Some Coast Highway drivers avoid eye contact. So do some pedestrians, who cross Forest Avenue opposite Main Beach with a guarded look for the person on the curb waving to passersby. Still others step out of the crosswalk to knuckle-bump Michael Minutoli, congratulating him for settling on a way to channel his ebullient personality.
Meet Laguna Beach’s self-appointed new greeter, a role taken up by a succession of outliers since the town’s earliest days.
Beginning last week, Minutoli started stationing himself near a corner ice cream parlor opposite Greeter’s Corner, the ocean-side restaurant and sculpture that immortalizes the town’s best-known greeter, the long-haired and bearded Eiler Larsen. Another life-sized likeness anchors The Old Pottery Place at Brooks Street, formerly known as the Pottery Shack, where Larsen reportedly worked.
“I want to be a different greeter,” said Minutoli, who is bald and clean-shaven but dresses to attract attention. On Friday, he wore an oversized sombrero, carried an American flag, and alternatively pointed or waved to drivers and beachgoers with turquoise gloved hands.
“I think it’s fabulous,” said resident Shirley Huber, who relocated eight years ago from San Juan Capistrano where she first encountered Minutoli working at the Marbella Farmers Market. She thinks he’s an able substitute. “He has a fabulous personality; he’s very humble and spiritual,” Huber said.
Resident Kenn Robillard, also passing by on Forest and Coast Highway last Friday, agreed. “We all look fondly back on Eiler,” said Robillard, who nevertheless welcomed the idea of a new greeter.
“I don’t take it lightly,” said Minutoli, who thinks for a few hours a day he can help local merchants by providing tips to visitors, helping fulfill their day-trip whims. “A lot of people are starving for business. The objective is not to gain financially, but to do good for the place I love.”
Minutoli, homeless for the past four years, continues with his part-time market job, but adopted Laguna as his community years ago. Intermittently he stays at his son’s house in Corona, packing his bike, bedroll, and backpack aboard the train. He does the same when pursuing his other pastime, crashing award shows and high-profile parties for the thrill of getting his photo taken cheek-to-cheek with celebrities. His latest trophy is with Lady Gaga at the MTV music awards.
Since 1990, he claims to have scored 1,200 celebrity encounters and carries samples for proof, such as one taken at the Laguna Art Museum where he’s kissing Liz Taylor, puckering up to return the buss. A 2008 documentary, “Crash Artist,” chronicles his accomplishments and fringe lifestyle.
“Because I’m not an alcoholic or a druggie or in a cop’s face, people don’t believe I’m homeless,” said Minutoli, 51, who explained why he isn’t fully employed. “It’s very expensive to live here. I don’t want to work three jobs at $8 an hour. I keep myself well enough. I want to put my party crashing hobby into a book.”
In the meantime, Minutoli’s laying claim to a bit of celebrity turf here, though a few people expressed dismay over his filling Larsen’s shoes. He doesn’t let the negative vibe cloud his cheerfulness. “Mostly it’s been great,” he said.
The bearded, long-haired Larsen stopped in Laguna Beach in 1934 and for years gregariously hollered “halloooo, how are you?” to visitors, according to “The First 100 Years in Laguna Beach,” published in 1975 and authored by Merle and Mabel Ramsey. He reportedly was proclaimed the city’s official greeter, but Asst. City Clerk Lisette Chel found no documenting record. Larsen died in 1975 at 84.
Larsen took after Laguna’s original greeter. “Old Joe” Lucas, a Portuguese fisherman with flowing white hair and beard, greeted the stagecoach departing for El Toro or arriving from Santa Ana. He died in 1908, the Ramseys’ book says.
In more recent years, two white-bearded men who have since died inconsistently took over Larsen’s role, manning the corner north of where Minutoli is stationed. The voluble Charles Reginald Conwell 3d, better known as “Cowboy,” was known as the greeter among his fellow homeless buddies, but not elsewhere in town, recalled Faye Chapman, chair of the Laguna Resource Center, which provides services to the town’s homeless population.
No. 1 Archer, so named because his parents were surprised at the arrival of twins, looked the greeter’s part, but was less outgoing. Even so, he offered his own upbeat wisdom. Archer unequivocally answered the salutation “How are you?” by saying, “I’m perfect and so are you,” said Gene Felder, treasurer of the Laguna Historical Society.
Another local character, parasol-carrying Cindy Bartz, also infrequently takes up the role some mornings. “She considers herself the greeter, though she’s never greeted me,” Felder said.