By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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A dipping roof, weathered plywood and clouded windowpanes make the small building at Ella and West 34th seem almost abandoned, like a ghost-town saloon right out of a low-budget western.
That corner of Oak Forest is at least a world away from the global centers of power and prestige, places like the White House, the Vatican and Windsor Castle. But the exports from this dilapidated structure are only feet -- booted feet, that is -- from those influential locales.
Inside his workshop, 62-year-old Rocky Carroll methodically labors on, like the Energizer Bunny, as a veteran maker of custom boots for the stars. And the popes. And corporate CEOs, U.S. presidents and premiers from most of the civilized world.
"His Holiness, Pope John Paul, thanks you for the custom boots you made him for Christmas," says the letter that arrived last week from the office of the U.S. Secretary of State: "He wants to remember you in his prayers."
While the pope is looking out for Rocky's soul, the papal sole is in Carroll's hands. A Catholic, Carroll crafted red cardinal shoes and a gratis pair of boots with the pope's seal and family crest. The mold he used to make them, and a copy of the boot model, will be added to others he keeps of celebrity customers. Among them are five U.S. presidents (George Bush and Jimmy Carter display their Carroll boots in their presidential libraries), Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, Dolly Parton, Vanna White and Queen Elizabeth.
When Liz Taylor came to town in 1991, Rocky measured her feet as well as her 21-inch waistline, and proclaimed her to be the most beautiful woman he had ever met. Carroll designed her pair of white, high-heeled boots, the ones lined with nine carats of diamonds and 18-carat gold filigree. They've come back to him several times, but not because of defects. Taylor's weight gains required her boots to be stretched to accommodate her fattened feet. On each shipment, the boots are insured for their full value: $40,000.
The case of wine Taylor sent to him one Christmas is still stored away, Carroll says. He got curious about its origin and worth, so he had a wine dealer look at a bottle. "He said he'd give me two-fifty for it," says Carroll. "I said, 'What is it, Boone's Farm?' " The dealer clarified his appraisal: He meant $250 a bottle.
Carroll is a nonstop name-dropper, although he laughs easily at himself and can issue convincing aw-shucks amazement about rubbing shoulders with the champagne set. "I don't change -- I don't care who I meet," he says, shunning any notion of being a groupie geared to politicians and celebrities. Former president George Bush told the Houston Press he considers himself a personal friend of the boot maker's, among hundreds of admirers who range from the limelights of Hollywood to the lesser sections of the Heights.
There's one big exception to Carroll's legion of fans. As an ambassador of sorts for Houston and its western heritage, he would seem a natural for the area's largest tribute to that legacy, the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. But his trail separated from the rodeo's after a feud several years ago. Carroll considers the rodeo hierarchy dirty politics.
"You got to be in their clique and kiss their butt," Rocky fumes about his former comrades. He has made many boots for free for rodeo officials but says one of them ordered him to make a pair of boots at no cost. He refused. "I could have done it, but don't tell me I gotta do it. I'll do the opposite. I don't kiss butt."
As the son of a son of a boot cobbler, Rocky John Carroll assembled his first pair of boots at age six. He was born in St. Joseph Hospital in 1938, the year his father and uncles opened RJ's Model Boot Shop in the Heights. He opened his first shop when he was 18 years old and just out of St. Thomas High School. He went on to help his four children start their own boot businesses.
In 1964 Carroll joined the Harris County sheriff's reserves, and did not retire until four years ago. He says in the early years he would work the graveyard shift as a reserve deputy from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m, then open his boot shop at Federal Road and I-10. With the help of an older brother, he also ran the adjacent RJ's Western Club until 1979, when he moved his boot shop to the Ella location.
His nonstop nature is evident. Carroll swears he doesn't sleep more than two hours a night. "Any more and I get a headache," he explains. A longtime friend, sheriff's reserve division chief Ray Vickers, says with a laugh, "There's only one Rocky. He goes all the time, and he's wound up."
That pace is obvious from a visit to his boot shop. With the phone ringing continually, Rocky runs back and forth to the counter from an ordinary pine bench that friend and Houston radio talk-show host Jan Glenn calls "his throne." It's the place where heavies like former treasury secretary Nicholas Brady, former president Jimmy Carter and film star Patrick Swayze have been enthroned for boot fittings. Swayze was mauled by a group of students from his alma mater, Waltrip High School, during his last trip to the shop. "I thought they were going to rip his clothes off," Carroll recalls.