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Wandering Billy

Remembering Gangrene-sboro Days and Nights

Or how to get your foot into show business

By Billy Ingram

“They [The Beatles] had no idea who we were. I walked over to John Lennon and said, ‘John, a lot of people mistake me for you.’ He laughed. I had the Zulu haircut. There’s a great photo of them playing with my hair.”     — Marty Allen

The first superstar I ever met was Andy Williams, who bounced me on his knee at The Plantation Supper Club on High Point Road, or so my parents reminded me ad infinitum. I was 2 years old at the time. Ten years passed before I met another celebrity . . . and I’ll wear the scar from that encounter until my dying day.

Early one Saturday morning in 1968, I found myself pedaling barefoot up Northwood to Greensboro’s newest Winn-Dixie at (what is now) 1616 Battleground, a large retail center fronted by Main & Taylor and Huntington Learning Center. The reason? On hand to greet the fine folks entering the home of “The Beef People” that day, Winn-Dixie had booked Las Vegas comedy headliners Allen & Rossi. No idea why. Maybe they were playing the Plantation.

Even though Allen & Rossi’s blunt-force attempts at laughter largely left me cold, I still wanted to roll my grapes over two real Tinsel Town TV stars. Comedian Marty Allen and singer Steve Rossi blended their two disparate acts in 1957, not-so-coincidentally a year after the incredibly lucrative Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis nightclub act busted up. As a result, Allen & Rossi became the most successful of a multitude of Martin & Lewis imitators that chased that improbable dream of sold-out club dates and marquee dominance. Like Deano, Steve Rossi was a handsome, statuesque Italian crooner (“Al Di La”) plagued with a befuddled-looking, bushy-headed nincompoop, Marty Allen, complete with his own lame catch phrase: “Hello Dere!”

A mainstay of The Ed Sullivan Show, Allen & Rossi were on the broadcast the night The Beatles made their American debut. Infiltrating some 700 talk and variety shows in the ’60s, they were perhaps best known for the summer of ’66 big screen flop The Last of the Secret Agents?, a lethargic James Bond spoof where Nancy Sinatra languished as the film’s femme foil. That movie was directed by a true legend — a guy I had the pleasure to collaborate with years later — Norman Abbott (The Munsters, Sanford and Son).

In one of mankind’s greatest leaps in technology  — that is, until the impending moon landing — when Winn-Dixie customers at this location stepped on a rubber mat at the entrance, those heavy, metal-framed doors whooshed open automatically. Land o’Goshin, I don’t believe anyone ’round here had ever witnessed such a mechanical marvel. At least, I hadn’t. When those doors swung open with no effort for the little old lady in front of me, she stopped, looked skyward, then whispered, “Thank you, Jesus.” (I may be wrong, Big Bear at Lawndale could have boasted the first automatic doors, but bear with me.)

As I approached the famous comedy team, who were meandering by WD’s meat display, Allen spun around unexpectedly, crushing the big toe on my left foot under the heel of his impeccably shined black, patent-leather shoes, the kind I’d only seen gangsters wear in movies. As I cried out in pain, Allen sneered, looked over at his partner, muttering under his breath, “Can you believe people walk around barefoot in a grocery store? What kind of hick town is this?!?”

In all fairness, it really wasn’t that unusual for kids to wander around everywhere shoeless back then, before “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” signs began popping up. I probably wasn’t wearing a shirt either.

Pedaling painfully home, I showed the injured toe to my dad, who declared it fine. A week later socks began sticking to that scabbed-over appendage, but my parents, who, as was the style of the day, took an arm’s length approach to raising children, assured me everything would be OK. When red vines began creeping up my leg, I once again asked if this was still in the vein of what they considered normal. Dad, who had served in the Army (quite literally, he was a Mess Sergeant), recognized immediately that a serious infection was underway. We secured an emergency appointment with a podiatrist, who told us in no uncertain terms, “Obviously the foot will have to go, but we might be able to save the leg.” I told the doc, “Oh, heck no! That’s not gonna happen.”

That podiatrist proffered what admittedly was a long-shot solution: There may be a chance to save my foot by soaking it in scalding water and Epsom salts pretty much every waking hour. Doc operated on my big toe, carving away the worst of it, as well as half of the toenail in the process, then wrapped that melange in so much gauze I had to cut an opening out of the tip of my left Topsider to accommodate the bulk.

Returning to Mendenhall Junior High (Home of the Mustangs!) on Monday, teachers were sympathetic to my plight, until I limped into Coach Loflin’s gym class. Perpetually clad in a gray polyester polo shirt with the requisite whistle around his neck, Loflin was a pretty decent guy, sterling I suspect, but had this annoying habit of bestowing demeaning nicknames on classmates who weren’t athletically inclined; his chosen epithet for me was “Stick” (I was skinny, sue me). That wasn’t so bad. He referred to another kid as “Chigger.”

Spying my crutched hobble upon entering his inner sanctorum, Loflin bellowed, “Everybody gather around!” then whistled. “Stick is trying to get out of gym class with some dumb stunt or another.” So sure I was faking, Coach instructed everyone — even the girls dressed out in their faded blue bloomers — in the gymnasium to assemble around me as he knelt down and began unbraiding that bulbous bandage.

As yellow hues that Pantone still hasn’t replicated slowly emerged, Loflin glared up at me and said, “You’re good, Stick, but I’m onto you!” He continued unraveling until coming close to the bloody red center of my tootsie pop — then he began re-raveling.

Mere months after rubbing elbows and toes with the rubes at Winn-Dixie, Allen & Rossi split up suddenly. Exiled to a kitchen stool mornings and evenings before and after school, I dunked my digits in that scorching Epsom salt brew for a month or so before getting the podiatrist’s all-clear.

One would have to employ the Hubble Telescope to detect what is today a minute defect on the toe of what many forensic pathologists consider to be a flawless physique. That minor imperfection nonetheless serves as a daily reminder to steer clear of two-bit gagsters wearing mobbed up footwear.  OH

Of the six books published by Billy Ingram thus far, two are (mostly) about Greensboro history — Hamburger² and Eye on GSO — both breezy summer reads. The author can frequently be found weekends enjoying the lobster bisque at The Pied Pier.