As I pulled around the back side of a building on Kings Highway, I wondered if I was in the right place. The address was correct, but the run-down building didn’t seem like it could be home to one of the most cutting-edge workshops in northwest Louisiana. But, as I parked, it became clear that I was where I was supposed to be because the chassis of two old hot rods, sitting in various states of completeness, were parked next to the garage door. I entered LA House of Props through the back and was greeted by some of the staff, who were already preparing for the day’s work.
The man I had come to see was running a bit behind, having needed to run an errand for his son, Walker. While I waited for him to arrive, one of the workshop staff flipped through a photo album showing me all the work that they had done in the last seven years. There was another old scrapbook dating further back than that. I was struck by the vast quantity of recognizable builds I was seeing and was about to comment about how extensive the work was when I heard my name.
Jim Hayes, a tall, slender, bald, inked man, stood in the doorway. His tattoos would be at home on the cars in the parking lot, but the first thing I or anyone else will notice about Jim is his gigantic smile which was there to greet me, as always. I shook his hand and he gave me the dime tour of his workshop – a print room, a molding room, wood shop, storage – 10,000 square feet that would be any construction artist’s dream.
Once we got through the winding corridors back to his office, he swung around a chair for me to sit in and we began talking. I’ve known Jim for over 4 years. He built props for my short film “Stay with Me” in 2010 and has been collaborating with Centenary Department of Art and Visual Culture Chair, Bruce Allen, who I knew from my time at the Robinson Film Center. In all that time, I’ve never sat down to hear Jim’s story – back before he lived in Shreveport. I was dying to know why he had chosen our city as a place to set up shop, to raise his family – to live. I pulled out my phone to record and sat down, taking no notes, but really absorbing his enthusiasm, his energy as he spoke excitedly.
Jim was born in Oceanside, California at Camp Pendleton where his father was stationed as a first division marine after serving in World War II. When he was 13, his parents divorced and he and his mother moved from Oakland, CA to live with family in Los Angeles where he would spend his time working on metal sculptures and hot rods. These formative years would shape Jim’s style and perspective on life. “I was probably too mellow for California at that time. They were concerned about various things [like Vietnam]. I was easy-come-easy-go. Very laid back,” he recounted. Over the years he found his way into the film industry working at Hand Prop Room, creating props for movies like Dr. Evil’s chair for Austin Powers, weapon designs for The Scorpion King and many, many more.
In 2007, Jim came to Shreveport for what was supposed to be a one-time trip to support the industry transition to Louisiana. But during his stay, something changed his mind. “I told my then-girlfriend, now-wife, Christine that this was it,” he said leaning forward in his chair, “There was so much potential and opportunity.” He and Christine moved almost immediately and placed their son, Walker, at A.C. Steere that same year. With the film industry burgeoning, Jim opened La House of Props, and there was a lot of work to go around. Remember that this was the same year which saw the releases of films like Pride, The Great Debaters, Cleaner, The Mist, Premonition, and Mr. Brooks.
Back then, Shreveport’s film industry was hot in a way that’s hard to fathom even for those of us who were here, working in and around the industry at the time. But Hayes saw something beyond the temporary boom, speaking to the potential of Shreveport’s future. “It’s more than just big fish in a small pond. The proportion of artists and art enthusiasts is huge. It’s like ‘He can play guitar and she can sing and they can do sculpture or whatever’ and that kind of density and enthusiasm is hard to find.”
A few years later, Jim was working on a SyFy channel film called Mandrake (2010) when he was asked to move from being a props designer to take on the role of production designer. This swept him into a whirlwind job of managing props and developing the on-set look of the film. “It was nonstop. I was running here and there, one minute at the props table, another making decisions about set design and working with wardrobe which is not typically what a production designer would do. It paid very little in comparison to the work, but it was a lot of fun.”
That same year Hayes would meet Brandon Oldenburg, who had just started Moonbot Studios – the now-famous animation production house – with Shreveport legend William Joyce. Bill and Brandon were creating a short called The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore and asked Jim to build the miniature sets and environments for the film. “I had never done miniatures before, but my experience with cars and models helped me with the sense of scale they wanted,” he recalled. The short would famously go on to win Shreveport’s first Oscar and launch Moonbot into a national brand which saw another collaboration with Hayes on Chipotle Mexican Grill’s award-winning ad and cautionary narrative The Scarecrow three years later.
Even before his collaborations with Moonbot, Jim had begun expanding his shop’s focus from film to interactive and atmospheric installations. He and his team would shape spaces like the Robinson Film Center’s Abby Singer’s Bistro or the Norton Art Gallery basement which was transformed into a New Orleans-inspired place of learning and inspiration. House of Props was tapped to design the whole of the interior of Twisted Root Burger Co. on Line Avenue which features a drum set hanging from the ceiling as a kind of chandelier accompanying a guitar-adorned bar.
Jim and his cohorts have aimed high to transform Shreveport’s always-enthusiastic, but sometimes-lackluster community of businesses into spaces with real atmosphere and bravado. This effort continues today as he looks to work with (and I’ll go ahead and add ‘inspire,’ because it’s true) local artists to build on the wave that’s been rising in Shreveport since the late ‘90s. He and I even got off on a tangent about Shreveport artists claiming to be suppressed by the apparent dominating effect of ‘Old Shreveport’ and new. Jim finds that excuse less than acceptable, saying “If you want to do something, don’t let someone tell you ‘no.’ It’s up to you. Letting other people say you can or can’t is giving up your power to create and that’s a shame. If you can’t get started yourself, go help someone else. Go help UNSCENE! or help with someone’s [Louisiana] Film Prize project. Working your mind is a great way to get the creative juices flowing where you can use that momentum to do your own stuff.”
I agree wholeheartedly. And no one could be a more shining example of coming from the outside in, and seeing the potential of this city and contributing to its vibrancy than Jim Hayes. It’s difficult to imagine Shreveport without him – a man who has shaped, sometimes under the radar, some of the most iconic spaces and artistic works in town, all contributing so much to raising the bar of community aesthetic and artistic energy. Jim continues his work with film today in addition to his inhabitable art and design work which he says takes up more and more of his time. Finding work is no longer difficult and he prides himself on working on projects that he really loves. “Anyone can do this – create for a living – if they really want to. If you do work you are proud of, people see that… I just like doing what makes me happy.”
Update: Jim passed away on June 28, 2020 in Santa Fe of a brain tumor stemming from Glioblastoma. He is survived by his wife Christine and son Walker. Our community is remembering his contributions fondly.