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Gypsy Boots, 89; Colorful Promoter of Healthy Food and Lifestyles

August 10, 2004|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Gypsy Boots, known to several generations of Southern Californians as a fig-chomping, garlic-gobbling health food enthusiast who sold organic fruit to celebrities and carried his playful message about wholesome eating to football half-time shows, farmers markets and other venues, died of natural causes Sunday in Camarillo.

He was believed to be 89, his son, Daniel Bootzin, said Monday. But Boots, reversing a well-worn Hollywood tradition, probably would have added a few more years: When he celebrated his birthday three years ago, he claimed to be 91.

His family viewed the discrepancy as a mild exaggeration that Boots, the self-described "Ageless Athlete," believed "helped his case" that a healthy diet promoted longevity, Bootzin said.

No exaggeration was necessary for the zany zealot who downed watercress and wheatgrass like others gobble M&Ms and chips. In his 60s, Boots could throw a football farther than many men half his age. In his 70s, he had groupies: a band of young fitness-conscious women called the Nature Girls. In his 80s, he was still a joyful nonconformist, ringing his signature cowbell from the sidelines at USC football games in an outlandish outfit topped with a kooky cardboard crown and chanting his mantra: "Don't panic, go organic; get in cahoots with Gypsy Boots."

Other times he just yelled "FIIIG-arrrrrroooOOOO," a pithy paean to his favorite fruit.

"One of the things he would say was 'I may get older, but I'm not going to grow up,' " Dr. Paul Fleiss, a Los Angeles pediatrician, said of his friend of 35 years. "His message was: Keep moving, keep dancing, be happy."

Along the way, Boots "introduced thousands, maybe millions of people to healthy eating," said Patricia Bragg, a Santa Barbara-based health-and-fitness authority who knew Boots for more than 50 years and admired his energetic appearances on television and at natural-foods conventions.

"He was 'Nature Boy,' " she said, referring to the 1948 Nat King Cole hit that her father, health-food pioneer Paul Bragg, and Boots helped inspire. "He loved his organic fruits and vegetables."

A longtime Hollywood resident who moved to Camarillo about 15 years ago, Boots lectured at health shows and entertained at health-food emporia. He was a regular at Laker, Raider, and Dodger games, where he waved signs, devoured bananas and pranced with his Nature Girls. It was all done in the service of his philosophy, which involved organic eating, exercise and a lust for life.

"A lot of people see me and say, 'Oh, you're living!' " he told The Times in 1986. "Some thought I died, and some thought I went in a nuthouse. And the people who thought I was nuts are in the nuthouse. And me, who acted nutty, I've got to be doing something right."

Like so many Los Angeles originals, Boots was not always Boots. He was born Robert Bootzin, the child of poor Russian immigrants, in San Francisco. His father, Max, was a broom peddler; his mother, Mushka, raised four children in a vegetarian household. A free spirit, she fed the homeless her homemade black bread, led the family on hikes in the hills, and performed wild Russian folk dances.

When his older brother John died of tuberculosis as a young man, Boots let his hair grow long and became a devotee of healthful, natural living -- unorthodox, to say the least, for a teenager in the 1940s. He dropped out of high school and left home to wander California with a group of self-styled vagabonds.

One of them was Eden Ahbez, the vegetarian songwriter who found unexpected fame when he wrote the tune "Nature Boy."

Boots and Ahbez picked fruit in Lodi, slept in haystacks in Sonoma and under fig trees in Vacaville, and holed up in the hills outside Palm Springs, living a carefree existence that was decades ahead of the hippies of the 1960s. The experience shaped the simple values Boots would extol for the rest of his life.

"I sang, I danced, I laughed my way through life," he said. "I went to bed with the birds, slept under the stars and woke with the sun. I was the first happy, homeless nature boy."

He eventually had a roof over his head -- after marrying Lois Bloemker, a conservative, academic young woman from Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1958 and starting a family in Los Angeles. They were divorced about five years ago.

In addition to Daniel Bootzin, of Los Angeles, Boots is survived by another son, Alex Bootzin, of Pacifica, Calif.; three grandchildren, and a sister.

Memorial services are pending.

In 1958 he opened the Health Hut, a health-food store on Beverly Boulevard, which attracted a Hollywood clientele. Never one to mind the bottom line, he had to close the business after a few years.

Luckily, in 1962 Boots became a regular guest on "The Steve Allen Show," rubbing elbows with stars like Gene Kelly, Dean Martin and Marlon Brando. He made his entrance in a loincloth, swinging on a vine. Then he would dispense his philosophy, talk Allen into milking a goat on stage or whip up a strange organic brew.

"He would turn the stage into a madhouse about 30 seconds after he came on," Allen, who died in 2000, once recalled.

He also wrote a book called "Bare Feet and Good Things to Eat," had a band called "Gypsy Boots and the Hairy Hoots" and played bit parts in movies. Michael Douglas, who gave Boots a small role in his 1997 movie "The Game," threw an 89th birthday party for him at Paramount Studios.

Boots moved to Ventura County in 1989. Soon Camarillo residents became familiar with his grubby van emblazoned with a five-foot-high self-portrait and crammed with figs, prunes, and other organic fruits and sundries.

The self-proclaimed "clown prince of health" might fling a football in a perfect spiral at an unsuspecting customer, then entice buyers with his load of natural delectables. "People say to me, 'Don't you get old?' " he said. "I say, 'Yeah, I can't wait to be 1,000.' "

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