"Dear Manny," the letter from Washington began. "I'm a big, ugly, tattooed sunbitch with 26 years in the Army and I'm queer for hats. I want a hat for me that will scare women and children and start fights in Wyoming bars."
Manny Gammage, a 40-year-old Texas hat maker, knew what the man needed. Custom requests are nothing new. Gammage had a special Haggar the Horrible hat (with real sheepskin and horns) for actor George Kennedy. George Wallace's Hi-roller, an exclusive Gammage creation, had just the shade of silver belly color the governor had ordered. And because Burt Reynolds requested a new style whisky-colored hat, Gammage made it and then added the new style to his line of hats, calling the new hats "Burt."
"If you can imagine it," says Gammage, "I can make it."
So for the man from Washington, Gammage cut, trimmed, blocked, stained and molded a brown derby-styled hat with a tooled leather band, topping it with silver-and-turquoise inlay. Guaranteed to cause trouble.
"They're used to seeing those big, wide-brimmed cowboy hats in Wyoming," says Gammage, who looks like a linebacker and the temperament of a water boy. "Someone walks in a bar with a little old derby hat on with silver and turqoise all over it and something is going to happen." And then he apuses: "Hell, derbys have been starting fights in Wyoming for years."
At last count Bob Dylan and 13 of his hats, john Connelly had four. Roy Rogers, Howard Cosell, Ronnie Milsap and each of the Harlem Globetrotters had one of Gammage's creations, except Meadowlark, who has four. Best as Gammage can remember Mike Connors bought only three, but Willie Nelson, and an old friend, has "several dozen." The King of Sweden has one.
For Manny Gammage, owner of Texas Hatters and with a reputation which blankets the state, times are good. Operating out of a converted single-story slathouse in South Austiin, Gamage's hand-made hats business is now grossing close to $200,000 a year. Orders for his hand-made items come from as ar away as Australia, Russia and Japan. New York and California now compose 20 percent of Gammage's mail order business. But right here in Texas, where a man's hat is as important as his horse once was, Gammage's reputation is impeccable. Bankers, musicians, politicians, businessmen ranchers and ordinary cowboys wear Manny Gammage hats. To be hatted by Manny Gammage in Texas is a bit like being knighted by the queen in England - even if it does cost $50 to $100.
"That man isn't just making hats," says Kinky Friedman, a tall, black-haired musician whose "Lone Star Dude" hat bears a band of gold conchos and a feather from Borneo. "When he puts a hat on your head he's giving you personality. And though he's slow as a Jewish tailor, you can bet by the time you walked out of his shop that he's giving you just the right hat."
Andy Sedaris, vice president of ABC Sports and owner of four Gammage creations, agrees. "A Manny Gammage hat has a certain style, a certain bent to it which no one but Manny can give it," says Sedaris. "When I was in Innsbruck and the Germans were intrigued with my hat. They would come up and try and buy it from me, trade me anything for it. I even had a guy try and trade me a pair of skis for it. No way."
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According to Herb Gordon of National Hatter Supply in New York, less that 40 custom hatters remain in the United States. Though hat wear is up to 600 million in 1977 from 350 million in 1974, most of the products are being turned bout by automation and assembly lines. A company like Stetson, which still employs some handmade techniques, produce over 300 dozens hats a day, about as many as Gammage will make in five months.
"There just aren't many people who take time to make a hat the way Gammage does," says Gordon. "He's a rare bird in this business today."
It doesn't hurt either that "Texas chic" has arrived. Western headwear, jeans, shirts and belts are prominent from Los Angeles to New York. Norman Karr of the Men's Fashion Association that thinks that young people and television have popularized the estern hat.
"Cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers have shown every kid in the country how to wear the western hat," said Karr. "And now a lot of the rock groups are wearing the hats. It's just a whole western, John Wayne attitude."
Larry Roston, executive director of the Headwear Institute of America, agrees. "The wesern hat has become a prestige item," says Roston. "If you're rich you wear a big, expensive hat. If you're poor and want to show you're going to be rich, the you wear the big one also. A person like Gammage is like the Italian tailor: You walk in and pay more, but you get what you want."
Gammage's prices for his beaver felt hats range anywhere from $45 to $100, but he has no gualms. His 13-year-old business and prices haven't changed "anymore than I have." The super deluxe - laced alligater with 24-carat gold conchos - goes for $350.
Quality is like buying oats," gulps Gammage, in his soft Texas accent. "If you want good plain oats, you have to pay a fair price. If you want oats already run through the horse - then that's a little cheaper."
A Houston-born Texan who tried car repair, insurance and a few other "city professional jobs," before finally joining his father (now retired) in the hat-making business, Gammage doesn't worry about much of anything outside his shop. Inside the shop he keeps a sharp eye. He once shot a hole through his wooden plank floor with his .45 revolver to wake up a doing shoeshine boy.
"If my daddy taught me one thing it was to take time and do things right - even if it's just opening a can of beans," says Gammage. "If someone comes in here hollering that he wants a hat by tomorrow I tell him it will take two weeks. If he says he wants it in two days I'll tell him it will take four weeks. I could go the factory way and make a helluva lot of hats."
Gammage employs a staff of four (not including his wife) and though he has done every part of the hat-making process, he no stays up front at the customer counter to add the finishing touches. After selecting the material, Gammage begins with handblocking the hat which gives it the basic shape. Then the crown is ironed out, which Gamage says is one of "the more delicate steps of hat-making." Next it's break the brim and put a finish on the crown. After this, the leather is cut according to the shape of the man's head. The final step is to sew on the trim by hand and then crease it the way the customer wants it.
Gammage then takes the hat, steams it and shapes it, as well as adding the trimming and final touches. Gammage often uses his nose, his chin, hands, belly, and chest just to get the right "look" to the hat.
"Some people say I use more parts of my body to shape a hat than most people use in foreplay," says Gammage, who relaxes by drinking beer and watching for hats on television. "But sometimes the belly can do what the hands can't do or vice versa."
Not everyone who comes in the small shop comes to order a hat. Some come into have their hat cleaned, renovated, reblocked or redecorated. Others come to talk it over with Manny. If it were'nt for the dozens of hats on the wall, ranging from the tarnished gold W. C. Fields top hat to the white "extra fina" Panamas, some might mistake this hattery for a neighborhood bar and Gammage for the loquacious barkeep.
"You've got to know a little about a person before you can make them a hat," says Gammage. "So I like to talk to people and get to know them before I get started. 'I'm not just fitting a head, I'm also fitting a personality. The other day I had a state representative come in and say 'Manny, I don't think my hat is quite right for me,' and I said, 'Sir, with all due respect, you're wrong - it isn't at all right for you."
Gammage's biggest problem these days is keeping enough standing room in his shop. Yesterday several musicians and other star types, including Jan-Michael Vincent, Gary Busey, Doug Sahm and members of Willie Nelson's band, stopped by on their way to a musuc festival in Dallas.
"There ain't hardly enough room in here to roll a two-inch brim," says Gammage. "Everybody's in here, drinking my beer, standing around, telling jokes and trying on the hats like nobody's business. I fell like some sort of Santa Clause."