Note: this article was previously published in the August 2011 issue of KC Stage Magazine (link no longer active).
I have to thank Terry Freeman-Hogan (the focus of my very first article for KC Stage Magazine back in July/August 1999) for introducing me to Jerry Vest, and the near-magical world of Have Guns Will Rent. I was stage managing a production of Moon Over Buffalo, and as those who are familiar with the plot know, you need two rapiers and a gun that actually fires. Terry knew this was the place to go.
You know the shop is going to be an adventure right away, whether it’s the suit of armor over the shop name or the cannon and/or guillotine placed out front. And the presence of his auto body/car repair shop in the back makes for an odd balance. But as you walk through the cluttered yet somehow still organized costumes on racks, or if you get a chance to look through the siege of weapons, you quickly learn the main reason Jerry is the man to go to.
“When people say, ‘Do you have something?’, I’d say, ‘No, when do you need it?'”, Jerry relates. “‘Well, I need it in three weeks.’ I’d say, ‘I can have it.'” As I have learned over the twelve years I’ve known him, he will do almost anything to get your business.
“Somebody in Kansas City wanted a shotgun that would shoot an umbrella or flowers at the end,” Jerry gives as example. “They were doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and I, you know, do a lot of weird shit with guns. I really do. But I was like, ‘Nah, I don’t have anything like that.’ I knew I might be able to make it, but I didn’t want to screw with it. And they called my wife, and said what they needed. And of course my wife says, ‘No, we don’t have one, but my husband can make one.'”
Jerry laughs, and continues, “I just told them no, you know? She says, ‘Well, you’ve got to do it, and you’ve got to have it done by Friday.’ I was like, ‘Oh, thanks!'”
His story of making the gun is almost a ‘behind the scenes’ DVD extra. “First of all, you gotta find a shotgun. And you’re taking a real gun — you can’t make it from scratch. And you got to make this thing work. It’s complicated. So, I take a real shotgun, and I totally tore out all the guts out of it, and I did all this weird shit to the shotgun, and I made this thing work. And it was pretty cool.”
This make-or-break attitude is actually at the beginning of his journey of becoming the owner of Have Guns Will Rent, despite (by his own admission) never having been in a theatrical production outside of church plays when he was a kid.
“I became a Civil War re-enactor, and I had an original uniform. I went to a Civil War event to join up with the Union army, and the guys laughed at me and said I was terrible because I was wearing an original piece. At that time, trying to come up with a reproduction uniform was pretty difficult and very expensive. So, I had a friend of mine come over and he said, ‘I’ll show you how to sew.’
“So, we sat down and I made my first shell jacket on my kitchen table. I said, ‘Hey, that was kind of fun.’ I enjoyed it. And then I started having orders for shell jackets. And I made a pair of pants, and I was wearing them. I had two dollars put in the materials, and I was down in Arkansas, and a guy said, ‘Jerry, those are the neatest pants I ever saw. I want to buy those pants.’ I said, ‘Well, they’re not for sale. It’s the first pair I ever made.’ Then he said, ‘I’ll give you fifty bucks.’ Well, I’m a cheap whore,” he remarks with a guilty laugh. “I said, ‘Fifty dollars?’ Then I thought, ‘Mmm — that’s $48 profit. That’s pretty good money for a night’s work watching TV.’ So I literally grabbed the $50, I took my billfold out, put it in my billfold, took the suspenders off the pants, took my pants off, and I walked away in my underwear.”
He stayed with just Civil War clothing (and rebuilt guns) for several years. He then expanded into medieval, getting suits of armor available to rent. When his bank asked if he had any nun costumes, he said yes, even though at the time he didn’t — “But I knew where to get them,” he divulges with a laugh. However, in order to buy from many costume outlets, you had to have a minimum order. So, he bought $1,000 worth of costumes. This, as they say, is just the beginning. He continued buying costumes, renting them out (his biggest month, of course, being October), using the auto body shop to make up the difference.
“It got to the point, though, it’s like a mental illness, and I definitely am affected,” he says with another laugh. It’s gotten to the point where he had to buy a second building about two years ago, which is now almost full (one room just weapons, one room just uniforms). He’s now looking at a third building as a result. “One of my friends laughed at me. They say, ‘You’re so successful, you’ll be bankrupt,” he continues. “It’s not uncommon for me to spend $5,000 or $10,000 and make $2,000 or $3,000.”
But Jerry isn’t just the proprietor of a costume/prop rental place. He has worked 16 of the 19 years that the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival has been going on, being security their second year.
“Even if I never go to another Shakespeare Festival, I am there everywhere,” he pronounces with pride. “I made every sign in that place. When you go in the front entryway, that’s a Cadillac hood that I cut out, and I bent them so they’d look like they were waving in the wind. That was like ten years ago, and they still look like they were brand new. So, if I never was at the Shakespeare Festival, I’m there every where you look.”
He also has been in (and provided costumes, makeup, and special effects) for a number of films, including Rambo III, Son of the Morning Star, and C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. He also has let his place in Platte City be used for filming by Wide Awake Films. (If you’re not easily offended, ask him sometime to have him show you the prosthetic penis he made as a joke for one movie that needed a groin injury.)
He talks about his working with Lee’s Summit South, and drama teacher Shayne Daniel, for the last few years. “You can see when a person is doing it for money or if they’re doing it because they love what they’re doing. And Shayne loves his kids. He loves it.”
The school won first place with his costumes in a KC-area competition, and then also won Missouri when it went to all state as well. “They’re right now in Nebraska, doing a world-wide competition, competing against Japan and Australia and Canada, and they’re using my costumes. And you know what? I’m not there, but I feel like I’m there. I feel like I’m in every single one of these shows. And it makes me proud.”
Even though Have Guns is a business, Jerry works with many groups more out of the love of helping them than in any hopes of making any money out of it.
“We’re pansies,” he says, talking about both him and his wife Linda who helps run the shop, both in terms of coordinating clients, like providing costumes for AMC Theatres for film premieres, as well as sewing some of the costume requests. “You know what? This is our passion. We love this.”
In this economy, Jerry has definitely felt the pinch. “I just read on the internet yesterday that costume shops are one of the ten businesses that are going down,” he says matter of fact. “They said there’s a 35% drop in costume sales, and that is true — to a point. You know, people aren’t going to buy stuff on the internet to go out and be entertained for one night.” So, he’s fairly confident that rentals will actually start going up — mainly because of the economy.
“It’s not always easy,” Jerry continues. “The body shop is suffering from it, and I know that. But my love is in the costumes. But if you want something, I will do it. If it’s feasibly possible, I will do that. It’s my passion.”
Jerry Vest’s Have Guns Will Rent shop is at 1313 State Avenue in Kansas City, Kan., and also online at www.havegunswillrent.com.