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Coastal Commuter

Cities with character … and characters

If a city can be considered the sum total of its citizens, I prefer to give the eccentrics a higher number value than the more ordinary residents. And both San Francisco and Los Angeles have had their share of quirky, remarkable characters bringing color and personality to each urban environment.

A couple of months back, I was on the Southern California end of my ongoing San Francisco-Los Angeles double residency, and had the pleasure of attending a one-woman art show that was curated by the genial, talented journalist-hostess-actress Nikki Kruezer of the Offbeat Los Angeles web show and her producing partner Vitta Quinn. The artist being celebrated by the exhibition was one of the first people I ever encountered who was famous for being famous: the platinum blond, invariably pink-clad model-singer-actress Angelyne.

In 1984, way before the concept of celebrity was diminished by the rise of the questionably labeled “reality TV,” Angelyne was touting herself as a sort of prefab pumped-up cheesecake goddess by commissioning a series of billboards with her image in provocative poses and looking down on well-traveled Los Angeles thoroughfares. She never achieved stardom in the music or movie industries, but she was definitely a Hollywood icon earning waves, whoops, and smiles from pedestrians whenever she drove by in her convertible hot pink Corvette.

Angelyne has aged, as do we all, and now she makes a point of being photographed with her face coquettishly peeping out from behind a fan. But she has persisted and over time attained near-legendary status. So the hip and the wannabe hip came out in droves to a Sunset Boulevard gallery to see her brightly hued, delightfully naive (what else?) self-portraits, and the icon herself — her pink sports car parked right outside the gallery. It was a scene and a half.

STRANGENESS ON THE STREETS

In a town dominated by the entertainment business and its artists, you expect a legion of strange and bizarre folks to be emblematic of the area. You can probably find a weirdo on every Los Angeles street corner (or at least in every club), usually hoping to land a role in an indie film or on a sitcom. You need only check out the sidewalk in front of the Hollywood & Highland Center where street performers dressed as movie and pop stars and superheroes troll the area to be photographed with tourists for a small fee. Among the costumed, you can find Superman a.k.a. Christopher Denny, said to be the illegitimate son of actress Sandy Dennis.

When it comes to the likes of Angelyne, there should be mention of Dennis Woodruff — a scruffy guy in a cowboy hat who has tried to secure jobs and fame in the world of acting for years, and actually has received some degree of attention for his series of strange “art cars” covered with his photo and his scrawled name. And the Los Angeles rock scene has known its share of unforgettable figures other than the actual performers. They’d have to include diminutive de facto Mayor of the Sunset Strip, D.J. and promoter Rodney Bingenheimer and his late (and ostensibly predatory) running mate, the Machiavellian producer and manager Kim Fowley. I won’t get into that mellow, long-haired bearded fellow who walks around Hollywood in a white robe looking like the spitting image of Jesus Christ. There’s probably one of him in most towns.

As for wild and wacky denizens of San Francisco, they go all the way back to Emperor Norton and Oofty Goofty in the 19th century. Joshua Norton was an Englishman who moved to San Francisco and in 1859 proclaimed himself “Norton I, Emperor of the United States” and “Protector of Mexico.” Although he may have been a bit unhinged, the locals enjoyed his flamboyance. Plus, he called for a bridge to be built connecting San Francisco to Oakland, as well as a corresponding tunnel under the bay. In the late 1800s. That’s what I call forward-thinking. Then, there was the sideshow performer Oofty Goofty, born Leonard Borchardt. He’d wander San Francisco with a baseball bat and let anyone kick him as hard as they could for a nickel, hit him with a walking stick for 15 cents, or beat him with the bat for a quarter. Apparently, he was very good at pain management.

THE UNUSUAL SUSPECTS

More recent times brought comparatively mild oddballs such as the prim and proper Marian and Vivian Brown — petite, eternally cheerful twin sisters who were always together, wearing identical outfits as they walked around the city in unison. They lived into their late 80s, both passing away a couple of years ago. Another blithe spirit, albeit one dedicated to good works, is social activist Hugh Romney — better known as Wavy Gravy, hippie clown and a confederate of the legendary rock band the Grateful Dead. Despite playing the whimsical fool at parties and concerts, Wavy has been a major force behind the charitable endeavors Camp Winnarainbow and the Seva Foundation.

Need someone a touch more … out there? Frank Chu spends most of his daytime hours in downtown San Francisco with an arcane sign in his hand, calling for the impeachment of a number of retired American presidents. It seems that Frank believes the ex-chief executives have been conspiring with an alien consortium known as 12 Galaxies to monitor him, video him, broadcast his actions to the far reaches of outer space, and not compensate him for the use of his image. Show business is tough, Frank. You could probably use a good lawyer.

Finally, where else but San Francisco would a rabble-rousing, politically astute, and brutally sarcastic punk rocker run for mayor as a prank, and actually grab 3.79 percent of the vote for a fourth-place finish? That would be former Dead Kennedys singer-songwriter Jello Biafra (Eric Boucher) who did it in 1979 — and eventually tossed his hat into the ring for the Green Party’s 2000 U.S. presidential nomination, coming in second to eventual nominee Ralph Nader. Which goes to show that eccentricity can be its own reward. Maybe Biafra was too weird to be a nominee for the presidency. On the other hand, that means Frank Chu never tried to get him impeached.

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on KPFK/Pacifica Radio's David Feldman Show and Thom Hartmann Show and on Michael Snyder's Culture Blast, via GABnet.net, Roku, and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster

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