Jack Coats
By Gary Koepke



Leroy Jack Coats was born in September 13, 1931 in Detroit, Michigan. He took an early interest in ventriloquism and when he was 10 years old and received a stuffed body Charlie McCarthy figure as a present. Jack was always inquisitive and mechanical and it didn't take long before he began work on adding a moving head with the head stick being made from the handle of his dad's hoe. As Jack used to say, "I used half of the handle to make Charlie's head move and dad used the other half to make sure I didn't cut up any more of his hoes!" Jack soon found work performing in the neighborhood for his friends and sometimes for parties and get-togethers the neighbors would have. He said, "I knew I had hit the big time when the neighbors were paying me a dollar a minute! That was great. Of course they would only use me for two to five minutes, but a dollar a minute..."

Jack's first good figure was a Turner figure he purchased from Abbott's Magic Company. He kept on performing, but also began trying to carve his own figures.

After serving time in the military, while looking for work, Jack began carving figures on a more serious level. Eventually he landed a job as a pattern maker for the Chrysler Corporation and continued to carve figures in the evening. With a carving schedule of 3 hours a night on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday and another 4 hours on Saturday, Jack Coats carved about 40 figures a year during the height of his carving career plus all the repairs and repaints that his shop generated. Jack's wife Pat did all the wigging and covered the animal figures with the material. Jack's clients during the late 60's and early 70's included Paul Stadleman, Jimmy Nelson, former Miss America Vonda Kay Van-Dyke, Bill DeMar, and many of the top vents in the business.

Not only was Jack an accomplished carver, but an excellent ventriloquist as well. In the late 60's, Jack had a local weekly television show in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his figure 'Homer'. When the show ended another ventriloquist wanted to buy his 'Homer' figure and Jack agreed to sell him. Jack repainted the figure and when the other vent came to pick up the figure, he invited him in. While Jack was in the other room, the vent walked out the door with 'Homer' without paying. Three years later while Jack was judging a junior ventriloquist contest a 13 year old walked out on stage with the figure and performed. The next day the teenage vent asked Coats to pose for a photograph and later ordered 3 other figures from him. Jack decided against telling the young vent about the stolen figure for a year and a half... and I was always glad that he gave me a chance to get to know him before breaking it to me! I'll never forget his performance of the baby cry in the middle of a crowded restaurant during a convention in Colon, Michigan or demonstrating his whistle in the bottle in his living room.

But I was most amazed by his carving. After gluing the basswood planks together, he could carve an entire head in 3 hours time! Then it would take about a week to install the mechanics. His early influence was obviously his first Turner figure. Eventually he began to incorporate more of a Marshall influence, although he maintained his own unique style. Jack said a lot of the Marshall influence and refining in his own figures came from his partnering with Paul Stadleman. In the late 1960's Paul sold Jack's figures along with the figures of Howie Olson. Jack's figures were called Essance Enterprise figures and were the deluxe wood carved figures in Paul's catalog. Essance was a shortened version of "S and C" which stood for Stadleman and Coats. Paul would bring different figures to Jack and allow him to "study" them.

After an evening of figure making, he'd retire upstairs and practice sleight-of-hand with coins while sitting on the floor in the living room and watch TV. He was an active member of IBM Ring 22, although had no intention of performing. Just a way to relax and something he could do for the boys at work.

There are a few examples of Coats figures in the Vent Haven museum. One of the figures, according to the records, is the first figure that Jack carved from wood. According to Jack it was his second... he said the first was resigned to a bon fire after being completed and painted, but not living up to its makerís expectations. (Jack's eldest daughter, Sharla, claims that she actually has the first figure he carved, but says it's "scary" looking) Jack spent years trying to talk W.S. Berger into doing the same to this little guy and promising to make him a new figure to replace it... Jack felt it was a bad example of his work and would hurt his business if anyone saw it. W.S. refused and I'm glad he did, as this is a wonderful example of Coats earliest works. The hand painted ping-pong ball eyes and crepe hair and the unmistakable influence of his Turner figure are a definite contrast to his later Marshall influences. Another figure in the collection is the blonde "Pretty Boy" figure owned by Pete Fauer. It was much closer to Jack's later style and actually influenced a figure I later had Jack carve for me. Lisa Sweasy sent me a photo of a partially completed head that was on Jack's work bench when he died that is also now in the collection.

The figure most often seen in photos with Jack was "Leroy" who looked like an Indian figure. "Leroy" was originally carved because Jack wanted to make a figure that looked like "Frank Byron", the Great Lester's figure. However the only photo Jack had was one showing "Frank Byron's" profile. Jack completed the figure and made a visit to Vent Haven to visit W.S. Berger and see the original Frank Byron. There is an article in "The Vent-O-Gram" newsletter from this time where W.S. mentions the visit and the good likeness. However, when Jack saw the original figure he was disappointed in his figure and sold "Leroy"... the profile being exact, but the frontal view significantly different. Another figure sometimes seen in the photos of Jack and "Leroy" is "Barney" the bird sitting on a stool. This was the proto-type for Jack's bird figures. He made many kinds of birds... crows, ducks, penguins, parrots, etc. At first they were short and squat and latter he enlarged the bodies to make them taller. All had carved heads and beaks and wood and cloth bodies and were covered with fake fur. They came in multiple colors. Later Bill Boley started making his "Crazy Birds" which had celastic heads with wooden beaks and were the size of Jack's larger birds. Bill told me that he had heard that Jack wasn't too happy with him for making his bird figures, but Jack never mentioned that to me. Later Maher studios began selling Bill's bird and later came out with a smaller bird called, I believe, the "mini-crazy bird." The most elaborate of Jack's birds was made for Jacki Jacobs of Wisconsin. This bird had moving eyes and leather winkers. A very nice figure and the second to last bird that Jack carved. At his passing I went through countless patterns that Jack had made for various figures. Drunken characters, country characters, a pattern for an Ed Sullivan character, a witch, baby figures, small figures, novelty items, etc. Even another personal figure that was never built. Jack died without having a figure of his own. And notebooks full of ideas never realized.

Jack was certainly my biggest influence in the field of ventriloquism and certainly one of the best figure makers I've ever known. Bill Boley gave me several pages of sketches Jack had drawn for him on how to carve and install various movements. And several of today's best figure makers have commented to me on Jack's influence in their work. Ray Guyll actually purchased a figure from Jack in 1969 and corresponded with him. Some of Ray's early figures bare a similar style. Tim Selberg, another Michigan vent and figure maker, has mentioned Jack as one of his early inspirations as well. And Joel Leder as a teenager built his first figure after he had talked with Jack about building an alien figure that he had sketched, but Jack passed away before Joel had a chance to order it.

Jack was an accomplished sleight of hand artist, a musician, an artist, and on his way to his pilotís license when he passed away in his sleep during July of 1973 just prior to his 42nd birthday. He left behind a 31 year old wife, three daughters, and a multitude of characters, which are treasured by ventriloquists around the world.

 

 

Jack Coats first carved ventriloquist dummy figure Jack Coats with his dummies Early Ray Guyll with his Jack Coats ventriloquist dummy figure Hart Throb
 

 

Gary Koepke and his ventriloquist dummy figures Jack Coats article about his carving of ventriloquist dummy figures
 
Contact Gary Koepke

chatterbox412001@yahoo.com