The Senior Mouseketeer is clearly at her wit’s end, and she attempts to herd those loyal, legitimate shoppers who really want to make a purchase away from the revival meeting. ‘Anyone who is not here to buy something is going to be arrested,’ she says. She has no idea how well her words support Reverend Billy’s sermon…”
by brendan costello
All is not well in the Times Square Disney store.
“I just feel like ending it all. I mean, the medication isn’t working. I just can’t quit shopping.” Next to a rack of plush toys, a nervous young man whispers into a cell phone, ostensibly to his therapist. “It’s like masturbation. It feels good for a minute, then I’m just depressed all over again, and stuck with these huge credit card bills.”
Elsewhere in the sprawling, gaudy store, ordinary individuals are having conversations about their purchases. Customers can hear a couple, shopping for their child: “I don’t know, honey. Do we really need any more of this crap in our home? I’m afraid all this is stunting little Susie’s imagination. How stupid do you want our children to be?” In front of a display of Minnie Mouse-as-Statue of Liberty keychains, a New Yorker tells his tourist buddy, “What do you want to buy that thing for? It’s not a souvenir of New York City, it’s a corporate logo!”
At first, there is no clear indication that anything is out of the ordinary, though a few shoppers sneak nervous glances at the young man with the cell phone. Gradually, the store employees (designated as “Cast Members” in the employee handbook and on their t-shirts) notice these people drifting together toward the center of the store. As they form a coherent group, it becomes clear that they are not ordinary tourists, not ordinary shoppers, but by now it’s too late. The experienced Cast Members brace themselves as a new character, a non-sanctioned, non-merchandised, non-Disney presence emerges among the hordes of Mickeys, Goofys, Simbas and Eyores.
“CHILDREN, DO NOT BUY ANYTHING IN THIS STORE! STOP SHOPPING AND SAVE YOUR SOULS!” A preacher, wearing a white jacket, black shirt and clerical collar, strides into the store and begins testifying in a loud voice. It’s the Reverend Billy, and he’s preaching to his flock. “WE ARE HEEERE…TODAY…TO STAND UP TO THIS ESTABLISHMENT AND TO SAY…STOP SHOPPING!” Cries of “Alleluia” and a chorus of “Amens” flow from the congregation.
The Cast Members move quickly into crisis mode and green-jacketed security personnel mutter into walkie-talkies, while the legitimate shoppers hang around the periphery, taking in the show. Reverend Billy is an exciting, confusing and unexpected feature of their trip to Times Square. Most of the store’s employees seem to be familiar with this spectacle, though a few cast members are also watching with bemused smiles. (Hopefully the managers, the head mouseketeers, don’t see them.)
“PEOPLE, WE ARE DROWNING IN A SEA OF IDENTICAL DETAILS! WE ARE ALL SUFFERING FROM CONSUMER NARCOSIS!” The Reverend Billy is on a roll, attacking the entire corporate takeover of Times Square, and what he calls the “Mall-ing of Manhattan.” During his sermon, the crowd breaks into chants of “Mickey is the Antichrist” and “More Booty, Less Rudy!” Most of the tourist shoppers are no longer so amused. Several leave the store.
The Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping have successfully interrupted the buying process in Disney’s flagship New York emporium. Seven members of the congregation are seated, cross-legged and with arms linked, in front of the registers where the checkout line should be, and nothing is being sold.
The Senior Mouseketeer is clearly at her wit’s end, and she attempts to herd those loyal, legitimate shoppers who really want to make a purchase away from the revival meeting. “Anyone who is not here to buy something is going to be arrested,” she says. She has no idea how well her words support Reverend Billy’s sermon.
Reverend Billy vs. Steamboat Willie
The Reverend Billy, aka Bill Talen, has organized several of these events — incursions into the public space that has been overwhelmed by Disney. At first, he worked alone; on this latest mission, he is accompanied by thirty new or returning members of the Church of Stop Shopping. The interventions are creative, dramatic, and remind people of real emotions that the store tries to obfuscate. Shoppers are made to question the very act of consumption, to wake from the spell; this is real subversion. Pissing off Disney is merely icing on the cake.
The actions also protest the destruction of the neighborhood — the way that Disney, along with other huge corporations, and the overt moral and financial support of the City government, overran a diverse, authentic community. “That this Disney store is here, on Broadway, somehow makes it the flagship of homogenization,” says Talen. The much-vaunted “cleanup” of Times Square, led by the Mouse, is a vivid example of the widespread proliferation of Barnes and Noble, Starbuck’s, Kinko’s and other generic chains throughout the City.
While for the larger culture, Disney represents wholesome, harmless children’s entertainment and sanitized family values, for the Church of Stop Shopping it is the epitome of an Evil Empire, a corporate giant with tremendous power and a twisted mission to tattoo its logo on everyone’s imagination. Disney turns brand loyalty into brand slavery, and it does this by instilling itself as a trustworthy friend before its consumers know their own last names.
And this is where Reverend Billy really stands out as unique; he’s not just talking about Disney as a corporate pirate, a bad neighbor, or a destroyer of neighborhoods. He goes further, railing at the effects of insane consumerism on the human soul. In this, his role as a Reverend goes beyond that of dramatic prank. He’s not just a guy goofing around in the Disney store dressed as a preacher, he’s also fighting for your soul, for your psychic individuality. Reverend Billy expresses the deeply hidden fear that this megalithic consumer culture might swallow us up.
Of course, the preacher act works as a joke, too, and is perfectly suited to the target. After all, Disney’s primary trade is in images, be they visions of a hyper-sanitized utopia rising from the Florida swamps or a cartoon retelling of a denatured fairy tale or a “respectful” theme park based near a Civil War battlefield. A garden-variety picket line outside the store doesn’t pack the same visual punch as a priest, handcuffed to a life-sized Mickey Mouse doll, being led from the store into the back of a police cruiser. (The first time Reverend Billy was arrested, New York’s finest from Midtown South got into the spirit of the proceeding and cuffed him to the Mickey doll he was using as a prop. Perhaps they indulged him because they weren’t fond of Disney’s impact either — the Midtown South precinct has a history of supporting the area’s illegal local businesses.)
“John Q. Public, you’ve just sold your soul to the devil. Where are you going to go now?”
Central to the attacks on Disney and the whole corporate takeover of Times Square is the history of the neighborhood. “It is a return to original places,” Reverend Billy says of his crusade, “the barbershops, the vendors, the Blarney Stone taverns and yes — the sidewalk preachers’ tables — places which are human scale and in which those humans, not overwhelmed, are not speechless.” The phrase “human scale” is key: the Disney store has a four-story facade with billboards and flashing signs advertising a range of Disney products, from the Lion King musical on 46th Street to the latest animated movie. As with other corporate presences in the “New Times Square,” this outlandish, oversized monument to unbridled spending is more intimidating than inviting. The old triple-X theaters, the peddlers and the streetwalkers may have been sordid, but they were not larger than life.
Disney was the ideal accomplice for this Mayor’s aggressive takeover of Times Square. The company’s reputation as our nation’s most wholesome content provider and defender of family values makes it appear unassailable, and gives the project a veneer of moral righteousness. But, as many competitors have learned, the company utilizes that image to camouflage their heavy-handed, often unscrupulous and sometimes immoral business practices. People living in the area around the Antietam historical battlefield site in Virginia can attest that the Disney company approaches real estate in much the same way as the Wehrmacht did in the 1940s. Anyone who dares to challenge their will, and their bulging wallet, is accused of being anti-business, anti-prosperity, and anti-family entertainment. In Disney, Rudy Giuliani has found the perfect corporate partner; both are self-righteous bullies. Maybe Rudy is a political version of Disney, minus the production values.
“Imagineering,” the company’s trademarked neologism for how it creates artificial worlds in existing places, is the ultimate gentrification tactic. “Get rid of those nasty, unpleasant homeless people and strip joints and make the area a big open mall, an emporium of wholesome corporate merchandise.” Inside the heavily manipulated environment, whether it’s a theme park or a mall that used to be an urban village, history becomes irrelevant. The towering presence of the store and the whole look and feel of the revamped neighborhood is calculated to erase any memory of the red-light district or any other past that the location may have had. This is important, both for the company and the politician: not only have the undesirable people and businesses been swept away, they never existed. The imagineered environment makes individual histories irrelevant, too, which leads to a weightlessness that the Reverend describes as “consumer narcosis.” When entering the store, the shopper is encouraged to let go of any memory not associated with Disney, removing any obstacles to consummating a purchase.
There is another fantastic irony to Disney’s location on 42nd Street. Among the many feelings that the imagineered environment erases or at least dulls, the primary one is lust. One can imagine the old, pornographic Times Square as a manifestation of the carnality of the id, with all its attendant confusion and dangerous impulses, where some find outlet for their most furtive desires. The riot of smiling plush toys and hyper-sanitized tchotchkes in the Disney store is the total opposite. A major component of the atmosphere and the pleasure of the purchase is the idea that both the product and the activity are completely wholesome and above reproach. Like so much else in the imagineered world, this is an illusion.
It’s a Small World Trade Organization After All
Disney has been able to hide behind its innocent facade while engaging in some unsavory business practices. Stories of labor relations with American workers are legend (for a long time, the corporate headquarters in California was jokingly referred to as “Mauschwitz” by employees). Far worse than this is the overwhelming evidence that Disney has knowingly been engaging sweatshop labor and exploiting women and children in overseas factories, from Haiti to Southeast Asia. Several prominent human rights organizations have exposed unsafe and inhuman working conditions, where fingers and other useful body parts are lost in the effort to produce more Tigger dolls and Eyore slippers. In this small-world economy, the exploitation of children on one side of the world to make toys for children on the other is far more offensive than any pornography. The fact that Disney portrays itself as a “family” company is a dark irony indeed.
Workers at many of Disney’s overseas operations make less than 30 cents an hour. Michael Eisner, CEO of the Walt Disney Company, makes as much as $78,000 an hour.
And why haven’t we heard about this sooner? “More Americans get their news from ABC News than from any other source.” Sound familiar? Disney owns ABC/Capital Cities, which means they own and control roughly 30% of the nation’s television stations. They also own several major Hollywood studios, including Touchstone Pictures, and 11 major local newspapers. Which of the other news companies is going to take them to task? CNN is owned by Time-Warner/AOL, NBC is owned by GE, CBS is owned by Viacom, and Fox is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Big money takes care of its own. You won’t see this story on the news anytime soon.
Reverend Billy, the Anti-Mouse
Back at the 42nd Street store, Reverend Billy’s sermon goes on. His passion and faith are in full force. Through the sweat streaming down his face he can see that his energy has been imparted to the crowd. The Cast Members attempt to drown him out by turning up the sound system, but to no avail. Between the Reverend’s fervent delivery and the enthusiastic chants of the Church of Stop Shopping, Aladdin doesn’t stand a chance.
And now, here they come, the police slowly working their way into the store. They are clearly hoping that their appearance will make the show stop. It’s obvious that they are on high restraint — someone made it clear that Disney “does not want a scene.” At one point the Sergeant steps forward and announces that persons who do not willingly disperse will be arrested. The seven protesters who are “taking the hit” along with their pastor are handled cordially and peaceably; it’s all Kabuki theater with radios, sidearms and handcuffs.
Then, outside the store, they are loaded into the paddywagon, watching the confused reaction of people passing by. “Don’t go into that store, they’ll arrest you!” someone yells. “They’ll arrest you if you don’t buy anything!” One or two tourists actually believe it. But again, that’s what makes it funny and serious at the same time.
So much of the story of Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping smacks of fable, like a creation of Carl Hiaasen or Don DeLillo, or possibly Noam Chomsky (if he had a better sense of humor). But it is real, these things have happened and continue to garner supporters and attention. As Times Square serves as the showcase for a new type of urban renewal, there is someone standing up to this overwhelming tide, someone leading the fight against the megacorporate forces that would swallow our souls. The Church of Stop Shopping is proof that the Mouse and all the other moneyed giants haven’t won yet.
Say Amen, somebody.
This article originally appeared in Lurch Magazine
Reverend Billy’s Home Page is where you’ll find the good preacher’s missions, methods and missives, not to mention the “Starbucks Invasion Kit.”
Brendan Costello is a senior editor and contributing writer to New York’s Lurch Magazine. His work also periodically appears in Smokebox and can be found in the Vault of Smoke.