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The Unbelievable Backstory Behind Michael Minutoli,

Laguna’s gregarious greeter


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

June 20, 2011 began like any other day for Michael Minutoli. He went to work at Marbella Farmers Market in San Juan Capistrano, where he called himself a delitician, slicing meats and making sandwiches. He entertained his customers with fantastic stories and free samples, because Michael tries to make every day fun. 

Once he got off work that afternoon, he met his two buddies – a street preacher from Connecticut and a homeless guitarist from Boston – at the Main Beach Starbucks, a bag of the day’s unsold paninis in hand. After finishing his coffee, Michael stood up and said, “I’m going to start saying hi to the city.” His pals looked confused. Michael walked out to the juncture of Forest and Park Avenues and PCH, in front of Chantilly Ice Cream, and began to wave as the cars whooshed past. That day marked the birth of Laguna’s fourth greeter. 

Michael Minutoli greeter

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Laguna’s fourth greeter, Michael Minutoli

Some folks around town doubted Michael’s resolve. “I’ll give you ‘til lunchtime,” a local postman told him. A policeman threatened to cite him several times. “I don’t like what you’re doing here,” he told Michael. A stranger assaulted him, coming up from behind and dealing a significant blow to the top of Michael’s head. Michael took it all in stride. His two friends followed him, supporting him from the sidelines every day, telling him, “Go for it, Michael!” So he kept waving at passing cars, shaking pedestrians’ hands, and dancing to his own beat.

There are many things most people don’t know about Michael. The dancing man on the corner, with his wild costumes and sometimes striking face paint, has a story you might not believe.

Growing up Minutoli

Michael was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts, the tenth of 10 children – three sisters and six brothers – on December 2, 1959. With a family so large, there wasn’t an abundance of time or money, and Michael wasn’t burdened by a lot of supervision. As the last kid, he spent the most time with his dad. “I grew up in barrooms, laundromats, and racetracks,” he says. His dad liked to gamble – dogs or horses, it didn’t matter much. Michael describes his mother as a creative eccentric, a beauty and a natural entertainer. His father, Michael says, looked like Humphrey Bogart. “I probably got my social skills from my dad,” he says. “And my personality from my mother.”

But before Michael could come of age, tragedy struck. When he was only 11, Michael lost his brother, Anthony. What his family mistook for seizures were actually a series of small heart attacks. The doctor gave surgery 50/50 odds. His parents opted out. Anthony would suffer his final heart attack at age 12, while playing with his friends. “I should have been there,” Michael says. 

Michael Minutoli close up

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Michael’s difficult childhood may have informed the man he became

Anthony’s memory lives on in Michael’s own son, who’s named after Anthony, as well as Michael’s grandson – also Anthony. 

What losing a sibling does to a child, and his family, is impossible to calculate. Michael’s father spiraled in grief. His mother would live only another seven years. Whether those experiences taught Michael to embrace life, take risks, seize opportunities, and live big – who can say? But loss rarely comes without consequence.

The red carpet crasher

When Michael mentioned his hobby was crashing parties, I pictured local shindigs – beach barbeques or pool parties, swiping hotdogs and beer. I didn’t imagine Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes, celebrity post-parties, and movie premieres. 

In 1989, Michael made his way backstage at a Madonna concert. He hobnobbed with the singer and got his picture with her. Since then, crashing celebrity parties became an obsession. He has photos of himself with over 1,200 stars (that count, taken over a decade ago, is surely stale). A quick Google search shows Michael posing with Barbra Streisand, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Lady Gaga, Lindsay Lohan, Ben Stiller, Henry Kissinger, Kiefer Sutherland, Michael Jackson, Bono…you get the point. 

Michael shared the stage with Grammy winner André 3000 of OutKast, holding the golden statue while André accepted the award. He jumped on top of Billy Joel’s piano as Joel performed with Elton John. Madonna and Elizabeth Taylor both kissed him.

Michael became notorious enough to earn himself profiles in The New York Times, L.A. Times, OC Weekly, and a spot on The Today Show.

Michael Minutoli hi sign

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Michael infuses everything he does with unstoppable energy

The 2008 documentary Crash Artist: Beyond the Red Carpet tells Michael’s tale. It’s a film in equal measure entertaining and tragic, portraying a fun-loving guy brimming with stories, star sightings, and celebrity photos, but who also lost a great deal in the process. 

Unlike Laguna’s previous greeters, Michael was once a family man. In ninth grade, he met his one life love, Debbie, at a church social in Attleboro. They moved together from Massachusetts to Orange County on Valentine’s Day, 1980. Here they had their two children. 

Anthony and Ashley grew up shadowing their dad. They posed with stars, and saw all the latest movies before their friends.

Now that Michael’s children are grown, they sometimes struggle to understand their dad’s choices, according to Minutoli. But their faces light up talking about all those fantastic childhood memories too, he says.

Michael’s unconventional lifestyle – his obsession with crashing parties, his difficulty holding steady employment, and his decision to live homeless – ultimately cost him his marriage and access to much of his family, he says. But Michael sees this as choice, instead of loss. For him, homelessness is a decision and one that he accepts. He’s neither panhandler nor substance abuser. But he’s happily traded conformity, security, and material possessions for life lived on his own terms and the impact he can make on the street. 

While that might mean losing touch with family, he’s in constant contact with the everyman. That’s a theme that unites Laguna’s greeters.

The making of a greeter

Are Laguna’s greeters born or made? The question, though never overtly addressed, nonetheless underlies the 2015 documentary The Greeter

The film traces the nearly 130-year history of greeters – four men united by their eccentricities and a passion for making people smile. Old Joe Lucas, Laguna’s first, was a Portuguese fisherman who greeted stagecoaches instead of cars. He began in 1880, the year after Orange County was incorporated, holding a trident instead of a staff. Eiler Larsen, the most iconic and celebrated of the bunch, didn’t arrive in Laguna until 1942. He came from Denmark to pursue his “mission of friendliness,” which lasted until his death in 1975. No. 1 Unnamed Archer got his name for being the firstborn twin (his brother, No. 2). He was known for telling people they were “perfect.” Michael assumed the mantle two years after No. 1’s passing, in 2011, and has held it since.

Michael Minutoli with statue

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Michael, posing with a statue of Eiler Larsen, has made the job his own

Uniting these unlikely men are a few commonalities. They’re all a little eccentric. They all desired connection, and wanted to shake people out of their monotonous routines to see each other in a different light. They all felt called to the position.

Changing lives – one smile and wave at a time

Michael says he’s learned a lot about humanity in the past eight years. “Humans love to love, and they love to be loved,” he says. “You have no idea what a smile and a wave can do for a stranger.” Three stories stand out among the many. 

One Newport Beach woman had been on the receiving end of Michael’s waves for a long time. One day, she handed him an envelope and asked him not to open it until she’d gone. The woman confessed she’d been going through difficult times, and had considered taking her life, but it was her connection to Michael that stopped her. 

Another couple gave Michael a bird colonel coin of recognition (an honor usually reserved for military men).

Timothy Vorenkamp, an 18-year-old Laguna volleyball star who died of a rare bone cancer in 2016, put lunch with Michael on his short bucket list. He wanted to understand Michael’s unwavering positivity, and “what made him tick.” It wasn’t a wish Tim could fulfill, but Michael still does a fundraiser for Tim’s “Live for Others” foundation each year.

Michael Minutoli reflection

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Michael captured in a quiet moment of reflection

But then there are the cruel. “Some people like to humiliate me,” he says. “They throw things, sometimes they hit me. I don’t react.” Michael recently met with Father O’Gorman – who both baptized and married Michael and Debbie in 1984 – to help him through the hostility he experiences on the street. “You’ve taken on a very mystical, spiritual, symbolic thing in this town,” Father O’Gorman told Michael, offering a prayer of protection. “Don’t you worry. You were chosen to do this.” 

Michael grew up Catholic. He describes himself as mystical and spiritual, and says he’s accepted Jesus as his savior. He sees meaning in dates and numbers. He’s no believer in coincidence, and quick to draw cosmic connections. Father O’Gorman’s observations were what Michael needed. 

“That helped me with the opposition,” says Michael. “I read somewhere that the more opposition you have, it means you’re important and doing something very special. It doesn’t come without [consequences].”

The next morning, Michael felt like a new man. “I don’t do this for fame,” he says. “I give it all I’ve got. I don’t wear sunglasses because I want to look people in the eyes. I’ve got to be real on that corner. I deal with families, the elderly, and everything in between. I’m overwhelmed by it.” At least one encounter causes Michael to cry every day. He’s a sensitive guy, and the job takes an emotional toll.

Is that dancing or Russian roulette?

If you’ve lived in Laguna long enough, you might remember Michael as the man who danced with waves down on Main Beach. For years, he took long runs in the wet sand with his Walkman, jumping – fully clothed and frenetic – into the ocean. He favored full moons. His shadow, as one local described it, looked like it was dancing on the water. “On warm nights, the shore breaks are really big,” Michael says in the The Greeter. “I follow the high tides and play Russian roulette with the shore breaks.”

Did Michael dance with the waves or play Russian roulette with them? That tension seems present in everything he does. Did Michael party with Hollywood’s stars, or tempt the event staff to bust him? Did he lose his family or gain a whole town? Is he greeting or gambling as he draws cheers and occasional scorn? 

Michael Minutoli pointing

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Greeter or gambler, Michael has fun playing with his audience

Recently, someone threw a takeout container from a moving car at Michael – an untouched burger sealed inside a clear plastic carton. It hit the curb and exploded at his feet. But as Michael describes it, the scene was beautiful. The plastic caught the streetlight, illuminating the lettuce and tomato. “It would have made such a beautiful picture,” he says, “if someone was there to capture it.” 

That sums Michael up – a man who chooses to turn ugly moments into beautiful ones, and sees light in other people’s darkness. One person’s risk is another man’s reward. 

The greeters’ Rorschach test

Maybe Laguna’s greeters are Rorschach tests for our town. They reflect our joys and they mirror our fears. Laguna is either a small town of bohemians and eccentrics, or we’re a swanky city on California’s golden coast. We’re an artistic mecca or a quaint throwback. We’re hippies and entrepreneurs. We’re homeless. We’re billionaires. We’re idealists and we’re jaded. We’re beach bums. We’re celebrities. We’re accepting and we’re suspicious.

It’s hard to look at Michael and not be impacted – he’s that kind of guy. Most of us, once we’ve watched Michael a few times, are endeared by his charms, won over by his warmth, and uplifted by his energy. He’s quintessential Laguna – beautiful and baffling and complicated.