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Only in San Diego: 5 quirky things

By Pam Grout, Special to CNN
updated 8:54 AM EST, Mon December 2, 2013
The Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park is the site of weekly free concerts by the city's own staff organist. The Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park is the site of weekly free concerts by the city's own staff organist.
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Unique to San Diego
Unique to San Diego
Unique to San Diego
Unique to San Diego
Unique to San Diego
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Every city has its own one-of-a-kind offerings
  • In San Diego, a civic organist puts on free weekly concerts
  • A man in a chicken suit has made his mark and surf culture ties in with tacos

(CNN) -- San Diego is a veritable repository of the unique, the one-off and the rare.

This southern California city is home to the world's largest lemon (the 10-foot-long fiberglass behemoth sits in Lemon Grove, a small town in metro San Diego) and also boasts the world's largest collection of memorabilia from the late Dr. Seuss, who was a longtime resident of the city's La Jolla community. And two products that couldn't be more different, the ubiquitous WD-40 lubricant and Dr. Bronner's soaps, both have roots here.

Check out five more quirky things unique to San Diego:

A civic organist who gives free weekly outdoor concerts

A public uproar broke out in 2011 when local leaders threatened to cut the city's staff organist, a position that's been on the payroll for nearly a century. Every Sunday afternoon since the organ was donated by sugar heirs John and Adolph Spreckels in 1914, a staff organist has stepped up to the keys of a 50-ton pipe organ at a pavilion in Balboa Park.

Fortunately for organ fans, tradition prevailed and the organist's contract was renewed for another 10 years.

Fans of current organist Carol Williams, a Brit who once played for Princess Diana, line up to buy CDs after the 2 p.m. performances. "I'm doing everything I can to dispel the organ's dowdy image," she says.

For years, the Spreckels Organ Society boasted that its namesake instrument was the largest outdoor organ in the world. But then the benefactor of an organ in Austria e-mailed to inform them that their claim had been topped.

In honor of the Spreckels organ's upcoming 100-year-anniversary, supporters have started a capital campaign to add another 500 pipes. Take that, Austrian pipe organ.

A presidential museum, housed in a high school

Clairemont High social studies teacher Jim Fletcher began collecting presidential memorabilia in 1996 to spice up his American history lessons. With the help of his students, Fletcher started the Museum of the American Presidency that now has more than 40,000 items representing all 44 presidents.

Among the 2,000 items on display in the school's library annex are Bill Clinton's golf shoes, a Richard Nixon shower head, a life-size cardboard cutout of Barack Obama and a 1980s "First Family Paper Doll book" of Ronnie, Nancy, Ron Jr. and Patti Reagan complete with clothes, accessories and furnishings. There's more to see in a locked conference room that's also open to the public when not being used for, say, a math department staff meeting.

Over the years, Fletcher's students have written to collectors, reaping such donations as an original 1844 Nathaniel Currier drawing of all 11 presidents to that point and a portrait of William McKinley drawn in one continuous line. Also gifted to the museum was a miniature JFK 464 campaign license plate sent back to the factory after the president was shot in 1963; the collection also features the LBJ 464 California plate that replaced it.

A display case of Woodrow Wilson paraphernalia valued at more than $10,000 features more items than are on view at his birthplace home in Staunton, Virginia. Count the White House movie sets from the film "The American President" among the treasures that got away. Castle Rock Entertainment offered to donate the sets, but then reneged when Aaron Sorkin needed them for "The West Wing."

Fletcher says only about 500 nonstudents see the unique museum each year.

Sand dunes with secret messages

It didn't take Edward Snowden to decipher the code in the sand dunes on Coronado Beach.

You'd never know the maze-like dunes just north of the Hotel del Coronado spell anything if you're simply playing beach volleyball or building a sand castle, but Navy jets flying overhead can't miss the pickleweed-covered dunes shaped into the letters C-O-R-O-N-A-D-O.

City maintenance employee Armando Moreno created the "sand sculpture" in 1988 from tons of seaweed washed ashore after a big storm. Using heavy equipment and quick thinking (where else are you going to dispose of five tons of seaweed?) Moreno meticulously spelled out the beach's name and covered the seaweed in sand.

A comedian in a chicken suit turned folk hero

Ted Giannoulas, the man behind the famously irreverent San Diego Chicken, was named by The Sporting News as one of the Top 100 Most Powerful People in Sports alongside Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth, Jesse Owens, Pete Rozelle and Wayne Gretzky.

Giannoulas was a lowly student at San Diego State when he was hired by a radio station during spring break 1974 to pass out Easter eggs at the San Diego Zoo. The $2-an-hour chicken-suit gig beat the pay he made as a dishwasher, and Giannoulas, angling to score free admission to baseball games, talked his way into donning the costume again at Padres games.

The slapstick antics of the costumed chicken became so popular that Miami Herald sports writer Bob Rubin called him "the most gifted physical comic since Curly, Larry and Moe."

Giannoulas (as the chicken) has gone on to star in movies ("The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes" where he stomped the evil villains in a parking lot), commercials, TV shows and a recorded cover of Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?"

A surfboard museum in a taco joint

Taco Surf, a family-run taco shop on Pacific Beach, doubles as a museum of Southern California surf culture.

The museum/taco shop/vintage surf film production company was started in 1989 by Sam McLarty and his wife, Cindy. She's the cook and evil genius behind the 15 spicy filling options that impelled USA Today to add this nonchain to its list of the country's top 10 burritos. He's the collector of 90 plus surfboards, all on display at the popular surfer's hangout.

"I've got boards from all the big names in surfing," says McLarty who, at 60, still surfs any chance he can.

"I have a 1952 Velzy & Jacobs, a solid 10-foot balsa wood board in beautiful shape. When the sun shines on it, it gives off a warm glow, like a fine guitar. I grew up in Imperial Beach, and my collection represents my lifetime -- from balsa to foam, from long to short, from heavy to light."

More than 50 vintage surf movies play on a continuous loop on two flat-screen TVs. And whenever it rains, Taco Surf offers $1 off their to-die-for chicken tortilla soup.

What else is unique to San Diego? Share your suggestions in the comments section below.

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