Larry Orr, a white-haired window clerk at the Studio City post office, dresses up as the Phantom of the Opera on Halloween.
After Thanksgiving and right through to Christmas, he dons a white beard and a Santa hat--except during Hanukkah, when he trades in the red felt for a yarmulke.
"I take one day off in observance of Hanukkah out of respect for my customers," Orr explains. As he chats, he weighs parcels, doles out stamps, takes customers' money and makes change all in a seamless rhythm.
Orr, needless to say, is not your typical government bureaucrat. Although at age 44 he can't yet be labeled an institution, he is well on his way.
One customer, 71-year-old Tom Zavalani, lives in Panorama City but has a post office box in Studio City "because I like Larry."
Orr's customers bake him cakes and cookies, bring him pictures of their grandchildren and cut out grocery coupons for Dove Bars and Eskimo Pies because Orr loves them.
"Everyone knows him," says Joe Rahal, 68, who visits the post office at least once a week. Rahal, who has lived in Studio City about 30 years, won't let anyone else wait on him--even if he's been in line for a long time.
"I just tell the lady or man behind me, 'You go ahead, I'm waiting for Larry,' " Rahal says. "Even if he doesn't wait on you, people say hello to him. They like talking to him, telling him a story or a joke."
The cherubic Orr tells plenty of jokes in return--most of them absolute groaners. Somehow, though, they help keep the line moving.
"Attention everybody, if the line gets moving too fast and anyone gets dizzy just raise your hand and I will let you off," he announces as patrons fumble with packages and stare helplessly at their watches.
On a recent day, he told one customer who came in with an order for $3,000 worth of stamps: "Come back when you can stay longer."
He assured another: "That's the cheapest way to send it. Trust me. I'm not on commission."
"He's a character," says Rabbi Meier Schimmel of Beth Meier Congregation in Studio City, who gave him the yarmulke. "You walk into the post office and he makes you feel welcome. He makes you feel like you're part of a community."
Indeed, it is being an integral part of this community of 34,000 people that Orr cherishes most. "It's family here," he says. "People tell me to cut my hair, trim my mustache, go on a diet. They feel comfortable with me, and I feel comfortable with them."
Before moving to Los Angeles in 1974, Orr spent much of his life traveling from one place to another. He was born in Corpus Christi, Tex., and raised in Kansas City, Mo. As a teen-ager he joined the Navy and after a two-year stint moved to Florida to work for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, where his aunt was a showgirl.
After dreams of becoming a circus clown faded, Orr moved back home to Kansas City and worked for a record distribution company. He then took a job with Continental Trailways, where over three years he moved from Kansas City to San Francisco and eventually to Los Angeles, doing everything from checking baggage and freight to selling tickets.
"I've never been in a place long enough to feel at home," Orr says.
That is, until he arrived at the little post office on Laurel Canyon Boulevard.
"Here I know everyone and they know me," says Orr, who has worked in Studio City for nine years. "People in L.A. brag that they know movie stars. Well in this town, movie stars know me."
Orr was hired at the U.S. Postal Service in 1982, after taking the postal exam "just to see how I would do."
According to his customers and his colleagues, he's been doing just fine ever since. "Whenever I have problem people, I send them to Larry," says Loyce Thompson, an 11-year veteran of the post office. "Sometimes when you have a really long line, the last few people can get kind of hostile. Larry will tell a joke and break the tension."
Orr has been named "Clerk of the Month" and "Clerk of the Year." And he has a personnel file full of complimentary letters.
One customer praised him for returning a lost $100 bill. Another, a widow, mistakenly elevated Orr to the position of "postmaster" and gave him kudos for "dealing with the elderly, kindly but quickly." And yet another wrote to a say, "The post office is very lucky to have people like Larry Orr working for them."
In some ways Orr is just another Hollywood wanna-be--and he's found a captive audience. His window is his stage.
For instance, if it's your birthday and you have to show your driver's license to pick up registered mail or a package, Orr leads the entire post office--customers and employees alike--in a rendition of "Happy Birthday." He also kisses babies.
And customers say he does it all while waiting on three or four people to the other window clerks' one or two. "He's about the best window clerk I've ever worked with," says Edward Myles, one of Orr's supervisors and a postal employee in the North Hollywood region for 19 years.
Still, not everyone thinks Orr is so great.
"A couple of the customers have taken exception to the jokes Larry tells and they've complained," says station manager Christy Bell. "But usually people enjoy him."
Indeed. In today's faceless, automated world, Larry Orr takes people back to a time when neighbors knew each other by name, inquired about family members and just asked how folks were getting along.
"I like my customers," Orr says while neatly clearing the window of postage stamps, a wet yellow sponge, ink pad, tape and pens at the end of a busy day. "They make me feel like I belong. They make me feel at home."