Wandering Billy

Wandering Billy

Spotlight on Juan Fernandez

Remembering an icon of the Greensboro theater scene and beyond

By Billy Ingram

“Theatre is a series of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.”   — Tom Stoppard

I’m not remotely the right person to pen this. We weren’t close friends. I never met his wife, Lana, and hadn’t seen the guy in 50 years. But when I heard that former Page High School classmate Juan Fernandez (class of ’74, best ever!) passed away, I couldn’t let that tiptoe by unnoticed.

Let’s wayback to the 1972–73 school year, significant in part because the Vietnam War ended, 18-year-olds gained the right to vote, Bob Fosse’s Pippin debuted on Broadway and McDonald’s started serving breakfast (except on Sundays). It was also the year Page High junior Juan Fernandez, whose family moved here from Connecticut just a year earlier, unknowingly, but with an air of inevitability, began his journey as the first Black actor in Greensboro to be consistently cast in leading roles in both amateur and professional productions.

In 1973, Juan and I were both cast in Li’l Abner, a big, splashy musical from Broadway’s Golden Age, featuring one of the funniest scripts (by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank) and wittiest scores (Gene De Paul with lyrics by the immortal Johnny Mercer) the Great White Way ever mounted.

At Page, as directed and choreographed by Louis Hrabovsky and Frank Holder, the show featured a 22-piece orchestra recruited from the Greensboro Symphony, costumes sewn by UNCG’s theater department, and over 50 student hoofers and belters crowding the stage. This lavish but innocently sexy, fully integrated production of Li’l Abner was an unusual theatrical manifestation for a high school at that time. More importantly, during those weeks and weeks of rehearsals in the role of Marryin’ Sam, Juan Fernandez morphed from gawky teen into a dynamic performer possessing an unmistakeable brilliance comparable to any of the mid-’70s Broadway superstars I sat in awe of. And I saw ’em all, baby. Juan absolutely demolished that Li’l Abner audience on opening night.

And 15-year-old me hated him for it!

Li’l Abner was a genuine hit, largely due to Fernandez’s infectious performance. Standing ovations, sold-out crowds every night and, in the first and only instance I’m aware of, the show was held over for an additional weekend, then booked into War Memorial Auditorium for a short run. After Abner, Fernandez dazzled local theatergoers in musical productions of Showboat, Shenandoah, Godspell and Flower Drum Song, to name but a few. His range was astonishing. Livestock Players Musical Theatre, Greensboro Youtheatre, The Broach, Carolina Theatre, Barn Dinner Theatre . . . there wasn’t a stage Juan Fernandez couldn’t rob of every last laugh or teardrop, often inhabiting pivotal roles previously portrayed primarily — if not exclusively — by white actors.

“I met Juan when he was 16 and auditioned for Sweet Charity,” says Carole Lindsey-Potter, choreographer and director for Livestock Players during the years Juan Fernandez was active there. “He got the role of Daddy Brubeck, which had the best song in the show, ‘The Rhythm of Life,’ and he brought the house down.” Lindsey-Potter recalls being the first North Carolina theater group to get rights to Pippin, a musical that saw Fernandez cast as Leading Player in the Livestock Players’ 1974 production —  “his most memorable performance.”  He was what they call a triple-threat performer: “He was a wonderfully talented actor, singer and a natural dancer. Barbara Britton cast Juan as The King in The King and I in 1976. This was long before nontraditional casting here.”

Actor-director and Page alumni Charlie Hensley notes that Fernandez “was a terrific performer and a wonderful man, always at ease on stage.” What he recalls most is Ferndandez’s star turn as Daddy Brubeck in Sweet Charity. “He went on to perform ‘The Rhythm of Life’ hundreds of times after that, all over the world. He was also amazing as the lead in The King and I with Shannon Cochran.”

Obie- and Theatre World Award-winning star of stage and screen Shannon Cochran (see my April 2023 column) recalls that staging fondly. “When Juan and I did The King and I together, I think he was very conscious of the essential misogyny written into his role and went out of his way to be gallant and attentive to me. I couldn’t move easily in a hoop skirt, but he was always there with a pad or pillow for me to sit on during breaks, always helped me off the floor — our lowly heads weren’t supposed to be higher than his! — and, additionally, he was a divine dance partner! ‘Shall We Dance’ was a dizzying, thrilling ride in his arms. Such a class act with a genuinely strong stage presence.”

Greensboro’s theater scene has spawned a multitude of African-American Broadway stars — Deon’te Goodman (Hamilton), Avilon Trust Tate (The Wiz), Chris Chalk (Fences), J. Alphonse Nicholson (A Soldier’s Play)  — who surely couldn’t have known that Juan Fernandez was first to break the color barrier onstage locally. Universally loved. Universally respected.

“I worked with him once at The Broach. He was such a nice guy and good actor,” director Michael Lilly says. “I had tried to get in touch with him about a year ago in Wilmington about a project but never got a response. Then someone said he had moved to Costa Rica. I recall hearing he was not well.” Charlie Hensley remarks how, “We usually touched base a couple of times a year, I remember thinking on his birthday recently that he’d been quiet for a while.”

After high school I hadn’t much of an opportunity to interact with Juan Fernandez, having gone away to college, summers spent out of state or touring before relocating to Los Angeles in 1978. Happily, he and I connected on Facebook before his passing last year, allowing me to finally tell him how envious I was of his ability to command the audience in Li’l Abner.

True, Juan Fernandez strut from life’s stage into the wings far too soon, but it’s the actor’s lot to leave the audience wanting more. One wonders if he ever considered or was even aware of his legacy, the trail he blazed. Unlike almost every other artistic pursuit, after the curtain falls and stage lights go dark, theater leaves behind little more than a rock skipping across the surface of a pond. In the case of Juan Fernandez, the ripples he created will reverberate well into the future, lifting and inspiring not only those he came in contact with, but also performers who, decades later, unwittingly followed his lead to achieve a level of stardom that generally skirts the first player the spotlight shines upon.  OH

Make no mistake, Billy Ingram was a showstopper as Evil Eye Fleagle in Li’l Abner, but it’s worth noting that Juan Fernandez wasn’t anywhere onstage during those scenes.

Wandering Billy

Wandering Billy

Hiding in Plain Sight

Seventy-five years of Lawndale Shopping Center and the oldest bar in Greensboro

By Billy Ingram

“He realized suddenly that it was one thing to see the past occupying the present, but the true test of prescience was to see the past in the future.”   — Frank Herbert, Dune

Seventy-five years ago, southbound transients riding the rails typically leapt from open boxcars around Cornwallis Drive as locomotives slowed their roll into Greensboro city limits. In 1949, those so-called “hobos” would have undoubtedly been surprised to encounter a row of storefronts that was rapidly devouring a major portion of a wooded oasis they’d been bivouacking in for decades. To accommodate this nascent shopping center, the city extended a boulevard running parallel to the tracks that previously began at Cornwallis, a street once known as Fairfield, rechristened in the 1920s as “Lawndale.”

A further encroachment on their leafy lair — directly behind that emerging retail corridor overlooking Irving Park Elementary — was a collection of handsome duplexes under construction on Dellwood Drive and a freshly carved cul-de-sac called Branch Court.

By the time I started third grade in the 1960s, that emerging shopping center from 1949 had become a bustling Lawndale Shopping Center. As an 8-year-old, I was expected to walk to my home on Hill Street from Irving Park Elementary, a 1.5-mile trek. Yes, uphill both ways and it snowed year-round. On school days, a quarter rested in my pocket to pay for cafeteria slop, but I skipped lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Those days, new comic books were released, 25 cents being the exact amount required to buy two DCs (12 cents each with a penny tax). So as soon as the bell rang, I’d hightail it in the opposite direction of our house, to Lawndale Shopping Center.

Lawndale Shopping Center was a genteel, modestly upscale row of clothing stores, druggists, hair salons and neighborhood taverns in the mid-’60s, a lineup practically unchanged from the very beginning.

Entering Lawndale Shopping Center from Sunset, past Bill Blake’s Texaco, was Mr. & Mrs. Q-Ball (Elizabeth’s Pizza today), erected a full decade after the strip was fully completed in 1954. This was the city’s first and only co-ed pool hall, open until midnight and decorated in space-age splendor with blue-and-tangerine gaming tables, a pink-tiled ladies lounge and gleaming vending machines surrounding multicolored, molded plastic seating.

Nearby was The Pied Pier Lounge (Boo Radley’s Tavern now). When the waitress at Brown-Gardiner’s lunch counter left to tend bar there, it ignited a cause célèbre. That place was widely known to be a (gasp!) gay bar, although no such place was allowed to legally exist.

A few doors down was my fave place growing up, Franklin Drug Store (a Hookah lounge in 2024 — wait, what?!?). With seven locations around town, Franklin’s at Lawndale was almost 10,000 square feet, packed with nearly anything a kid could desire: a soda shop, two comic book spinner racks fronting rows and rows of magazines and paperbacks surrounding the opening for an escalator, which led to a cavernous toy store below that sold everything seen on the teevee and more.

Mom’s favorite clothing boutique was Gin-Ettes (Acme Comics today), specializing in the Mary Tyler Moore look during the 1970s. Sadly, that boutique closed in the late-1990s after more than 50 years. The optometrist’s office now next door was The Briar Patch, where I picked out my back-to-school Lacoste shirts as a preteen. My bristles were buzzed for the first time by Gilmer (Ed) Jones at Lawndale Barber Shop (it’s been the Hair Shop for decades).

For the most part, if you lived in Irving or Latham Park, your drug store of choice was either Brown-Gardiner or my parent’s preference, advantageously located in the Lawndale Shopping Center, Crutchfield-Browning, both offering speedy delivery and charge accounts so mom’s lithium ’script never ran out. And the liquor store was right next door to the drug store — how convenient? Both were located under what is currently the Hannah’s Bridge sign.

The Big Bear Super Market (“The Thrifty Store That Saves You More!”) anchoring this retail daisy-chain wasn’t just air-conditioned in the summer; it was refrigerated, a veritable meat locker. As soon as bare feet hit that store’s frosty Formica floor, you were engulfed in bone-chilling frigidity, no matter how hot it got outside.

Every purchase at Big Bear earned shoppers a scratch-off ticket listing three horses competing in three races in that Saturday’s 6 p.m. broadcast of Off To The Races on WFMY. If one of your designated nags came in first, you got $100; place and show netted a few bucks or S&H Green Stamps. Every week there was a fresh list with dozens of local winners posted.

Despite original tenant Scruggs Florists closing very recently, there is some comforting continuity. For instance, Head Hunter Salon has been styling and profiling in the same location for an impressive 50 years.

Surprisingly, there is one remaining original tenant from 1949: Lawndale Drive-In, by far the oldest bar in Greensboro, once a popular watering hole for Irving Park businessmen wishing to avoid country club stuffiness. This was affectionately known in those days as Mrs. Mac’s, referring to owner and barkeep Bernice McCloskey, whose husband founded this saloon in 1942 in a more rural setting before relocating here seven years later. After his untimely death, she became LDI’s proprietress.

Lawndale Drive-In was a happy hour bar then and it still is, only open from 4–10 p.m. on weekdays, longer hours on weekends. I vividly recall wandering past this joint en route to Crutchfield-Browning as a youngster, oftentimes to pickup Mother’s tampons and other icky stuff (how embarrassing!). Seemed like that barroom door was always open, the afternoon sun illuminating an unbroken row of men seated at the bar. I wondered then, “Can you make money doing that?”

My last visit was some 20 years ago, but what I discovered on a recent visit to Lawndale Drive-In is a proper but casual dive bar, populated primarily with long-time regulars who made this stranger feel welcome. A back patio was added in the 2000s when the place changed hands, but not much else is different from back in the day. LDI’s grandfathered-in decor and weathered wooden bar lends an air of warmth to the surroundings. More importantly, the beer is served refreshingly ice cold.

Is there more comfort in familiarity than in any contempt that it might breed? Looking back, a wealth of memories are triggered by Sach’s Shoe Store, G.I. 1200 surplus store, Sports & Hobbies Unlimited, Lawndale Music House, Warren’s Toyland, Piedmont Jewelers and Straughan’s Book Shop.

Well into the 1990s, randos could be found guzzling Thunderbird in what was left of the woods between Lawndale and Branch Court. There’s hardly a tree surviving today. And so what if pedal pushers and penny loafers have given way to hookahs and THC dispensaries? Lawndale Shopping Center remains to this day a disparate collage of locally owned enterprises, precisely as it always has been for three quarters of a century now.  OH

Billy Ingram wishes to dedicate this article to the late Linda Spainhour Cummings, a very talented artist and poet who will be fondly remembered at Page High’s 50-year reunion of the class of ’74.

Wandering Billy

Wandering Billy

The Keys to the Gate City

Ben Blozan tunes into his passion for pianos

By Billy Ingram

“I dreamt of you last night — as if I was playing the piano and you were turning the pages for me.”    – Vladimir Nabokov

I’ve wandered past the charming Mayberry-esque storefront adorned with antique instrumental bric-a-brac at 612 S. Elm St. hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times since moving just a couple of blocks from Hamburger Square in 1997. Not an ivory tickler myself, I was aware 612 had something to do with pianos, but it never struck a chord somehow until now.

Home to a mom-and-pop grocery store in the 1920s, today the two east-facing display windows are lettered with “Mosaic Piano Service” on one side, “Inside Pianos” on the other. It’s quite a feat for such an uncommon business model to survive over a quarter-of-a-century embedded inside this rapidly evolving South End corridor. 

It was at this very location back in 1998 that proprietor John Johanson began his apprenticeship in the art of refurbishing pianos for high dollar clients under the illustrious John Foy. He then made this space his own in 2010, when he founded Mosaic after Foy relocated. It’s in this spot that Johanson spends days in a cavernous workspace engaged in everything from soundboard repair to hammer replacement, rebuilding concert grands and other fine pianos from the pedals up if necessary.

I made an appointment one weekday afternoon to speak with a more recent occupant, Ben Blozan, who started Inside Pianos just about a year ago, performing essentially the same tasks — but with a twist. While Johanson and Blozan are both highly-skilled artisans when it comes to rehabilitating classic pianos, “We’re not in conflict because he’s doing this to return pianos to their owners,” Blozan notes. “I’m doing it to sell. So I’m renting this front area as a showroom/workshop from John.”

Blozan’s love affair with the 88s began as a 4-year-old. “Playing an instrument like the violin or the piano, typically you have to have had an early childhood foundation,” he says, noting that you also need dedication to a continual learning experience. “Just this year I learned a piece that I’ve always wanted to play.”

With a doctorate in music from UNCG, for over a decade Blozan was a rehearsal pianist for Greensboro Opera and, for many years, an instructor at High Point University’s music department. “I would say that the schools themselves are changing,” he points out when asked about the current state of musical instruction. With less emphasis on the old conservatory model, “Popular music is being taught,” he says. “Music technology’s being taught. There’s an attempt to move with the times and be less classically exclusive.”

Until recently, Blozan focused on his recording studio in Glenwood. Currently he dedicates his energy almost entirely toward locating and restoring exceptional pianos, then flipping them. “I love it,” he tells me. “It’s been really satisfying to watch the pianos choose the buyers. I’ve only done this for a year, but it’s already been far more successful than the recording studio, to be honest.”

Why purchase a used piano rather than a brand new model? “Pianos are built to last,” Blozan explains. “As a matter of fact, the chief competitors to Steinway as a current company are used Steinways because they hold up so well and they were built so well. In some cases, the build quality was better than current pianos.” He points to an 1896 Steinway Model A in a Rosewood case that has been brought back to like-new condition: “This gets a little bit ethereal, but there’s a soul to old pianos.”

Painstaking attention to detail is one element of what Blozan finds so rewarding about his craft. For instance, on that 1896 Steinway, “I leveled the keys,” he says. “I brought all of the action adjustments into regulation because there are, oh gosh, maybe eight or so adjustments per key that can be made.” He works with the tone of the instrument, changing the texture of the hammers when needed so that when they hit the strings, the desired sound is emitted. It’s a process called voicing. “I really love for pianists to get wowed instantly. That’s something that I try to offer, pianos that get an uncommon amount of refinement so that a pianist can come in and know automatically what the instrument is capable of.”

Blozan fingers a bit of Tchaikovsky, perhaps Chopin — what do I know? — on the keys of an exquisite black Yamaha, gleaming like new. “I would say most concert stages in America have Steinways, but many recording studios particularly have Yamahas,” he says. “This is a more budget conscious instrument, but it benefits from Yamaha’s deep pockets for research and development. Yeah, it’s a beautiful piano.”

Blozan’s already established YouTube channel (Inside Pianos, natch) has been crucial in extending his reach way beyond the Triad. “There was a guy who lives in Arkansas who bought a piano, sight unseen, based on the video,” he says. “Because of my recording background, I’m able to make some nice product videos where someone can get a sense of what the instrument sounds like.” His latest production showcases a $62,000 instrument. “It’s possible that I’ll sell it locally, but I want to cast a wide net.”

Where is the best value for someone looking at buying a vintage piano? “I do a lot of Baldwins,” Blozan explains. “Some people even prefer them to Steinway. They’re very underpriced since there are no longer new Baldwins on the market.” On the other hand, the demand for pianos has cooled considerably, leading to a glut of unwanted uprights, abandoned baby grands. “Honestly, it’s almost a nuisance how many calls I get,” Blozan says. “Sadly, I do a lot of grief counseling — people having to part with their childhood pianos when they were supposed to be something that kept their value.”

Though raised in Maryland, Ben Blozan says his family migrated to the mountains of North Carolina and he subsequently made the decision to attend college and set down roots in the Gate City. “I was happy to have the chance to get geographically closer to my family. I feel like Greensboro has a lot of opportunity for people who want to do their own thing,” he says. “You can carve out your niche here.”  OH

Billy Ingram is the author of 6 books and the creator of TVparty.com.

 

Wandering Billy

Wandering Billy

What a Wander-ful World

There’s no place like home for the holiday memories

By Billy Ingram

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”     – Douglas Adams

I hope you will indulge me in sharing a few Ingram family holiday customs sprinkled with a couple standalone memories that I recall from growing up here in Greensboro, likely not very different from your own yuletide rituals.

Samson’s Little Helper

Every December, my father bought by the caseload bottles of an obscure hometown original, Samson’s Sauce, from his golfing buddy, Gurney Boren. Dad’s clients very much looked forward to it because that robust, slightly-spicy steak and burger garnish was crafted in minute batches and unavailable in just any store. Since the 1960s, Boren had been brewing his father’s secret recipe in a garage behind his home at 1116 Parish St., along the southern edge of Irving Park. In the mid-1970s, as I recall, Gurney’s love for a sauce of a more spirited variety began to affect production. To make sure that his friends and colleagues didn’t go without, Dad took it upon himself to raise a few cups with Gurney inside that concrete outbuilding while bottling up as much as possible. At least that was the story Mom got after Dad would arrive home, er, sauced himself. While still relatively unheralded, Samson’s Sauce is more popular than ever today. Find it in local Bestway markets, but be sure to look for the comical label and avoid the Town & Country version. Does it taste the same as it did 50 years ago? Yep, you bet . . . and that modest garage where it all started still stands.

Mother’s Gift Book

My mom was all about Christmas, so much so she kept a loose-leaf notebook that served as her voluminous gift list, replete with notations on what she’d gifted everyone over the years. Just to be safe in case she forgot someone, she always set aside a number of presents with blank tags such as cheese straws from Carolyn Todd’s, which, she insisted, carried the only proper cheese straws. It was her favorite shop and had been at least since I was a toddler. I remember fondly that the last bill she received before passing away in January 2014 was for her charge account Christmas purchases at Carolyn Todd’s.

Oyster Stew

First thing Christmas morning, Dad would prepare a boiling pot of buttery oyster stew (not to be confused with chowder) from his mother’s recipe. Consisting of shucked oysters, evaporated milk, whole milk, butter, pepper, and topped with oyster saltines, it was a favorite of my brother and sister, who each devoured it and continue this tradition. I never did partake.

Yankee

After relocating to Springfield to accept a senior position at Mass Mutual, cousin Berk Ingram gifted my parents a yearly subscription to Yankee magazine. We assumed it was a joke that this Southern boy — raised in the country like my Dad — would send us a monthly digest about Yankees. Although we were always amazed at its gorgeous illustrated covers, I don’t think a single copy was ever cracked opened. Because I’m an archivist at heart, I saved a couple of issues. But it wasn’t until decades later that I actually read a copy of Yankee only to discover it was a truly excellent magazine, one of the finest publications of that era, and still is today. Turns out, O.Henry’s founding father, Jim Dodson, wrote for Yankee in the 1980s and ’90s.

Making “Trash”

Before pre-made Chex Mix was introduced in 1985, folks used to concoct their own party mix by combining the three Chex cereals (Rice, Wheat and Corn) with pretzels and whatever else they wanted to toss in (as long as it wasn’t sweet), then bake it. My grandmother’s recipe for what we called “Trash” was a little more involved. Besides the cereals and pretzel sticks, she tossed in peanuts, Cheerios and cashews. Melt a stick of salted butter with 2 tablespoons of Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire sauce in a roasting pan; add the dry ingredients using a spatula to turn everything over and over until fully coated; then stick that pan into a 200 degree preheated oven for an hour, mixing it all around every 15 minutes.

Turkey Dinner

I spent a single Christmas in Greensboro in the 1980s. By that time my grandmother and older relatives had passed away and the cousins we had over for dinner in years previous now had families of their own. In 1987, although it was a bit pricey and the old man was kind of a cheapskate, Dad sprung for Greensboro Country Club’s complete turkey dinner for a family of five to-go, with all the fixings, including those wonderful walnut sweet rolls their chef made for dessert. Unfortunately, we cut into the turkey and discovered it was raw in the middle, so we popped it into the oven until it was fully cooked. No harm, no fowl. Then again, these were the days when you thawed the bird for a few hours on the kitchen counter. Other families weren’t so lucky and became stricken with food poisoning. It wasn’t the club’s fault: A catering firm supplied the meals and provided a full refund for everyone. Dad couldn’t have been merrier!

Green Hill Cemetery

In the evening on Christmas Day, pretty much the entire family would congregate at Mom and Dad’s place to share stories about what had transpired over the course of what was always an abundant and somewhat magical time. At some point, we’d all pile into cars and head over to Green Hill to pay our respects to beloved, never-forgotten family members. One year the graveyard was padlocked early and we were stuck on the wrong side of the gates — inside not outside! Fortunately, this was in the mid-1990s, when cell phones were just beginning to come into general use. One of us actually had one handy so we were sprung by the GPD pretty quickly.

A Christmas Miracle?

Every holiday, it seems I’m the recipient of what I call a “Christmas miracle.” Nothing major, some unexpected cash when I expected to be broke, hearing one of only two Christmas songs recorded after the early-sixties that I actually enjoy (“Father Christmas” by Emerson, Lake & Palmer and “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses), the rarer-by-the-year white Christmases. Like I said, no big deal, just something that sweetens the season.

Then there was this: The first Christmas Day after my mom died, I was taking a stroll around the neighborhood. It was frigid that afternoon and I thought to myself, “If Mother was alive, she’d be telling me to wear a hat because all of your body heat escapes from your head.” She insisted that this was true, but I’m not so sure. As I was passing the Blandwood Mansion, something caught my eye. Lying atop the lush, green lawn was a brand-new, red knitted cap, price tag still attached. Not something I’d ordinarily wear, but definitely an item my mother would have purchased for me.

We all accept there’s no going home again. The closest we’ll come is at the holiday season, when cherished memories and treasures both great and small may allow for a lingering glow from candles lit long ago.  OH

Billy Ingram wishes each and every one of you the happiest holiday season possible.

Wandering Billy

Wandering Billy

Tales of a Fisher Park Paperboy

What was once a way of life is now unthinkable

By Billy Ingram

“The newspaper carrier hasn’t time to get into trouble. He finds it fun to hold a job, to earn money and learn to meet people. He may not be aware of it, but he is developing individualism and learning to accept responsibility.”      – J. Edgar Hoover

Can you imagine allowing — no, encouraging — your preteen to leave the house unaccompanied during the twilight hours before sunrise, meet up with some random stranger in a pickup truck, then roam the neighborhood going door-to-door before your alarm even goes off in the morning? Inconceivable? Yet, that was a common occurrence in my youth, no less than a Norman Rockwellian cultural touchstone . . . the hometown paperboy.

Technically, I suppose Ben Franklin could be considered America’s first newsie as he handed out the Pennsylvania Gazette he published in the 1700s, but in truth that distinction belongs to 10-year-old Barney Flaherty, who was hired in 1833 to deliver The New York Sun. At that time, child labor was an accepted practice in factories and sweatshops around the country. That now unthinkable practice was outlawed a century later, but employing schoolboys to distribute the local news continued unabated by simply labeling these pint sized couriers “independent contractors.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Tom Cruise, our current President? All paperboys at one time, as was a friend I met at Mendenhall Junior High in the late-1960s, John Hitchcock. 

Being a morning person as a youngster, I would occasionally tag along on weekends, when bundles of newspapers were tossed off a truck at 6 a.m. for 12-year old Hitchcock and another nearby paper carrier, Norfleet Stallings. Pick-up was at what was once a spectacular 1920s-era, California Art Deco-inspired former firehouse once occupied by the City and County Council of Civil Defense. It was not in the best of neighborhoods, located alongside the railroad tracks on Church Street between Hendrix and Bessemer.

After rolling the papers, then fastening them with rubber bands, Hitchcock would throw a Greensboro Daily News-branded canvas bag over his shoulder and slide onto his silver Stingray 3-speed bike’s banana seat. Then he’d peddle and fling that morning’s edition onto dewy lawns across a seven-block route bordered by Bessemer Avenue, Church Street, Elm Street and North Park Drive.

His take for the week was 5 or 6 bucks, around $50 adjusted for inflation. “I was the richest kid in town,” Hitchcock says, perched behind a crowded counter at his shop, Parts Unknown: The Comic Book Store. “I could buy all the comic books I wanted and, if it was cold, get a bowl of chili, a bag of Fritos and a drink at Woolworth’s for like 35 cents. Then I’d high tail it home.”

Hitchcock still lives in the Fisher Park Craftsman-style home on Olive Street his family has owned since the 1930s. One recent evening, the two of us wander the neighborhood while Hitchcock points out houses and mentions some of the customers that lined his route.

“Mrs. Coble lived there forever. She was the sweetest old lady,” Hitchcock tells me as we approach 904 Olive. “After her kids were grown, she started renting out rooms.” Behind her house sat a square cinder block hut, no longer there. Word has it that back in the early-’50s, “for about a month, legendary Hall-of-Famer Mickey Mantle and a couple of bonus babies [rookies] lived in that house when they were sent here to get seasoned for playing with the Yankees.” After the games as those ballplayers would hang out drinking beers, Hitchcock’s uncle would join them. “He said they were really down-to-earth guys.”

This former paperboy had his share of eccentrics along the route. “My friend, Ken Edwards, came to my house one day and he says, ‘Look what I’ve got,’” showing Hitchcock a stack of early Fantastic Four and Spider-Man comics. Edwards explained that one subscriber on Hendrix was selling 12-cent Marvels for 10 cents apiece. “I slowly ended up buying all of them from him. What was weird about the guy, and I mean really weird,” says Hitchcock, “is he would give you a comic if he could spank you with a paddle. I never did it, but Ken did, and he said the guy didn’t hit worth a damn compared to his dad.”

A couple of blocks west at 113 Hendrix sits a large two-story duplex. “Alan McLeod had one of the greatest butterfly and moth collections anyone ever saw,” Hitchcock recalls. “He would buy cocoons, hatch them and mount them for display.” McLeod’s grandmother resided in the adjoining unit. “There was a welcome mat in front of her door. The paper had to be placed directly on the mat. If it wasn’t there, she would call and tell me to ‘bring my paper in.’ Sometimes it would be just a foot away. And I never got a tip.”

On the corner of Hendrix and Church, there’s a house Hitchcock remembers well. “Behind that house was a square metal cage where this guy kept squirrels,” he says. “Don’t ask me why, but he did.” Crossing the bridge over the railroad tracks to the other side of Hendrix was a dwelling with a more exotic habitat. “They had monkeys in a 5-foot by 8-foot pen. We’d bring pecans for the monkeys to eat and the homeowners would yell at us to get the hell out of there.”

In a charming bungalow at 1005 Magnolia, “There was a wonderful woman, Mrs. Noah. She lived by herself,” Hitchcock recalls. “She had a framed lithograph of Robert E. Lee, must’ve been passed down through the family. She told me that her daughter was seeing a guy and when the boyfriend walked in, saw the picture of Robert E. Lee, he says, ‘Why, General Grant! I’m glad you have such a nice place in this house.’ Mrs. Noah looked at her daughter and said, ‘He’s got to go.’”

In the 1980s, papergirls joined the carrier ranks. During the next decade, falling circulations and rising liability costs spelled the end for an American childhood tradition stretching back to the pioneer days.

Perhaps J. Edgar was right. John Hitchcock’s business on Spring Garden will be celebrating its 35th anniversary next year, so that entrepreneurial spirit did indeed start early and stuck.  OH

When not wandering, Billy Ingram can be found on Tuesday afternoons behind the counter at Parts Unknown, where one of the shop’s best-sellers is Brian K. Vaughan’s acclaimed graphic novel series Papergirls, which he highly recommends.

Wandering Billy

Wandering Billy

Grave Matters

Creating cleaner, greener pastures at Green Hill Cemetery

By Billy Ingram

“Never check an interesting fact.”     – Howard Hughes

It may seem odd that someone possesses warm fuzzies for a graveyard, but my fond memories of Green Hill Cemetery go back as far as I can remember.

At 10 years old, I convinced my younger brother and sister that my foot was stuck between the wooden ties of the railroad tracks along the western edge of Green Hill. With one ear on the rails, I could feel (or so I told them) the vibrations of a locomotive speeding toward us, imploring my siblings to run, to save themselves — there was no longer any hope for me.

My sister’s first name is Rives, same as my mother’s maiden name. Mom’s family has a plot at Green Hill centered with a monument that simply reads “Rives.” When she was 7 years old, I told my sister that she had an incurable disease and was going to pass away soon, so mom and dad were just waiting until she died to carve the dates on this, her headstone. She cried and cried and I guffawed like a peg-legged pirate. Was I an awesome brother or what?

It’s been a decade or so since I’ve wandered over to Green Hill, where I recently caught up with my one-time neighbor David Craft, who, alongside a dozen or so stalwart volunteers from the Friends of Green Hill organization, are selflessly assessing, sprucing up and restoring smaller headstones that, over time, have become unmoored by mudslides. These crafty citizens dig out those sunk several feet into the ground and clean covered-over carved marble tablets long ago toppled onto their backs, presently embedded into the soil. At a glance, they tend to go unnoticed, this multitude of mangled monuments, askew stones of all sizes and shapes, spires weighing hundreds, perhaps thousands of pounds, cracked and fractured, resting on their sides, primarily in the oldest tracts.

“You’re walking and you see these gravestones fallen over,” David says about what spurred him into action, pointing out monoliths and burial sites in dire need of rehabilitation. “They’re in the wrong places, they’re broken, and these things are so beautiful, they’re almost like artwork. And I was kind of looking for something else to do.” David dubbed this merry band of recreational restorationists the “Billies” as a hat tip to his dad, Bill Craft — but he’d prefer if you didn’t preface that nickname with “Green Hill.”

In his own way, David is advancing a legacy that took root more than a half-century ago, when his father began implementing his sylvan vision for Greensboro, one that continues to flourish and likely will for generations to come.

As a teenager in the 1970s, I’d notice Bill Craft almost daily planting assorted flora directly across the street from our Blair Street home. Guilford County’s Johnny Appleseed, with persistent prodigality, transformed a perfectly ordinary two-block-long, grassy, creekside strip into a lush environ, what is now known appropriately as Bill Craft Park. With virtually nowhere left to dig at that location, he turned his attention to Green Hill Cemetery’s relatively sparse surroundings beginning in 1980, toiling in that soil for the next 20 years.

When this self-taught botanist began his arbor days-turned-years at Green Hill, there were around 100 trees dotting the 51-acre landscape. By the time Bill was done, he’d seeded an additional 400 saplings and shrubs, just about every species known or suspected to survive here: a rubber tree from China, live oaks from the coast, Florida palms, Atlantic white cedar, Chinese pistache, Savannah holly, Japanese maple, Tupelo gum, Colorado blue spruce, to name a few. Bill Craft passed away in 2010, his herculean efforts costing this city not one dime.

Last year, David attended a seminar in Statesville led by Shawn Rogers, director of Jamestown’s Mendenhall Homeplace, on the proper methods for restoring and repairing marble, slate, and granite markers and footstones without being invasive or intrusive. A precision-oriented approach appealed to David, who likes “doing things with my hands, simple things.” He continues, “So we got permission to straighten [smaller stones and slabs], which is kind of within our skillset.” The goal for these Green Hill aficionados is to perform as many minor repairs as possible while raising money for larger, more difficult projects that will require heavy machinery and extensive expertise.

In addition to this behind-the-scenes undertaking, there are two October happenings at Green Hill I’m personally looking forward to.

Not far from the southern gate (near Fisher Avenue) stands a most striking monument, a 7-foot-tall depiction of a firefighter standing at the ready, carved in Italian marble, perched atop a 10-foot-high granite plinth. Dedicated in 1924, this became the annual site for a service devoted to Greensboro Fire Department personnel who had perished over the last year. For whatever reason, this custom ended around 1970, but in 2021 that yearly ceremony was revived with a well-attended memorial honoring the 16 line-of-duty and retired GFD deaths during that dormant period. On Saturday, October 7, at 2 p.m., the city will once again honor the fallen.

Separately, for the 15th year, Ann Stringfield of the Friends of Green Hill Cemetery’s leadership team leads a tour on October 29 at 1 p.m. Her topic? “The Plants and the Planted” that inhabit the southern portion of Green Hill. Interested in assisting with restoration or want more info about these events, including rain dates? Visit: FriendsOfGreenHillCemetery.org.

A couple of months back, I profiled Gerald Smith, a charming, colorful gentleman who’d recently published a terrific memoir entitled Cotton Mill Hillbilly. Sadly, Gerald passed away on June 26, but what a privilege it was to have met him. Before my time comes, I can only hope to be blessed with even a fraction of his enthusiasm for life and the abundant love that obviously surrounded him.  OH

Despite so many familial connections at Green Hill, Billy Ingram’s final resting place will likely be Potter’s Field.

Wandering Billy

Wandering Billy

Poetry Is Life

And life is poetry for Greensboro’s first Poet Laureate

By Billy Ingram

“Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.”      – Leonard Cohen

For the first time ever, the City of Greensboro has appointed a Poet Laureate, Josephus Thompson III. Some people might envision a pointy-headed intellectual with a snowy beard spouting iambic pentameter while safely ensconced inside an ivy-covered garret. In contrast Josephus is a tall, lithe 46-year old who appears considerably younger in person.

It was a fourth grade classroom assignment that led Josephus into discovering his previously undiagnosed love for wordplay. “I won a fourth place ribbon for an essay about my father,” he tells me. “And I was ecstatic that I won fourth place.” Later, in high school, Josephus composed a poem for an English course that he performed in front of the entire student body. “I got a few accolades for it and I was like, people like my writing. I should do more of it.”

Although it’s a part of every school’s curriculum, “So often the poetry that we hear — the Mayas, the Frosts — it doesn’t sound like us, doesn’t look like us,” Josephus remarks about society’s overall failure to connect students to creative expression. “It’s all about education through correlation, something they can actually relate to.” This dichotomy led to the creation of The Poetry Project in 2005 for, “using poetry to teach, inspire and build the communities that we call home.”

What began inside individual classrooms turned into packed school assemblies. “When I go into a space, maybe 70 percent of the kids probably don’t like poetry,” Josephus says. “They think it’s whack, it’s boring. But when I’m able to relate it to hip-hop, to music, to empowering their voice, all of a sudden the light switch goes on. They’re like, ‘Wait a minute. You wanna hear what I have to say?’”

Over time, Josephus developed a scintillating Monday through Thursday curriculum rooted, but not mired, in traditional English Language Arts. “Then on Friday,” he says, “I’ll bring in a poet, a singer, a rapper, a guitar player, so they are able to see what we’ve talked about all week in real life.” Wildly popular, this avant-garde bard poetically pied piper-ed impressionable audiences, winning over a multitude of restless, attention deficient pupils, a paroxysm attributable not only to Josephus’ charismatic delivery, but also his impressive lexiconical athleticism.

Funded primarily by fees for service plus occasional grants, The Poetry Project has provided literacy-based programming not only in Guilford and Forsyth Counties, but also in Harrisburg, VA, and as far afield as Malaysia and the Phillippines. “I had the pleasure of performing with the Greensboro Symphony in 2019,” says Josephus. “It was phenomenal.” For that event, every third and fourth grader in the county school system was transported to Grimsley High School’s auditorium for five daily jam sessions, experiencing for themselves Josephus’ participatory prestidigitation. The result? It’s poetry emotion: “A thousand kids singing along and chanting.”

“I’m able to talk about the fact that the money is in songwriting,” Josephus remarks, explaining that most youngsters don’t realize musical artists generally don’t compose their hit songs. “The people that write the music are sitting at home collecting a check, a lot more than the singer. By the end of the class everyone wants to be a writer.”

Having piqued students’ interest, Josephus realized budding authors had nowhere to hone their craft. “There’s a place for Frisbee, and basketball and soccer, but, if you’re going to be a writer, where do you go?” To fill that void, Josephus partnered with the McGirt-Horton branch of the Greensboro Public Library to establish an after-school outlet for aspiring scribes. “Every person has a voice,” Josephus says of his motivation. “Everyone wants to be heard, period.”

As a side gig that has since expanded exponentially, Josephus launched The Poetry Café at Triad Stage in 2009 to serve as a launching pad and showcase for emerging regional wordsmiths. It was then that one of his mentors, D. Cherie’ Lofton, at that time operations manager and content manager for N.C. A&T State University’s radio station, began urging him to adapt his concept for the airwaves. “I didn’t want to be on the radio, but I had no idea the number of people I could reach.” It took Lofton more than a year to talk him into it, but in 2012 Josephus began broadcasting The Poetry Café over 90.1 FM, WNAA.

Earlier this year, The Poetry Café became a weekly syndicated radio show, airing Sundays at 6–7 p.m. on WUNC radio, recorded in his studio on the second floor of Triad Stage. “We already have artists that are coming now to Greensboro to be featured on the show because it’s statewide.”

Last year, Josephus created a monthly retreat called Poetry Field Trip in conjunction with the Van Dyke Performance Space located in downtown’s Cultural Center. “We were able to bring in 300 kids for 90 minutes to experience poetry up close and personal with a full band,” Josephus says, somewhat amazed. “Before they leave, I’m giving autographs to fourth graders — as a poet in Greensboro.”

Josephus is on track to host a combined 3,000 kids for October’s Poetry Field Trip at the Van Dyke Performance Space (info@thepoetryproject.com). “Beginning at 9 a.m., there’s ‘Poetry is Life’ breaking down what poetry is, how it connects,” our Poet Laureate explains. “In the afternoon, we do a second part called ‘The Cypher: From the Page to the Stage.’ The same kids can come back and write their own poetry, then get up on stage to perform it. Three hundred kids coming in the morning and the afternoon for a full day field trip.”

It’s not just about poetic license, but poetic licensing. The Poetry Café is headed to the National Public Radio convention this month. “The goal is to pick up another 10 to 12 stations,” Josephus says, “so the show will be national by the end of the year.” He’s already submitted a proposal to PBS North Carolina. “We’d love to get on their network with The Poetry Café, featuring North Carolina artists, which means advertising dollars.”

In April of 2024, The Poetry Project returns to Tanger Center. “We’re talking about video, audio, all of that being accessible, sellable and licensable,” Josephus notes. In 2025, he’s looking to export The Poetry Café to London, Dubai and Durban, South Africa. Having grown up a military brat with frequent upendings, he says, “I’ve been to those places, so I know it’s possible.”

Set the clock for inevitability. “As Poet Laureate of Greensboro, it’s my due diligence to make it happen,” Josephus contends. “We’re setting the mold, breaking barriers, proving every single day that poetry is life and life is indeed poetry.”  OH

Billy Ingram is O.G. — Original Greensboro.

Wandering Billy

Wandering Billy

Downtown’s New Grub Hubs

Eating Across Elm

By Billy Ingram

“Uptown is for people who have already done something. Downtown is where they’re doing something now. I live uptown, but I love downtown.”                         – Andy Warhol

Readers of this column know I cover downtown like the green shag carpeting in my first apartment. It hasn’t escaped notice that there’s more than a cuppa recently opened coffeehouses percolating an assortment of customized caffeinated concoctions inside storefronts along South Elm. Joining them are several new places where you can overeat.

Far and away, the most elaborate of these up-and-coming klatches is Dusty Keene’s second Common Grounds location on the corner of Elm and Gate City. Much more elaborate than its original Lindley Park spot, the new digs are imbued with a funky, old-world inspired interior we’ve not seen in the center city since long ago nights and afternoons misspent lounging at the Sofa Bar in the 1990s.

Metal sculptures forged by Greensboro’s own Erik Beerbower and Kelsey Wyatt are central to the coffee shop’s vibe, including metal sculptures lining the exposed brick walls indoors and a flurry of other sculptures incorporating recycled and discarded metal elements that define and accent multiple outdoor patios. Most eye-catching of all is the stunning, south-facing owl fabricated from hubcaps, industrial scraps and oversized o-rings, greeting customers in the parking lot.

With artworks on display across the state, this metallurgically gifted duo created that gargantuan, gurgling waterfall sandwiched between buildings on the 200 block of South Elm a decade or so ago.

The building that houses Common Grounds at 631 South Elm has an effervescent history. A century ago, this was where Lime Cola was manufactured and distributed in the 1920s. During that same period, just a few doors north at 621 South Elm, currently a parking lot, Coca-Cola was brewing, while Pepsi-Cola, Orange Crush and Chero-Cola were bubbling up blocks away on West Lewis.

But back to coffee. Truth to tell, I’m a lightweight when it comes to caffeine. However, when in Rome . . . selecting from Common Grounds’ Star Latte selection this past Sunday, my companion, Cory Wagoner, fresh from playing bass for Mount Pisgah Church’s contemporary praise band, ordered a Marilyn Monroe (white chocolate and caramel), while I gave in to temptation with a Robert Downey Jr. (dark chocolate, caramel and salt). As a result, as I write this, I’ve got more twitches than Samatha Stephens but zero regrets.

Behind its orange doors, smoothies and, for those wishing to rollercoaster the day away, a selection of top shelf liquors to slug into your café au lait awaits non-coffee drinkers. Most inviting is a variety of scrumptious fresh baked goods direct from Veneé Pawlowski’s Black Magnolia Southern Patisserie, located next to Cugino Forno in the Revolution Mills complex. Bear with me while I take a detour to tell you more about Pawlowski.

This past May, she won her second General Mills national contest, the grand prize of $20,000, for her savory upside-down apple-praline biscuit recipe. Would it be bragging to point out I was the first to trumpet her culinary abilities here in this very column three years ago? At that time, she’d been laid off, a newlywed with a newborn to look after just as that pesky lockdown was getting under way. Faced basically with no options, she resorted to a strategy only the most creative individuals turn to — leaning into a dream. From a small kitchen in a Church Street apartment that she and her husband Ian shared, Veneé began offering baked goods for sale on Facebook.

After reading about her in this forum, O.Henry readers began ordering. More published accolades followed and, shortly thereafter, her bourbon banoffee pecan rolls recipe earned her a top-20 spot in the 2021 General Mills Neighborhood to Nation Restaurant Recipe Contest. Last year, she launched her brick-and-mortar bakery, Black Magnolia Southern Patisserie, where, right from the start, there were literally lines around the building every morning. She’s since expanded capacity and ramped up to meet demand. Don’t you just love stories like that?

As an added treat, Common Grounds Downtown hosts DJ Patrick Killmartin on the second Sunday of every month, who lays down a multifarious mix of past, present and future beats. Catch him on the other three Sundays at Common Grounds’ original grinder at Walker and Elam.

A couple of doors north at 611 South Elm, platters of a different type are spinning. Jake’s Diner is plating what you haven’t been able to get downtown on Elm since the lunch counter in the Southeastern Building closed many years ago: scrambled and fried eggs, hash browns, bacon, sausage, and country ham, served up all day, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Built in 1950 for Blue Bell’s pattern department and servicing its sprawling denim factory across the street, the space that Jake’s Diner grills in was for many years an Earl Scheib Auto Painting shop, so it’s quite spacious.

A retro-esque atmosphere with a high ceiling and enormous picture windows makes this an ideal spot for what one comes to expect from a diner: staples such as burgers, BLTs, pork chops, wings, subs and salads, plus fried chicken on weekends. I’ve eaten here a few times, both alone and with friends . . . every time, it’s met my expectations.

Still on the subject of dining downtown on weekdays, in the Piedmont Building at 114 North Elm, you’ll thank me for turning you on to International Food, a tucked-away cafe serving up authentic Mexican cuisine similar to what someone’s abuela would prepare. I delighted in the quesabirria platter (four deep-fried tacos filled with shaved, braised beef with two dipping sauces). I’ll be back for steak or chicken tortas, milanesa (fried chicken breast with rice and beans), fish tacos, chori pollo, chimichangas and the obligatory arroz con pollo. Pop in for lunch and you’ll likely find me there.

There’s also a recently opened honest to goodness, old-school luncheonette situated on the first floor of a newly renovated Renaissance Building across from Tanger Center. Often, my noontime cravings are for nothing more than what Mother and I would typically order at Brown-Gardiner, so I was thrilled to discover Cafe 13, with a pleasing selection of basic comfort foods such as a simple toasted chicken salad sandwich with lettuce and tomato. Nothing fancy, more down-home if anything, it’s the kind of place Rob, Buddy and Sally ordered down from for a working lunch on The Dick Van Dyke Show. One of the ladies’ aunties even makes the pound cake they sell by the slice. Ground floor lunch counter in a high-rise office building isn’t something I expected would make a comeback. Seems everything new is old again! OH

Like his father and grandfather before him, Billy Ingram is the third generation to do business in Downtown Greensboro.

Wandering Billy

Wandering Billy

A Storied Life

Peeking into the pages of 90-year-old Gerald Smith, self-proclaimed Cotton Mill Hillbilly

By Billy Ingram

“I never thought my cotton gin would change history.” – Eli Whitney

I have a shelf in my library devoted to books about growing up in and around the Gate City. That bookshelf just got a little more crowded with the recent addition of a brand new release, Cotton Mill Hillbilly, written by 90-year-old, first-time author Gerald A. Smith, a project he entered into reluctantly.

“My daughters were after me for about six months before I said I would do it,” Smith confesses. “They said, ‘We don’t know anything about your early life.’ They suggested very strongly that, if I valued my life and I wanted to keep eating, I should start writing.” It took him less than six months to complete 302 breezy pages. Raised in Siler City in the 1930s, population 1,775, not counting the livestock, Smith was “surprised it all came back to me once I started.”

Ever hear someone say, “We grew up poor but we didn’t know it?” Not in this telling. “My daddy was a drunk. You couldn’t depend on him for anything,” Smith explains. “We were really poor. We didn’t even have water in the house.” Well, that wasn’t entirely true during inclement weather. “When it rained we had buckets all over the floor. If you got up during the night you had to watch that you didn’t step in the buckets.”

As a youngster, his family had no means of transportation. So, one Saturday his older brother and father ventured out with $125 to buy an automobile. “And they came back on a Czechoslovakian made motorcycle,” Smith says. “That started my career on motorcycles.” Over his lifetime, “I’d have one right after the other and just keep upgrading,” eventually ending up with a top-of-the-line Triumph.

Siler City was the only world Gerald Smith knew as a young’un. “Greensboro was like going overseas, it was so far away,” he recalls. “My dream was to work at Hadley-Peoples, one of the biggest employers in town. I grew up in their mill houses for the first 16 years of my life.” In high school he took a mechanics position for Hadley-Peoples’ petticoat factory, where, some years later, he would meet his future wife, Esta. “It got so hot inside and they had no air conditioning. You could see the lint flying out the windows.” The labor was grueling, the benefits miniscule. “But you had to work somewhere,” says Smith, who earned around $40 a week at the mill. “My brother was at Western Electric in Greensboro and he was making $20 a week more than I was.”

At his sibling’s suggestion, in 1960, Smith went to work at Western Electric in the Pomona district, where “they manufactured top secret, future products. I remember a machine called a Hysteresis Loop. You put a piece of metal on the machine, it gives you a loop and you record the loop.” A couple of years later, an ad in the Greensboro Daily News for “technical minded people” at IBM caught his eye. After interviewing 125 people for one single position, IBM management told Smith they needed to meet his wife before committing.

“Esta was a housewife at the time. She’s beautiful and she knows all the etiquette and everything,” Smith recalls. “She was waiting at the door, greeted them, served refreshments and joined in the conversation. After an hour they got up and said, ‘We’ll make up our decision and let you know.’” As the two recruiters began exiting they stopped and enquired, ‘You still want the job, Gerald?’ I said, ‘More than ever.’ They said, ‘Well, you’re hired.’ They told me later they hired me because of Esta.” Settling in Greensboro — hard times a vanishing point in his motorbike’s rearview mirror — this country boy joined the ranks of the button-down corporate world. “I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t have any suits. I had to go in debt,” Smith says of his Mad Men-era uniform. Wherever he went, ranging out as far as Danville, Virginia, to repair IBM office products, “I had on my suit, crisp white shirt, the shoes had to be shined and you better look good.” Equipped with a proprietary set of tools tucked into a briefcase, employees at his destinations often mistook him for an executive or a doctor, so they routinely waved him through. “I’d go out to Cone Hospital and get right into the area where they kept the radium and isotopes and see all this stuff around and wonder whether this is gonna kill me or not.”

IBM instituted a robust suggestion program with a bonus of up to $50,000 for any employee who submitted a cost-cutting idea that was adopted by the company. “A lot of times we’d be running short of money and they’d present me with a suggestion award.” Smith won 21 of these bonuses before being promoted to field and distribution services manager, allowing him to retire in 1990 and devote more time to church activities. 

Looking back, he wonders if maybe he had a bit too much time on his hands, like the time he discovered a baby bird lying on the ground after a windstorm. “This little bitty thing, he just cracked open the egg when he fell and the mother wasn’t there,” Smith says. “Different people said, ‘Feed him some egg yolk.’” Using an eyedropper, “I raised him from the egg to a bird old enough to fly.” He named the bird Nod (bonus points if you get the Andy Griffith Show reference, Wink, Wink). While strolling the neighborhood, Smith tied a string on one of the birdie’s legs and attached it to his baseball cap, using that hat’s bill as a launching pad in an effort to teach the fledgling to fly.

His walks with Nod got the neighbors talking, so much so that Channel 2 dispatched Arlo Lassen to document this Birdman of Hamilton Forest for the 6 p.m. news. Before Nod flew the coop for good, he made a final electrifying appearance: “One morning a telephone guy was coming out to do some work on the lines.” Smith was on the front porch waving to the repairman when Nod flew off a wire, landing on top of his head. “That repairman said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that before!’”

In so short a space, there’s no way to do justice to the mischief and mayhem contained in this madcap memoir. I recommend you dive into Cotton Mill Hillbilly yourself, available where books are sold and on Amazon. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some savvy producer turns Smith’s story into a movie.

After 90 revolutions around the sun, despite his soulmate, Esta, passing away in 2010, Gerald Smith isn’t slowing down that much. “I got my driver’s license renewed a few weeks ago,” he tells me. “I thought maybe I’d have trouble taking the eye test. I really can’t see that good, so I spent a couple days memorizing eye charts.” Sure enough he passed and was even grandfathered in for a motorcycle license. He quips, “I might buy me a new Harley or something.” He’s joking, of course . . . at least I think he is.  OH

Billy Ingram’s new book about Greensboro, EYE on GSO, is available wherever books are sold or pulped.

Wandering Billy

Wandering Billy

On The Record

Any way you spin it, a documentary featuring Greensboro’s role in the Chitlin’ Circuit remains unfinished

By Billy Ingram

“Owning vinyl is like having a beautiful painting hanging in your living room. It’s something you can hold, pore over the lyrics and immerse yourself in the artwork.” – Steven Wilson

Just a short distance from the liquor store — er, the many exciting sights and attractions downtown Greensboro has to offer — is a set of concrete steps at 610 S. Spring Street, stubbornly clinging to relevance below a parking lot and a patch of grass destined for development.

In the ’50s and ’60s, this stairway to heavenly sounds led to what has been described as an inviting domicile fronted by two large maple trees, one of which still shades those steps. That’s where, during evenings and weekends off from his day job at the post office, longtime resident Edward Robbins began dabbling in music production and directing promotional television spots.

In the lo-fi world of the mid-’50s, this audiophile invested in the area’s only multitrack, high-fidelity Concertone stereophonic reel recorder when virtually every 45 and LP album in America was pressed in mono — and would be for years to come. Radio stations weren’t even equipped to play stereo discs in 1954 when Robbins Recording Studio was established in the back of his Spring Street home. The brand that touted “We Record Anything Worth Keeping” advertised not only futuristic technology, but also a grand piano and Hammond organ for backing tracks.

Robbins’ bread-and-butter was capturing church choir recitals and high school band performances, as well as recording local artists attempting to break into the music business. Just a few years later, 18-year-old Billy Crash Craddock laid down his first single, “Smacky-Mouth,” at Robbins’ for Greensboro’s Sky Castle label. Months later, the rockabilly crooner signed with Columbia Records. Also recorded there, the million-selling 45, “Radar Blues” by Coleman Wilson, released in 1960 on King Records.

A decade ago, Doug Klesch’s film project, Gate City Soul, got underway documenting the vibrant East Greensboro music scene with an emphasis on the Chitlin’ Circuit era. “I started realizing that there was this layer of stars and people that we hadn’t heard about,” Klesch tells me over coffee at the new Common Grounds downtown. “Nobody really seemed to have put it all together before.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, Robbins Recording Studio was only one of perhaps half a dozen or more recording studios and small-time record labels operating at any one time in Greensboro. “You go in, you pay your 40 bucks and you could record whatever you want,” Klesch says. Around 1960, Walt Copeland began recording and mastering out of his modest home at 4106 Peterson Avenue, relocating in 1964 to the WWll-era Overseas Replacement Depot district before becoming Crescent-City Sound Studios around 1969, located primarily at 1060 Gatewood Avenue.

“Robbins and Copeland were sort of the pioneers around here,” according to Klesch. “Crescent-City Sound, from what I’m told, was state of the art for that time, built on a floating floor. It wasn’t really as mom-and-pop as I would’ve imagined it to be in a market like Greensboro. These guys had a pretty nice little thing going.”

Greensboro R&B sensation and Carolina Beach Music Awards Hall-of-Famer Roy Roberts is one of the central characters in Klesch’s documentary. “Roberts is still alive and performing in his 80s,” he reports. “Bobby Williams — I think he’s still around — he had a band, Soul Central, that was playing a lot. George Bishop died shortly after I interviewed him in 2014.” In the 60s, Bishop corralled a bunch of A&T students working towards a music degree to form The Mighty Majors, who not only gigged around the East Greensboro scene and beyond, but also provided backup for big name touring acts. In the 1970s, Bishop owned a nightclub called The Command Post and later a record store, Mr. Entertainer, on Phillips Avenue.

Owned and engineered by David Lee Perkins, Tornado Records, located at 1712 Farrell Avenue, was one of the more prolific mid-1960s labels here, distributing primarily country and western, gospel, and bluegrass 45s by artists such as the South Mountain Boys, Dewey Ritter & the Panhandle Boys and The Caravans from Chicago. Although the label’s motto was “Another Tornado Hit,” their platters never really charted. Still, a handful have gained cult followings, like “Sensational New Discovery” by The Nomads, a psychedelic/garage rock combo out of Mt. Airy who released their second single, “Thoughts of a Madman,” through Tornado.

Walter Grady, a local impresario and independent music producer, launched several record labels throughout the 1970s, specializing in funk, soul and gospel recordings under the names Linco, Cobra, Graytom, Grayslak and Witch’s Brew. Produced by Slack Johnson, Electric Express recorded “It’s The Real Thing — Pt. I” at Crescent-City Sound for Linco. That instrumental track was quickly picked up by Atlantic Records’ subsidiary Cotillion for national and overseas distribution and spent four weeks on Billboard’s Top 100, peaking at No. 81 in August of 1971. “It was probably the biggest hit that came out of here as far as anything that went national. I want to say it was No. 13 or 14 on the Billboard R&B national chart,” Klesch says. He adds that the 1963 song, “Mockingbird, by Greensboro’s Inez and Charlie Fox, was, “probably the biggest national hit that wasn’t recorded here.” That tune was famously covered by Carly Simon and James Taylor 10 years later, reaching No. 5 on the Billboard pop singles chart.

Doug Klesch’s fascinating documentary remains incomplete but largely finished. Around 45 minutes of Gate City Soul can be found in three parts on YouTube. It’s the only comprehensive history of East Greensboro clubs and performers ever attempted, paused until someone can jump in to navigate the murky music rights legal maze. “I knew this from the beginning, but it became a reality the further I got into it,” Klesch says. “A lot of these recordings were bought up by companies whose business model is to sue anybody who samples them.”

Coincidentally, my buddy Jeremy Parker operates a recording studio out of his home where he lays down everything from punk to pop. It happens to be positioned just about a hundred feet from the steps that once led to Robbins Recording Studio, lo those many decades ago. A reminder that every generation has a potential to forge their own golden age.


                                                                               

In Passing . . .

I still haven’t fully come to grips with Natija Sierra Salem’s recent passing from complications due to a car accident that had occurred months earlier. Only 23 years old, tentatively blossoming into womanhood, she was one of those rare individuals who’d run up with a warm embrace whenever we bumped into each other, always thrilled to see me.

She was a tender ingénue with an arid sense of humor, eyes lit brightly, barely concealing a shadowy undertow. I say it often — and it’s true — the good die young, which speaks volumes as to why I’m still upright. There’ll never be another you, Salem. On that, everyone warmed by your smile can agree. I suppose one day life will begin to make sense, but it won’t be this day.  OH

Billy Ingram’s new book about Greensboro, EYE on GSO, is available wherever books are sold or pulped.