Laguna Beach greeter left indelible mark
He had wandered the world, selling butter in czarist Siberia, fighting in France during World War I, walking the Appalachian Trail with his dog -- and strolling down Colorado Boulevard, unofficially bringing up the rear of the Rose Parade one year.
But when he got to Laguna Beach, Eiler Larsen was so captivated by it that he stayed and welcomed the rest of the world there.
Laguna Beach returned the salute, naming him its official greeter. In good weather and bad, Larsen would stand on South Coast Highway waving to drivers and pedestrians and booming out a big hello.
A block-long lane bears his name, and two life-size statues on South Coast Highway -- where he called out greetings for 33 years -- honor the bearded, wild-haired fixture of the quirky, artsy seaside town.
"They may think I'm crazy," Larsen once said, "but when a motorist comes to town, tired and weary of the traffic, and smiles when he leaves, does it matter what they think?"
Laguna's greeting tradition dates to the 1880s, when Old Joe Lucas, a Portuguese fisherman and shipwreck survivor, greeted stagecoaches en route to Santa Ana or El Toro. Like the Roman sea god Neptune, he carried a trident; and he swore like, well, a sailor.
Lucas died in 1908. Three decades later, Larsen, then 48, arrived. A hulk of a man, Larsen worked part time as a gardener before he donned his red sport jacket to greet passersby.
Larsen was born in Aarhus, Denmark, in 1890. At 19, he traveled to Siberia, where he sold Danish butter. He soon immigrated to the United States and attended college in Minnesota. But wanderlust caught him, and he hopped a freighter to South America, according to Times articles.
During World War I, he returned to the U.S. and enlisted in the Army to fight in France, where his right leg was wounded by artillery fire. He walked with a cane the rest of his life.
During the 1920s boom, Larsen worked as a bank messenger on Wall Street. He later walked the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia with his dog, Happy, according to The Times' archives. Early in the Depression, he caught the "greeting bug" and began hailing visitors in Washington, D.C. As Larsen stood waving near the White House, President Hoover, from the back of his limousine, "waved to me when he saw me," Larsen said.
California's warmer weather attracted Larsen and, along with Dust Bowl migrants, he picked fruit in the San Joaquin Valley before heading south to Laguna Beach, a place that artist friends had recommended. Beginning in 1938, Larsen was cast for several years as Judas in "The Last Supper," Da Vinci's painting featured in the Pageant of the Masters, a still-popular annual event where people pose in tableaux vivants of famous paintings.
Meanwhile, he worked on and off as a gardener and at the Pottery Shack, where he greeted customers and travelers, shouting, "Helloo-oo, delighted to see you!"
According to Times accounts, Larsen began to garner public attention in the early 1950s, when he walked from Laguna to Riverside to attend Easter sunrise services atop Mt. Rubidoux -- and for marching alone and greeting the crowd at the Rose Parade.
He spoke six languages -- English, Danish, Spanish, Russian, German and French -- and was a ravenous reader who spent his small Army pension on science and philosophy books, which he bought at a local bookstore and then donated to the library and visitors. He also bought candy to hand out to children.
"I don't care who they are, they all respond to goodwill," Larsen once said of the residents and the visitors he greeted. "Some don't even speak English, but they understand anyway. It's my eyes. They project. They reach every car and every person, and they give the message of goodwill."
In 1959, some residents complained that he was a nuisance and demanded that his "booming voice" be silenced. But a poll by the town newspaper, The Times reported, showed that 88% of residents wanted Larsen to stay.
Four years later, his simple acts of kindness prompted the Laguna Beach City Council to proclaim him the town's official greeter -- an unpaid position with occasional benefits, such as free meals at local restaurants and a low-rent room at the Hotel Laguna.
A group of residents who were fond of Larsen paid the bills because they liked what he added to local color.
In 1967, that group raised more than $3,000 to send Larsen home to Denmark for a six-week visit after he suffered a stroke. In Aarhus, where his brother had once been mayor, Larsen said, he was treated like royalty.
But the stroke and emphysema slowed him down significantly. In the next eight years, he was often missing from his post along the highway.
His fans missed him and sent him hundreds of cards and letters. "I can't possibly answer all the letters, but people must know I appreciate them because they send more letters each time," Larsen told The Times.
Larsen died at a Capistrano Beach nursing home in 1975, at age 84. He was buried at Los Angeles National Cemetery in Westwood.
Five years after Larsen's death, an unemployed actor named Cano Graham stepped into his virtual shoes to research Larsen's character for a film or play. He did it for a few weeks, a few hours a day. "I had to be out there on the street to get a handle on his character," Graham told The Times.
"Larsen was no slouch. He was a very diversified man, but only a few really knew the breadth of his intellect," Graham said.
As Graham stood there, "people [came] to me with anecdotes about Eiler, and some even have tape recordings of conversations with him," Graham told The Times in 1980. "Everybody knows something about him, and I now have a suitcase full of information, even some of his letters and other personal correspondence." It's not clear whether anything came of Graham's research.
In 1981, a former hairdresser who looked like Larsen took up the tradition and lasted 25 years. His legal name was Number One Archer, bestowed by his parents, who were surprised by the birth of twins.
Archer took Larsen's post until illness put an end to his greeting gig. Since he stopped his waving sometime last year, no one has assumed the tradition.
Only the two statues remain, motionless, to do Larsen's memorable job.