‘Kung Fu’ TV Star Celebrates 25 Years as a One-Man Home-Tech Integrator
'Kung Fu'’s Radames Pera, aka the Grasshopper, adheres to personal service mantra for star clients like Johnny Depp as he takes his customer integration company to four cities over 25 years.
Credit: Ken West
Many integrators are accustomed to serving Hollywood stars as part of their clientele, but there is at least one custom integrator who is a former star himself. Radames Pera, who starred in role of Kwai Chang Caine, aka “Grasshopper,” in the classic TV show Kung Fu starring David Carradine from 1972-75, has been part of the industry for 26 years as owner and operator of his own one-man custom installation company.
In the TV show, the bald young Grasshopper was taught lessons of the world by Master Po. Today, it’s Grasshopper himself who is doling out the lessons to other one-man custom integration companies, from juggling cash flow to offering personalized service to clients.
His experiences are not any different from most small custom integrators, including losing jobs due to clients’ fears of using a small company, the inability to take on large projects that require upfront cash outlays, and the perennial lack of name recognition. But the tradeoff of being your own boss and the stress-free nature of not having any employees is worth it to Pera. Besides, along the way the former child star has become a “star serving the stars” with a client base that includes Johnny Depp, Sharon Stone, Nicolas Cage and, ironically, martial arts master Chuck Norris (who had no idea of Pera’s common martial arts roots from his Kung Fu days).
After a quarter century in custom installation, it’s funny that the former Hollywood actor says the anonymity of the industry is still its biggest problem. But that hasn’t stopped him from forming three separate one-man custom installation companies in four different cities over the years, and migrating his business from simple A/V setups to sophisticated IT and control.
Kung Fu Comes Calling
Radames Pera's acting career reads like a who’s who of Hollywood. His late mother was an actress trying to land a role in “a gritty-yet-sentimental drama” starting legendary actor Anthony Quinn.
“I met the director, Daniel Mann, after disobeying my mom’s orders to hide from sight while she threw a dinner party for some Hollywood friends, including the director whom she had just met,” Pera recalls. “I must have charmed him, since he asked my mom to bring me down to the studio as he thought I looked much like his vision for Quinn’s dying son in the movie [A Dream of Kings]. Surprised, she agreed, which was followed by a screen test and then 11 weeks of production.”
That role led to a part in an episode of Medical Center opposite … OJ Simpson. During that filming, Pera met Academy Award nominated actress Cicely Tyson and they subsequently became lifelong friends. It began the pattern of making connections in Hollywood that would serve him well for his custom installation career that followed.
“I was still in 6th grade when I was cast to play the young Kwai Chang Caine. It was a long shot by Warner Brothers, this ‘Movie of the Week’ about a half-Chinese Shaolin monk who flees to the Wild West U.S. in search of his full-blooded anglo brother. But it worked, and a unique ‘pilot series’ evolved from it.”
Pera had his head shaved on-camera, in the script, so he had to return to public school with a wig “that lasted about two hours before the school bully chased me down and plucked it off,” he says. “It was [name calling like] ‘skeeball’ and ‘8-ball’ and ‘cancer boy’ and ‘lice boy’ after that for the next three years,” he recalls. Ultimately, Kung Fu was in production for four years, spanning the ages of 11 through 14 for Pera.
Custom Installation Comes Calling
So how does somebody go from acting to becoming a custom installer? After spending his teen years in Hollywood (see sidebar on page 32), Pera turned to his second interest: hi-fi gear. He had always enjoyed stereo equipment since his mom bought a pair of JBL-100 speakers, a Garrard turntable and a Pioneer QX-949 receiver back in the ’70s. Pera discovered he had a proclivity for the equipment and he started keeping track of audio innovations. After the acting gig ran dry, which happens for 99 percent of all child actors, Pera landed a job at a major movie studio doing engineering work and eventually doing post-production video editing for companies around Los Angeles. He also started helping friends create great sound systems in their homes.
He suddenly realized there was a business in this and by 1988 he had formed his own custom installation company called All Systems Go! He plied his services at local videocassette repair shops and various discount A/V stores in the L.A. area. Soon, salespeople in those stores were referring customers to him.
“One day they told me I was making them look bad because I charged too little. They were getting $50 an hour (this was back in 1989) and I was only charging $25,” he says. “I was surprised and pleased, and still on a learning curve — I instantly went up to $35, then $50, and no customer batted an eye! Suddenly I was supporting myself and my wife at the time.”
Before you know it, Pera had Depp, Cage, Stone, Dwight Yoakam and others as repeat clients. He says he also worked for a few Hollywood producers and directors of note.
“I think because I was steeped in ‘The Biz,’ these notables felt comfortable with me. I was in fact an insider of sorts, and they trusted me with their privacy — a highly sought after commodity in their line of work. I went on to do multiple homes for Depp and Cage, and word-of-mouth spread as I did homes for the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, Ben Stiller and Chuck Norris. So the background certainly helped,” he says.
Time to Move ... Again and Again
By 1993, Pera says he’d had enough of L.A. and the “intense congestion, pushy, cheating a-holes and unaffordable housing,” and he decided to move his family to Portland, Ore.
Having a pedigree track record under his belt doing custom installation helped Pera get in good with two major A/V retailers, Magnolia Hi-Fi being one of them. Soon, the Beaverton store “enjoyed recommending Grasshopper to its customers; plus I did fabulous work, and this kept the business flowing.” Pera says his clientele included three houses for Phil Knight, CEO of Nike, and eventually many other Nike executives. He also branched into doing restaurant installations.
After nine years in the rainy Pacific Northwest, Pera moved back to Ventura, Calif., and re-created All Systems Go! for a third time.
“There, I got in with Volutone at their headquarters in Simi Valley and also served several of my old L.A. clients who were happy I was ‘back,’” he adds. But soon, the old days of long freeway commutes began haunting him again so Pera packed up and fled to Austin, Texas.
The problem there was that the city’s mass transit light-rail advertising campaign was already using the phrase “All Systems Go!,” so to avoid confusion, Pera changed the name of his one-man shop to Get It Wired.
“Things got rolling rather smoothly after about a year or so, same timeline as the other two cities I started over in, and I prospered there for the better part of eight years,” he says. “Similar to the wave of economic activity I luckily rode in both Portland and Ventura, Austin was going through a similar thing and my timing was perfect. I was able to use AVAD there as well, since they had expanded from California to Texas, and the well-run Wave Electronics, and that made for a smoother transition since these places promoted themselves as being ‘your warehouse’ to mid-level guys like me.”
Jason has covered low-voltage electronics as an editor since 1990. He joined EH Publishing in 2000, and before that served as publisher and editor of Security Sales, a leading magazine for the security industry. He served as chairman of the Security Industry Association’s Education Committee from 2000-2004 and sat on the board of that association from 1998-2002. He is also a former board member of the Alarm Industry Research and Educational Foundation. He is currently a member of the CEDIA Education Action Team for Electronic Systems Business. Jason graduated from the University of Southern California. Have a suggestion or a topic you want to read more about? Email Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org
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