Eiler Larsen’s legend as the The Greeter comes with the usual discrepancies stories have when they are passed from generation to generation, but by all accounts Larsen was Laguna Beach’s ambassador of goodwill.
Laguna Beach’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, Eiler Larsen, then 48, arrived. A wild-haired man, Larsen worked part time as a gardener at the Pottery Shack (now closed) before he donned his red sport jacket to greet passersby. After Larsen passed, the No.1 Unnamed Archer took over greeting strangers from 1983 to 2009.
Larsen became a Laguna Beach icon by waving and shouting, “Helloo-oo, delighted to see you!” to all passersby on the southwest corner of South Coast Highway and Forest Avenue next to Main Beach where a 1986 life-sized redwood carving by Guy Angelo Wilson remains standing outside Greeter’s Corner restaurant.
Larsen had traveled many foreign lands. He left his native Denmark to work for a butter exporter in Siberia. He hiked across Argentina and Chile. He traveled to France while serving with the United States Army 8th Infantry in 1918. 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. And, he lived in numerous cities in the United States including New Orleans, New York City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, St. Peter, Laguna Beach, and finally San Juan Capistrano where he died. When Larsen reach Laguna Beach, however, he stayed for 33 years, all the while dedicated to his greeting mission.
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. Laguna Beach’s mayor named Larsen the city’s official greeter in 1964.
Today, Laguna Beach remains unusually friendly. Tell a stranger at a restaurant that his dish looks divine, and he’ll offer you a bite. People warmly invite strangers into their homes at the slightest suggestion. And, no one remains a stranger for long. Laguna Beach is truly unique.