Midtown: Community

North Hills getting its 15 minutes

When salesman Frank Lewis got to work at Varsity Men’s Wear in North Hills on March 14, he noticed some new fixtures.

That was odd, he thought. Owner Harry Pollock was set to retire in less than a month, and the store would close for good after nearly 50 years as a Raleigh fashion icon. But Pollock told Lewis that he had spruced up a bit for a television commercial to advertise the store’s retirement sale.

Great idea, Lewis recalls thinking.

And he didn’t think twice when his first customer of the day was an older gentleman, a man he guessed to be in his 70s. The man said his wife had died recently and he was shopping for a suit for her funeral.

“I’m so sorry,” Lewis recalls telling the man, as he has with many widowers over the years. “I hate you lost your wife.”

Little did Lewis know, Hollywood had stopped by. The customer-in-mourning actually was Johnny Knoxville, a co-creator and cast member of the MTV series “Jackass.”

Knoxville and a 60-person film crew for Paramount Pictures chose Varsity and the streets of North Hills to shoot a scene for an Artcraft Productions Inc. feature film under the pseudo-moniker, “A Dog Named Suki.” In it, Knoxville – in prosthetic makeup that takes three hours to apply – plays a grandfather who is traveling the country with his young grandson.

Because it’s all top secret until its planned release next year, it was tough to confirm, but word is the movie also has been mentioned as “Jackass 4: Bad Grandpa.”

North Hills in spotlight

And that’s not the only Midtown surprise.

Albeit a bit hush-hush, three local businesses in North Hills commanded a national spotlight in March.

Maybe you saw Coquette Brasserie’s TV debut on the April 4 episode of Food Network’s “Chef Wanted with Anne Burrell.”

In a few weeks, the Animal Planet’s reality show “Tanked” will feature a unique centerpiece aquarium that the show’s stars designed and built for The Cowfish, which opens Monday in the North Hills Expansion. The restaurant, co-owned by Raleigh native Marcus Hall and Alan Springate, features burgers, sushi and its signature burgushi.

Although the owners, bound and gagged by network waivers, can’t share the experience just yet, my eyes say the centerpiece aquarium unveiled to them March 24 is a showstopper.

Prank revealed

Over at Varsity Men’s Wear, Lewis knew nothing until after “Victor” supposedly fell asleep twice, awakened in an erratic fog and bolted from the store – still wearing the suit – twice. Of course, Lewis chased him – twice.

After the second time, Lewis was stopped and the prank revealed. Not only was his customer an actor, so were the people standing idly by the frantic chase. The new fixtures were hidden cameras. And the real reason he couldn’t go out the back door wasn’t because of live wires for work being done upstairs, but because a crew 30-deep was in the back, watching everything.

“Harry did a good job of camouflaging it for us,” said Lewis, 64. “I fell for it hook, line and sinker. It’s one of those things you can tell you grandkids.”

For Pollock, 66, Varsity’s owner who worked his way from part-time salesmen to sole owner over the past 44 years, it all means retiring with Hollywood on his heels.

“It was all kinds of exciting,” said Pollock, who steered clear of the scene because, well, he knew too much.

‘Environment of talent’

It’s exciting for Raleigh and Midtown, too.

“It’s reflective of where we’re going as a community,” said James Sauls, director of Raleigh Economic Development. “We’re looking to attract creative, energetic, tech-based people to Raleigh.”

Pop-calls from Hollywood offer a broad highlight of what’s here.

“It creates an environment of talent the people we’re trying to attract are looking for in a community,” Sauls said. “It allows us to go after the industries we are trying to recruit because they, too, want that type of talent.”

Perhaps Hollywood admires North Hills’ mix of suburban, tree-lined streets and urban expansion of living, dining, business and entertainment, said Patrice Gist Bethea, North Hills’ marketing manager.

“When these things come to life on television, we hope it tells the story of North Hills, and our local community of merchants and residents who live and shop and dine and come to enjoy beach music here,” Bethea added. “We like that kind of energy. It’s engaging. It’s exciting.”