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GYPSY : At 75, ‘Nature Boy’ Is a Free Spirit With a Healthy Sense of Humor

Times Staff Writer

Gypsy Boots, a disheveled figure in tattered sandals, shorts and a T-shirt, was standing on the doorstep of a Venice town house.

He was standing on his head.

With one hand he shook a tambourine. His wild black hair spread on the ground around him. Gayle Olinekova--a well-known distance runner who lived in the town house--was not expecting company.

In fact, the two had never met.

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“I heard a knock and opened the door, and I saw these two grubby feet--brown feet in sandals,” Olinekova remembered. “And I looked down and he said to me, ‘I eat the nuts and fruits! My name is Gypsy Boots!’

Nothing Extraordinary

So much for formality. The encounter, a few years ago, was nothing extraordinary in the free-wheeling world of California’s most outrageous living health-food guru. It was only Gypsy Boots, the self-described living legend and Nature Boy, tracking down another disciple of health and bodily fitness.

Such things happen all the time.

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“I don’t know how he found me,” Olinekova recalled. “But I was delighted. When I moved to L.A., people told me, ‘You’ve got to meet Gypsy! You’ve got to meet Gypsy!’ It was wonderful.”

Boots is 75 now, an organic-fruit vendor who has woven his way into the very fabric of California culture. On his birthday last year the Los Angeles City Council presented a resolution to Gypsy Boots; Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky called him as much a part of the city’s rich, colorful landscape as Mann’s Chinese Theater.

In a town seemingly weaned on eccentricity, Boots is a step beyond--a case of individualism run amok; a madcap, say-anything, do-anything symbol of all those things for which the city is famous: vibrancy, healthy living, free-spirited action.

He makes the scene at ball games and Hollywood fetes, at parades and tennis tournaments. Anywhere he can find an audience he’s bound to show up, dressed in his wild hats and crazy T-shirts, spouting his corny rhymes and slogans--all touting his philosophy of organic nutrition, exercise and sheer love of existence.

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“I never smoked in my life; I never drank coffee in my life; I never got high on marijuana,” Boots said. “I only got high in a fig tree eating fruit--got high climbing way up in a tree and singing, ‘FIIIIG-arrroooOOO!’ ”

The gravelly voice rises to an excited shriek. It’s a voice damaged by years of raucous cheering at Dodgers baseball games, Lakers basketball games, Raiders football games and more. TV cameras still catch him on the sidelines: a frenetic figure holding up signs, ringing the cowbell he got while touring with band leader Spike Jones. He runs up and down the aisles with his Nature Girls--young, shapely blondes who heed his motto: “Don’t panic, go organic; get in cahoots with Gypsy Boots.”

“He’s unbelievable . . . he’s always been that way,” said actress Angie Dickinson, who came to know Boots 27 years ago and still calls herself a fan.

‘Like a Gorilla’

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“He’s like a gorilla, as far as jumping on tables and things,” she said. “I’d imagine him going to Halloween parties as a monkey--that’s my image of him.”

Dressed in his running shorts, torn Hawaiian shirts and, occasionally, a multicolored beanie with a plastic propeller on the top, Boots encourages that impression. He is apt to rip open a banana and consume it at any moment, just about anywhere. His hair, still black, hangs in scraggly locks to his shoulders. His hazel, close-set eyes gleam mischievously above a white beard.

“A lot of people shun him like the plague,” said free-lance broadcaster Mario Machado, a former CBS television correspondent who has watched Boots for years. "(But) he’s colorful. He’s memorable. I never get too much of him.”

Boots recalls times, during World War II, when he lived on a quarter a day in the berry fields and date orchards of Lodi, Vacaville and Sonoma. He picked fruit, slept in haystacks and under fig trees, and traveled the state with other self-styled vagabonds like his friend “Gypsy Gene"--killed by a jealous husband, circa 1955--and Eden Ahbez, who found unexpected fame in 1948, when he wrote a tune, “Nature Boy,” that became a smash hit by Nat (King) Cole.

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In 1962, Gypsy Boots became a regular on the old Steve Allen Show. He was a hippie philosopher who rubbed elbows with the likes of Gene Kelly, Sammy Baugh, Dean Martin, Stevie Wonder and Marlon Brando.

“He would turn the stage into a madhouse about 30 seconds after he came on,” remembered Allen, who invited Boots to return for more than 20 guest appearances before his variety show went off the air in 1964. Boots would swing onto stage on a vine, wearing a loincloth, or coax Allen to milk a goat on stage, or whip up some organic concoction in a blender.

Much of that early fame has gone now. But at an age when many of Hollywood’s legends seem to be feeble or dying, Boots still totes his football

into the street in front of his modest, blue-trimmed Hollywood home, firing long, arched spirals to back up one of his self-bestowed titles: the “Ageless Athlete.”

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“Here I am now, at age 75, throwing the football better than I did 40, 50 years ago,” he said, voice rising. “I run up and down the sidewalk here and stop traffic and throw the ball 50 yards, 55 yards--throw bullet passes!

“A lot of people see me and say, ‘Oh, you’re living!’ Some thought I died, and some thought I went in a nut house. And the people who thought I was nuts are in the nut house. And me, who acted nutty, I’ve got to be doing something right. I’m still throwing 50-yard bullet passes, still playing tennis, wiping everybody off the court. . . .”

In between the parades and the ball games, he still sells organic fruit to celebrities and health-food stores scattered across town. He lectures at health shows and entertains at Los Angeles health-food restaurants such as the Sprout Garden and I Love Juicy.

“I’m not a professional singer, I’m not a professional dancer,” Boots is quick to point out. “But somehow, the people get a kick out of me. Just like people go to the zoo. The monkeys have no writers. I don’t have nobody writing for me.”

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Growing old has meant something to Gypsy Boots: For half a century, he has browbeat everyone with the same health-and-fitness message--a serious message, underneath all the clowning. Everyone thought he was crazy. But now look at him: He’s got a pulse rate of 68. His blood pressure is 131 over 80.

Every year, in Thousand Oaks, the Dallas Cowboys football team holds its preseason training camp. And nearly every year, Boots is there, the scraggly hair flying, the lean, wiry arm cranking it up.

“He’s out there throwing passes, rifling them 60 yards,” said Ben Agajanian, a special Cowboys coach and retired pro football kicker. “I’m not exaggerating. He’s amazing, this man.”

In the deepening orange light of dusk, the van rumbles out of the Hollywood Hills, heading south toward the Sprout Garden. The vehicle, a 1975 Dodge (mileage: 180,000) is a Boots trademark. On the side is a six-foot likeness of a grinning Gypsy Boots. The rear doors are a forest of hand-painted Boots slogans: Nuts and Fruits and Gypsy Boots. Go Dodger Blue! Go Lakers! Go Angels! Go Raiders!

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It is St. Patrick’s Day, and tonight Gypsy Boots will perform. The restaurant is a two-story structure with an outdoor patio and candle-lighted tables. Dinner is uncooked, organic fare: sprouts, tomatoes, marinated cucumbers, fresh kiwi pie.

When the plates are taken away, a crowd gathers in the foyer. Patrons encircle the room on chairs and small couches and fill a wood-banistered staircase. Balloons and ribbons hang from the low ceiling. Boots takes the floor wearing a feather hat, suspenders and a bow tie that reaches from shoulder to shoulder.

Moving Into Action

As an organist begins an Irish jig, a singer takes the floor and Boots moves into action, stamping his feet, slapping his tambourine, improvising his own variety dance show.

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“Yahoooooooo!” he hollers.

One song follows another. He blows a party horn and throws it against a wall. In the middle of one number he looks for his wife, Lois, who is perched out of view near the top of the stairs.

“Wait a minute!” he cries out, and the music dies. “Lois, would you please come down from the bathroom? God Almighty!” The crowd laughs, grins--can’t stop grinning. The foot-stamping resumes. The singer belts out “If I Were a Rich Man,” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” Gypsy dances to it. He and Lois do the Charleston. Patrons soon join the dancing. Waitresses join the dancing.

After an hour, Boots is sweating heavily. His hair is plastered on his forehead. Yet the entertainment goes on--it will last another hour. “This is a zippy crowd,” he announces. So begins yet another song, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Boots stands on his head, clapping his feet. He does a Durante imitation. He pauses for a while to tell stories--tales about meeting his wife.

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The romance of Gypsy and Lois. Fodder for more laughter.

The story comes across in bits and pieces in his nightclub act--quips about Lois’ chronic nearsightedness (the reason she married him); about the carrots she never ate; apocryphal tales about her studies of psychiatry in college. “And after 28 years with me, she needs a psychiatrist!”

Yet marriage has played a surprisingly important role in the life of this seemingly ageless social maverick. Boots can talk for hours about the unlikely courtship that brought together the conservative, academic young lady from Fort Wayne, Ind., and the snaggle-haired organic fruit salesman who never finished high school.

Known Around Town

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Both were living in San Francisco--Lois with her sister in a two-story Victorian home atop Nob Hill. Boots was already known around town as the “Nature Man,” a long-haired fruit seller in oversized jackets. Lois’ sister dragged him home one day from a gymnasium where she worked out--something to amuse her sibling.

“He was strictly for laughs,” Lois recalled. “Three months later we were married.”

The night of their first date Boots climbed to the turret of the sisters’ Victorian home. Never mind that it was nearly midnight; Boots threw open the window, singing out over the city: “Figarooo! ‘FIIIG-arrroooOOOO!”

It was a romantic gesture.

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“I remember people slamming windows,” Lois recalled with a smile.

For lunatic behavior, Boots was headed toward the free-style record; but the two hit it off. Before long, Lois’ parents flew west from Fort Wayne. She said she tried to prepare them. They met Gypsy Boots in a park. He hid in the bushes and came crashing out, hair flying, arms waving.

Sitting now in his home, his propeller-topped beanie tilting precariously on his head, Boots remembered the moment.

“I looked like a wild animal,” he said. “Mother passed out, practically. I said to Papa, ‘I’m glad to meet you,’ and he said, ‘I ain’t!’

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“I had all these overripe figs and prunes and overripe, icky fruit lying there melting on the ground, and I said, ‘Eat,’ and he said to me, ‘I lost my appetite!’ ”

They Weren’t Ready

“Finally, he said, ‘What do you do for a living?’ And I said, ‘I’m living. What else is there?’ ”

What else, indeed? That was Boots, and they weren’t ready for him. The visit was scheduled for a week; it ended that afternoon. “They couldn’t wait to get back to the plane,” Boots recalled. He remembered his future mother-in-law making a hasty retreat up the boarding ramp.

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“When are you coming back?” he yelled.

“NEVERRRR!!”

Telling the story, Boots begins laughing so hard he can barely finish the sentence. His scraggly head rocks forward between his knees. The noise he makes is a gravelly roar.

Yet family life would become a stabilizing force in his otherwise unstructured existence. Ultimately, the years of living in orchards and hay fields would give way to this home in Hollywood, to telephones, to tax bills. He would find himself a bread winner, distributing organic fruit to celebrities and health-food stores to support three growing children.

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The offspring are Boots’ greatest pride: Alexander, 31, is a classical pianist; Daniel, 27, is a trumpet player, artist and aspiring screenwriter; and Freddie, 23, is a flutist and saxophonist. Unlike Boots, they are scholarly and refined, good students who adopted serious pursuits.

Freddie, a music major at Los Angeles City College, said he is not a fanatic for health food. He eats at McDonald’s. He had a normal, happy childhood--neighborhood friends, family trips to the mountains.

“A lot of people wondered who this guy was,” he said of his father. “Everybody seemed amazed that I was related to him.” All three sons would be less flamboyant, less inclined to live for the moment.

“They got A’s and Bs, and I swung in trees and got bugs and fleas,” Boots said.

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Family life brought a softening influence to Boots’ life. It softened the attitudes of his in-laws, who came to see the serious side of him over the years, Lois said.

“I always felt they understood him and appreciated him before they died.”

Family life also helped cushion Boots’ disappointment over his entertainment career. Despite his notoriety throughout Hollywood--or perhaps because of it--he never became more than the zealous health fanatic from the Steve Allen Show. He did a few other shows--Mike Douglas, Regis Philbin--but he never really made it big in movies or on television. He’ll never own an Oscar. No star shines for Gypsy Boots on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“People told me I should go to Hollywood and I should be in the movies,” Boots recalled. “So when I came to Hollywood I told all the casting directors, ‘I’m from northern California . . . I pick fruit.’ And they looked at me and said, ‘You’d better go back and pick fruit again.’ ”

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The rebuffs have disappointed him.

He shot a small segment for the film “Pumping Iron” with weightlifter Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the segment never made it onto the screen; he also appeared in a few scenes in “Childish Things,” a 1969 film starring Don Murray and Linda Evans.

Few other chances have come his way.

Once, a producer friend got him a tryout for a part as a patient in the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Boots said.

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It seemed the most natural thing in the world. But the director turned him down.

Boots manages to laugh about it now.

“People told me, ‘Either you were too cuckoo, or you weren’t cuckoo enough, ' " he said. “But I figure this: I must be a pretty good actor on the stage of life.”

His first nickname was “The Rainbow Kid.”

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Such was the multicolored, homemade wardrobe worn by young Robert Bootzin, the second of four children born to a Russian immigrant family in San Francisco’s Richmond district. His father, Max Bootzin, was a broom peddler. His mother, Mushka, made the clothes, baked black bread and fed the family on preserves made from overripe fruit.

It was a vegetarian household. Every Sunday, Mushka Bootzin, a free-spirited peasant woman, took the children hiking in the hills. During the summer she took them into the Sonoma Valley, where they earned a little money harvesting fruit.

“She never went to church in Russia, never read a Bible, but she had the qualities that religion is all about,” Boots said. “She used to feed the homeless that homemade black bread. . . . I used to sneak down at night and eat that bread.”

Soon after he met Lois, Boots took her to see the woman whose character had shaped his own. His mother was entertaining friends, performing wild Russian folk dances. Lois remembered peeking in the window.

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“She was dancing with her arms in the air . . . snapping her fingers, doing fast turns,” she recalled. “She was this woman with a vibrant, vibrant spark. . . .” Lois wouldn’t meet her until later. "(Gypsy) just wanted me to see her spirit.”

Never Graduated

Boots spent little time studying and never graduated from high school. But he became an excellent athlete. One childhood friend, Vic Ramus, remembers that Boots could throw or kick a football more than 70 yards. He played tennis and handball. He took jobs cleaning toilets, delivering groceries.

Tragedy also left its mark. His older brother, John, a barber, was barely 22 when he died of tuberculosis in Los Angeles. In memory, Boots let his hair grow long. He became forevermore a fanatic for health and fitness.

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Soon he would leave home and begin the vagabond existence that would bring him his later nicknames--Tarzan Boots, Figaro Boots, Gypsy Boots. His few personal possessions included a Jeep, a sleeping bag and a radio held together with a piece of rope.

“I slept in the rain. I slept in Golden Gate Park. I slept in the haystacks in Sonoma,” Boots said. The experience reinforced his simple values. “What you learn in a (school) building you don’t learn in a tree,” he likes to say. “And what I learned under a fig tree you don’t learn in a building.”

Olinekova, the distance runner, said those values are still evident in Boots. “He really could live in a garbage dump and not mind--as long as there are people around him,” she said.

Pensive Person

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“He’s a very deep thinker. He says very deep things and doesn’t even realize it. I think the reason he acts like a clown is that he’s got very serious things to say to the world, and he knows no one will listen to him unless he does something to make them laugh first.”

Boots’ messages are many. He opposes guns. He thinks schools should serve health food to children. He wants people to love each other and be happy.

His rhymes are the ABCs of his simple philosophies: “ ‘A’ is for apple, take two a day. ‘B’ is for bending, keeps the fat away.”

“Sex is like money,” Gypsy Boots will tell you. “It’s great, but if it’s going to make you have hang-ups and all that ‘ownership’ and man-made frustration, you’re better off training yourself to take it or leave it.” That subject, like others, is fodder for a Boots slogan: “Don’t make an issue out of a little tissue.”

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Boots regards himself as a “walking symbol of freedom . . . like one big American flag walking all over.

“I’m the most serious clown in the world,” he said. “People say, ‘They’re laughing at you, Gypsy.’ Well, I don’t care if they’re laughing with me or at me--as long as they’re laughing.”

Deep in the Santa Monica Mountains, the dirt road ends in a small ravine, where an icy creek runs past a small cabin. The Villa Maximilian is named for Maximilian Sikinger, 73, the stocky German immigrant who built it here more than 40 years ago, who fashioned the huge brick fireplace and collected the moose antlers and snakeskins that hang on the walls inside, and who still calls the place home.

Sunlight filters down through towering pines and a canopy of regal, 600-year-old oak trees. In a gully below the cabin, Gypsy Boots is stripped to his shorts, bathing in the creek.

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“Did you know Maximilian and I caught a rattlesnake up here?” Boots calls out, emerging from the stream and walking up the bank near a ramshackle wood bridge. “We took it down to the Griffith Park Zoo. Do you know what they said? ‘We’d rather have YOU!’ ”

He shakes his head. “We did some crazy things!”

Seeks Out Solitude

Boots and Sikinger grab a bowl of fruit and climb the hillside, up beyond the cabin, to a makeshift sun deck--a carpeted terrace enclosed by towering cacti and rusted, corrugated tin. At least once a week, Boots said, he comes here to escape the cheering and parades and social functions that dominate his life in Hollywood.

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He and Sikinger like to meditate in silence, or reflect on days, in the early 1940s, when they were two of California’s first hippies. They were like barbarians then, running barefoot through California’s vast orchard lands, living off whatever food they could pick, “paying no taxes, just spinning on our axes.”

Munching grapefruit and strawberries on the sun deck, Boots remembers a time, before Lois, when he took his first wife. The marriage lasted three days.

“Shorter than the Israeli war,” Boots remarked. “We were sleeping out in the open . . . sleeping on horse manure, out near Reno, and I asked her in the middle of the night, ‘What do you want for your honeymoon?’ She was crying because she said she didn’t know what she was getting into. So I said, ‘What do you want for your honeymoon?’ and Marilyn Goldberg said, ‘I want an annulment.’ ”

Boots and Sikinger traveled with Eden Ahbez and Gypsy Gene and a cast of other Nature Boys--Bob Wallace (“He looked like Jesus Christ,” Boots said), James the Greek (“He died . . . he decided he wanted to die for a cause, so he stopped eating; he tried to live off the air”), and Fred Pfister (“the Swiss Nature Boy . . . he used to yodel”).

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They did everything imaginable: Got sick on worm-infested figs. Got chased by bulls and officers of the law. Picked up young women who would ride with them--the original Nature Girls.

They Learned to Laugh

“All the Nature Girls I met, they were either sick or constipated,” Boots said, using a favorite figurative phrase. "(But) when I got through rubbing their body with mud, throwing them in ice water at Tahquitz Canyon, the mineral baths at Calistoga, putting them on a grape queue in Lodi, making them laugh, making them climb trees like a monkey, eating overripe fruit . . . boy, when I got through with them, they not only lost weight, some of them lost their minds living with me!”

But he improved their health, Boots likes to think.

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“They got well. They got so healthy they could run--and they all ran away from me.”

With Lois, he formed his one lasting relationship. They moved south for the warmer climate. For a while they shared sleeping bags on Maximilian’s sun deck. Later they found a house, had children, opened the Health Hut on Beverly Boulevard.

There, the stars came out. Angie Dickinson came. Gloria Swanson. Eddie Albert. Red Buttons. Scores of others.

“Lenny Bruce came in there one day and said, ‘I love you, Gypsy,’ ” Boots recalled, his tone reverent. “Lenny Bruce. . . .”

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Wrote Two Books

Boots managed to write two books packed with organic health-food recipes and photos of himself with entertainment celebrities and athletes (photo caption: “Two famous athletes: O. J. Simpson and Gypsy Boots”). Together, those books would sell 200,000 copies, according to Boots, under titles that sum up his existence: “Bare Feet and Good Things to Eat,” and “How to Stay Young at Any Age.”

Although the family income has never climbed beyond $20,000 a year, Lois said, there was, for a time, during the Steve Allen Show years, a Gypsy Boots line of health-food snacks. He had a carob-filled “Energy Bar,” a Gypsy Boots protein powder, a brand of tea and a Gypsy Boots cereal.

The Health Hut lasted three years before it went bankrupt in the early 1960s. Now, there is only one Boots product--the reconfigured, fruit-and-nut-filled “Boots Bar.” He hawks it at health shows and after his nightclub acts. (“Guaranteed to make you pregnant, ladies!”)

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“There was a time when we couldn’t walk down the street without people asking for our autographs,” Lois remembered. “He was quite famous for a while.”

Gypsy Boots dreams of recapturing that fame.

He dreams of writing another book. He dreams of opening a celebrity health retreat in the mountains. He dreams that his son, Daniel, the aspiring screenwriter, will write a movie of his life: “Gypsy Boots--the Living Legend.”

But perhaps his biggest dream is to prove to the world that he has made a success of this fitness obsession. He wants to sign up with a pro football team, to become a “designated passer” for a single play, like journalist George Plimpton used to do.

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“I could do better than him,” Boots said. “I’d go in . . . throw a 50-yard bullet pass! I’d be the oldest quarterback ever!”

He’s also planning his next birthday party. The theme: The “Spirit of 76.” He envisions a mud bath and a three-mile run with his Nature Girls--the young fitness devotees who still follow him around--to the Sprout Garden, where he’ll eat “the biggest raw persimmon pie in the world!”

Boots said he’s enjoying his age. “I can’t wait to get old. I can’t wait to get old like an elephant,” he said. “And, of course, I expect to live to be 100--and more. Because if you live to be 100, what’s to stop you from going on and on and on?”


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