French Quarter with his family and began making a study of the old-school street performers. In 2010 or thereabouts, Gifford had an epiphany. Instead of covering himself with silver clothing and paint, why not whip up a stand-in?
Inspired by the movie “Weekend at Bernie’s,” in which the title character is dead, Gifford created Bernie Boudreaux, a chrome Marcel Marceau who was made to stand stiffly at the curb, anchored by a milk crate. The ruse was an instant success.
People “didn’t know and they didn’t care” if Bernie was an actual human, Gifford said. In fact, people seemed to dig the deception. Gifford said he’s seen people bet each other that Bernie is real.
“When they touch him, they say they KNEW he was real,” Gifford said laughing. “And I say, ’Then WHY did you touch him?”
Once, he said, a movie scout waited patiently to speak to Bernie, explaining that she didn’t want him to break character, Gifford recalled. “I said, ’Don’t worry, he ain’t breaking nothing.”
Gifford and Barrett are pals.
Barrett considers Gifford a mastermind of the street arts. Gifford said that Barrett is the kind of generous guy who helps you change a tire on Mardi Gras. In 2018 Gifford helped Barrett build his own surrogate silver mime.
Essentially, it’s all a simple reversal. Silver mimes are real people who act like statues, Bernie and Jimmy are statues that act like silver mimes. Mild confusion ensues. Liminality, as Barrett likes to say.
“I’m not conning anybody,” Gifford said. “We are the home of hustle. When the going gets tough, the tough get creative.”
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