ARI SHAPRIO, host:
Oscar night is this Sunday and every year, NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg anticipates the evening by going behind the movie screen to see how they make the magic. Today she visits a shoe shop that has dressed actor's feet for five decades.
(Soundbite of music)
SUSAN STAMBERG: In the beginning, there was "The Ten Commandments," the movie Moses facing the Big Red Sea.
(Soundbite of Movie, "The Ten Commandments")
Mr. CHARLTON HESTON (Actor, as Moses): Behold his mighty hand.
(Soundbite of music)
STAMBERG: When Moses parted the waters, an unseen fellow named Willie Rivera was in on the miracle.
Mr. RAUL OJEDA (Store Manager of Willie's Shoe Service): He made the sandals for - what's his name?
STAMBERG: For Charlton Heston?
Mr. OJEDA: Charlton Heston, he made sandals for him.
STAMBERG: Raul Ojeda run's Willie's Shoe Service these days. At 91, Willie likes to go back to Mexico whenever possible. He can leave the shop in Raul's hands because he's trained Raul in all the shoemaking arts. Willie's also told Raul the great old Hollywood stories, like this one, from the early days when Willie was working for Western Costume, a big wardrobe house.
Mr. OJEDA: Fred Astaire was dancing and suddenly his shoe - I believe his right shoe - burst opened and they rushed the shoe over to the shoe department and Willie's boss couldn't figure out how to put it back together and Willie said, give me the shoe. Willie fixes the shoe and they send it back to Mr. Astaire, and he was so impressed with the work that he used Willie later to have some of his personal shoes made.
STAMBERG: Willie made them to precise specifications.
Mr. WILLIE RIVERA (Shoemaker): First I used a one 8 1/2 narrow.
STAMBERG: Willie Rivera, sole mate once to Fred Aistaire.
(Soundbite of music, "I'm Stepping Out With My Baby" performed by Fred Astaire)
Mr. FRED ASTAIRE (Singer): (Singing) I'm stepping out, my dear, to breathe an atmosphere that simply reeks with class…"
STAMBERG: Willie learned shoemaking from the bottom up.
Mr. RIVERA: My grandfather and my uncles were shoemakers.
STAMBERG: When he was ten in Mexico City, Willie's parents asked him what he wanted to do in life.
Mr. RIVERA: So I said, I want to be a shoemaker. And so I started to learn to be a shoemaker when I was 13 years old and ever since, I love my trade, and I'm very happy.
STAMBURG: Willie moved to California as a young man and in 1952 landed a job at Western Costume. Raul says much of movie land's custom work was being done there.
Mr. OJEDA: In those days, the movie business was very big and all of the costumes on the movies were made by tailors and so the shoemakers were tailoring the shoes.
STAMBURG: Willie's job at Western was to make sample shoes, prototypes from designer's drawings. If a sample was approved, the shoe went into production for the film. After four years, Willie decided to open his own shop across the street from Paramount Studios.
Mr. OJEDA: He made big, big business.
STAMBERG: Again, shop manager, Raul Ojeda.
Mr. OJEDA: The very first week after he opened up his door, Paramount switched their account from Western Costume to Willie's.
STAMBERG: And his first major commission was that Charlton Heston epic "The Ten Commandments." Then came a tidal wave of orders. After "Ten Commandments," Willie did boots for more westerns that he can count plus shoes for everyone in the first "Star Trek" film. Willie was busy.
(Soundbite of machines)
STAMBERG: So busy that he moved to a bigger space in Hollywood, on Cahuenga Boulevard. The back of Willie's Shoe Service looks like a launch pad for the industrial revolution - ancient, grimy machinery for sanding, hammering, stretching and gluing. And, of course, shoes: five-inch stiletto heels, black-studded leather boots. The front room is lined with framed 8 x 10 glossies of famous customers, all autographed to Willie - from Lily Tomlin, Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch, Bing Crosby. Behind the counter, Raul takes the orders for shoes and other leather things.
Ms. TRACEY WHITE (Assistant Designer, "The Closer"): I have these two belts, we want to match the medium to the small.
STAMBERG: Tracey White is an assistant designer on TNT's show "The Closer." The belts are for the star Kyra Sedgwick and it's a rush job.
Mr. OJEDA: Okay, so we should have these ready by 5:00 PM
Ms. WHITE: That's great.
Mr. OJEDA: Yeah. No problem.
STAMBERG: These days they do lots of work for television as well as movies, but rather than making shoes from scratch as they did in the old days, Willie's Shoe Service does alterations on ready-made shoes - tailoring them for a particular film. It's cheaper for Hollywood designers that way. They've altered shoes for "Iron Man," "Walk Hard," the title alone could bring more to Willie's, and they just modified some vintage 1930s shoes for the forthcoming film, "Public Enemies," Johnny Depp as gangster John Dillinger. The designer for that one phoned Raul from Chicago. The movie needed a lot of work done as soon possible.
Mr. OJEDA: So they Fed Ex'd 70 pairs of shoes from Chicago. We finished everything the next day in the morning and we Fed Ex'd them back.
STAMBERG: In one day?
Mr. OJEDA: In one day.
STAMBERG: In addition to rush jobs, they still do some time consuming made-to-measure custom work at Willie's. Raul says some of the custom customers are less movie stars and more movie buffs.
Mr. OJEDA: There's some Star-Trekkie people, I don't know how to call them, it's a group of fans.
Mr. OJEDA: They learned that we made the original shoes for "Star Trek" and they wanted new ones made exactly like them. We charged them $800.00, which was a heck of a deal. I think they were happy.
STAMBERG: Another Willie's customer is neither movie star nor buff. Who's shoes are these?
Mr. SALVADOR AMROCIA(ph) (Employee) : These for Jesse Jackson.
STAMBERG: This is Salvador Amrocia, one of the shop's four employees. Jesse Jackson's shoes?
Mr. AMOROCIA: Yeah, yeah.
STAMBERG: Wow, three pairs.
Mr. AMOROCIA: I made four pair for him.
STAMBERG: The Reverend Jesse Jackson phones in his order. The shop has a wooden model of his foot, size 12 1/2. Raul says they've made more than 20 pairs of shoes for Jackson over the years.
Unidentified Woman: Hi.
Mr. OJEDA: Hi.
Unidentified Woman: I have these…
STAMBERG: But you don't have to be famous to have work done at Willie's. Lots of locals come too. The locals are loyal. Why do you come here?
STAMBERG: Because they're the best. They were on vacation recently and I just didn't get anything done.
STAMBERG: Once upon a time in the golden old days, movies could order a pair of custom made shoes that might withstand 40 years of wondering in the desert with a little touch up repair from decade to decade. Today in Hollywood, the trek is more from studio to the car. But when movies need to put an actor in someone else's shoes, they count on Willie's to do the job.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Ten Commandments")
Mr. CHARLTON HESTON (Actor, as voice of God): Who is this?
Mr. CHARLTON HESTON (Actor, as Moses): I am here.
Mr. CHARLTON HESTON (as voice of God): What are thy shoes amongst thy feet?
STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR news.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Ten Commandments")
Mr. CHARLTON HESTON (Actor, as Moses): Go, proclaim liberties throughout all the lands onto all the inhabitants there are.
(Soundbite of music)
SHAPIRO: Willie's Shoe Service and Raul are awaiting your visit at npr.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shaprio.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
The man behind Charlton Heston's sandals in The Ten Commandments is 91-year-old Willie Rivera, who began making shoes at the age of 13 in Mexico City. He moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s and has dressed the feet of legends such as Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Lily Tomlin and Bill Cosby.
At 91, Shoemaker To The Stars Is Still In Business
When Charlton Heston played Moses in the classic 1956 film The Ten Commandments, he was wearing sandals that might have withstood wandering 40 years in the desert. That's because his sandals were made by Willie Rivera, a Hollywood shoemaker. And Willie developed a reputation.
In the 1950s, Rivera was working at Western Costume, the big Hollywood wardrobe house. Rivera's job was to make sample shoes from scratch from designer's drawings.
One day, Fred Astaire's shoe burst open while he was dancing on a set. The shoe was rushed over to Western Costume for repair, but Rivera's boss couldn't figure out how to fix it. Rivera said he could. And he did. Astaire was so impressed, he had Rivera make his own personal shoes — size 8 1/2 narrow.
A 13-Year-Old Apprentice
Rivera, 91, grew up in Mexico City.
"I learned the shoe business because my grandfather and my uncles were shoemakers," he says.
When Rivera finished grammar school at age 10, his parents asked him what he wanted to do.
"So I said, 'I wanna be a shoemaker.' And I started to learn to be a shoemaker when I was 13 years old. And ever since, I love my trade, and I'm very happy."
As a young man in his 30s, Rivera came to California and landed a job at Western Costume.
But he only stayed for four years. Rivera rented a shop across the street from his employer and opened his own shoe business. A week later, Paramount Studios — just across the street — switched its account from Western Costume to Willie's Shoe Service.
His very first commission was The Ten Commandments. And then came a tidal wave of orders. After The Ten Commandments, Rivera did boots for more Westerns than he can count. And he made shoes for everyone in the first Star Trek films.
But his space was getting too small, so he moved to a bigger shop in Hollywood — on Cahuenga Boulevard.
The back of Willie's Shoe Service looks like a launchpad for the Industrial Revolution — ancient, grimy machinery for sanding, hammering, stretching and gluing. And, of course, there are shoes, including 5-inch stiletto heels and black-studded leather boots.
The front room is lined with framed 8-by-10 glossies of famous customers, all autographed to Willie — from Lily Tomlin, Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch, Bing Crosby and many others.
But long gone are the days when Hollywood made shoes from scratch. Now, it's much cheaper for designers to buy ready-made shoes and have a place like Willie's alter them.
Passing The Torch
A few years ago, Rivera was thinking about retiring and closing the shop. Then he met a young man named Raul Ojeda. Ojeda and his brother were working as shoe shiners in Century City. One day, they stumbled across Rivera's shop and found out that he still made custom shoes.
"And I wanted to learn how to make shoes," says Ojeda, "and I started to volunteer my work every Saturday."
Ojeda apprenticed with Rivera, and two years ago, he became the store's manager. Ojeda has four full-time employees, who service local folks and Hollywood types. The shop recently altered shoes for Iron Man, Walk Hard, Balls of Fury and the new Star Trek movie, due out soon.
Ojeda also modified some vintage 1930s shoes for the forthcoming film Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp as gangster John Dillinger. The designer phoned Ojeda from Chicago saying the movie needed a lot of work done ASAP.
"So they FedEx'd 70 shoes from Chicago," Ojeda explains, "and we finished everything the next morning and FedEx'd everything back in one day."
In addition to rush jobs, they still do some time-consuming, made-to-measure custom work at Willie's. Some Star Trek fans wanted boots exactly like the ones in the films. The boots cost $800 a pair. Ojeda says that was a deal, considering the materials and work.
The shop also has a wooden model of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's foot — size 12 1/2. Jackson has ordered some 20 pairs of shoes from Willie's over the years. He phones in his orders.
Even though Rivera doesn't work daily in the shop anymore, he's always coming by to check on things. And still today, when movies need to put an actor in someone else's shoes, they count on Willie's Shoe Service to do the job.