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Business Is at a Standstill for Curtis Read, and That's Just How He Likes It

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In London people dumped itching powder down his neck, in Greece they tried to set him afire, and in the U.S. they stripped off his clothes. Curtis Read simply stood there, glassy-eyed, mute, with a basket for coins on the sidewalk beside him.

Read, 30, is a professional catatonic whose five-year career has taken him around the world twice. “You can do this anywhere and get away with it,” he boasts. He spends summers in Lausanne, where his work permit reads “Mime-Robot” and his stage name is Le Mannequin. In Switzerland he works for money and chocolate; elsewhere he takes whatever is offered. Greek villagers on the island of los were so enchanted with Read’s act they provided him with food and lodging for two weeks. “They didn’t have any money,” he explains, “so they gave me what they had. That was okay with me.”

Whenever he is ready to perform, he changes into one of four colorful, historic costumes and finds a busy spot. As he drops into a self-hypnotic trance, a crowd quickly gathers. His heartbeat slows to 28 beats per minute, while his skin turns chalky white and cold to the touch. He can hold a pose for three hours. Women have swooned; babies have burst into tears. In Austria a passerby called an ambulance when Read, wearing street clothes instead of a costume, stopped dead on a corner. In Zurich the police arrested him for causing a disturbance, fined him $10 and put him on a train to France. If a passerby becomes belligerent—like the man in Florida who socked him on the jaw—Read hurls himself into the air with a roar and marches toward the crowd with a robot’s stiff gait. Spectators scatter in every direction. Read was too startled even to flinch when he was stabbed in the leg with a jackknife in Lausanne, but he is accustomed to tickling and squeezing. “It’s usually girls that are the nuisance,” he observes with a sigh. “They can’t leave me alone.”

Born in Oakland, Calif., the son of a couple who own several grocery stores, Read studied to be a forest ranger but later drifted from job to job. Then he joined the Army. “I got psychologically messed up in the military,” he says, and while recovering in a Gainesville, Fla. hospital, he got interested in the alligators at a nearby wildlife preserve. His ability to train and ride them was so unusual that he became known as the Gator Man and appeared at University of Florida football games. That taste of stardom launched his career as an immobile mime.

Though Read has gone to Hollywood in hopes of finding work in a horror film—”I have very scary eyes,” he says—he will continue his trance act. “It’s a high, sluggish feeling,” he explains, “like walking into a warm lodge after a day of skiing. And what happens in the street is better than a movie. I am the conversation piece, and the people are part of the show.”

Meanwhile, in St. Louis, willowy Rose Smith makes an irresistible immovable object

When Rose Smith, 30, decided to go back to modeling two years ago, she realized her age was against her. So she compromised and became a flesh-and-blood store mannequin. Inspired by TV mimics Shields and Yarnell, she polished her shtik at home with her two young sons and now makes $20 an hour while never moving a muscle.

Well, hardly ever. Occasionally, with jerky mechanical movements, she wards off men who pinch and women who tug at her garments. “Once,” she remembers, “this guy got right up to my nose and tried to stare me down. I raised my hand and slowly put it down on his shoulder. He screamed.” Another time, a drunk tried to pry off Smith’s wedding rings. She smacked him and the man fled, but she no longer wears rings on the job. Just standing still isn’t easy, she warns: “It really kills the balls of your feet.”