Post 1: Paris Theodore and his Seventrees
Updated: Jun 15
I'll admit to a constructive obsession with Paris Theodore. He was not the most popular chap with his peer group yet, nor did we ever meet. But how is 'popular' a requirement to be a genius gunleather designer/maker?
There is a misconception that Paris was Chic Gaylord's protege because they both made similar product lines, and in NYC, using the same 'school' of design and construction that Chic devised. We can find no evidence of that -- and we have a LOT of evidence including a treasure trove of documentation from Paris' company called Seventrees Ltd.
This 'obsession' for me, was all about the designs and not about the man himself. By the time I'd apprenticed myself to John Bianchi in 1970 I was already enamored first of Chic's work, then of Paris'. That's because I lived all over the world with my parents from 1950 and in 1966, returning to one of the strangest 'countries' I'd ever lived in, Oakland California (watch Dirty Harry that is set in San Francisco on the same bay and just a few years later) I attended the local library at 16 and encountered Chic's book titled 'Handgunners Guide' (c) 1960. Wow. Holsters that were nothing like the clunky Myres and Lawrence holsters that I'd been introduced to along with firearms in 1963. Very James Bond and I'd just returned from two years living in London and the land of The Beatles, James Bond, Twiggy, etc.
By '68 I was enrolled in the local community college's Police Sciences program, objective: uniformed officer. Totally unsuited to the role! Which I learned being a uniformed, armed Security Officer carrying, alternately, a Colt Shooting Master, a Colt 1911, a Luger (!) all borrowed from a local NRA member; a new S&W M58 in the nearly new 41 Magnum; and the creme de la creme, a new Colt Trooper MkIII. Alas the latter did not improve my humble scores on the PPC one whit over the much larger Shooting Master.
Anyway, having conned . . . err, persuaded John Bianchi that he should hire me at his Los Angeles area business, I worked my way up into his R&D department by simply failing to go home at the end of every day and instead hanging around with his design engineer John Michler. Prior occupants of the job had been Bruce Nelson and Gordon Davis, who is less well-known than Bruce but in fact created all of Neale Perkins' gunleather range to replace John Bianchi's Safari Ltd. line (Neale and John were partners in that; another story for another time). And despite having been taken under the wing of JB, as we all called him because there were so many 'Johns' there including his young son we called JR, it was Paris' styling and construction that intrigued me more than JB's. JB was very much from the Western School and fascinated with the Old West; but I was a Child of Bond instead. Being about the same age, Bruce Nelson was similarly enamored of Paris' methods and all his designs -- the Summer Special and the No.1 Professional were copies of Paris' holsters (the latter being melded with one of E.E. Clark's crossdraws).
For my part, then, I created the holster designs that are the standard today, such as the Askins Avenger and the Pistol Pocket. The Avenger was designed to counter Roy Baker's 'pancake' style and it is much-copied. No, it's not a compliment to be 'much copied'.
The Eastern School itself was really created by someone really who didn't know a damned thing about gunleather or its design and construction. Chic Gaylord. He was a publicist and illustrator by trade.
And that is why the New York School is so different from the Western School: because Chic did not understand the purposes of the thick leather welts inside the main seam, and also because he chose to rely on the relatively thin horsehide for his holster; vs. cowhide that is available, then and now, in a variety of thicknesses, he then had to come up with another method. Indeed he referred to 'welts' as 'dividers', which they most certainly are not.
What happens when one doesn't use welts and uses very thin leathers? The pistols fall out of designs like the Threepersons. Which Elmer Keith's big 44s did, especially, from his own Gaylord holsters! So Chic refined his methods to include the wide-set double stitch lines of his main seams and even added a rivet at the top to 'clinch' the leather tightly against the pistol frames. It was Chic who first used heavy nylon cord to stitch his holsters; his shop was in the garment district of NYC and his 'other foot' was in the New York stage production biz. He made Mary Martin's harness for her flying scenes in Peter Pan! And this is how the connection with Paris Theodore was made: his mother was the then-famous Mary Martin's dance instructor. And Paris' wife was a member of his mother's dance troupe; and she then choreographed parts of West Side Story, the film.
So we have an expectation, because of two bits of knowledge, that Paris' mother was, or was meant to be, Chic's financial backer. Or her family. Because it is said in articles about Chic that he would not permit Paris' name to be spoken in his presence. And he went out of business at the very moment that Seventrees launched in 1968. Is there another explanation? Sure could be but I was unable to get Chic's longtime friend Lefty Lewis, holster entrepreneur, to share in that regard as recently as last year.
Paris had a plan. But it wasn't a very good one. His media blitz in two popular gun magazines in 1968 was actually launched by his business partners -- who were the articles' writers! His catalog was designed by another writer, and his celebrated ASP pistol was made by yet another writer, and even Jeff Cooper and Skeeter Skelton were part of the team. Incredible that we all didn't know any of this at the time. Clever.
To complicate matters the gunleather in the two articles -- one by Bob Zwrirz for Gun World and one by Jan Stevenson for Guns were the only Seventrees holster extant -- and they were only prototypes! The unique 'bullet hole' catalog was created by Mason Williams and he not only wasn't a big fan of the prototypes but even thought the holster with a thumbsnap was meant to be opened with his elbow . . .
Back to Paris' not-so-great plan: among his papers are his business plan to raise money and compete with Bianchi Holsters and with Safariland. I've read through it and he never had a chance against these two machines of industry. Their success was built around a dealer model and VERY hard to break into with Paris' narrow range of concealment-only products. And his expectations of volume were out of proportion to having done no more than open a bigger factory and install more machines. Neale's expertise wasn't in gunleather at all, it was in marketing! And I was Bianchi's gunleather designer in that time.
Not to worry, 'life is what happens to you while you're making other plans': when the Church Commission was convened in 1975, Paris Theodore was called to testify because he supplied equipment including gunleather, pistols, silencers, ammunition, etc. to CIA etc. And the Committee closed him down. Indeed the Seventrees name was only just being trademarked at that moment and Paris had shifted to having his products made by Ken Null who then stopped using the Seventrees name and switched to his own.
In the meantime we in industry thought that Paris had simply failed to last, not knowing any of this until recently. It only got worse for him. In the '80s his wife fell ill and died 1987, and he, too, fell ill at the time of her death and did not ever recover until his own death in 2006. "I am Q", he said at the end; without realizing that instead, it was he and not Chic and certainly not Bruce Nelson, who elevated the New York School into the mainstream of gunleather design and construction. Q never accomplished something so grand :-).