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TOPIC: The Four Horsemen. A History. 1978 to 2019

The Four Horsemen. A History. 1978 to 2019 27 Jun 2019 17:40 #1

I recently wrote this brief history, (It covers a forty one year period from 1978 to 2019). It describes my side of how the four of us came together.

The days of the Four Horsemen

The Four Horsemen was a term used by some of the guys back in the day to describe the four of us: Shep Paine, Lewis Pruneau, Francois Verlinden and me. Not sure why, some believed we, collectively or individually, helped popularize the then, new world of the diorama.

I can’t say I believe that altogether, we were mostly just lucky to be riding the whirlwind at the right time and the right place, at least that was the story with me. However, I decided to tell my perspective of those days, my impression of how all that came about, before the four of us have gone to the Happy Hunting Ground. 

I had grown up modeling since I was four years old. The only modeling events that still stand out in my memory were these: When I was 9 years old, (1950), I built a 1/48th scale plastic model, (My first plastic kit, I had only built balsa and tissue planes previously), of a Mig-15 Soviet fighter jet. My grandmother heard of a model contest in town and took me there. I entered and it turned out to be an all adult contest. I believe to this day they were all simply gracious and gave “The Kid” a break and I won Best of show. I was interviewed with my model on local television. We didn’t have a TV in our home so we watched it on a neighbor’s set. Not many people had a TV set in 1950. We got our first one in 1952, A Crosley!

I mostly built planes back then, a few modern naval ships and an occasional car. Armor kits didn’t exist until Aurora begin producing their now vintage armor kits in the 1950s. Compared to today’s kits, they were very crude. While in the army in France, I continued building although the selection at the PX was very small. Then, in my twenties, I really got into model cars, customs and hot rods.

An Aurora armor kit.



I built a General Motors Mako Shark in 1/25th scale. I airbrushed it like the real one, with a blending of the top blue to a white underbody. I made a button tufted, all white interior and detailed the hell out of it. I was 23 at the time and F.W. Woolworth’s Five and Dime chain held a national model car competition. My wife and I were newly weds and she encouraged me to enter. There eventually were something like 50,000 entries. I entered the Mako Shark and two others. Long story short, I won first place and fourth place. The awards were prizes instead of trophies. A new full size Yamaha motorcycle, hundreds of dollars in kits, paints and accessories, and so on. I was in Heaven!

My army bunk in France, 1959. A couple of those Aurora Kits if memory serves.



The Woolworth national model car contest.



I had been a closet modeler and as soon as that was over I returned to that status. Before long, I was into building the very old plastic armor kits of Tamiya which began being imported to the states in the late 1960s. In 1976, I read an article somewhere about a diorama. It was described as a scene where a vehicle or airplane with a building and figures and accessories were used to give the models a “realistic” setting, and, if done well, could look very real. It had an illustration but I was unable to visualize the size of the diorama.

I began building. The original diorama evolved as a German city about the time of the outbreak of WW II. It was located in Munich and, looking back, seemed more political than military. It had a government building with all the famous Nazis standing on the outside. It was set just prior to the breakout of WW II. It was a full 4 feet wide, (122 cm) and 8 feet long, (244 cm). To me, that seemed a normal sized diorama as I had never seen an actual one.

When the five guys that volunteered to help me and I carried it into the IPMS National convention in St. Louis in 1982, I was shocked that people thought it was incredibly large? Most of the others were something like a square foot in size.. Now, not attempting to be modest, by today’s standards and even then, it was crude. I heard the story many times how the judges had written it off when Shep Paine, the head judge, overruled them, saying, “Yes, it has it’s flaws, but can any of you imagine doing something of this size”? A fledgeling new company of Kalmbach publishing had attended. A magazine called Fine Scale Modeler with one issue under it’s belt, and it’s first editor and founder, Bob Hayden, was there.

IPMS Nationals 1982, St. Louis, Mo.



Bob Hayden, FSM founder and first editor.



FSM 2nd issue.



Newsclip from nationals



The show created quite a stir with the local media, all the TV stations and the newspapers were there and filming or taking photos. Also, several foreign model magazines had attended as well. The next thing I knew Fine Scale was doing a cover article on my diorama, “The Winds of War”. Other magazines followed suit in Japan and Europe. Then, the mayor of St. Louis read it in the papers and asked if I would display it at The Soldier's Memorial Museum. It stayed there on display for a year.

Soldiers Memorial Museum, St. Louis.



The next thing I knew, people at model shows began recognizing me. However, some at my local club felt the diorama causing such a fuss was not sufficiently up to their standards, quality wise. and shouldn’t have won. (I can’t say I disagreed with them altogether). I kept hearing all that from friends as it was never said it to my face. So, I set a new goal of building many stand alone models for the Phoenix, Arizona national convention in 1983 to prove I could build quality as well as quantity. I entered 52 stand alone models in different categories there and placed in all 52. I came home with nearly 60 trophies from the Phoenix Nationals. That attracted some more attention.

Meanwhile, Shep Paine had written two books, “How to Build Dioramas” in 1980 and “Modeling Tanks and Military Vehicles” in 1982., both for Kalmbach publishing. In the first one, he had a short article from a Belgian modeler named Francois Verlinden. Verlinden was well known in Belgium and Europe, but was, as yet, still unknown in America. Then he managed to publish his first book, “The Verlinden Way Volume 1”. It got some play in the states but very little because of poor distribution. Shep had built a lot of models for Monogram, (Based in Morton Grove, a suburb of Chicago where Shep lived). and that made him a celebrity in the 1970s world of modeling!

One of Shep's dioramas for Monogram models in the Letterman collection.



I had first met Shep Paine at another show in St. Louis, a regional in 1980. I went there, met a couple of people who are still friends to this day. They happened to be judges and introduced me to Shep, who was head judge there as well. Also, Shep was involved in a one man show in St. Louis at the Museum of Natural History.  I also saw him there as well. I believe that was in 1981? I was a typical fan and took great pride in the fact that I knew THE MAN, Shep Paine!

During the 1982 National convention in St. Louis, I was introduced to a modeler named Lewis Pruneau, then an unknown who had also entered his first diorama at the show. It was a railroad gun, coming out of a tunnel. It. too, was crude as my entry but it got people’s attention. Because of the convention, both Lewis and i joined the St. Louis chapter of IPMS and began attending meetings where we became friends along with Wes Bradley, who worked at Astro Hobby, then the best hobby shop in St. Louis. Wes had been instrumental in getting me to join IPMS and enter The Winds of War in the 1982 National Convention.  Wes and I are still close friends to this day!

Wes Bradley in the early days as an employee of the fledgeling VLS Corporation. (1985)



Throughout the next couple of years, the four of us were pulled together like a hand of fate. The four of us had something in common. While other modelers built planes or tanks or ships or sci-fi or figures, we all built dioramas of all those genres. We became known to all modelers, not just those in a single field. I believe it was just that simple. Lewis and I began going to competitions all over the country as well as in Europe. I had started up a presumptuously named side business called  “Warwinds Militaria and Hobby Limited” after my diorama. Then, we only kept merchandise in our house and mostly sold at shows. In Europe at the gigantic Model Engineer's Exhibition, then held in Wembley Stadium, I managed to be awarded a real Gold Medal for my entry. It was placed around my neck at the 1984 exhibition by Baron Braebourne, The grandson of WW II hero, Lord Admiral Louis Mountbatten of Burma fame., as well as Prince Charles best friend and associate. Quite an honor.

The gold medal



Baron and Baroness Braebourne with Prince Charles and Diane.



In Shizouka, Japan with Freddie Leung, owner of Dragon Models and much more!



We would travel to shows on weekends and my wife Susan would sell kits at our table while Lewis and I would enter the competitions. By 1984, The Warwinds company had became large enough that Wes, two other guys and I hosted a show at Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. It featured more than a hundred thousand square feet of space, (Ten thousand square meters), and we had scale model vendors, RC model vendors, the Model train people, Doll house people and on and on. It was a huge show with thousands attending. It got a lot of local recognition as half the proceeds were donated to the Veterans Hospital. Wes Bradley was our Master of Ceremonies The size of the show simply overwhelmed us and surprised a lot of people in the industry.

The vendor room at Hobby Expo, 1984.



Also in 1984, the IPMS National Convention was held in Atlanta, Georgia. We rented  a dozen tables and Wes, Lewis, me and Susan along with three other people to help her run the stand, managed to deal with the crowds that swarmed to our tables. I entered several models, so did Lewis and we took home a carload of trophies. However, the big happening at that show was that Francois Verlinden and his business Partner, Jos Stok from Holland, had came to the event to find a better American distributor. The distributor they had for VP products was a New York Bookseller who had no business being Verlinden’s importer. He was only remotely involved with models through his military reference book inventory. They introduced themselves, Verlinden and I discussed having back to back articles in Fine Scale magazine and other such things. At the time I was not aware of the purpose of their visit. I was selling Verlinden products on our tables that I was buying from Lynn Sangster, owner of an English mail order firm in Dover called Historex Agents.

After two years of competition at shows, modelers were showing some resentment to Lewis and I entering and winning so much. Towards the end, we went to a couple of shows and when we walked in the door, several modelers picked up their entries and walked out. The light bulbs in my head started flashing. My business had really grown and I  realized it wasn’t good business to compete with your customers and potential customers, so, I retired from competition after Atlanta in 1984. Something I have never regretted. Lewis continued for a few more years but finally realized he was making too many enemies as well.

Two years of competition awards.



In August of 1984, Susan, Wes and I had a trip planned to Europe, both for vacation as well as acquiring the sole importing rights to several German model manufacturer’s products, Schmidt Armor and Airmodel vacuum formed aircraft kits included.

Frank-Modelbau, the manufacturers of Airmodel kits in Germany.



I told that to Verlinden and Stok at the Atlanta show, they agreed to start selling VP products to me in the USA and invited us to visit them in Belgium while we were in Europe. We did and that was the beginning of what would eventually evolve into The VLS Corporation. We spent several days at Verlinden’s hobby shop and his production facility next door. He told me that Stok, his investor, had told him to choose me as his importer in America. However, he wanted to do a trial first. I would distribute VP together with his New York bookseller for a year and whoever sold the most would become his exclusive importer in America. That was decided within a short time as we easily outsold our competitor. Not long after that, Verlinden and Stok contacted me, and asked for me to come to Belgium as they wasted to become business partners.

I got my attorney involved, we drew up the papers and outlined the formation of the New corporation, then called, “Verlinden, Letterman & Stok, Incorporated”. We flew over and that was that! After that, the growth of the partnership was nothing less than incredible. The Missouri company was selling in the seven figure range almost immediately as was the Belgian operation.

Me and Verlinden meet the first time in his hobby shop in Lier, Belgium, 1984.



A photo taken on the narrowest street in Belgium. Verlinden's home town of Lier, Belgium. 1991.



Jos Stok had us all over for dinner. He was an amateur chef.



Meanwhile, VLS had employed seven people, including Wes and Lewis Pruneau. We had expanded to add another company, Legacy Distributing, which sold to Hobby shops and Distributors. Worldwide. It was growing very fast as well. In 1985, I had to retire from the St. Louis Police Department to run the company full time. It wasn’t long before the two companies employed as many as fifty people each. 

The original VLS Crew in 1985.



Soon, VLS would have more than 20,000 products in it’s expanding inventory and we built our own 20,000 square foot building in 1990. VP in Belgium had built a beautiful building itself of about the same size.

Our first building owned by The Letterman Group in O'Fallon, Mo.



Verlinden and our wives had became close friends and did some world traveling. Here we are on a Mediterranean cruise. (1991)



And in Times Square.



In 1990, VLS introduced the Master’s Group, a buyers club that eventually had 4000 members all over the world. In 1990, we held the very first Mastercon and for the next 17 years held it annually. It averaged around 600 attendees each year and hundreds of entries. Lewis, Verlinden and Shep were there at most of the shows, gave seminars and mingled with the modelers.

Various photos at Mastercon. Shep, Lewis and Francois.



My two Partners. Verlinden in models and Joe Mokwa, my police partner who went on to be Chief of The St. Louis Police Department.



Me, Francois and his wife Lilliane, Mastercon III, 1993.



Me after the three day show was over. (Exhausted)



Both companies continued to grow rapidly. In 1996, Miniature World, a world class museum was hosted by VLS in St. Charles, Missouri, owned by Ralph Koebbeman and myself. It attracted modelers from countries all over the world.

A photo of Ralph Koebbeman with Shep Paine at Mastercon III.



The Miniature World Museum. 10,000 square feet of thousands of models from all over the world in Old Town St. Charles, Mo.

.

In that same year, Verlinden Productions moved to St. Louis and merged with VLS. I have no way to prove this, but I believe that merger created the largest company of it’s kind anywhere in the world. The annual sales alone were astonishing! I kept pinching myself to see if I was dreaming!

In April of 1999, Verlinden and I split the company in half. No need to go into details but was a result of not getting along with a couple of his relatives. I have no ill will toward him and never have. Had it not been for the situation I described, we could very well still be partners to this day, at least as far as i am concerned. After nearly a year of lawyers and accountants dealing with the corporate divorce, Verlinden remained at the O’Fallon, Mo location as Verlinden Productions, and I moved The VLS Corporation to a brand new building located in Moscow Mills, Mo, that was 40,000 square feet in size!

The New VLS facility in Moscow Mills, MO. 40,000 square feet in size, with 35 feet high ceilings. Workers erecting the VLS sign! 1996.



An arial photo.



Mastercon continued with Lewis and Shep making many of the shows. At the World Expo in Boston, (I think it was in 2004?), Shep presented me with the Lifetime Achievement award. That blew me away. Although I was the oldest of the four and I always felt somehow subordinate to them in terms of modeling ability. I mean, the talent that was present when they were together was overpowering. I think you can imagine how I felt. Yet, they always treated me as an equal!

In 2006, I was asked by executives of Squadron/MMD in Dallas if they could visit VLS during Mastercon. I agreed and we had a hunch is was about buying VLS. They also had came to inquire about purchasing Verlinden Productions, but had changed their minds after visiting. No idea why? I had turned 65 and had worked full time since I was 16, nearly 50 years. Susan and I were ready to retire and when the generous offer was made, we did a happy dance and then we agreed. We worked for them as requested for 6 months until the entire company was moved to Dallas in 37 semi- tractor-trailer trucks, then, we sold that gigantic building shortly afterwards and retired.

We stayed in touch with Shep until he passed away. We are still in touch with Lewis and talk on the phone almost daily. The same with Wes Bradley and so many of the ex-employees of VLS throughout the years, not to mention many Masters members who attended Mastercon over the years.. We haven’t seen Verlinden in person or had any communication with him since 1999, 20 years ago as of this writing. He eventually shut down Verlinden Productions, sold the building and eventually moved to Florida where I have heard he is enjoying retirement!

The last photograph I have of Verlinden.



The last photograph I have of Shep. may he rest in peace.



And, finally, of me and Lewis Pruneau about 2016.



Recent photo of me, Lewis and Wes Bradley.



In 2016, after being retired for 10 years, my wife, Susan and i moved from St. Louis to Springfield, Mo. to be near our daughter and son-in-law. We intend to live out the remainder of our lives here.

It was an incredible experience, all of it, even the bad times. It truly felt like being a kid in a candy store for 24 years. We still attend an occasional model convention, I have my own website, bobletterman.com, but, modelersalliance.org is the website I mostly post on. The site is hosted by Bob Britt, a great guy and a good friend

Photo of me and Bob Britt. 2014.



Thanks for reading!


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The Four Horsemen. A History. 1978 to 2019 27 Jun 2019 18:22 #2

Great story, thanks for sharing it with us. :notworthy:

:drinks
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The Four Horsemen. A History. 1978 to 2019 27 Jun 2019 19:09 #3

What a short story that was :cheer: Whether they want to acknowledge the fact or not the model industry has a debt of gratitude to pay to all of you. In my mind the four of you pushed the boundry's of what could be done in size and detail of dio's and in stand alone (obviously some modelers couldn't step it up)and out of this and VLS the seed's of today's diorama company's and techniques were sown. I am sure the new style of "masters" such as Mig Jimenez to name a familiar one, would have taken their cue from the styles of you four.
As for me I have "The System" vol 1 Figure Painting (hard to get over here) on my shelf along with How To Build Dioramas "second edition" and I thoroughly enjoy them coupled with the fact that only a key stroke away we can ask your advice is a privilege.
You may not like the praise or think it's warranted but it is and if I could I would tell Lewis Pruneau and Francois Verlinden the same.
Thanks to the passion and vision you four have for modeling, Look where we are today :notworthy: :drinks

Kurt.

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The Four Horsemen. A History. 1978 to 2019 27 Jun 2019 20:09 #4

Thanks for sharing this Dad, I'm humbled to be mentioned at all in this.

I really love the philosophy of modeling you guys had, it's all modeling no matter what genera. :notworthy:
I told you photobucket sucks...



"If you don't like it why don't you just let it be"
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The Four Horsemen. A History. 1978 to 2019 27 Jun 2019 22:27 #5

Awesome stuff :)
James
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The Four Horsemen. A History. 1978 to 2019 27 Jun 2019 23:39 #6

Great stuff!


I think I had Paul Harvey say "Now you know the rest of the story." At the end :salute
"Damn they made me put out the candle"



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The Four Horsemen. A History. 1978 to 2019 28 Jun 2019 00:46 #7

Simply, fantastic!... :notworthy: :notworthy: :notworthy: ...I remmenber that all Sunday nights of late 90´s , I was ordering to VLS...really, missing those days :oldguy :oldguy :oldguy

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The Four Horsemen. A History. 1978 to 2019 28 Jun 2019 00:57 #8

As many times as I have read that story Bob, it still amazes me. Thanks for sharing again!
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The Four Horsemen. A History. 1978 to 2019 28 Jun 2019 08:40 #9

What a great story! Thanks for sharing!
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The Four Horsemen. A History. 1978 to 2019 28 Jun 2019 11:32 #10

I'm an avid reader of non-fiction, mostly historical WWII, but also biographical subjects of people who have made a difference, especially in subjects I like. There are many titles of extremely narrow lanes (Paul Blaisdell who did cheap effects for Roger Corman's B movies, Basil Gogos who did the cover art for Famous Monsters Of Filmland, the building of the original Star Trek Enterprise model for examples). Of course these are niche, but there are more widely known, notably the core group making 2001: A Space Odyssey.

One that hits on all levels is Master Modeler by Tamiya-san himself. I bought it when it was first published years ago and it is an excellent blend of insight, information and nostalgia as well as a look into the hobby we love.

I mention this, because the hint you provided above is not enough. Not even close. The modeling community needs a deep dive into this history as well as great success story for all.

Tome time Bob, tome time.
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The Four Horsemen. A History. 1978 to 2019 28 Jun 2019 11:57 #11

Iron Mike wrote:
Great story, thanks for sharing it with us. :notworthy:

:drinks

Thanks Mike!

It seems when you get old, your best attribute is telling stories about the past! :-)

Bob


What a short story that was :cheer: Whether they want to acknowledge the fact or not the model industry has a debt of gratitude to pay to all of you. In my mind the four of you pushed the boundry's of what could be done in size and detail of dio's and in stand alone (obviously some modelers couldn't step it up)and out of this and VLS the seed's of today's diorama company's and techniques were sown. I am sure the new style of "masters" such as Mig Jimenez to name a familiar one, would have taken their cue from the styles of you four.
As for me I have "The System" vol 1 Figure Painting (hard to get over here) on my shelf along with How To Build Dioramas "second edition" and I thoroughly enjoy them coupled with the fact that only a key stroke away we can ask your advice is a privilege.
You may not like the praise or think it's warranted but it is and if I could I would tell Lewis Pruneau and Francois Verlinden the same.
Thanks to the passion and vision you four have for modeling, Look where we are today :notworthy: :drinks

Kurt.

Thanks Kurt,

I like to think that my work influenced some in this hobby, at least I have been told that by several. I remember putting together the book, "The System", that seems like an eternity ago. I also have both editions of How to Build Dioramas. I was so addicted to the first edition that when the second one came out and some of my dioramas were included, it made my day! That book, more than any other, inspired me to bigger and better things. It still does to this day.

Bob


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The Four Horsemen. A History. 1978 to 2019 28 Jun 2019 12:01 #12

moon puppy wrote:
Thanks for sharing this Dad, I'm humbled to be mentioned at all in this.

I really love the philosophy of modeling you guys had, it's all modeling no matter what genera. :notworthy:

Thanks Pup,

For the last 10 years, a great deal of my modeling efforts have been displayed on this, your website. I couldn't have left you out of the story!

That philosophy was not planned or even considered. The truth was that all of us liked all genres of models. It was a coincidence that we all built dioramas of every type.

Dad
jknaus wrote:
Awesome stuff :)
James

Thanks James!

Bob


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