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Leonardo of Leather

Nov./Dec. 2005 California Country magazine

Leather carver Bob Brown spent more than seven decades in artistic pursuits, and was lauded as the man who dressed Hollywood in leather.




 

It started as a typical September night. With a cup of his potent blend of cowboy coffee and potato chips close at hand, Bob Brown sat on his couch to watch some television.

He closed his eyes and never woke up.

The death of the 95-year-old marked the loss of a man who played an important role in an exciting time in California history.

From his mountain home in Big Bear City, San Bernardino County, the feisty and fiery Brown spun more stories than virtually anyone on the planet. His steely eyes, firm grip and attention to detail convinced all he came in contact with that he was on the level.

As with an artist's brush or a surgeon's scalpel, Brown's steady left hand, keen eyesight and creative mind earned him the title as perhaps the finest and most famous leather carver the world has ever known.

Brown spent more than seven decades in artistic pursuits, and was lauded as the man who dressed Hollywood in leather.

Friend to a plethora of American icons, Brown related with Einstein, drank coffee with John Wayne, dazzled Norman Rockwell, and befriended and provided invaluable aid to Hollywood's Rhett Butler, Robin Hood and Tarzan. Brown's Hollywood dance card was so full he even turned down the movie role of the beloved superhero the Lone Ranger.

His artistry started at the age of five, when he drew a colorful illustration of Noah's Ark. In college art school, he won a contest by designing a logo for Columbia Pictures. In fact, that image of a woman holding a torch has become one of the pillars of modern advertising. Brown also came up with a groundbreaking design for a Coca-Cola twelve pack.

On a stroll while looking for a place to rent in 1938, Brown found his next employer--the Hollywood Boot Makers on Hollywood boulevard. Crafting leather goods in their front window, he became a star attraction for passersby on Hollywood Boulevard.

"Nobody had clientele like I had, Brown said. "For 30 years, just about everybody of any consequence came by my shop and visited. Everybody used to stop, because it was interesting to watch me peck away at the leather. From my view on Hollywood Boulevard, I could look across the street, above a building, and see the Hollywood sign."

Bob found romance during the height of his career. Enchanted by a young lady working in the wardrobe department of Paramount Studios, Brown courted and married Julianna "Jolly" Adelia in 1945. Her colorful past included performing in the circus, from fancy horseback riding to having the iron will to be strapped to a spinning board while knives were hurled at her. Jolly died in 1999, though their 54-year marriage produced daughters Kathie Ann and Karen Lee, plus 14 grandchildren.

With his new bride and to keep up with demand, Brown opened his own store in 1947, Rangebusters Corral in North Hollywood.

Brown estimated he crafted at least 1,000 leather goods during his professional career. Smaller projects like belts took him as little as a day while his favorite piece, a half of a cowhide with an image of the Budweiser Clydesdale horses on it, took more than a year to complete.

Some of his most famous works included designing John Wayne's boots in the movie "Red River," tap shoes for Shirley Temple, Errol Flynn's outfit in "The Adventures of Robin Hood," putting the first taps on the shoes of Gene Kelly, Tyrone Power's gloves in "Mark of Zorro" and a decade's worth of silver outfits for Bill Boyd in the role of Hopalong Cassidy.

Other leather projects adorned Boris Karloff, Bing Crosby, Gregory Peck, Fred MacMurray, Yvonne De Carlo and Carmen Miranda.

He also designed 100 saddles, used by the Los Angeles Sheriff's Posse in the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade for nearly 20 years.

His colorful life included nearly two decades of service as a Sheriff's Deputy in Los Angeles County, where one of the people on his watch was actor Bela Lugosi, known worldwide for his role in the movie "Dracula." Lugosi in the 1950's suffered from drug addiction and voluntarily admitted himself to a state hospital for care, where he spent his final days.

"He died in my arms," Brown said.

Brown also was regularly assigned to watch Sirhan Sirhan, convicted assassin of Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

Born Robert E. Lee Brown in 1910, Brown came from a working class family. His father and grandfather were both involved in the oil industry.

Brown retired more than 30 years ago. His home is a virtual museum, filled with priceless, irreplaceable mementos that would make the Smithsonian Institution take note. One wall has a wand and handcuffs of magician Harry Houdini, a cutlass from one of Coronado's explorers searching for the Seven cities of Gold in 1635 and the riata or lasso of Pancho Villa, controversial figure of the Mexican revolution.

Another wall has one of the horseshoes of legendary Seabiscuit and the body of Billy the Kid's Remington 44-gauge pistol.

Leather crafting in America was most popular from the 1950's to 1980's, although it remains a passionate pursuit for thousands of Americans. Brown has taught hundreds of leather carvers.

"He was given a title by Norman Rockwell as the Leonardo of Leather," said friend Richard Hillberg, one of Brown's students and close friends. "He was that master. So if you think of what Leonardo Da Vinci did for painting, you think of Brown as the master of leather!"

Brown has a shelf filled with awards, the most prestigious from 2001, when the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum presented him with its Directors Award for Lifetime Achievement. Actor Dennis Weaver presented him the trophy and Brown's emotional acceptance speech garnered four standing ovations.

Today, the frenetic action and staccato sounds of gunplay and horse hooves on the open prairie that marked the early Westerns have gone silent, as Hollywood has shifted gears to mega budgets and computer generated special effects. Just before he passed away, Brown gave me a tour of his collection honoring a bygone era. Besides sharing with me his one-of-a-kind photos, memorabilia and memories, he expressed his gratitude to have had his moment in the spotlight.

"The Western movies that we knew will never be back," Brown said. "That era is gone. I feel so proud to have done what I've done in Hollywood."

Friends and family said Brown provided them with countless fond memories.

"He was a walking, talking, piece of the past and part of our heritage of the valley," said one of Brown's close friends, Mark Durban. "All of that is gone now. Brown was an icon of the past. Guys like him will never be replaced."

Brown's daughter Kathie said her father crafted a life-sized, highly detailed Old West town in their backyard in Monrovia, now home to part of the 210 Freeway. Brown cleaned and refurbished chicken coops and used other materials to craft a boardwalk, signs, hitching post, laundry, saloon, sheriff's office, telegraph office, blacksmith and general store. An ore cart and railroad tracks were used to fashion a faux mineshaft.

Brown's daughter said she holds perhaps Brown's last masterpiece, a 20-inch ornate woodcarving fashioned after the work of the Plains Indians. The dance horse stick featured feathers and a horse's hoof on one end and a horse head on the other.

"I cherish it and have it hanging in my house as a reminder of him," she said. "He was a super neat person and he was always there for his family."

Jim Morris is a reporter/photographer in Sacramento. He can be reached at info@californiacountry.org.


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