On August 10, Baton Bob, aka Atlanta’s Ambassador of Mirth, embarks on his first-ever drum majorette march around the globe with his one-man show, the Myrtle Hat Tour. The street performer’s alter ego, sixty-year-old Atlanta florist Bob Jamerson, previewed the show.
You created your character in the aftermath of 9/11. You were a St. Louis–based flight attendant scheduled to fly that day. How did you find your inner Ambassador of Mirth in the chaos of that tragedy? A month after 9/11, I lost my job because the airline industry was turned upside down. A therapist once told me, “When you feel yourself slipping into depression, go out and do something that makes you feel good down to your soul.” After 9/11 I dug around in my closet for my old high school marching band baton, and I went into Forest Park in St. Louis and just began twirling in an attempt to lift my spirits. I had no idea about the voyeuristic response I would receive. Then, with Christmas coming, I decided to add the costume, because laughter is a natural healing agent. I knew if I could make people laugh, I could help myself as well. That’s how Baton Bob was born.
Your one-man show is named for your mother? My mother Myrtle is eighty and still completely fierce. She has this incredible collection of hats, because she’s a black woman, you see. I’m using ten of her hats to tell the story of Baton Bob. On Sunday mornings, my mother would transform herself with these beautiful hats and matching gloves and shoes. I got my dress savvy from her and her mother, Virginia Watkins Redd. It’s less about the character and more about [Bob Jamerson], the person behind Baton Bob. I want people to know who that person is.
For the past decade, you’ve worked as a street performer, wearing outrageous outfits, blowing a whistle, and entertaining people on the sidewalk. For your forty-five-minute Myrtle Hat Tour, you’re using a stage. What can you reveal about the show? It’s going to be street level just on a stage. I’m going to be transitioning into these different hats and costumes as I tell Baton Bob’s story. I’ll be twirling my baton and breaking out the pom-poms, too, because Baton Bob’s alter ego, my new cheerleader character, Shake-A-Bag Bob, will also make an appearance. His pom-poms are made out of recycled grocery bags. He’s very green. I’ll be making a splashy entrance set to Donna Summer’s “Last Dance.” I’m booking stages around the world to house the show. Baby, it is going to be fab-u-lous.
What do you want people to take away from this show? That they have the same ability to make a difference and the same capacity to be a conduit for joy. Anybody can do what I do on the street. When the universe presented me with this opportunity eleven years ago, I had to say yes to it. When I started doing this, I had no clue we’d be speaking about it eleven years later. It’s taken on a life of its own.
You lived in Atlanta from 1979 to 1990 and moved back to Midtown from St. Louis in 2004. How differently does Baton Bob play in Atlanta versus St. Louis? Night and day, honey. St. Louis is still very conservative and very Catholic. But I remembered how free-spirited Atlanta’s Midtown area was, so when I moved back, Piedmont Park became my stage.
Your goal with this show is to take it to all fifty states and around the world? I’m going to Bali, I’m going to Australia, I’m going everywhere. It’s going to take as long as it takes. You can’t place a deadline on spreading joy.
Does Baton Bob have universal appeal? Of course! I’ve performed in Bali before as Baton Bob. By the third day on the beach in Bali, the natives were imitating me. Joy is contagious.
What pieces of Atlanta are you taking with you on your Myrtle Hat Tour? That emotional state I had back in 2004 when I first moved back, and I was in Piedmont Park and seeing people respond to Baton Bob for the first time. That warmth, that kindness, that state of complete disbelief!
Can you describe the feeling you get when you’re in costume and in character, when you’re in the zone as Baton Bob marching down the sidewalk and waving to your admirers? Oh, God. When I see those smiles on people’s faces, it just feeds my soul. That’s where my joy comes from.
*EXTENDED VERSION OF THE INTERVIEW THAT RAN IN OUR AUGUST 2012 ISSUE
Photograph courtesy of Baton Bob