Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die: A Tribute to Michael 'Mikl-em' McElligott

Mikl-em improvising a toast (and a cocktail). (Rhiannon Charisse)

'While many artists are conveniently and centrally located in museums and in art books on coffee tables, the Tentacle Sessions is dedicated to the assertion that a close encounter with a living artist also holds value.'—1999 promo for the Tentacle Sessions

In April 1999, the Laughing Squid Tentacle Sessions kicked off their third event at the Blue Bar in North Beach, featuring co-founding producer Michael McElligott, a.k.a. Mikl-em. Billed as a “poet, playwright, actor, performance scientist, webpage, fashion challenge, conversationalist, and people person,” Mikl-em presented on a disparate array of personal obsessions—beat poets, fringe theatre, and obscure Scottish cinema.

As a person with wide-ranging passions, a staggering intellect, and an insatiable zest for life, Mikl-em was a linchpin of Bay Area counterculture for close to three decades, from Laughing Squid to the Cacophony Society; the San Francisco Fringe Festival to Popcorn Anti-Theater; Burning Man to the Saint Stupid’s Day Parade. His ability to land in the middle of whatever was happening (and frequently producing it as well) made him the perfect subject for the Tentacle Sessions—a long-running series dedicated to celebrating the great living artists of our time.

Twenty-one years later—on Sunday, August 30, 2020, at the age of 50—this giant of the Bay Area’s storied underground arts scene passed away after a protracted battle with brain cancer. He leaves an incalculable void matched only by the enormity of his legacy.

Mikl-em 'protesting' the book launch of 'Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society,' by John Law, Carrie Galbraith, and Kevin Evans. (Rusty Blazenhoff)

As a multi-talented, multi-hyphenate, Mikl-em never stayed in any one particular lane. Freaky art happenings, poetry readings, comedy nights, theater performances, and cocktail hours were all prime Mikl-em territory. In recent years, he was the producer and host for the Long Now’s conversation series, the Executive Producer of Speechless LIVE at Public Works, the mastermind and writer’s-room wrangler behind Exquisite Corpse Theatre, a beloved DJ at Radio Valencia, a co-founder of the Anglerfish events page, and the secret identity of @bobkaufman on Twitter. Even as late as March, he was performing and producing at the Mission District’s Secret Alley, and was waitlisted for a spot in September’s San Francisco Fringe Festival.

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“His creative and organizational knack for performance found a good home in the playa-dusted underground,” former Tentacle Session co-producer, D.S. Black recalls.

“We were about to have a pretty serious conversation about history, politics, and punk rock,” author Annalee Newitz recalls about their last talk together at the Interval. “And he somehow persuaded me to dance before we got started...totally egging me on. That was the kind of guy he was—switching between cerebral stuff and just rocking out.”

Mikl-em performing at Porn-e-oke with Dan Novy in 1999, as Chicken John DJs. (courtesy of Dan Novy)

A connoisseur of both the highly esoteric and the gleefully irreverent, no scene was too far out or too lowbrow for Mikl-em to not find something to love. He was so ubiquitous that I can't recall if the first time I saw him was in the company of the fabulously anarchic nEO-sURREALISTs, or with the equally avant-garde Banana Bag & Bodice—but it soon became apparent that no stage was too large or too small to pique his creative interest. One of the great highlights of my own collaborations with Mikl-em was presenting him on a living room mini-tour, in a ribald Drag adaption called Fabulous Expectations, by Gaea Denker. Pushing at and expanding the definition of “theater” was a life-long obsession for Mikl-em. And no alleyway, art gallery, warehouse, or dive bar was exempt from his brand of rigorous artistic exploration, and zealous pursuit of the absurd.

“We had a natural chemistry that kicked into extreme high gear when we were on stage together,” remembers Dan Novy, a.k.a. nEO-sURREALIST aGENT #1, who also claims responsibility for Mikl’s “first nude appearance,” in the San Francisco Fringe Festival. “Who were we to say no?”

Dave McKew, Mikl-em, and Cameron Eng in Gaea Denker's 'Fabulous Expectations,' (performing in Dot Janson's living room), in 2015.
Dave McKew, Mikl-em, and Cameron Eng in Gaea Denker's 'Fabulous Expectations,' (performing in Dot Janson's living room), in 2015. (Katrina James)

Although he spent plenty of time in the spotlight, what impressed me most was Mikl-em's quiet dedication to giving it over to others. He had a knack for pulling together seemingly improbable shows with a natural ease, making space for his many creative collaborators to flourish and thrive. As producers, both he and his generous-spirited life partner, Danielle Engelman, set an admirably high bar: leading with kindness to get the job done, placing their trust in the artists to bring their all, and letting the foundation of the event be the container out of which unexpected magic might flow.

“Behind the scenes, one could always see the sheer joy Mikl had for performance and community, beaming from ear to ear,” reminisces performing artist Edna Mira Raia.

One of my favorite things about Mikl-em was our mutual love of poetry, and when I cast readers for a Bikes to Books launch party in 2013, he immediately begged the role of Kenneth Rexroth. When the day came, he dressed himself in the shabby Bohemian chic and bushy mustache befitting his literary hero, and solemnly read some of his favorite selections from Rexroth’s prodigal body of work. More than his attire, what occurred to me then (and over the years since) was that if there were a “Rexroth” of our scene, it might well be Mikl-em.

Mikl-em reading as Kenneth Rexroth for Bikes to Books, outside City Lights Books. (Nicole Gluckstern)

What is certain is that Mikl-em was a singular breed, like the “Babel bird” character he developed for a playful birding event at Heron’s Head, in 2017. Dressed in a costume constructed by long-time collaborator Helena “Noona” Nolan, Mikl-em covered himself with letters and literature, a “babble” of poems and stream-of-consciousness stories as his birdsong. Apropos plumage for such a rare bird.

Mikl-em as the "Babel bird" at Heron's Head in 2017. (Rhiannon Charisse)

“Mikl was a kinder, sweeter, and more wonderful weirdo than most anyone. His life was extraordinary—by his own design.” memorializes long-time Cacophonist, Rusty Blazenhoff.

For Sherilyn Connelly—former Bad Movie Night producer at the Dark Room Theater—a memory she holds dear is Mikl-em inviting her to see one of his personal favorite movies—Playtime, by Jacques Tati. In the movie, as she describes, a high-class restaurant in Paris “descends into chaos” urged on by an American who “encourages them to drink, dance and be merry.” At which point, she recalls, Mikl-em turned to her with a smile and said, “I want to be that guy when I grow up.”

For her, for myself, and for so many others, Mikl-em will always be that guy.

Mikl-em and Danielle Engelman with baby Hugo, the young son of their close friends, and the next generation. (Ryan Wilkes)

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Many thanks to everyone who generously shared their memories and photos of Mikl-em, including Rusty Blazenhoff, Helena "Noona" Nolan, P Segal, Ty Mckenzie, D.S. Black, Edna Mira Raia, Sandwich Girl, Dan Novy, Sherilyn Connelly, Annalee Newitz, Attaboy, Ryan Wilkes, Rhiannon Charisse, and Katrina James. It truly takes the village to write about our Jester King.