By Eric Peterson | Apr 06, 2015
Trophies and Desk ornaments
John Billings is famous for making the music industry's Grammy awards on the Western Slope. But lately his sales are coming from an unexpected corner of movie lore.
Billings apprenticed under his best friend's father, Bob Graves, in Van Nuys, California, before buying the operation and moving it to the Rockies.
Graves was a moldmaker who worked out of his garage and made the Emmy awards as well as the Grammys since the 1950s.
Billings' ex-wife was Dennis Weaver's personal assistant, thus the move to Ridgway, where the late actor was building his mansion-sized earthship. "I came to Ridgway and said, 'Oh my god, what am I doing in L.A.?’" he says. "I decided to make a go of it here."
While his big-name awards are his calling cards, they aren't a profit center. "I never made much money on the Grammys," says Billings. "They were kind of special to Bob and I promised him I'd keep the job. I do everything but the plating."
More than 30 years later, Billings has made good on his promise and still makes hundreds of Grammy awards every year. He works with Acme Plating in Montrose for more than 30 years and sources his raw materials largely from California.
He also makes the John R. Wooden Award for the top NCAA basketball players. "It's kind of special to me," says Billings. "I knew the coach -- I worked at UCLA from 1964 to 1974."
Many of the country's major awards are now made in China, including the Golden Globes and MTV awards. The Oscars are an exception, made in Chicago.
He's about to embark on his annual trek to deliver a trailer's worth of awards to L.A. and pick up a stock of metal for the ride back. The Grammy ceremony was in February, but he has to make and engrave more than 300 awards after the fact. Winners pose with a "stunt Grammy" at the event.
But it's an entirely different product that's currently driving sales: a duck-shaped hood ornament John originally made for Convoy, the 1978 Sam Peckinpah adaptation of the C.W. McCall trucker anthem of the same name.
The film featured a duck-shaped hood ornament crowning the front end of Kris Kristofferson's truck. The connecting thread: McCall, the onetime mayor of Ouray, and Billings were practically neighbors, so the latter got the job of making a mold for four props for the cult classic. Three decades later, Quentin Tarantino used a replica of the duck in Death Proof (2007)
After Tarantino's nod to Peckinpah, Billings' son convinced him to pull the mold out of the mothballs and market it as Convoy Duck and Death Proof Duck.
"I've got them in truck stops across the country," he says. The nickel-plated ducks retail for about $180. "It's really the only hood ornament that's still made in the U.S.A."
"We sell them all over the world, and I've never spent a nickel on advertising," he says. "A trucker sees it and has to have it."
"It sure helps make the payroll. We sell them as fast as we can make them. I've got a guy who buffs these all day long. He can buff between eight and 10 a day."
Billings could probably make more ducks, but he doesn't want to get much bigger. "We do things by hand," Billings explains. "We're not automated. We're old school."
He makes plaster casts that are converted to bronze molds at a foundry in Los Angeles before "weeks of filing” with century-old tools, followed by polishing.
His bread and butter was once making molds for lighting and lamps, but most of that business moved to China Billings now takes on other small projects. He just made a desk accessory for NASA that is a miniature version of its Dragon V2 spacecraft slated for launch in 2017 and gets order for custom trim for classic cars that no longer have an aftermarket.
Challenges: "Every day is a challenge to us," says Billings. "We have to define that fine line between something that is flawed and something that has character. We're the only company in Colorado that gold-plates our trash." He's being literal -- once gold plated, trophies can't be recycled. "I've got piles of rejected Grammys in the shop."
Opportunities: Billings is happy where the business is now, and doesn't plan to grow much beyond where he is now. "I'm sort of maxed out space-wise," he says. "Recently I got a call from the television academy to see if I could do the Emmy. I had to turn it down. I don't want to get any bigger than I am."
But one opportunity lies in a unique skill. Billings is the only person on Earth who can authenticate a Grammy -- and fake ones allegedly won by Eric Clapton or Mick Jagger show up on the auction block from time to time. "I've found a lot of counterfeits," he says.
Needs: "I wish we had a smelter a little closer to where we are," says Billings. The company works with a smelter in L.A.
Otherwise, he adds, "We've pretty much got it covered," says Billings. He points to his age -- 69 -- and says, "I don't want to get big. I'm very comfortable and have a very cool niche."