Leonard Oats wowed the crowd with a bell-ringing rendition of Michael Jackson's song "Bad" and took home a giant trophy, a stack of cash, lots of Ghirardelli chocolate and a fair amount of bragging rights for his effort Thursday afternoon.
The 53-year-old San Franciscan was crowned World Champion Bell Ringer at the 53rd annual event in Union Square. Reigning champion Byron Cobb took second, while Trini Whittaker won the third-place trophy.
"I love ringing the bell," Oats said following his win. "That's why I do it, for fun."
But there's more to it than fun. "You have to get a rhythm going. If you can't get a rhythm going, it's not going to be of much help."
For a first time in more than 50 years, a woman competed in the contest.
Cassandra Griffin was up against six men, and though she didn't win she says she still made her mark.
"I feel great," she said. "I feel being the first female to ring the bell up here I'm going into history, and it's great for my children to see that."
Her secret? "I just work my wrists. It's like dancing from the wrists."
She been a cable car operator for 15 years and vowed to return to the contest next year.
Ed Cobean, senior operations manager for the cable cars, said the bell-ringing contest is a way to recognize some of the 170 operators who run the 28 cable cars daily.
"It's a way to showcase the faces of the cable cars," he said, adding they have unique jobs operating the only moving historical landmarks in the world.
The event also featured bands, celebrity bell-ringers vying for charity money, local dignitaries as judges and a show bell outside a cable car that everyone was given a chance to ring. Local radio host "Freska" won the amateur portion of the bell-ringing contest with a crew of dancers moving to Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop the Feeling" while she rang the bell.
She won $500 for victims in the Orlando, Florida, nightclub shooting.
She also learned something. "Ringing the bell is not as easy as it looks," she said.