Meet Jerry Vest: costume shop owner / set designer / pyrotechnician

Jerry Vest is still upset that someone ran over his guillotine.

A rolling gun battle last year along State Avenue crashed into the window of Vest’s Kansas City, Kan. costume shop, damaging the decorative executional device a friend had made for him.

The window and guillotine have since been repaired, and in the front lot a covered wagon Vest recently spent three weeks building is parked next to a wheeled cannon and some kind of spaceship. A suit of armor stands guard over the door to his business, Have Guns, Will Rent.

Upon entering the store, which Jerry has run with his wife, Linda, for the past 15 years, you’ll see a dazzling variety of wigs, capes, plastic weapons, pre-fab costumes, hats, sunglasses and trinkets. The back room abuts their auto repair business, and in the basement are boxes containing masks, costumes and mascots of every species and feather. Vest has enough elf costumes to outfit the entire North Pole, and if you see a demonic Easter Bunny at large in Kansas City anytime soon, well, you can guess where it came from.

Vest got his start in costuming after being scolded by Civil War enthusiasts for wearing actual uniforms. When somebody at a Civil War convention in Arkansas admired the striped officer’s pants Vest had sewn for the occasion, he offered to buy them. Vest told the man they weren’t for sale, but a generous offer made him reconsider.

“When he pulled out fifty dollars I took my pants off on the spot and walked away in my underwear,” Vest said. “People probably thought I was crazy, but that was a lot of money at the time.”

Vest has since done costume and set designs for dozens of stage productions, films and reenactments each year, as well as makeup and pyrotechnics. He is also an active member of the Kansas City Kansas Shareholders, which supports economic and artistic growth in Kansas City, Kan.

‘A lot of weird stuff’

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Photo by Jennifer Wetzel

Don’t let the menacing appearance of these machine guns fool you — all the barrels are drilled with holes and plugged with lead, and Vest even uses some of them as props for one of his hunter safety demonstrations.

When it comes to prop weaponry, Have Guns has enough firearms to arm a substantial militia, from German machine guns to rare Revolutionary War pistols. An avid collector and occasional historical lecturer, Vest has also compiled a collection of replicas of the rifles, revolvers and derringers used to assassinate the presidents. The guns are all deactivated, of course, with a notable exception — the rifle Vest created for a production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” that bursts out in a plume of flowers when you squeeze the trigger.

A glass display case contains some of Vest’s more unusual and valued finds including a dart gun used by Vietnamese fighters, Zulu spearheads, ancient jewelry, and a mastodon tusk sold to him by an ex-con Vest said used to treasure hunt in the Kaw river bed because he couldn’t hold a job.

The contents of a second building resembles a treasury of artifacts from plundered civilizations. Statues and props from a recently acquired collection sit next to vintage sets found and built by Vest, including Auntie Em’s house from “The Wizard of Oz,” a steamship, a massive volcano, a replica of the Eiffel Tower, and “the most beautiful jungle you ever saw.”

“It’s a lot of weird stuff, but we’ll be cleaning it up and organizing,” Vest said.

Strippers, dragons and country music

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Photo by Jennifer Wetzel

An oversized golf ball, witch, soccer player and centurion are perfectly at home in Vest’s collection.

The unusual nature of his inventory also reflects the diverse requests of Vest’s clients. He recently made a tear-away police officer’s uniform for a male stripper, and ruined several good swords constructing a mangled weapon carried by Don Quixote after he lost the battle with the windmills. He has also rented out Nazi officer uniforms, but only for plays and historical enactments.

“Believe it or not, the Jewish Community Center rents Nazi uniforms a lot,” Vest said. “The only people who have ever rented my Klan uniforms are black people.”

Next week, a young, white musician plans to rent a coffin from the shop to dramatize his departure from hip-hop performer to country musician.

“He cut his hair, and he’s going to get in there and show that’s he’s dead,” Vest explained. “He’s going to put a bullet on his head, and then he’s going into country music,” Vest explained.

A group in need of a Chinese dragon costume recently called stores all over town before learning that Vest has five of them. “And if I don’t have it, I’ll find it or make it,” he said.

But don’t worry — given the extensive nature of Vest’s collection and the apparent boundlessness of his creativity, he probably has it.

(Photo by Jennifer Wetzel. This story originally appeared on March 25, 2010 in KCFreePress.com)