People have long gone to Hollywood to get into movies. Most never see a movie set.
Then there’s Jerry Vest. He opens an auto frame-straightening business in his old Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood and somehow — look behind the counter — that’s a picture of him in a movie with Patrick Swayze.
So, what is it about this 63-year-old guy with a car on the lift and three more waiting? How did he get in “North and South”? And “Far and Away” with Tom Cruise?
Meet him and things clear up. He cracks one-liners like Bob Hope. He used to hustle other kids out of their dads’ World War II medals, and when he tells that story he sounds like a Bowery Boy.
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Have him show you his casket. The one he plans to be buried in. He got a deal on it, keeps it in a cluttered storeroom.
“I rent it out, get $65,” he said on a recent day as he raised the lid. “Probably paid for twice. Not very comfortable, though.”
Jerry Vest is a walking, talking multiplex.
He was the bad boy in school but got the pretty, smart girl. There’s bullet holes in the walls of his business and he’s got a medieval torture chamber in the basement of a nearby building he rents. Rack, manacles and a chair with a crank that pushes, slowly, a wooden peg into the spine.
Upstairs in the main building is his gun room. Maybe a thousand muskets, rifles, pistols — walk up there and the first thing Vest does is hand you a machine gun that was used in “Saving Private Ryan.”
This part of the business at 1313 State Ave. is a costume shop called Have Guns Will Rent, a take on the old TV Western “Have Gun Will Travel.” Movie and stage producers anywhere in the country — New York, Hollywood, local — know Vest probably has anything they need. Spears, swords, bayonets, cannonballs, suits of armor, a B-17 bombsight, a 15th century boarding pike.
Bazooka? No problem. Which country? Which war?
Deborah Morgan, prop manager at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and formerly of the old Missouri Repertory Theater, knows whom to call when she needs weapons.
Not only will Vest have what she needs, he’ll tell her what she needs.
“I give him a date and he tells me what gun or what kind of sword or lance would have been used and then he shows me how to use it,” Morgan said. “He’s got all these varied interests, and that’s why his place looks like it does.
“I wanted to rent his guillotine once until I figured out how much it weighed. It’s a real guillotine.
“Jerry’s a character.”
Vest grew up in the working-class neighborhood and hates what drugs and crime have done. He walks around and keeps an eye on thing like a cross between a Catskills comedian and Almira Gulch, the busybody bicyclist in “The Wizard of Oz.”
But the story that could be the opening scene in a Jerry Vest biopic is the one where he sells his pants to a stranger.
It was at a Civil War event in Arkansas and a fellow there took a liking to Vest’s trousers and offered to buy them.
“They’re not for sale,” Vest said of the britches he’d made himself.
“Give you 50 bucks,” the man countered.
“Show me the money,” Vest said.
The man did and Vest unhooked his suspenders.
“I walked away in my underwear,” Vest said with a cackle. “But I had 50 bucks, and that was a lot of money back then.”
‘He was never boring’
Vest’s father was a meter reader and his mother waited tables and cleaned houses.
Times were hard in this working-class neighborhood of Kansas City, Kan., in the 1950s. He grew up working around the house because he had to, and then worked outside the house because he wanted to. He liked money.
He threw newspapers. He had a lemonade stand, but so did other kids, so Vest added a backyard magic show. And he sold candy bars at a markup.
One day a boy wanted a candy bar, but had no money.
“Well, I’m not giving you a candy bar,” Vest told him.
The boy went home and got one of his dad’s World War II medals. That will work, Vest told him. He ended up trading for a lot of medals in the neighborhood because nearly every kid had a dad in the war.
“Even got some army boots, and some German and Japanese stuff,” Vest said.
He was ornery, got in trouble and made terrible grades. At Wyandotte High School, he was voted most likely to go to prison. He’s kidding about that, probably.
“But I always made money,” he said.
And he met Linda. Folks were surprised she took up with him. She was the A student.
“He made me laugh and he was never boring,” Linda Vest said at the shop, where she works in the office.
They married as teenagers. That was 44 years ago, and they have three daughters and four grandchildren.
They started with the auto shop. Then came the costume business — he made the first ones himself at the kitchen table, and next came the gun rentals. Guns are constantly going out and coming back. All the guns have been rendered inoperative.
“My friends hate me because I destroy perfectly good guns,” Vest said.
At some point he got involved in a Civil War group commemorating Joseph Shelby’s 5th Missouri Cavalry. The horseback riding and guns are what led to his involvement in movies as well as the TV miniseries “North and South.”
He appears in “Rambo III”. In “Far and Away,” he mixed it up with Rance Howard, Ron Howard’s father. On horseback.
A big toy box
Directions to Vest’s business usually include the line, “It’s the building with the guillotine out front.”
Hard to miss. But if you should, look for a cannon near a sign that says, “No drug deals on this lot.”
Across the street at Mad Jack’s Fresh Fish, owner John Reed smiled at the mention of Vest. Oh, yes, Vest keeps an eye on the neighborhood. But the thing that most people don’t know about Vest, Reed said, is that beneath the hard crust is a kind soul.
“He keeps police informed of everything that goes on around here, but he’s also always helping people in the neighborhood,” Reed said. “He won’t tell you about all that.”
A recent day, Vest came in from the auto shop to the costume shop and apologized for grimy hands.
“But like I tell girls, ‘Don’t date a guy with clean hands — probably means he doesn’t have a job,’ ” Vest said.
His two dogs, Rhett and Ruger, bark every time the door opens. In this first part of the store, you can find pretty much any costume and mask you can think of. He only lets the Nazi uniforms and Klan robes be used in plays and reenactments. They most always go to Jewish groups and African-Americans.
Accessories? Sure, how about fake blood and fresh scabs?
Other parts of the business include the torture chamber, the gun room and a back room crammed with everything else. Highlights: Elvis stuff, a rib bone from a sloth bear, two shrunken heads and some locks of abolitionist John Brown’s hair.
The whole place is a big toy box, filled with the things that Jerry Vest finds fun and interesting, and he gets to play with them.
But don’t call him a lucky guy.
“I don’t think I’m lucky,” he said. “I work hard. Anybody could do what I do, but they’re too lazy.”
And he hope to keep doing it a long time. Like he said about that casket, his casket.
“I’m hoping it’s rusty by the time I have to climb in there.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182