Buffalo's Master Hatter Gets Customers Worldwide

fromWBFO

Hat maker Gary White's eye for detail and historical accuracy have landed his hats in movies, TV and Broadway shows. His shop is the last standing business on its block in Buffalo, N.Y., a largely-abandoned area with high levels of crime and poverty. Despite his success and offers to move his shop to Las Vegas, he refuses leave.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

They don't make hats like they used to. They're mostly mass-produced in factories. The days of the neighborhood hat maker are pretty much gone. But one master hatter in Buffalo, New York is holding out, even as his hats have fallen out of style and his neighborhood has declined.

Daniel Robison of member station WNED paid his a visit and reports you may find some of these hats familiar.

Mr. GARY WHITE (Hat Maker): They're right here. So what happened here is that he sends me a CD of the video.

DANIEL ROBISON: This order came from a guy in Southern Korea. He wants a hat just like Warren Beatty wears during one scene in "Bonnie and Clyde." So he sent a DVD addressed to the Custom Hatter.

Mr. WHITE: It's coming up. You'll see it right here. She says: Hey, boy. What are you doing there?

(Soundbite of movie, "Bonnie and Clyde")

Ms. FAYE DUNAWAY (Actor): (as Bonnie) Hey, boy. What you doing with my mama's car?

Mr. WHITE: That's a felt hat. You can tell by the edging on it, by the width of brim, by the height of the crown.

ROBISON: This is usually how it works. From a movie scene, a picture or even a crude description, Gary White crafts Capones, pork pies and godfathers.

Mr. WHITE: Where the other guys will say, yeah, we made a fedora. Well, anybody can make a fedora. Make a riverboat gambler. Do a Le Mans. Do an old Robin Hood style. And then they look at you like you're crazy. Well, who wears those? That's not the point. If you're a hat maker, you should be able to do all that stuff.

ROBINSON: To begin, White grabs a floppy piece of felt made of animal fur and fits it over a head-shaped wooden block. He straps that into a chrome machine that looks like an upside-down octopus.

(Soundbite of cranking)

Mr. WHITE: This machine here is going to be 100 years old, and I still manage to have it so I can be period-accurate.

ROBISON: His studio is like a working time capsule. There's not a computer in the place. He does have a website, but to order, you must call his telephone, send a letter or drop in. And his shop has a nice source of free advertising.

Mr. WHITE: Then as you come back here, you see some of the famous actors that I've worked with on display.

ROBISON: Signed pictures and personal letters from Leonardo DiCaprio, Gene Hackman and hundreds of other celebrities plaster the walls. White's hats have starred in Broadway musicals, TV shows and movies, like Dick Tracy to Indiana Jones.

(Soundbite of movie, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade")

Mr. HARRISON FORD (Actor): (As Indiana Jones) What do you think is going on here? Since I met you, I've nearly been incinerated, drowned, shot at and chopped into fish bait.

ROBISON: When White opened the shop 30 years ago, his hats were in style and the street was a commercial hub. Now, it's the poorest neighborhood in Buffalo. The $500 or more White can charge for a hat doesn't translate into much walk-in business. And to most people, hat now means baseball cap. So instead of selling many new riverboat gamblers or three-point diamonds to the neighborhood, White does repairs.

Mr. WHITE: Come on in, James Friday. It's OK. It's all right. I know you're anxious to get it.

ROBISON: James Friday bought a snap-brim, brown fedora from a catalog. But he needs it smaller, with a pink ribbon and a feather. Now, White explains every new stitch.

Mr. WHITE: If you go bigger on this particular felt, you're going to split it in the back.

Mr. JAMES FRIDAY: OK.

ROBISON: Over the years, White's had plenty of offers to move his shop out of state. So far, loyalty to his childhood neighborhood has won out.

Mr. WHITE: I can't guarantee it. There's no guarantees. I may just decide to say, hey, you know what? It's time for me to be in a casino in Las Vegas, you know. But not right yet.

ROBISON: White knows time has mostly left his neighborhood and his craft behind. But he says he's proven an artisan can succeed these days by doing just about everything but reacting to change.

For NPR News, I'm Daniel Robison, in Buffalo.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLY: This is NPR News.

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