It didn’t matter if you were a millionaire, a movie star or a prom-goer who might be just a little nervous about entering a restaurant where Surf ‘N’ Turf can set you back $138 – plus 25 cents.
Peaches Knighton would greet you with hugs, kisses, and an exuberant “Welcome home, Bay-BEH!”– even if you’d never been to Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse.
Mrs. Knighton, 67, died at her South Shore home on New Year’s Day while watching one of her favorite movies, “Dirty Dancing.” “Her heart stopped,” said her daughter Antionette Spates.
For 25 years she worked the front coat check at Gibsons, selling cigarettes and lighting cigars as she schmoozed VIPS like Frank Sinatra, Jack Nicholson and the cast of “Ocean’s 12” with an ebullient, “Hey darlin’, gimme some sugar.”
“Johnny Depp loved her,” said Kathy O’Malley Piccone, a maitre d and managing partner at the restaurant.
She cracked up Chicago Bulls players with lines like, “Hey, I told you you were the one – I never said you were the only one!”
Often, Mrs. Knighton was the first employee patrons would encounter. “A restaurant is all about the staff,” said Gibsons co-owner Steve Lombardo. “You walked in the door and she was there to greet you. The sports guys asked for her.” Even after she retired a couple years ago, “Everybody asked for her.”
“She made people feel like they came home,” said O’Malley Piccone.
“She was a sharer of love,” said Roxanne Atkins, a spokesperson for Gibsons.
The only time Mrs. Knighton seemed a bit tongue-tied was when she spotted singer Smokey Robinson getting ready to hang his coat. “She let out a scream and fell backwards,” said O’Malley Piccone.
And when actor Sidney Poitier came to the restaurant, “She literally walked outside just to watch him walk across the street,” her daughter said.
A smooth singer, she even cut a couple of CDs. One was called “Simply Peaches” and she introduced it with a party at Ditka’s. At Gibsons, she’d often sit in with the piano player to sing “Summertime” and other standards. Once, she even serenaded Billy Joel.
Mrs. Knighton was one of Lombardo’s first hires. Before Gibsons, she’d worked as a cashier and waitress at the Playboy Club, Billy’s on Rush and the Beef ‘N Brandy.
“We hadn’t really started hiring yet but she had such a great personality,” Lombardo recalled. “I said, ‘You’re hired.’ ’’
“Peaches” grew up Norletta Beanland near 43rd and Indiana in Chicago. She attended St. Elizabeth’s grade school. Later, her family moved to 64th and Eberhart and she graduated from Englewood High School, where she excelled at math. Mrs. Knighton then took business and accounting courses at Central YMCA College and also studied tax preparation.
While greeting Gibsons patrons, she’d put in a plug for her business. “Lemme show you a good time,” she’d say, adding, “I’ll do your taxes, too, Bay-BEH!”
She had more than 500 tax clients. “They trusted her,” her daughter said. “She made sure they got the most for their money.”
Mrs. Knighton loved dolphins. “She said if she could come back as a dolphin, that was her favorite animal,” her daughter said, “because they were so smart.” At the zoo, she’d say, “I have to go to the dolphin show.”
She loved Disney movies, especially “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.”
“She was just a kid at heart,” her daughter said.
And Mrs. Knighton never tired of “Dirty Dancing.” She especially admired dancer Cynthia Rhodes, who played the lissome Penny in the film. She’d keep up a running commentary about Penny when she watched, her daughter said, saying “‘Look at her legs, the way she points her toes,’ and ‘Get it, girl!’ ”
At Gibsons, in addition to steaks, Mrs. Knighton adored the creamed spinach and carrot cake. She also liked Garrett’s popcorn – the Chicago mix – and Ferrero Rocher chocolate. For fragrance, she liked Cool Water.
Her brother Daryl died before her. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by her husband Michael Knighton; son Jerome Williams; brother Garner Beanland, six grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and a close friend, Diane Woodall.
A public viewing is scheduled 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday at A.A. Rayner & Sons Funeral Home, 318 E. 71st St. A wake is planned from 10 a.m. Friday until the start of an 11 a.m. funeral service at Rayner. Burial is at Mount Hope Cemetery.