Atlantans is a first-person account of the familiar strangers who make the city tick. This month’s is Bob “Baton Bob” Jamerson, as told to Josh Green.
Growing up in a small town in Virginia, I remember every Saturday back in the day, when they broadcast college football games, they’d also show the halftime shows. I watched these majorettes come out and twirl these intricate routines. I was maybe eight or nine. I remember going to my grandmother and asking her if, the next time she went to town, she would buy me a baton. She said, I don’t have money for no baton. Why don’t you just get one of my old brooms and cut the handle off? And that’s what I did—I started out with a broom handle.
I was a percussionist in my high school band. Going into senior year, I went to my band director and said, Would you be okay if I present myself as a male twirler in the band, as opposed to playing the drum? He said, If you can come up with a uniform, go for it. So I went to JCPenney. I’d go out and perform for halftime just like the band and twirling corps did. Nobody from my family ever came out and said it, but I could tell by body language they weren’t quite happy. To be honest, I didn’t realize how embedded homophobia was in our culture until I was older. I was so caught up in the spirit and joy of entertaining, that didn’t matter to me.
The rug got pulled out from under my feet [when] I was laid off—right after 9/11. I was a flight attendant, living in St. Louis. My therapist gave me this antidote for depression, saying, The next time you feel yourself slipping into that mindset, go do something you know makes you feel good. I started going to this park in exercise gear, with my MP3 player and my baton, to twirl my spirit out of this funk. I had the idea of adding costumes to make people laugh. Once I started doing that and set up a website, I started getting responses from fans and seeing the differences I was making in their day. A neighborhood paper called the West End Word did a story on me, and they titled the article “The Ambassador of Mirth.” When the public found out, in the article, my name is Bob, they added “baton” to it, and everybody started referring to the character as Baton Bob.
I traveled every avenue in St. Louis, but that city is ultra-conservative. I had lived in Atlanta from 1979 to 1990. I knew about Midtown and all the goings-on, and it just seemed like a logical place to come back to in 2005. I moved into an apartment near Piedmont Park, and I turned that park into my main stage. Everybody’s response was relatively positive; once word got around, people started looking for me.
There’s always a traditional drum major whistle. I use that to alert my fans that are in office buildings. If they have a window, they run to it and look, to see what I have on for the day. The most fun outfit—every time I put this on, I’m guaranteed to have a great day—is bridal attire. I try to do a costume to represent whatever holiday is coming up: Christmas, Easter, St. Paddy’s Day, Fourth of July, you name it. I call them tailored ensembles. And when these people start screaming my name, they’ve got the biggest smiles on their faces. From a spiritual perspective, it gave me a life purpose. I was in a Georgia Aquarium commercial. I was in that movie Last Vegas with Robert De Niro. For five or six years in a row, I was Creative Loafing’s “Best Street Character.”
I was doing spontaneous street performances at least two or three times a week, but I got into a situation with my mother, dealing with her Alzheimer’s and dementia. For a year, I had to step back and focus on her; I lost her in July of 2018. It was really challenging because I’m an only child. I had just gotten mentally equipped to get back out on the street on a regular basis and Covid hit. People have been wondering where I’ve been, what’s been going on.
The whole deal with the pandemic, it’s altered everybody’s expectations of life. It was taxing, like I was missing my antidote. But after marching in the Inman Park Festival Parade in 2022, I had three different individuals state to me that normalcy is finally returning to Atlanta—because they’re seeing Baton Bob. I thought that was incredible.
This article appears in our April 2023 issue.