Did the fake French Quarter silver mime cheat on you? | Louisiana News

By DOUG MACCASH, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Jimmy Thibodaux is a fake.

He might look like one of the silver-painted mimes you see on the streets of the French Quarter. And he could pose just as still, like a living statue. But here’s the thing, Jimmy doesn’t live.

It’s made of plastic plumbing pipes, coat hangers, old clothes, fake hair, and spray paint.

Jimmy is Robyn Barrett’s business partner. Each morning, Barrett puts Jimmy on the handlebars of his bike and pedals to the French Quarter, where he backs the model onto a trash can. Barrett places a bucket under Jimmy’s feet and steps back. Jimmy does the rest.

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Tourists pose for photos with the scruffy, gnome-like metallic figure complete with ZZ Top hoodie, sunglasses and beard. Some of them talk to him. Barrett says he loves it when someone asks Jimmy, “Are you real, are you real, are you real?” Hello? Hello?”

Sometimes they negotiate, Barratt said. They say, “If I give you a dollar, will you talk?”

Some people touch Jimmy, just to make sure he’s a model and not a painted guy. Barrett wishes they didn’t, because afterwards he has to straighten Jimmy out again.

Barrett says he never asks anyone to tip. Jimmy does all the work. But, he says, as long as he and Jimmy show up in the neighborhood, they can pay the rent with tips. It’s an example of working smart, not hard, Barrett said.

Sometimes people go “mad, mad, mad” over Jimmy’s recalcitrant attitude. On St. Patrick’s Day, Barrett said, someone got mad and threw the counterfeit mime into the river. Barrett entered after him.

“I was soaked,” he said.

Barrett said he was born in Los Angeles 40 years ago, earned an associate degree in theater at Sauk Valley Community College in Illinois, visited a friend at the New Orleans in 2009 and that he never left. He’s worked in restaurants, installed pools, played with his guitar, and dressed as Pikachu around the French Quarter for advice during the Pokémon Go craze.

Barrett sees Jimmy as the center of an ongoing sociological experiment in which people reveal their inner selves via the dummy.

“He’s like a mirror,” Barrett said.

Jimmy is a little scary, but that’s okay. “People want to be mystified, they want to be humiliated,” Barrett said.

Anthropologically speaking, Barrett said Jimmy is an example of “liminality,” an agent of disorientation.

Jimmy was not Barrett’s idea. He credits the concept to Michael “Magic Mike” Gifford, a veteran magician, juggler, costumed Homer Simpson impersonator, and former money mime.

Gifford, 50, said he was born in Morgan City, but at 14 moved to the French Quarter with his family and began studying old-school street performers. In 2010 or thereabouts, Gifford had an epiphany. Instead of covering yourself in silver clothes and paint, why not prepare a replacement?

Inspired by the film “Weekend at Bernie’s,” in which the main character died, Gifford created Bernie Boudreaux, a chrome-plated Marcel Marceau who was forced to stand at the curb, anchored by a milk crate. The ruse was an instant hit.

People “didn’t know and they didn’t care” if Bernie was a real human, Gifford said. In fact, people seemed to be digging into the deception. Gifford said he had seen people betting that Bernie was real.

“When they touch it, they say they knew it was real,” Gifford said with a laugh. “And I’m like, ‘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’s not breaking anything.

Gifford and Barrett are pals.

Barrett considers Gifford a mastermind of busking. Gifford said 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 who act like silver mimes. A slight confusion ensues. Liminality, as Barrett likes to say.

“I’m not fooling anyone,” Gifford said. “We are the house of commotion. When the going gets tough, the tough get creative.

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