Compiled by William Burg, Tim Foster, Becky Grunewald, Guphy Gustafson, Niki Kangas and Liv Moe
While Bobby Burns was the ultimate Midtown character, there are still plenty of folks who contribute to the quirky nature of Midtown in unique and myriad ways. What exactly makes someone a ‘character’? We never did figure that out, but we did come up with a list of quintessential Midtowners who do what they do while marching to the beat of their own drummer.
Contrary to popular belief, the Ayres sisters are not New Wave shop girls sent from 1985 to save us from 21st century fashion faux pas. These splashy, colorful and highly recognizable Sac natives moved to Midtown in 2004 when they entered the UC Davis fashion design program. They quickly became disenchanted with the mainstream fashion world, but fell in love with Midtown and went into business, opening Thunderhorse Vintage (first in back of Bows & Arrows, then at 2522 J) in 2009. Underneath all the dye and hairspray they base their business model on feminist ethical principles, resisting the exploitive aspects of the fashion industry.
Artist Chris Baxter recently wowed the masses with a kick-ass solo show at Upper Playground on J Street. Baxter has been painting for well over 20 years, but used to be better known for applying his street art skills to the outsides of his cars and the occasional alley wall. When not painting he’s playing drums in a series of aggro metal bands, probably the best known of which was Scenes From the Struggle. Baxter is also a gearhead with a deep love of ‘70s Datsun Z cars and long served as the go-to guy for many hipsters on the grid.
Doug Biggert, Sacto’s wild-haired elder statesmen has seemingly done it all. Solo show at the Newport Harbor Art Museum in 1972, check. Worked with Jeanne Claude and Christo on Valley Curtain, check. ‘Godfather’ of zine culture/head buyer for Tower Mags in the early ‘90s, check and check. Oh yea, and let’s not forget that pesky European art career, with a short documentary on TV5 Monde in France and a book, Hitch-hikers published by Michel Husson in Brussels. If none of the above is ringing any bells for you stop by Records on Broadway on a random evening and you’ll say, ‘oh, THAT guy.’
What can one say about Hailey Chase, AKA: MOM? This quiet Midtowner’s real-life self is an unassuming, shy (or is that pensive and poignant?), incredibly fashionable gal. Onstage, she transforms into her unspeakably gross alter ego, the musical cabaret act from Hell, MOM. Think: creepy Annette Funicello permasmiles, pornography, merkins, bodily fluids spread on dead rabbit carcasses, hamburger on your face and awkward duets with Downtown James Brown, all performed at an anti-punk half speed that gives the whole experience a dream-like quality, as though everything might be taking place underwater. Part performance art, part vaudeville, part Grand Guignol, MOM is somethin’ else – and so is Hailey Chase.
Mike Farrell is Midtown’s favorite rock star. Sure, he’s not as famous as John McCrea or the guys in the Deftones or Tesla, but he’s our rock star. Farrell has been strutting his fab Keith Richards chic in these parts since the mid-eighties, playing everything from hair metal to blues to whatever amalgamation of musical styles Daisy Spot is. You’ve probably seen him play at Old I, the Loft, the Crest, the Cattle Club, a house party and/or some random corner on Second Saturday. And you probably asked yourself the same question everyone else does: Why isn’t this guy HUGE?
As the feedback to our recent article about Ground Chuck can well attest, the guy is a much beloved local fixture. Chalk artist, comedian, musician, and buddy, Chuck has been embraced by everyone from local business owners and city officials – KJ, hello! – to Midtown’s punk community. If you aren’t sure whether you’ve ever seen evidence of Chuck’s handiwork keep your eyes on the ground next time you’re entering one of Midtown’s restaurants or watering holes, especially the Rubicon, Waterboy or Old Tavern. Sweet, funny, and talented there is nothing not to like about Ground Chuck.
If Midtown had a Poet Laureate it’d be Bill Hughes. He’s probably most familiar as the security guard for Tower Café, but that role only scratches the surface of the Bill Hughes mystique. Mention In Cold Blood and he’ll tell you about a pilgrimage to the Clutter house. Say ‘James Dean’ and you’ll be regaled with stories of visiting Dean’s family in Fairmount, Indiana and being at Dean’s crash site on the 50th anniversary of the star’s death. Don’t even mention the Doors unless you’ve got a lot of time to kill. Hughes investigates American national obsessions in an intensely personal way, translating the experiences into poems, stories and not-so-tall tales.
When conservatives talk about “bleeding heart liberals” they might as well hold up a photo of Jeannie Keltner. The longtime Editor of leftie newspaper Because People Matter and host of Access TV’s Soapbox, Keltner is always working on a cause or two – or ten. Seemingly inexhaustible, you may see her at lectures, poetry events or handing out political info bright and early at the Farmer’s Market. A list of her charitable work would take up most of this article so we’ll just leave it to your imagination. Just think: ‘nice lady.’
Ask nearly any blues player in town to name THE blues guitarist in Sacramento and they’ll tell you “Johnny ‘Guitar’ Knox.” Knox has mastered everything from acoustic Delta Blues to raging Chicago-style electric blues and led an absolutely killer R&B combo, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Knox and the Blues Busters, throughout the ‘80s. You’ve probably encountered Knox even if you’ve never set foot in a blues club; he was stationed at the front of the Tower Records on Broadway for years, and now sets up at the W/X Farmer’s Market every Sunday. If you’ve never stopped to listen, make the time – Knox is the real deal.
Art Luna first arrived in Sacramento in 1965 at age 13. After stints dealing craps in Lake Tahoe and Reno and living in Mexico, he returned Sacramento to open Luna’s in 1983. Luna’s has become almost a community center for offbeat cultural events; events at Luna’s include art and photography shows, plays, flamenco, jazz, poetry, even stand-up comedy. “You name it, we’ve done it, even if I don’t admit it,” Art says. Art is also an actor, photographer, poet and writer, who states “I know there’s a couple of books in me wanting to come out if I ever find the time.” Some might say that Luna’s greatest work is the café and cultural oasis that bears his name.
It’s a little known fact that Mark Miller actually invented Midtown, which he once ruled with a velvet fist. He brought the 24 hour Garage Sale to the masses, fitted everyone up with vintage 3 speed bikes and had a hand in nearly every fun thing going on, like the DooDah parade starring Bobby Burns and midnite river canoe trips for starters. These days he spends most of his time working on his 1870s Midtown house and playing drum [sic] in hillbilly band the Alkali Flats, but if you need to buy something weird or want to hear a good off-color yarn, he still should be your first stop.
Jerry has been a fixture in the Sac music scene for three decades: booking agent, band management, publisher of Alive and Kicking and plain old music fan. How he maintains his enthusiasm over new bands is a mystery, and yet, there he is, just as excited about Dog Party today as he was about the Square Cools in 1982. There are plenty of reasons Perry should be fed up, starting with the regular beatings he used to receive from Sac’s skinheads back in the day. This is the third article in this issue in which Jerry will be mentioned – which is sorta its own explanation about why he’s on this list. One question: why isn’t Jerry on the City Council already?
Why is it somehow surprising that we only have one critter on this list? Despite her youthful mien, Raffles is actually around 13 years old. She’s been lazing in the aisles of Beers Books since 2002, when long-time employee Ed Carroll picked her out at the animal shelter. It was love at first sight. As Ed describes it, he instantly knew she was a “feline of choice” from the way she was roaming around the shelter’s lobby, cageless, as if she was an employee. Now she is an employee at Beers and her job is spreading love.
Singer/songwriter/window-washer Ray Rill is practically a Midtown institution. Rill discovered Bob Dylan in 1965, around the same time his parents moved to Sacramento. Forty-five years later he’s still an acoustic-guitar-toting-harmonica-playing Dylan acolyte. Rill wandered into Midtown around 1983 and soon found himself ensconced as the folk troubadour of the Stucco Factory, the artists’ studio complex on R Street and later became a familiar face at the open mics around town. Many know him best in his non-musical role as the CEO and sole employee of Awesome Window Cleaning. If you’ve got windows, give him a call: 916 743 7001.
Old Ironsides’ Art Rodriguez is the greatest bartender on the grid, despite rarely, if ever, dripping current liquor over an artisan sugar cube. Art’s talent lies not in what he makes (even though his drinks are quite good) but in how he serves it. He knows your name, your drink and he looks you in the eye. Not only that, but he is lightning fast. Here’s a hint: hit Art’s side of the bar every time and you’ll be back in front of the band before you can say “bobsyouruncle.”
Larry Rodriguez driving a psychedelic doily-painted minivan is a classic Midtown sight, usually late at night after he has made the town shake its collective ass at one of his many DJ gigs. He is all over bringing dance music to the people – try The Shady Lady on first and third Tuesdays, and Sundays at The Press Club as well as regular gigs at The G Street Pub in Davis and Old I. As the supacool standup drummer for Art Lessing and the Flower Vato, he puts the hypnotic in psychedelia. Larry has forgotten more about music than you will ever know and – top this! – was even the subject of a Daisy Spot song.
Dave Smith’s obnoxious drunken exploits are the stuff of legend and he’s the only person on this list who has been beaten up more often than Jerry Perry. Two of Smith’s claims to fame are introducing the Peep Off (a post-Easter binge-eating ritual involving marshmallow peeps) to Midtown and convincing the producers of Trekkies II to film a big chunk of the movie in Midtown. After a baseball bat-wielding mugger left him for dead in 2001, Smith decided he needed to see the world – he’s spent much of the past five years on other continents. He’s back in Sac today, but he could be in Uruguay tomorrow.
Scott Soriano is best known as the man behind Sacramento Comment, the microscopic Sacto newspaper that raised muckraking to a high art a dozen or so years ago. Or he’s the impresario that runs S.S. Records, an internationally-renowned avant punk/art damage record label. Or he’s the brains (and back) behind the Loft, the now long-defunct underground music venue that put Sacramento on the map among punk’s cognoscenti. Or used book dealer, or record collector, or lead singer/guitar slinger, or KDVS DJ… and so on and on. In short, SS is a busy guy with tentacles in all regions of Midtown’s creative netherworlds
Drive down 21st Street on any given day and you’re likely to see a dapper gentleman with bleached hair and a zoot suit standing in front of Cheap Thrills. ‘Uncle’ Fred has been running this Midtown institution for a quarter century or so, ruling his quirky gang of punk rock, goth, indie and hippie employees with a lovingly firm hand. Fred’s vision of Cheap Thrills as a vintage clothing store/costume shop/mecca of alternative culture has worked like gangbusters. Need a pair of chaps? Uncle Fred’s got ‘em. Bright pink wig? Check. Burning Man tickets? Natch. Whatever weirdo thing you’re looking for, Fred’s got you covered.
You’re more likely to see Steve Vanoni’s Facebook updates than the man himself these days – and then you’ll probably encounter a variation on the following: “another beautiful day in Tallin, much work to do.” After decades as one of Sacramento’s most iconoclastic (and hardworking) visual and performance artists, Vanoni made the break and took talents off the continent. This Stucco Factory, HorseCow and Sex66 alum was invited to showcase his expressive style of art-making at a residency in Tallin, Estonia in 2008 and has been on the road ever since with shows in Europe and New York. What’s that phrase about a hometown boy made good?
Catch Tom Working at his day job at Floppy’s Printing on J and you enter his private world. Tom applies the concept of ‘tough love’ to the work environment, and it’s not uncommon to hear him giving customers the business. The amazing part is that we all take it – and in some perverse measure – enjoy it. Even if you’ve never set foot in Floppy’s you’ve probably encountered Working’s graphic designs – he freelances for a host of small businesses and non-profits all over the grid. Over the past few years he’s also been translating his cartooning/illustration skills into skin art over at Bonehead Tattoo, where we’re sure he’s as cantankerous as ever.
Tags: Art Luna, Art Rodriguez, Bill Hughes, Chris Baxter, Dave Smith, Doug Biggert, Ground Chuck, Hailey Chase MOM, Jeannie Keltner, Jen Marilyn Ayres, Jerry Perry, Johnny 'Guitar' Knox, Larry Rodriguez, Mark Miller, Midtown Characters, Mike Farrell, Raffles, Ray Rill, Scott Soriano, Steve Vanoni, Tom Working, Uncle Fred