When Gabriel Puccio walks through his front door at 4 p.m. every day, the ritual is always the same.
“Hello, Elvis! Hello, Fats! Hello, Ernie!”
Does Puccio live in the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame?
The modest brick home in River Ridge is just that to Puccio: a hall of fame; a shrine to the faces and voices of a long-ago decade.
“I’m obsessed,” the 68-year-old construction company courier said. “It started out as a hobby and before I knew it I was hooked. Obsessed is a good way of putting it.”
Puccio is hooked on the 1950s. Records, album covers, movie posters, framed photos and memorabilia of every stripe cover the walls of his home.
Everywhere you look, there are reminders that you have entered a time warp, where the pages of the calendar stopped turning on Dec. 31, 1959.
“I was born in Sicily,” Puccio said. “My father brought the entire family over in 1957. That’s what I remember most: listening to rock ‘n’ roll on the radio back then and watching television, things like ’77 Sunset Strip’ and ‘Peter Gunn.’ “I grew up in the French Quarter, and I’d sit in front of the radio and listen to Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Ernie K-Doe. My whole life seemed to begin and end at that time. It was everything I was comfortable with and came to love. Today’s music or television? I don’t care a bit for it.”
When he leaves for work at 7 a.m., Puccio never walks out the way the rest of the world would. “I back out the door every morning,” he said. “As I’m backing out, I tell all my friends goodbye and ‘Have a nice day.’ I don’t ever want to turn my back on them.”
And always in the background there is a 55-inch TV screen dishing out the image and the lyrics of tunes by a special favorite, Fats Domino, captured at some past New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest. Certain phrases of this or that Fats classic hit home with Puccio, and he closed his eyes and tilted his head momentarily to listen.
From Fats, the conversation turned to Annette Funicello and the “Beach Blanket” Disney movies of way back when. Then it was on to Fess Parker, beloved star of the TV series “Davy Crockett.” Puccio reached over to a table and came up with the coonskin hat with tail that all the kids were wearing back in the 1950s.
Nearby was a plastic maroon vacuum tube Admiral radio, the kind New Orleans teenagers kept their ears glued to back in the 1950s when WTIX-AM disc jockies spun “stacks of wax…from high atop the Cigali Building” at Canal and Camp streets.
Puccio pointed out the guitars leaning against various walls of his house.
“I don’t play any musical instruments,” he said. “I use the guitars to collect autographs on. This one’s autographed by Charlie Gracie,” he said, pointing to the signature of the 1950s rocker whose biggest hit was “Butterfly.”
Puccio pulls out a striped shirt bearing the autograph of Chubby Checker.
Puccio is a relative newcomer to River Ridge, having lived in Chalmette until 2005 when Hurricane Katrina brought 20 feet of water into his home. He was rescued by boat and spent three days in the Maravich Center in Baton Rouge before being evacuated.
His voice trailed off when he talked about “losing almost everything I had built a lifetime collecting. Katrina just about wiped me out. Record, jackets, autographs … almost everything.”
But Gabriel Puccio was not about to let a catastrophic hurricane and its subsequent flooding get the best of him or his fantasy friends.
Before the floodwaters had subsided, he was back in action, collecting records, albums and autographs like a man possessed.
The restoration continues. Puccio led a visitor to his kitchen where stacks of Fats Domino records lay in a stained heap.
“I carefully wash each one of them with water,” he said. “I dry them with a soft cloth. I don’t want to clean off the labels because they might come off. Here, look at this one, it’s almost new again.”
Puccio’s bulky body was moving around the little house like that of a prima ballerina as he pointed out facts behind this poster and that Elvis belt buckle and that Kitty Wells poster in the “Country and Western” section of the house.
Did you know that one-time teen heartthrob Jimmy Clanton of Baton Rouge is now a preacher in Houston?
Or that Puccio led the charge with former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard to open the ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ Hall of Fame in Rivertown in Kenner? (“Katrina wiped those plans out,” he said with disgust.)
Puccio barely caught his breath before he was explaining how he used to load up on records and just about anything that would hold an autograph, pack them in a “brown Schwegmann’s bag” and follow the stars around till he was on a first-name basis with many of them.
“At first it would be, ‘Here comes the guy who collects stuff,’” Puccio said. “But then we got to know each other and they’d wave and call me by my first name.” Puccio pulls out an airline-type bag and winks and lets on to how he got rid of those old Schwegmann’s bags long ago.
“I guess you could say this is my life’s work,” Puccio said.
“I don’t play golf. And my collection is far, far more than just a hobby. It’s my life. People ask me sometimes, that since I’m divorced and live alone, ‘Don’t I get lonely?’ How can I get lonely? I have a house full of friends.”