By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
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.
The master cobbler, who owns more than 50 pairs of boots himself, is asked on a recent day about his own footwear, tennis shoes. He explains that he has been doing some cleaning in the shop. "It's the only other pair of shoes I own," he says.
A doctor's wife enters and gushes at her newest pair of stark white, high-heeled boots. They feature an eagle accented with gold filigree with a tiny touch of green falling from his claw. "That's the same pattern my father made for Dale Evans," Carroll proclaims. The woman is preparing for a rodeo dance later that evening and puts on the newest creations, commenting on how the boots are soothing to her bunions.
Faraway customers who cannot make it into the shop get a Rocky-designed map of the foot, with specific directions on how to measure for the working diagram he creates to guide the boot construction. For a reporter, he shows how he takes five different measurements of the foot. Those are used to fashion what is known as a "last," a Fiberglas or wooden mold that replicates the foot's size. Wooden pegs help bind the leather as the boot takes shape.
The boots are customized as he stitches the leather and does the inlays. Customers can choose from seven styles of toes, six heels and five scallops, along with infinite extras. Colors vary with the choice of material, and that range covers many animals, including reptiles and sea creatures. There's calfskin, baby calf, water buffalo, ostrich, kangaroo, caribou, sharkskin, lizard, snakeskin, ringtail lizard, anteater, elephant, eel and alligator.
In times of high demand, such as the Houston Rodeo days, Carroll farms some of the labor out to what he calls his elves, at an undisclosed workshop off U.S. 290. He boasts that he can go from measurement to finished boot in eight hours. "And [competitors] will tell you it can't be done."
He views his work as art as much as craftsmanship. Carroll says he relies on a sixth sense about customer tastes and uses research to ingrain the personality into the leather ornamentations, giving the boots a character of their own. "I study people," he says. "I believe when you are born has a lot to do with your personality."
Carefully logged are clients' favorite colors, heel and toe preferences and even birthdays: "You're a Gemini with a Cancer cusp, and are conservative," he says to a reporter, stowing his notes away for future reference.
Prices start at about $300, slightly more than the cost of another Carroll exclusive, exaggerated customized clown shoes. The circus entertainers may flop, but Carroll guarantees that their extended toes will not. The boot maker, however, prefers crafting for queens instead of clowns.
For Queen Elizabeth, Carroll carved "QE-2" into her red boots to commemorate the ship named in her honor. She was amazed at the personal touch, he says, and wondered how he knew that red was her favorite color.
He recalls his explanation to her: "Every woman likes red, Your Majesty."
While running in royal crowds comes late in life for Carroll, he inherited some of his fascination with celebrities. His father crafted boots for country-music and screen legends such as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Even Elvis got a pair.
The western bar Carroll operated in the 1970s channeled him toward the next generation of country greats. Musician and songwriter Brian Collins recalls seeing Willie Nelson and other stars frequenting the club as an after-concert haven.
Carroll says Nelson entertained the RJ's crowd one night after performing at Gilley's, where owner Sherwood Cryer paid him more than $50,000 a gig. Carroll says he fielded a call the following day from Cryer, wanting to know what it had cost for Nelson's appearance at RJ's.
"Sherwood, you better sit down, because I gave the man four Lone Star beers," Carroll remembers saying.
He relocated his boot shop to Ella in 1979, but that did not end his associations with music stars. Carroll says that may be one reason for the eventual acrimony with Houston Rodeo officials, who declined to comment for this story. Carl Riley, a sheriff's assistant chief, says stars like Nelson, Tanya Tucker and Larry Gatlin would brag on stage about Carroll's boots. That free publicity may have alienated rodeo officials, Riley speculates.
Carroll says he operated a rodeo sales booth for almost 30 years, but a dispute over what he could sell added to the friction. He says he missed one rodeo parade because of illness, and then came the request that he resign his rodeo committee post. But at about the time the rodeo problems were escalating in 1989, the irrepressible boot maker kicked aside his setbacks. After all, the vice president himself was coming to town, and Carroll wanted to meet him.
When the senior George Bush passed along in the rodeo parade, Rocky Carroll dashed out to greet him and give him a business card. But it's not that easy to meet the vice president of the nation, especially when you're a long-haired, bearded stranger, Carroll soon learned. Secret Service agents quickly moved in to stop him.
A local police officer, who knew Carroll from his sheriff's duties, shouted, "He's one of us." The agent glanced at Carroll again and replied, "He sure doesn't look like it."
Bush got Carroll's calling card, although it was a group of HPD officers who quickly commissioned him to make the VP a set of boots. That was one of the frantic eight-hour rush jobs for Carroll, who had them ready for Bush's departure from Ellington Field. The results paid off permanently.
Bush commissioned 51 more pairs of boots from Carroll, so many that he has worn out the model of the ex-president's 11D foot. Earning early fame as the president's boot maker, Rocky supplied his tuxedo and black patent inaugural boots and was in Washington when the president pulled up his pants leg to show them off.
"They were so nice to me that I told them I came there as a Democrat but was leaving as a Republican," he says. Carroll credits Bush for a new boom in boot popularity, saying professionals traded their patent leather shoes for the western wear when the then-president sported boots. And Carroll gained his moment of international publicity when he cobbled up boots for the world leaders who came to Houston for the economic summit.
The political boot business is for the most part bipartisan. Each time Clinton comes to town, Rocky boards Air Force One, with the latest entourage boarding in January to outfit the crew. Clinton, who has 25 pairs, stopped to talk to Carroll, telling him that Hillary took one set of Rocky's comfortable walking boots on a recent trip to South Africa.
Carroll, of course, is now a campaigner for Governor George W. Bush in his presidential bid. He gave the governor, who prefers a conservative look, a pair that feature a miniature Texas with flag and filigree gold overlay. The boot maker's products can be seen on preachers as well as politicians. The late John Osteen of Lakewood Church got a pair, thanked him on one of his television shows and aired Carroll's logo. A follower confused the telephone numbers and called Rocky's shop to offer prayers for Lakewood Church. Carroll recalls his response: "Lady, you got the boot line, but let me give you the prayer line."
For some charities Carroll has been the answer to their prayers. He estimates that he gives away about 200 sets of boots yearly to a variety of nonprofit causes. Many of his boots for celebrities also are gratis, though they regularly generate paid orders -- and ample news coverage.
If some of his stories sound outlandish, it's because the listeners don't know Carroll, friends say. "The guy has got a heart of gold," says Vickers. "That man hasn't told a lie a day of his life."
Carroll admits that the gift boots to presidents and premiers have produced incredible interest, and income, for his shop. "I had so much publicity, I'd be stupid to charge for them," he says. "I couldn't buy that much advertising. When they had the economic summit here, I was in every paper in the world."
But savvy marketing has nothing to do with it, he says. Nor does the urge to be a groupie.
"I met all these people I would have never met otherwise," he explains. "From the first, those boots for George Bush and Reagan, I felt very honored that they like them -- like I was doing something for my country. And it just mushroomed from there.
"But never in my wildest dream did I think I'd get to meet all those people. I didn't do it expecting anything in return. I just did it because I wanted to. And I guess that's why I'll keep on doing it."