Wandering Billy

Goodbye to a Grand Dame

Martial arts, musical memories, and a shout out to a local birthday girl

By Billy Eye

“If a man dwells on the past, then he robs the present. But if a man ignores the past, he may rob the future. The seeds of our destiny are nurtured by the roots of our past.”
—Master Po, Kung Fu

I spent a lazy hour or so wandering around the nearly empty Elm Street Center one Saturday, where everything was up for sale, including the fixtures, in anticipation of its impending demolition to make way for another new hotel downtown. I dimly recall my mom dragging me along when this was Ellis-Stone department store.

Designed in 1949 by the fabled New York architectural firm Voorhees, Walker, Foley & Smith, this was a more modern structure than was typical on South Elm, with glass balconies, crystal chandeliers, ornate floor-to-ceiling mirrors and a grand marble staircase, a true Grand Dame of southern architecture. At some point, this Ellis-Stone store became Thalhimers before closing in 1975; in the 1990s an antiques mall took over the spacious interior. For the last decade or so, the Empire and Regency Rooms have hosted an untold number of lavish wedding receptions and corporate events while one of the city’s nicer bars, Churchill’s, was neatly tucked away in a ground floor corner until they too were forced to vacate. I hate to see this remarkable landmark swept aside.

***

Watching the TV series Kung Fu (1972–1975) the other night reminded me of a tiny sliver of my well-spent youth hanging out with Radames Pera in downtown L.A.[as per L.A. Times]’s underground music scene circa 1981. The night we met he talked about returning to L.A. after a few years studying acting under Stella Adler in New York. I was fascinated by that, even more so when he told me about how he’d portrayed Young Caine on Kung Fu, the “Snatch the pebble from my hand” kid with the shaved head. I don’t remember him having much more hair than that when we’d run into each other at the notorious punk club Brave Dog and numerous Sunday afternoon The.o.ret.i.cal parties. He was around 21-years-old then, smart guy, still is I imagine, seemingly as centered as his “Grasshopper” role but with an amazing backstory. After Kung Fu ended, he was cast as Mary Ingalls’s beau, John Jr., on Little House on the Prairie and would later play a key role in one of my fave action pics, Red Dawn in 1984. Radames left the business shortly after that, and I understand he lives comfortably with his wife and baby daughter in France now.

***

To celebrate the 40th anniversary this month of Peaches Records & Tapes opening on High Point Road, I interviewed a number of former employees for another venue. There was one person who kept coming up in conversations. Universally loved at Peaches was Raymond Tucker, nephew to Jim Tucker who played Pecos Pete on The Old Rebel Show in the 1950s and ’60s. Jim informed me: “Bill Trotter — he passed away recently — was the classical buyer. One of the things he really prided himself on was that he had every single classical album from all of the major labels in stock,” Tucker recalls. “People would come from all up and down the East Coast just to shop there because they knew they could find what they were looking for.”

Tucker remembers one eccentric customer in particular. “Every time he came in the store he always asked for one thing, if we had any albums by Gogi Grant. We’d go through the same routine.” Tucker recalls how he’d come in every three months and ask if they’d gotten anything by Gogi Grant. “And we had to take him to the Vocal section, to the Gs, show him there’s nothing there,” Tucker continues. “Then he’d ask if he could special order anything and we’d have to take him to this vast directory of everything in print and show him that, under Gogi Grant, the only thing still in print was one oldies 45 of ‘The Wayward Wind’.”

Peaches’ Atlanta megastore was renowned for its Grauman’s Chinese Theatre–style entryway where Emerson Lake & Palmer, J. Geils Band, King Crimson, Gregg Allman, The Kinks, ZZ Top, KISS, and Paul McCartney scribbled their names with a stick before mashing hands into wet cement for posterity. Like the Atlanta branch, Greensboro had its own star-studded entryway where celebrities like Hank Williams Jr., L.T.D., Barbara Mandrell and The Brothers Johnson cemented their relationship with our local Peaches.

Forced into bankruptcy in 1981, investors swooped in to purchase only the most profitable outlets scattered around the South and Southeast. An unfortunate result of that divestiture — the sidewalk of fame in front of the Atlanta franchise was “smashed to bits in a single afternoon” following a dispute over who owned it. The same likely happened to our own concrete autograph garden. Greensboro’s Peaches closed in early 2001.

***

Sending warm wishes and sweet sugar kisses to my new bestest friend, urban explorer, and most enchanting lunch companion Emery Isabella, celebrating her first birthday in July. ¿No es ella la más linda?.   OH

Billy Eye recently uncovered definitive proof that the Earth is indeed flat but, after accidentally catapulting over the edge, he hasn’t been heard from since and is presumed lost in space. 

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