Street performer Vincent Rensel (right) creates a caricature of tourist Malcom Lau on the Santa Monica Pier Friday afternoon. After next Friday Rensel will not be able to work on the Pier due to his daily commute from Reseda in the San Fernando Valley. Many of the performers are not happy with the new lottery. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SM PIER — With more performers seeking spots on the Santa Monica Pier to entertain the crowds, officials say the time-honored first-come, first-serve system is no longer practical.

Performers sometimes show up before dawn to wait for the best locations and fights have broken out as performers jockey for position in line, said Ben Franz-Knight, executive director of the Pier Restoration Corp., which oversees pier operations for City Hall.

Aiming to ease tensions and make access to the most coveted spots more equitable, some new rules are about to take effect for the artists, calligraphers, musicians and other performers who call the Santa Monica Pier their place of business. Beginning Friday, pier officials said they’ll use a lottery system to fill the 25 designated performer slots on the pier for each three-hour shift, instead of simply giving priority to the first performers to arrive.

“It’s really a result of the competition and these folks that are challenging each other while they’re trying to wait in line,” Franz-Knight said of the new system.

In addition to “multiple verbal disputes,” there have been fist fights and other disturbances that have required police assistance “at least every other week, if not every week” as performers wait for shifts to begin, he said.

Under the lottery, names of licensed performers would be picked at random just before each shift, so each performer would have an equal chance of getting a spot. Franz-Knight said the plan is to try the lottery out for a three-month run before making it permanent.

On Monday, performers and artists at the pier were less than enthusiastic about the plan.

Ronald Jones, a puppeteer who performs near the west-end of the pier, denied there have been fights over performance spots and said he’s skeptical of a lottery system.

“The boss, he likes inventing things. So he’s experimenting with this now to see how it works out,” he said of Franz-Knight.

Other performers, including Lily Chen and Joe Cao, both calligraphers, said the lottery system could mean they’ll show up at the pier but miss out on an entire day of work if their names aren’t picked.

Under the current system, they said performers are guaranteed at least one shift per day.

“This year for us the business is very slow,” Chen said, and the lottery system could make things worse.

Eustacio Martinez, a painter, also said he was concerned that leaving the selection up to chance could make work at the pier less predictable.

“I’m going to come and I’m going to waste my time [if I don’t get picked],” he said.

On Monday, a lone supporter of the lottery system was Walt Davis, a cartoonist who’s been working the pier since 1994. And even he had his reservations.

“It’s not preferred but it’s necessary,” he said.

Groups of performers regularly game the system by showing up early and making an unofficial waiting list, placing their absent friends and family members ahead of others on the list, he said. With more performers choosing the pier over locations in Venice and Hollywood that have become less hospitable to performers, Davis said a change was needed.

“Performers police themselves, which is a very bad idea because you have very dishonest people to begin with,” he said.

The lottery, he said, could bring some order to what has become a chaotic process.

Meanwhile, Richard Carranza, the Santa Monica Police Department’s neighborhood resource officer whose territory includes the pier, said a lottery system will be a welcome change.

“I’ve been for it from the beginning and I’m glad to see that it’s going to be imposed,” he said.

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