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Rural Missouri Magazine


Jeepers Creepers

Two brothers turn a youthful hobby into a scarily successful business

by Heather Berry

Not many people have a job where it’s a good thing to scare the — well, you-know-what — out of folks. But that’s why brothers Dwayne and Fred Whitehead love going to work each day at a business where their theme is “We bring the dead to life!”

Fred and Dwayne Whitehead pose among some of their ghoulish creations. The two brothers began making horror props as children and later formed a business supplying their work to amusement parks and film companies.

When you walk into the Prop Masters, Inc., warehouse in Republic, you can see the duo isn’t kidding about the “dead to life” part. On any given day, you might be greeted by several likenesses of Stabbo the Clown, with his Jack Nicholson-like grin, or Creepy Karen, a zombie-like gal you wouldn’t take home to Mother. You might see a life-sized Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera or turn a corner to find Frankenstein reaching out to grab you.

“All this began in Chicago where we grew up,” says Dwayne, 38. “We would watch old horror films and read Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. There was always some great monster mask we’d want but, even back then, they cost a lot.”

When their weekly allowance wouldn’t stretch far enough, the brothers scoured flea markets for horror finds. One day Dwayne hit pay dirt and found a great monster mask which led to their business.

“We thought ‘hey, why can’t we make a mask of our own,’ ” says Fred, 40. “So we did.”

“We turned the garage into a mask shop,” says Dwayne. “Bob and Phil Zagoni ran a prop business in Chicago and they saw our work and kinda took us under their wing and taught us some tricks of the trade. They’re still our mentors.”

Making a prop takes quite a bit of time. First, Dwayne sculpts the form out of clay and a mold is made. Fred takes over and pours latex, allows it to dry, trims the excess and preps the prop for painting. Then they paint and assemble the product, costume it and fill orders for shipping.

“Back about 1990, Mom told us she thought we were spending too much time on our hobby,” says Dwayne. “We’re like ‘This ain’t a hobby no more, Mom!’ We were filling orders for 500 of this, 500 of that. And all from a garage.”

The brothers say their first real paying job was for the International Ice Capades.
“We were commissioned to make a Max Headroom head,” Dwayne says, referring to a popular character from television commercials. “And after that, we realized there was a little money to be made, so we gave it a go.”

Although the duo has created monster masks and props since, Prop Masters, officially began in 1994 when the two moved to Republic to live in a smaller community where the cost of living didn’t eat them alive and to be near family who had moved to the state.

One of the brother's scary creations.

Their busy season begins around March with the National Halloween and Party Show, where they display their gruesome works and view competitors’ wares.
The brothers often work 12-hour days from March to October. After Halloween, Dwayne says the two begin retiring props that didn’t sell well and creating new props to replace them. He says they keep about 35 characters in production at any given time. Next year, the duo plans to add Christmas items to their production list. These won’t be like their usual line.

Props begin at $200 but can run as high towards $10,000 if someone requests a custom, human-size figure.

The brothers are often asked why they don’t go to Hollywood to work.
“What people don’t realize is that once the movie is over, you often go without work for months,” says Fred. “We like the steady flow of what we do here.”

Their reputation for creating well-made props has attracted them buyers from all across the United States and Germany, Australia, Puerto Rico, Japan and Canada.

While the brothers don’t brag about their work, their list of clients says a lot for their creative abilities. Clients includes Universal Studios, Dollywood Theme Park, Six Flags, Hollywood Wax Museum, the ship Queen Mary, and one of their favorites, Chaney Entertainment.

The brothers were at a trade show when a man came up and asked if they could do a head of the famed Lon Chaney, an early actor who portrayed Dracula and other horror characters.

“We said sure, but we usually need to do a life cast of the person’s face and Chaney died in 1930,” Dwayne told the man.

“Well,” the guy said, “I kinda look like him.”

The man was Ron Chaney, great-grandson of the famous horror film icon. Chaney thought Dwayne and Fred’s pieces were so well done he had them cast his own likeness, which is now used on the props they make which require Lon’s likeness.

“He’s a good friend,” Dwayne says of Ron. “I’ve been lucky enough to go to his house in Palm Springs and see the entire Lon Chaney family archive. He speaks very fondly, too, of his grandfather, Lon Chaney, Jr., who played Wolfman.”

Dwayne says one day he’d love to open a Missouri-based film and television museum and showcase the brothers’ wax museum figures.

Fred and Dwayne would someday like to open a museum displaying their recreations of Missouri-born celebrities.

“There are so many famous Missourians we could have in the museum: Vincent Price, Phyllis Diller, Bob Barker, Don Johnson, Brad Pitt. The list is endless,” says Dwayne. “Of course, I’d love to do a movie section and have Charlton Heston as Moses parting the sea. Heck, we even know how to part the sea in this business!”

With their own creepy props hanging about, you might think they have their fill of ghoulish girls and gory guys. But they have an extensive collection of great horror props from a variety of films, both classic and modern. They have a Linda Blair head prop used in “The Exorcist,” “Planet of the Apes” props, and a “Terminator” robot skull. Add a few things like a lighted Bates Motel sign behind the desk, a face mask of Jason from Halloween and life-size ghosts floating about the place and you can get creeped out.

There is one prop in their collection of a guy in a straight jacket — eyes squinting, head cocked and an eerie grimace on his face — which leaves you scratching your head, like you’ve met the guy before.

Then you look over at Fred and realize he’s the life cast for the prop.
“Sometimes you just use what’s available,” Fred says, smiling.

To view or order Dwayne and Fred’s props, visit their Prop Masters, Inc. Web site at www.monsterprops.com. or call (417) 732-4302.

Rural Missouri magazine - April 2014 issue
 
 
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