If you’ve lived in the Bay Area for even a short time, you’ve probably encountered Pink Man. He’s hard to miss, wearing a unitard the color of Pepto-Bismol and careening through the streets on a unicycle. Sometimes he sports a fluttering cape, or flaps his arms like a giant bird.
Pink Man – clown, superhero, flamingo – had his genesis about seven years ago, although his creator, Michael Maxfield, has inhabited Planet Earth a bit longer (about 40 years). His mission is simple.
“It’s about joy,” Maxfield said. “I love what I do, I love playing around on the unicycle.” If he can spread a little of that joy to spectators, so much the better.
It seems to work. Several years ago, Pink Man was named “Favorite Local Character” in a San Francisco Chronicle readers’ poll—no small feat when you consider the multitude of colorful personalities thronging the Bay Area.
And now he’s appearing on stage. “I Wheel,” an original multimedia performance, is at the Live Oak Theater May 30 and 31. The show playfully chronicles the evolution of the wheel, from cave man discovery to man’s supreme accomplishment—which is of course the unicycle.
The show, narrated by Bodie MC also features fellow unicyclist and trapeze artist Ashley Foster in a series of pieces combining dance, acrobatics, and music. Sometimes the work celebrates pure form and movement, as in a duet titled “Sacred Geometry.” Pink Man himself makes only a limited appearance in “I Wheel.”
“At heart I’m a dancer,” said Maxfield. “My main thing is dancing on my unicycle… it’s a real different energy than Pink Man.”
But Pink Man fans, fear not—the rosy-hued superhero appears in the show’s grand finale.
And as it turns out, the show’s timing is fortuitous. “Did you know,” Maxfield said in a rush of breathless excitement, “May is Support Your Local National Superhero Month? No, really--you can look it up.”
The exuberant Maxfield, who talks a mile a minute and seems at times to view the world with almost childlike naivete, sees “amazing connections and coincidences” everywhere since he took up with Pink Man: “There’s a woman in Sacramento who started something she calls Pink Week – and it’s the week of my birthday!” and “the pink flamingo lawn ornament was created in Leominster, Massachusetts, which is my home town.”
Maxfield has lived life on the fringe for many years, working variously as a club DJ, band singer, and assorted menial jobs. Berkeley has been his home off and on for nearly 20 years, but he’s also lived in Oregon, Hawaii, and southern California.
Pink Man became a part of his life about seven years ago, when he was living in Oregon and a series of personal problems, including an ugly divorce, had left Maxfield “almost suicidal” in his words. During those dark days, it was riding his unicycle—swhich he had done as a hobby since he was a teenager—that gave him something to live for.
Why he decided to order a hooded leotard from a dancewear catalog at that time—and to order it in shocking pink—he can’t really explain. But something about the uniform appealed to his inner need for creative expression. When he donned the costume and cycled across the University of Oregon campus, someone shouted, “Pink Man!” and a new era began.
“It’s like the unicycle saved me,” Maxfield said. He speaks with reverence of the one-wheeled conveyance. “The movement is so unique, so dreamy—it’s kind of like flying.” He extols the ability to make sharp turns, pivots, and to stop on a dime.
Not that just anybody can do this. “I’m the best in the world at what I do,” Maxfield asserts.
He likes to use his super-unicycle powers to conquer evil, or at least calm hostility. He delightedly recounts the story of being harassed by a bunch of toughs outside a bar in Eugene, Oregon. When they made fun of his unicycle, he suggested they give it a try. One by one, the tough guys mounted the cycle—and fell off. When they were done, Maxfield climbed on his unicycle and dazzled them with a series of fancy spins and tricks.
“After that, they all want to shake hands with me,” he said. “Then this one guy puts his cowboy hat on my head. I felt like I’d been invited to join the club. It was so cool.”
Despite his popularity, Pink Man doesn’t charm everyone. Maxfield has experienced his share of heckling and being pelted with trash. The scariest incident occurred in Berkeley some years ago when someone reached out of their car and yanked Maxfield off his unicycle, dragging him for a distance of about 50 feet before he got loose.
Maxfield knows he invites harassment with his unusual antics and appearance.
“I’ve never been as ‘out there’ as I am now,” he said cheerfully. “I’m nutso, and I know it.”
But he’s also happy, even if fame and fortune have eluded him thus far. Citing what he terms “a mountain of close calls,” he remembers disappointed hopes, big breaks that never materialized. But there’s always tomorrow. He said he’s writing his autobiography, to be published by Berkeley-based Ten Speed Press. Among his ambitions: to make a movie, and to perform on his unicycle in cities around the globe.
For now, he hopes “I Wheel” will be a success. “I’ve been living below the poverty line for years,” he said. “I won’t be upset if it makes a little money.”