6 of Your Favorite Local Characters


This is the fifth and final installment of a series on local characters whose fame spread by way of the internet. Each post drew a lot of response, mainly from those who requested a profile on characters from their hometowns. I feel like I know many of these people, even though I've never encountered them personally. They aren't just local anymore.

Emperor Norton

Joshua Abraham Norton was a 19th century local character in San Francisco who called himself His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, the emperor of the United States. He was thought of as eccentric at best or psychotic at worst, but those around him did not consider him dangerous. They humored Norton, and even honored him. Norton was given free meals at many restaurants and always had a seat at a play opening even though he had no money. He sometimes paid for services with currency he fashioned himself, which was accepted at local businesses. For 21 years, Norton issued decrees that were ignored by politicians and law enforcement (but welcomed by the media). One decree ordered the dissolution of the United States! Norton wore a uniform given to him by the army as he inspected the streets of San Francisco -but never call it "Frisco", because Norton forbade the use of the nickname. When Emperor Norton died in 1880, an estimated crowd of 30,000 people attended his funeral.

Artis the Spoonman

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Artis the Spoonman is a street performer and professional spoons player. Artis, who legally dropped his last name, began performing with spoons when he was in the Navy. He began playing in Seattle bars and on street corners after his divorce in 1972. Artis has recorded with Frank Zappa, Soundgarden, and a host of other musicians. See him perform in this video. The song "Spoonman" by Soundgarden was written about Artis. Image by Tara Anderson.

Piccolo Guy

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Tom Ryan is Madison, Wisconsin's Piccolo Guy, also known as Orange Guy. Ryan is a busker who plays a piccolo while wearing a high-visibility orange coat or jumpsuit. He is also a member of the jazz band Piccolissimo. Not everyone enjoys hearing piccolo music on the street. Ryan was cited for a noise violation in 2003 but was found not guilty after he launched an aggressive defense. See a documentary about Ryan named Blaze Orange.

Scanner Dan

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Also in Madison, Wisconsin, Dan Mathison is an honorary member of every sorority at the University of Wisconsin. He got the name Scanner Dan back in the 80s when he came out to watch a man being pulled over by police after he heard about the incident on his police scanner. Mathison hangs out on State Street and at the Memorial Union and remembers the names of every student he meets.  Scanner Dan has his own definition on Urban Dictionary.

The Jacksonville Ninja

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If you see a man doing martial arts moves at the corner of Western Boulevard and Highway 17 in Jacksonville, North Carolina, you've seen the Jacksonville Ninja. His name is Robert Mattocks, although he also goes by the nickname Radio Rahim. Mattocks spend up to eight hours a day exercising on the corner and entertaining those who drive or walk by. A rumor of his death in 2007 upset many Jacksonville citizens, but proved to be false. See Mattocks in action in this video.

Jennifer Gale

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Jennifer Gale was a homeless transgendered person (born male and identified hersef as a woman) who ran for political office on many occasions in Austin, Texas. Each time she ran for mayor, in 1997, 200, 2001, 2003, and 2006, she received a larger percentage of the vote, although never enough to be considered a serious contender. Gale also ran for school board, city council, and once for mayor of Dallas. She ran on a platform of compassion for the homeless, universal health coverage, alternative energy, and recycling. Gale died in December of 2008 from a previously undiagnosed heart condition, which may have been exacerbated by life on the streets. She was believed to be 48 years old. Gale's campaign website is now a memorial site.

See also How to Be a Local Character, which featured Popcorn Sutton, Prince Mongo, the Flip-Flop Man, Henry Earl, and New York's He-Man; 7 Fascinating Local Characters, which profiled the Duck Lady, DJ Nitetrain, Blanket Man, Zanta, Shakey Jake, Leslie Cochran, and Radio; 9 Wonderful Local Characters, featuring Baton Bob, the Brown Twins, Tuba Man, Johnny Haysman, the St. Cloud Superman, Beatle Bob, the Naked Cowboy, and the World Famous Bushman; and 7 More Unforgettable Local Characters in which you'll see The Great Antonio, Willie York, The Flower Lady, Frisbee Dan, Moondog, the Rev. Livingston Wills, and Boardwalk Elvis.