Gypsy Boots, a disheveled figure in tattered sandals, shorts and a T-shirt, was standing on the doorstep of a Venice town house.
He was standing on his head. With one hand he shook a tambourine. His wild black hair spread on the ground around him.
Gayle Olinekova--a well-known distance runner who lived in the town house--was not expecting company. In fact, the two had never met.
"I heard a knock and opened the door, and I saw these two grubby feet--brown feet in sandals," Olinekova said in recalling the incident. which took place a few years ago. "And I looked down and he said to me, 'I eat the nuts and fruits! My name is Gypsy Boots!' "
So much for formality.
The encounter was nothing extraordinary in the free-wheeling world of California's most outrageous living health-food guru. It was only Gypsy Boots, the self-described living legend and Nature Boy, tracking down another disciple of health and bodily fitness.
Such things happen all the time.
"I don't know how he found me," Olinekova said. "But I was delighted. When I moved to L.A., people told me, 'You've got to meet Gypsy! You've got to meet Gypsy!' It was wonderful."
Boots is 75 now, an organic-fruit vendor who has woven his way into the fabric of California culture. On his birthday last year the Los Angeles City Council presented him with a resolution. Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky called him as much a part of the city's rich, colorful landscape as Mann's Chinese Theater.
In a town seemingly weaned on eccentricity, Boots is a step beyond--a case of individualism run amok; a madcap, say-anything, do-anything symbol of all those things for which the city is famous: vibrancy, healthy living, free-spirited action.
He makes the scene at ball games and Hollywood fetes, at parades and tennis tournaments. Anywhere he can find an audience he's bound to show up, dressed in his wild hats and crazy T-shirts, spouting his corny rhymes and slogans--all touting his philosophy of organic nutrition, exercise and sheer love of existence.
"I never smoked in my life; I never drank coffee in my life; I never got high on marijuana," Boots said in a recent interview. "I only got high in a fig tree eating fruit--got high climbing way up in a tree and singing, 'FIIIIG-arrroooOOO!' "
The gravelly voice rises to an excited shriek. It's a voice damaged by years of raucous cheering at Dodgers baseball games, Lakers basketball games, Raiders football games and more. TV cameras still catch him on the sidelines: a frenetic figure holding up signs, ringing the cowbell he got while touring with band leader Spike Jones. He runs up and down the aisles with his Nature Girls--young blondes who heed his motto: "Don't panic, go organic; get in cahoots with Gypsy Boots."
Dressed in his running shorts, torn Hawaiian shirts and, occasionally, a multicolored beanie with a plastic propeller, Boots encourages that impression. He is likely to rip open a banana and consume it at any moment, just about anywhere. His hair, still black, hangs in scraggly locks to his shoulders. His hazel, close-set eyes gleam mischievously above a white beard.
Boots recalls times, during World War II, when he lived on a quarter a day in the berry fields and date orchards of Lodi, Vacaville and Sonoma. He picked fruit, slept in haystacks and under fig trees, and traveled the state with other self-styled vagabonds like his friend "Gypsy Gene"--killed by a jealous husband, circa 1955--and Eden Ahbez, who found unexpected fame in 1948, when he wrote a tune, "Nature Boy," that became a smash hit by Nat (King) Cole.
In 1962, Gypsy Boots became a regular on the old Steve Allen Show. He was a hippie philosopher who rubbed elbows with the likes of Gene Kelly, Sammy Baugh, Dean Martin, Stevie Wonder and Marlon Brando.
"He would turn the stage into a madhouse about 30 seconds after he came on," remembered Allen, who invited Boots to return for more than 20 guest appearances before his variety show went off the air in 1964. Boots would swing onto stage on a vine, wearing a loincloth, or coax Allen to milk a goat on stage, or whip up some organic concoction in a blender.
Much of that early fame has gone now. But at an age when many of Hollywood's legends seem to be feeble or dying, Boots still totes his football into the street in front of his modest, blue-trimmed Hollywood home, firing long, arched spirals to back up one of his self-bestowed titles: the "Ageless Athlete."
"Here I am now, at age 75, throwing the football better than I did 40, 50 years ago," he said, voice rising. "I run up and down the sidewalk here and stop traffic and throw the ball 50 yards, 55 yards--throw bullet passes!
"A lot of people see me and say, 'Oh, you're living!' Some thought I died, and some thought I went in a nut house. And the people who thought I was nuts are in the nut house. And me, who acted nutty, I've got to be doing something right. . . . "