Maintaining a Tradition of Alternative Culture in Laguna Beach

Maintaining a Tradition of Alternative Culture in Laguna Beach

A Story by Shelley Holt-Lowrey

As published in Laguna Beach Magazine. Cover story. First print publication.

by Shelley Lowrey

photography by Les W. Sigler

Laguna Beach residents don’t need to be reminded of their city’s reputation as the Epicenter of Alternative Culture in Orange County. Laguna is haven for those desiring freedom of expression amid neighboring master planned communities who boast endless chain restaurants, neatly manicured recreation areas, megaplex shopping centers and row upon row of nearly identical earth-tone homes.

The city’s cultural reputation aside, the collective identity of the city itself has been formed through the contributions of it notable citizenry. People who, at one time or another, have elected to called Laguna Beach home. From LSD pioneer Timothy Leary, to John Grigs and his Brotherhood of Eternal Love, to Sailboat Designer Hobie Altar, and even the iconic Laguna Beach Greeter Eiler Larson. These and other individuals of greater or lesser renown have all helped to define a culture that is unique to Laguna.

I recently learned that a friend of mine, Michael Minutoli had answered a self-proclaimed ‘calling’ to become The New Greeter of Laguna Beach. Quite an intimidating proposition, as the former greeter Eiler Larson continues to cast his shadow over the city, long after the end of his tenure. Larson is one of Laguna Beach’s most beloved hometown heroes. I feared that some may believe any attempt to fill his shoes may be seen as an act of sacrament.

In 1964 Larson, a Dutch born vagabond, was officially proclaimed "The Greeter of Laguna Beach" by the city’s forefathers. Larson is perhaps most remembered as the disheveled old gentleman who stood waving to Coast Highway passersby between the 1940's and 1970's booming his trademark, "HALLO-OO-OO!"

Larson was so beloved by his city that locals provided him free housing, free meals and other services required by someone of his vagrant status. Larson was the embodiment of all that separated Laguna Beach from its personality-challenged sister-cities. Prior to his arrival in Laguna Beach the 52 year old Larsen had wandered through most of Europe, South America and the United States. After settling in Laguna in 1942, he came into the habit of standing on Coast Highway, waving to every car and passerby. He would grin, point his wooden cane, wave and shout one of his famous catch phrases like "HALLOO-OO-OO!", or "Delighted to see you!". Shaggy haired and heavily bearded, Larson was known for his trademark red shirt, light tan slacks and worn leather sandals. He is depicted in this way in a statue erected in his honor near the corner of Brookes Street and Coast Highway. He is also immortalized in a larger-than-life wood carving that stands sentinel outside of the Greeter’s Corner Cafe just south of Main Beach, and directly across from where Minutoli has made his Greeter's post.

Being a lifelong Orange County resident, and self-proclaimed beach rat, I am well versed in Laguna Beach Greeter stories. Though I was surprised to learn of Michael’s calling, I was hard pressed to identify anyone I felt more suited to carry Larson’s banner.

Michael and I first became friends at the historic Swallows Inn of San Juan Capistrano. We are both devotees of their long running Wednesday night karaoke show. I found him to be gregarious, humble, and ever-ready with a smile or kind word. It was eight months before I learned he was homeless, and another two before I learned of his hobby as the infamous Red Carpet Party Crasher.

One night as we watched a rather poorly executed rendition of the Beach Boy’s hit “Fun, Fun, Fun”, Michael turned to me and in his trademark Boston accent said, “Did I ever tell you I performed this song onstage with Brian Wilson?” It was then I learned of his thirty year hobby as an A-List celebrity party crasher. He shared with me several stories of the many star-studded events he’d attended alongside some of Hollywood's A-List celebrities. In this instance, early in his crasher career Minutoli told me that while attending a benefit concert featuring Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, he noticed a group of backup singers assembling to go onstage. Quietly he joined them, and followed them onstage where he sang and danced with them through the end of the number. Afterward, he simply left the stage to return to his seat.

The fact that Michael can back his claims with album after album of unaltered photographs depicting him at various Hollywood A-List After-Parties, Award's Shows and Benefits while in the company of über stars like Mick Jagger, Liz Taylor or Bill Clinton is fascinating. it was not however, a requirement for me to believe his claims. That part of his life, just like his homeless status or how he manages to get along in life are things he neither boasts of, nor bemoans. Rather, they are simply pieces of his life story revealed to me naturally during the course of our developing friendship.

When I learned of Michael’s post as The New Laguna Beach Greeter I was concerned about possible backlash from those who would feel he was desecrating the hallowed ground reserved for Eiler Larson (though Larson himself was actually the second Laguna Beach Greeter after Joe Lucas).

I met Michael for breakfast at the White House Restaurant on Coast Highway. I wanted to get his take on this, and gather more information for my story. With this in mind, I’d prepared a list of responsible, if somewhat uninspired, newsy questions. I’d planed to write about Michael’s status as The New Greeter, his homelessness and his experiences as a party crasher. Two minutes into our meeting however, I ditched my list and decided to allow the story to reveal itself. Michael is a born story teller, and our conversation took on its own rhythm. I simply followed along, listened, and asked a few clarifying questions.

Michael starts each day as he has for the past 30 years; with a jog to the beach followed by an hour of what he calls “dancing with the waves”. After this, he takes up his greeting post for six to seven hours daily; usually in two hour shifts. He breaks only for meals, or to run errands for local merchants. His hours are not fixed and vary depending upon the season, weather and tourist traffic. He would not refer to this as his schedule, but rather as how he chooses to occupy his time. Though he has, on rare occasion, received generous tips from locals Michael NEVER asks for money nor is money his motive for assuming The Greeter mantle. Though I’d offered to buy Michael's breakfast he was overly concerned that I not spend too much. I have never known him to be anything other than clean shaven, his clothes always neat and I have never seen him unkempt. He showers and keeps his belongings at a local church. Although the Pastor there offers, Michael refuses to sleep at the church as he believes he receives too much from them already.

The only two things he will commit to in terms of a schedule are his regular Wednesday night karaoke show, and his standing Thursday morning guest-host spot on Laguna Beach’s local KX 93.5 radio station. To earn extra money he will often run errands for local merchants unable to leave their stores. Though several local restaurants provide him free meals, he insists on repaying them by referring business their way via the unending stream of tourists that pour through the city. During the art festivals, Michael promotes well known artist Star Shields; a staple of the Sawdust Festival in exchange for free face painting. On Wednesday night at The Swallow’s he performs what he calls “Rap-e-Okee” (his own version of Rap & Karaoke). While there he drinks only ice water. As a practice, this is frowned upon by most bar owners. However, the staff at The Swallow's understand that Michael provides a valuable service to their bar by helping to maintain the colorful atmosphere it has become so famous for.

After breakfast Michael invited me to stand with him at his greeting post; the triangular piece of sidewalk where Forest and Park Avenues meet Coast Highway. When I asked if he didn’t stand on Larson’s old spot out of respect he just laughed and said, “Nah! I just think this spot is better!”

After watching Michael go through his greeting routine several times I realized the valuable yet intangible service he was providing to the city of Laguna Beach. Michael extends a bit of the city's famous good will to everyone he encounters. His routine, a combination of dancing, spinning in circles and and calling out to passers-by evokes a positive response from almost all whom he engages. Several pedestrians stopped for a word or picture, many cars honked, and several locals called out their own greeting in return. While standing there, I couldn’t help but become spiritually elevated a bit myself. Here is a man who stands on a street corner, rain or shine, trading smiles for goodwill - with complete strangers. Because it makes him happy.

Somewhere during the ten minutes I stood with Michael at his post, I came to see that there is a much bigger story than what he does, where he lives or who he’s met in life. Michael is one of those unique individuals often dismissed by others because they live so far outside the societal norm. He does not fit into any box, nor can he be defined by any label commonly used to describe someone and their place in society. These boxes and labels are, for most of us, the mechanisms which anchor us, and provide a point of reference in a chaotic world. For folks like Michael however, these things separate us from ourselves. They require us to live in a world where definitions become limitations, and labels are often too limited to define the infinite number of impressions we receive every day.

Laguna Beach is filled with people just like Michael. The city’s culture has been shaped by all like and before him. People relentless in their quest to share their vision of what that which makes the world meaningful, through their own artistic medium. Michael communicates his view of the world by spinning in a circle and waving to strangers on a street corner.

These things notwithstanding Michael is by definition, a social outcast who would normally be ostracized and written off. After spending a bit of time with him however, I learned he is not seen this way by others in the least. Rather, he is adored by locals and tourists alike. Shop owners say he is great for business. Tourists smile and ask to take pictures with him. Upon asking several local business owners if they’d ever heard of anyone disparaging him, or resented him carrying The Greeter Banner I could find none who would speak a word against him. When I asked him why he seemed intent to shine his light on the world regardless of what others say or think, his smiling response was, “Well, my mother always told me that you can’t love something that doesn’t have a heart.”

Somehow, Michael has found a way to live within a restrictive society in the least restrictive way possible. He has found micro-culture that is accepting of this. Considering the human history of Laguna Beach, it is not surprising he has made his home there.

There may still be some who would dismiss Michael as just another homeless nut-job and opportunist. I find this to be an unfair assumption, and a very one dimensional picture of who he truly is. Michael Minutoli, the New Greeter of Laguna Beach, is far more than a kooky beach dwelling drifter. He, like his predecessor Eiler Larson, is the embodiment of all that defines Laguna Beach as a community of individuals who place value on offbeat culture, who honor things rare and unique, and who pay homage to the intangibles that go too often unseen by others.

© 2013 Shelley Holt-Lowrey

My Review

Would you like to review this Story?
Login | Register


Every town has these charachters... they add to the atmosphere of the place!!!

Posted 5 Years Ago

Love this story. Not your ordinary journalist POV and that makes it an interesting read. I used to live in Hermosa Beach in 1980 so I know exactly the atmosphere of beach towns, even though Laguna is out of my price league.
What I found in this piece was that there are still stories about the personalities and philosophies and magic that each individual brings to each and every place on earth. That's what your story brings here Shelley.

Marvelous writing, simply marvelous.

Posted 7 Years Ago

Request Read Request
Add to Library My Library
Subscribe Subscribe


2 Reviews
Added on September 18, 2013
Last Updated on September 18, 2013