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The 'Whittier Walker,' a.k.a. 'Violin Man' Bows His Way Into Legend

September 21, 1989|TINA DAUNT | Times Staff Writer

Elston Johnson hobbles slowly through Central Park in Whittier, hunching slightly as he holds a violin case. With his red cap, long white beard and plump belly, which makes him look a little like Santa Claus, Johnson immediately catches the attention of children playing nearby.

He turns his head and smiles. Then he plops down in a chair, carefully takes out his violin and starts to play "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" while the youngsters gather around.

For nearly 25 years Johnson has put on hundreds of similar impromptu concerts in the parks and on the sidewalks, in the alleys and on the streets of Whittier. Johnson--friendly and gentle-mannered--has become a local legend.

Around town some people call him the "Violin Man." Others call him the "Whittier Walker."

When Johnson was younger he walked between 10 and 25 miles a day through Whittier, playing his fiddle. But Johnson, 76, does not get around like before. According to Paul French, a friend of his, the musician's health is failing.

About two years ago, French and his wife, Gladys, both social workers, said they found Johnson sitting on a curb, hardly able to move. They took him to his home, a bungalow he inherited from his parents, and found it a shambles.

They helped him clean up his house and get back on his feet. Most of all, they encouraged Johnson to keep fiddling.

When Johnson is feeling up to it, the Frenches drive him to a park, street corner or anywhere he can play his carefree tunes.

Johnson said his repertoire includes Mozart and Gershwin, but he prefers the more popular ditties, such as "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" or "Let Me Call You Sweetheart."

He puts on the impromptu concerts because he loves music and fresh air, he said, adding that he does not play for handouts.

Johnson said he started walking and fiddling in 1964, shortly after his parents died.

"There was no use sitting around and feeling sorry for myself," he said. At the time, it was Johnson's way of handling grief, he said.

For as long as Johnson has been walking the streets, rumors about him have circulated among residents.

Some residents said they thought Johnson was homeless and owned only the cloth on his back and his old violin. Other residents said they wondered if he was crazy. And some speculated that he might be a miser with a fortune stashed away someplace.

Johnson scoffs when told about the rumors. He says he is not crazy and he's "got the papers to prove it." And he says he is not rich, but he is not poor either, although there was a time before his Social Security checks started arriving when he had to sell almost all his belongings to get by.

Johnson was born in Whittier in 1913, one of five children. He graduated from Whittier High School in 1933 and attended Whittier College, where he studied music.

Later, Johnson worked as a groundskeeper at the college and continued living at home with his parents. He never married.

Over the years, Johnson has been the subject of several portraits by local artists. Wanda Riske, a local artist, said she has sold about 800 prints of a portrait she painted of Johnson for the Whittier Historical Museum collection about five years ago.

"As I began getting into this thing, I realized how popular he is," Riske said. "Whether it be children or adults, people see his picture and say, 'There's the old guy with the fiddle.' We've seen him for so many years, he's just a legend in his own time."

Recently, Bill Bell, managing editor of the Daily News in Whittier, started a fund to erect a statue of Johnson. About $1,200 has been raised so far.

Johnson grins when he is told that some residents regard him as a local legend.

"I guess I'm just a well-known figure around town," he said. Then, with his blue eyes sparkling, he asks: "How about another song?"

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