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Strollin down a new path

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY -- Some people, in an attempt at eloquence, talk about "moving on to a new phase" of their lives.

Jerry "Strollin'" Nolan's take is a little more direct.

"You still gotta eat and pay the bills," he says.

The local legend everyone just calls Strollin' is paying the bills these days as chief chef and bottle washer at his restaurant, Strollin's Burgers & BBQ, at 1904 N. Slappey Blvd. And while the new venture is a rare stop outside the limelight that he's known since he left home at age 15 to travel with Joey Chitwood Thrill Shows, the Strollin' who grills up "the biggest, best burger in town" is the same Strollin' who spent the last 25 years as host of his "Strollin' With Nolan" TV show.

And he's the same daredevil-may-care who used to blow himself up for the entertainment of others.

"My health's not the greatest in the world now, and since the economy went south the sponsor money has dried up," Nolan says as he sits with a visitor at a picnic table outside his restaurant, the mid-day rush dwindling to a trickle. "But I'm still in the entertainment business, man. I'm still signing autographs for guys to hang in their man caves.

"Look, I had to swallow a lot of pride to flip hotdogs and hamburgers for a living. It hurt my pride to look up and see guys that I helped get hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorship money who won't give me the time of day now. I'll see some of them drive by, shake their heads, laugh and then drive off. But sometimes in life you have to find something to do. I'm doing this."

And by all accounts, Strollin's taken to the restaurant business just the way he did stunt driving, tournament fishing, daredeviling, TV showing ... full speed ahead. His fare of monster burgers, "Big Foot" hotdogs and freshly smoked barbecue is a hit, and the food goes down easier with the laid-back, friendly banter that is his trademark.

"I've always enjoyed and been around good cooking," Nolan says. "I've been thrown in some good restaurants along the way, and I've been thrown out of some."

When the broken back he suffered during a horrendous daredevil stunt that went wrong in Louisiana a couple of decades ago started acting up and sponsorship for his long-running outdoors show dried up, Nolan bought a catering truck that he parked alongside the road at the now-defunct Speed Shop on Slappey. After five months, he decided to start selling his food in a restaurant proper.

"I got one of those dream offers that was too good to be true to open up in a building by the Rice Bowl (in the Lee County Winn Dixie shopping center)," he said. "And guess what ... It was too good to be true. We spent three horrible weeks of my life there that I'll never get back."

Nolan and "Miss Angie" -- that would be Angie Bowen, his fiancee and constant companion for the last six-plus years after a "ghost" introduced them: "I was at a school carnival," she says, "and this pregnant lady with long black hair in overalls saw me standing by a display where Strollin' was giving away a boat and a fishing trip. She said, 'Are you waiting for Strollin'?' and when I told her I wasn't, she said he told me to wait for him there. I did, and when we met, he said he'd never talked to a woman who looked like that. But we exchanged phone numbers that night." -- moved to the North Slappey location five weeks ago, and they've spent that time fixing up the quaint restaurant in modern period "fishin' and racin'."

"It was fun making the place into what we wanted," Bowen said. "I've got a lot of respect for (Nolan) for going from what he was to what he is now. We have a lot of fun doing what we do; he's actually my hero.

"It's funny; on our one day off (Sundays) we end up talking about being at the restaurant. It's something that I'd never done before, but since I met Nolan I've done a lot of things that I'd never done before."

Growing up poor, one of seven boys in a small East Albany home, Nolan was too restless to stick with school. So he became the set-up man for the Chitwood thrill show at age 15 before talking his way into the action part of the performance. Pretty soon he was doing precision driving and motorcycle jumps.

A couple of years later he and Johnny Driskoll -- the "Crazy Hillbilly" -- started their own J&J Thrill Shows, traveling "wherever people would have us" in Georgia, Florida and Alabama. Nolan left for a job with the Flying Frenchmen thrill show out of Canada for six years before returning to the South and starting up his own "Mad Man Jerry Nolan: The Master of Disaster Thrill Shows."

That name proved prophetic during a show in Louisiana when "a 130-mph explosion went very wrong."

Nolan ended up with 13 broken bones -- hips, back, right leg, left foot, teeth, both hands, fingers -- and spent a year and a half recovering before he went "right back to it."

He eventually did bodyguard work that led to competitive fishing and finally the local outdoors show that bears his name.

"I look at the restaurant business the same way I do competitive fishing," Nolan said. "The fish didn't care if it was my lure or Bill Dance's or Roland Martin's or Tom Mann's. If it was presented to them in the right way, they were going to go after it.

"If I give my customers the right 'bait,' they're going to eat in my restaurant."

Strollin's Burgers & BBQ is open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and an hour later on Fridays and Saturdays. And while he and Miss Angie are planning for future menu additions, their plans do not include breakfasts or fish sandwiches, despite requests from customers.

"You've got two giants in Albany -- Pearly's and The Quickie -- serving breakfast on Slappey, so why would I want to do that?" he said. "And Long John Silver's is selling fish across the street. I plan to be a good neighbor, to learn from the people who do things right.

"Both Pearly Gates and Mike (Woodward) at The Quickie have come over and eaten with me, and I consider it an honor that they would try and help me get started. They're among the best at what they do, and they know there's room for all of us."

Woodward, who has owned the legendary Quickie since 2005, said any success for Strollin' is a win-win for neighboring restaurants.

"He's got his niche, and I've got mine, just like all the restaurants do," Woodward said. "There may be customers who come to his place that don't usually come to this side of town. New businesses bring new customers."

Some detractors say Nolan's latest venture is a step down for the man who has maintained his place in the spotlight through self-promotion and a down-home charisma that draws people to him. But ole Strollin's content to let them talk. He's had his time of doubt ... Now he's on to selling his latest product.

"Come on in," he says, "we've got room inside for 20 ... 40 if they're all in love."

Vintage Strollin'.