Weird Chico: A to Z
A catalog of the icons, oddities and strange history that give color to our funky little city
Chico has always been weird, from the days of John Bidwell and the eccentric characters with whom he associated (look up Stuttering Zeke Merritt) to the hippies and hipsters who currently groove and chill downtown. And it’s the colorful folklore of old and fantastic freaks of the present that give our little Nor Cal oasis its quirky personality. In an effort to wrangle as much fun as we could into one feature, we’ve created this handy A-to-Z guide to Weird Chico. There are, of course, many more examples of people and places and stories that make up the colorful stripes of Chico, but we think we managed to pack these pages with enough to paint a nice picture of our unabashedly weird little city.A: Amins, not al-monds
Chico has always been a hotbed for almond growers. In fact, our crops are so plentiful they’re shipped all over the world. But don’t go mispronouncing the name of our most famous nut. ’Round these parts, they’re called “amins.” Even “a-mends” is acceptable. But leave out that “L”! As the lore goes, to harvest the nuts, they have to shake the “L” right out of them. In a little unrelated pronunciation weirdness, Chicoans also pronounce “esplanade” differently than everyone else. In any other town, our beloved boulevard would be called The Es-plah-nah-d. Here, it’s the Es-plah-nay-d. Go figure.B: Blue Room Theatre and Butcher Shop theater festival
The stories of The Butcher Shop are etched in Chico folklore. Born in the backyard of the Latimer home in the early 1990s, the legend goes that brothers Dylan and Denver cut a hole in the wall of their parents’ garage (without permission) to accommodate the puppet show portion of their avant garde happenings. These days, every Labor Day weekend, the brothers and their extended family of arts pranksters gather in an orchard in south Chico to put on the wildly popular Butcher Shop festival of original one acts of varying degrees of absurdity.
And thanks to the Butcher Shop, there is also the Blue Room Theatre. The instigators of those early days of theatrical rebellion are the same ones who started the downtown black box that has upheld its mission of “challenging artists and audiences with plays of depth and vibrancy in an intimate environment” since 1994.C: Chikoko
In some respects, the five women who unite under the moniker Chikoko could be described as the fairy godmothers of Chico weirdness. The fashion-design/art cooperative was started more than a decade ago, and today its core group—Nel Adams, Sara Rose Bonetti, Muir Hughes, Michalyn Renwick and Christina Seashore—are known for putting on one of the most popular locally produced events in town. Their annual experimental fashion show draws more than 1,000 spectators to bear witness to the group’s imaginative and racy original creations worn by local models—professional and amateur, of all sizes—who strut down the catwalk with more attitude than a Kardashian in New York during Fashion Week.
The event is like no other in Chico—think acrobatics, dancing, music and comedy all performed with an eccentric bent. It helps that its female producers are more than seamstresses—they’re artists, mothers, poets, writers and savvy businesswomen who have kept Chikoko relevant and connected to the greater community.D: Dragopolis
The “future of drag” is now. Dragopolis, the monthly (usually third Saturdays) drag revue at the Maltese Bar & Tap Room, is drag central. Hosted by Chico’s grande dame queen, Claudette de Versailles, the series is the anchor for local (and visiting) drag performers and the enthusiastic—and often wild—audiences cheer kings and queens strutting their stuff against the red-curtain backdrop.
Dragopolis is just one of the colorful cornerstones of the Maltese, the south Chico dive bar that’s made itself a safe haven for weirdness of all stripes—from the full range of the musical underground to the inclusive Malteazers burlesque troupe.E: Echo chambers
Two big concrete discs of magic—one atop the Roth Planetarium at Chico State (behind Meriam Library) and one in the courtyard of Tri-Counties Bank at Fifth and Salem streets. Stand in the center, talk, and blow your tiny mind.F: Funky local characters
In many ways, Chico is defined by its iconic local characters, funky “celebrities” who add color to our little city. Without them, Chico would be a boring place indeed. Among the most beloved are our local arts scenemakers, like Sea Monster and Dragonboy, who turn heads with their eclectic wardrobes as well as their fanciful creations. Then there’s Mike G, the rock ’n’ roll pedi-cab driver, and his dog, Lil’ G. Try and not smile and tap your foot when they cruise by bumping their booming sound system.G: GravyBrain
To claim the title of weirdest Chico band, it would probably be enough to build a giant pink elephant named Beau Le’Phant and rock out on its back as it’s driven around Burning Man. But the Playa-loving freaks of local four-piece GravyBrain—Captain Danger, Guitar Gravy, The Scorpion and Dr. Galaxo Magic—take their exploratory brand of funk/fusion on an even wilder ride with their musical Web series, The Nibiru Chronicles, in which they embark on a “space adventure to seek and claim the planet Nibiru for GravyBrain and all the folks on Earth that love to party.” Turn off your mind and surrender to the void at the band’s YouTube channel: www.goo.gl/pyqalaH: Haunted downtown
Every town has its haunts, and its purportedly haunted locales, and Chico is no different. Point to any one of our historical buildings and there’s likely a ghost story associated with it. Take, for instance, the most famous of our so-called haunted buildings: the Senator Theatre. Legend has it that the second floor is inhabited by the ghost of a Native American child, but experiences vary. Some have reported seeing a woman after hours, seated in the bleachers; others a bucket hovering by itself in mid-air. Additional noted haunted local haunts include the Blue Room Theatre, Goodman House Bed & Breakfast and even Bidwell Mansion. (Maybe that impressively bearded dude you saw sneaking a drink on our founders’ front porch wasn’t a modern-day hipster after all?)I: Idea Fab Labs
Idea Fabrication Labs isn’t your average ragtag artist collective. In fact, there’s nothing ragtag about the 6,900-square-foot “digital fabrication facility” by the railroad tracks. Boasting an impressive collection of high-tech art-making tools—3-D printer; CNC Shopbot (computer-controlled woodcutting machine); fully equipped audio, electronics and textile zones; etc.—the maker space and its subscribers put out serious art and put on serious all-night EDM parties to celebrate.J: Jewel of Lower Park: Caper Acres
At Caper Acres, kiddos can play in an oversized block of Swiss cheese, hang out with Humpty Dumpty and ride a giant sea serpent. The fairytale-themed children’s playground in Lower Bidwell Park has stirred the imaginations of generations of Chicoans over its nearly 50-year life, and with community donations and a good plan for a much-needed makeover, it will remain one of Chico’s wonderfully weird and iconic attractions.K: Kozmic Kev
When Chico needs mystic crystal revelations, we turn to Kozmic Kev, our astrological hippie with the soothing Cali-dude lilt. Since 1984, Kevin Durkin has given horoscope readings as Kozmic Kev, appearing over the years in various publications as well as on radio and television to share his loving and peace-filled encouragements, advice and premonitions. Currently, his horoscopes are shared on his Kozmickev100 YouTube channel as well as the Planetary Persuader show on Citizen’s Television, and at 7:25 p.m. during his weekly “Bohemian Express” radio show, Wednesdays, 6-8 p.m., on KZFR 90.1 FM.
Norm Dillinger has been a house painter for roughly 30 years, but he’s only painted one house. And he’s not even finished. For the better part of the last three decades, Dillinger has been covering his house—aka “Lumina”—at 821 Orient St. with dots. Both the outside and inside are covered in whimsical pointillist murals. There are raccoons peaking from the eves and tigers guarding the garage, and even the cars in the driveway are overtaken by dots of paint. Visitors are welcome. Just knock on the door and say, “Hi.”M: Monoliths
In the right light, the 19 monoliths standing outside of Chico State’s Ayres Hall look ominous; to passersby with active imaginations, perhaps even prehistoric. They actually were constructed in 1990, when visiting professor Deborah Masters, an artist from New York, supervised art students as they designed and constructed the stone monuments in one semester. The class filled plaster casts with concrete, a giant crane set them in place, and then the students carefully chipped away to reveal the surreal behemoths—each weighs between 4,000 and 8,000 pounds—underneath.N: Nukes!
Though you wouldn’t know it to look at it today, up on the north end of town, by the Chico Municipal Airport, lies an old Titan I missile facility. Though the missiles are long since gone (no, not shot off toward Cold War enemies, though one did explode underground during its final inspection in 1962), the silos remain. They’re underground, now relics whose existence falls more and more out of local memory. There is one reminder, however, that many a chuckling visitor likes to point out: Chico’s municipal code still includes a law—put in place after years of peaceful protests—proclaiming that, “No person shall produce, test, maintain, or store within the city a nuclear weapon, component of a nuclear weapon, nuclear weapon delivery system, or component of a nuclear weapon delivery system.” Phew!O: One-day clubs
Thanks to the 1 Day Song Club (started in April 2015) and its subsequent sister clubs launched last summer—1 Day Art Club and 1 Day Poetry Club—hundreds of new songs, poems and pieces of visual art have been born into the Chico world. The concept—wherein a one-word prompt (“magic,” “drugs,” “fear,” etc.) is announced every two weeks and anyone willing to create something matching the theme in 24 hours or less gets their work featured on the site (www.1dayclub.com)—has inspired many local artists to work on art and in turn made Chico a more colorful place.P: Public access TV weirdos
Public access television has long been a haven for strangeness, a place where amateur ventriloquists, preachers and astrologers could go to set up shop between potted ferns and be left to their own devices to produce original content rich with unintentional comedy. Now, with the re-emergence of Chico’s own public access station, BCAC.TV, there’s a fresh batch of community programming filled with trippy/cheesy green-screen scenes and hilariously dry interviews—see the That’s That and Dream Show variety programs—only now the comedy is intentional … we’re pretty sure.Q: Quick Stop Market
Plane, meet convenience store.R: Robin Hood and his merry men
In 1938, well before live-action role players began to dress like knights and duel with foam swords in Bidwell Park, men in equally funny costumes went on fictional quests in the same woods, only for a major Hollywood film. The Adventures of Robin Hood starred a swashbuckling Errol Flynn (in Technicolor!) and used the riparian areas along Big Chico Creek in Lower Bidwell Park as Sherwood Forest. The film became a classic and thanks to the local scenes—not to mention the street named for the Warner Bros. studio that filmed them—Robin Hood lives on in local lore.S: Stansbury Home
The Bidwell Mansion may be the proverbial big house on the block when it comes to Chico’s historic residences, but the Stansbury Home—an 1883 Italianate Victorian house at the corner of Fifth and Salem streets—is also impressive. Built by Dr. Oscar Stansbury, it was occupied by his family until the death of his daughter Angeline on Christmas day 1974. The Stansbury Home Preservation Association gives tours on weekends ($5 adults, $3 children), offering a good look both inside the house and into the lives of its denizens—including the independent, proto-feminist Angeline and a Chinese cook who hanged himself there. Artifacts on display include antique medical equipment (including a human skeleton) and the doc’s Masonic gear. The home also hosts a few strange and wonderful annual events, like ice cream socials and a Victorian Christmas party popular with the local steampunk crowd.T: Tweed rides
An excuse to dress all old-timey, ride around on a bicycle, preferably vintage, and then head to the brewery for some suds with other lovers of the two-wheeled life? Yes, please! Check out the kid-friendly Chico Tweed Ride in November and the Seerksucker Ride in the spring.U: Underground tunnels?
The myth just won’t go away: Locals have long spread a rumor that, early in Chico’s history, Chinese workers built and used tunnels underneath downtown Chico, and even set up opium dens. Local historians John Nopel and Michele Shover helped debunk the myth in a CN&R story in 2001, with Nopel adding, “I don’t know where that ever got started.” Well, it persists, perhaps because some downtown businesses do share connected basements.V: Vertebrate museum
A zoo’s worth of fantastic, taxidermied creatures—including a polar bear, hundreds of birds and a crocodile suspended from the ceiling—lurk behind an inconspicuous door in the maze-like corridors of Chico State’s Holt Hall. The Vertebrate Museum includes more than 10,000 specimens and, though primarily used by the school’s biology students, it’s open to the public. Group and private tours can be arranged through the Department of Biological Sciences office (898-5356) and curator/biology professor Jay Bogiatto encourages drop-in visitors during school hours as long as the door to room 237 is open and visitors promise not to touch the specimens.W: Weird File at Chico Museum
Chico’s weirdness isn’t a new development; it’s always been a strange place. Ample evidence of this can be found in a pair of black, three-ring binders labeled “Chico Trivia” held behind the desk at the Chico Museum and available for public review upon request. The folders are a veritable treasure trove of local lore, containing files filled with newspaper clippings, hand-written notes, pictures and information printed from websites about some of the stranger personalities and events to have colored local history.
Examples include episodes of falling rocks that allegedly rained from the sky in the early 20th century, a frog hunt and subsequent feast featured in Life Magazine in 1937 and water carnivals hosted at Sycamore Pool in the 1940s and ’50s (yup, they really water-skied on it). There are also accounts of famous visitors like Buffalo Bill, Bigfoot and a mysterious “airship” seen by hundreds of Chicoans—and even mentioned in John Bidwell’s journals—in 1896.X: Xylophone at Wildwood Park
There are lot of options for outdoor fun at the playground and playing fields at Wildwood Park at the entrance to Upper Bidwell Park. But music? Yes, just bring a mallet or a tennis ball and tap the resonators on the giant “Xylophone” sculpture created by one-time local artist Gregg Payne, who’s also responsible for “Resonance,” the enormous wind chime/tetrahedron structure in Humboldt Park. The xylophone sits near Wildwood’s playground equipment, just waiting for someone to bust out a crude tune. Maybe “Funky Town”?Y: Yo-yos
Chico’s equivalent to the largest ball of twine (20,000 pounds, Cawker City, Kansas) is a giant yo-yo weighing in at 256 pounds. The Big-Yo is modeled after a variety created by famous San Francisco yo-yo designer Tom Kuhn, inventor of the “No-Jive.” Kuhn built the oversized toy in the late 1970s. During an event at Pier 39, the working toy was dropped by a crane over the bay. It didn’t climb back up, and instead spun in place and burned through the rope, dropping into the water below. A diver recovered the wooden creation, which was featured in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest functioning yo-yo. For years, the iconic giant toy has been housed at none other than the National Yo-Yo Museum in downtown Chico’s Bird in Hand, the beloved local gift shop owned by yo-yo impresario Bob Malowney.Z: Zippy and the catfish
Are we having fun yet? We end this alphabetical rundown of Chico’s freaky fun with a shout-out from Zippy the Pinhead, the comic strip known for documenting the weirdness of America with its cast of strange characters and free-associated philosophical musings. The strip debuted in underground comics during the 1970s and eventually became a staple at newspapers such as the San Francisco Chronicle. The Chronicle dumped it for good in 2004 (though it remains in daily syndication), the same year that artist/writer Bill Griffith included a Chico oddity—the large metal catfish sitting atop a pole in an orchard on Highway 32 west of town—in one of his strips, asking about the creature (and all other things as well): “What is that thing?”