A Jack Coat's Experience
By John Hopman

 

Its been about thirty nine or so years ago that Jack Coats crossed my path. I will never forget it. I had been attending the Abbott Get Togethers in Colon Michigan since I was able to drive. This was my fifth visit and Paul Stadleman had his booth up selling his books etc. But, this year was different. Not only was Paul selling books but he had two or three vent figures for sale. I had met Paul before and he was instrumental in putting VentOrama together for the vents and aspiring vents.

I started to talk to Paul who was a very courteous gentleman and after a few minutes I asked him. Who made those beautiful dummies that he had on display. Let me stop right here and say Paul had price tags on these and they were a lot of money not that I didn't think they were worth it. At this Point Paul Stadleman pointed at a man standing there among a lot of people and said. That man right there is the one who made these. I left Paul and walked over to Jack and introduced myself. I of course was very complimentary and said someday I would like to own one but they were a little out of my budget. Hey Pardner he said, and I will never forget what he said after that. You don't have to pay those prices, let me carve one for you and it won't cost you near that much.

Well we hit it off. He invited me to lunch and a beverage and we talked and talked and I found out he did not live that far from me. I lived in Chatham Ontario about an hour from Detroit , Windsor and he lived near the Metropolitan Airport in Wayne Romulus County. That was about a two and a half hour drive but that's nothing when you are young. He gave me his address and phone number and when I got home I told my new wife about this encounter. She was happy for me since I had never had a custom figure of my own. I was at the time working with a Insull head, I made the body and that Character now sits in the home of Dan Willinger.

After a few months I called Jack and we set up an appointment. I had some black and white photos of the Insull figure and took them along to Jacks house. I told him I wanted a happy looking figure since I do a lot of kid shows and church work. No problem he said. He took me down to his shop in the basement and I was amazed at all the carving tools and even saw a few heads and bodies in the production stage. I ask a lot of questions and said. How do you get the paint to have the finish it does. Oh Pardner he replied, I use a concoction of everything from paint to ground up Kellogg corn flakes. I just laughed and did not know whether to believe him or not. I left after a while and was so excited to think I would have a custom figure that I could not sleep some nights.

A few months passed and I kept calling him on the phone. He was very gracious and said, Yup, he's almost done. Just need the wig to come in from a supplier that I thought he said was called Ja Cobee in Chicago. Then I got the call that he was ready. I gassed up the mustang and headed out like a kid the night before Christmas. I got to his place and we met in the living room. When he showed me the character my first reaction was, its not how I pictured he would look. I did not say anything and the figure started growing on me by the minutes. I handled him and he had all the features I wanted. Side to side self centering eyes. Two winkers, Beautiful slot mouth and wiggling ears. Jack now asked what are you going to call him. I said I will call him Leroy because in your shop downstairs I saw some documentation that said Leroy is your real name. He got a big smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. ( I knew he was pleased as punch) Let me point out that Jack talked me out of raising eyebrows and crossed eyes. Eyebrows can snap off and crossed eyes is a tricky thing. I like the way I do 'em without crossing the eyes.

I asked him if I could see the carving shop one more time. Oh yeah, Come on down. More figures were being carved, others in for repairs, and then I spotted something else. He had started making birds. I saw a yellow fur one with a big beak and said can I buy that. Well he is not quite finished. Some of the fur needs to be glued on and trimmed. I said, Hey I am in the floor covering business as a living and know how to do that. Ok, load up the bird. We settled up. At that time the Canadian and American money was at a pretty good rate of exchange and I paid him in U.S. funds. I wish I could tell you how much I paid but I can't. You see Jack had three girls or two I don't remember and it seemed like he treated me like the son he never had. In other words he give me a bargooooon.

Next year in Colon we met again. I would only stay a couple of days because my twin brother had a job where he had to back on weekends. We had a lot of fun with him doing his two note train whistle and who can every forget his baby cry. He would do it often using his coat and one time he threw the coat down on the floor and stomped on it and the baby cry stopped. Some people almost fainted when he did that. He was such a friend that I have a photo slide of him slipping me some money so I could stay a few extra days. I did not take his money and since I came with my brother I had to leave with my brother. This meant arriving on Wednesday and leaving Friday morning. It was on this second encounter that he sold ( almost gave) me a miniature head he had carved. Jack worked hard at a place that made auto parts in Detroit. I think it was called Kelsey Heyes or something like that. Jack would always get in his car and drive back home to Detriot and pick up his girls and return so his children could see the Saturday night show at Abbotts. Jack was really excited one year because Barclay Shaw was on the bill. The second year I took my figure Leroy and performed in the Ventoramma and won the Paul Stadleman trophy for Excellence in Ventriloquism. Paul Stadleman, Bill Boley, and Jack Coats were the Judges.

In retrospect I had not seen Jack before at these functions. There he was three years in a row and this man with the big moustache waxed at the ends and curled doing this wonderful vent and treating me like a son was ecstatic. Jack even found a place for my brother and I to sleep right in the village of Colon. Up until that time we slept in the car. This saved money for magic and vent stuff etc. The last year I met Jack in Colon was the time I asked him did you bring anything to sell. Well Pardner he replied, I got a couple of heads in the car. Just the heads no bodies. I said can I see them. He had a boy figure head. and a girl with a lot of features. He also went on to tell me that the Doctor had said his ticker as he called it was not in great shape. He mentioned on the sly that he might not be coming every year as he had. I went outside and he opened the trunk. I handled the heads and they were a must have. How much for the two of them. Once again he offered to part for these with so little money that when I paid him I said are you sure. Yup, If you want them they are yours. Little did I know that would be the last time I would see him. We did not have Internet, and all the things we have today for instant communication. I went back to Colon fully expecting to see my friend when I heard the news. He had passed a few months after our meeting the year before. Heart problem was the diagnosis.

Jack was a unique character. Had his own style and his own way at looking at vent stuff. I don't know his relationship with other carvers. He was good to me. In fact he was too good to me. I think about him often when he is mentioned in Vent columns etc. I admire my custom figure more and more each year. I appreciate him more and more each year. There is an old saying, When the student is ready the teacher will appear. In my case this wonderful friend and carver appeared.

John Hopman