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My Buddy Lewis Pruneau Part 04 & Final post.

bob letterman

Master at Arms
Staff member
Well, as most know, since posting Part three of this series, Lewis Pruneau passed away on September 12th after a long illness involving several medical issues. His congestive heart failure was determined to have been the responsible issue. I am at the age where my friends and acquaintances seem to be passing faster than I can keep up, but, this one has weighed very heavily on me and my wife Susan. We met Lewis in 1981. I lived in St. Louis county and he lived about 70 miles south in the town of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri., the oldest city west of the Mississippi River. I had been building models and dioramas all my life but was only rarely involved with other modelers. I saw a sign in a shop about a regional model competition being held at the Airport Marriott that spring. At the time, I had been building my first diorama, The Winds of War, and was curious as to what other modelers were doing.

My wife and I and another couple went to the convention. It was larger than I anticipated, about 600 or so in attendance. I met a guy I would become friends with for many years, Reverend Del Miller, a modeler and military rein-actor who would years later become the official Mastercon Chaplin and be forever connected to that event. He was a pastor of a local church. Because his father was the current president of the Board of Police Commissioners in St. Louis and I was a St. Louis cop, he took it upon himself to introduce me around. The first person happened to be Shep Paine, who was head judge and already the hobby's first celebrity, having written a very popular book, "How to build Dioramas", and would also later become a good friend and associate of mine in the Model industry. Coincidentally, Del Miller passed away last summer, three months ago. While there, this big guy with a head of bushy hair and a heavy beard, Lewis Pruneau, walked up and introduced himself. He had a voice that. boomed over the noises in the building.

Lewis had attended the show for the same reason I did, curiosity. I never saw him again until the following summer at the same hotel. In 1982, the IPMS National Convention was held in St. Louis at the Airport Marriott. By then, I had became acquainted with Wes Bradley who managed a local and very popular local shop, Astro Hobbies. Wes had talked me into joining the IPMS chapter after seeing my progress on The Winds of War diorama and I began working hard on it in order to have it ready for that show.

When the convention began, I saw Lewis in the crowd and we said hello. He had built and entered a 1/72nd model kit of a K-5 rail gun on a diorama coming out of a tunnel. When the show was over, I had won Best of Category and far more attention than my entry deserved only because of it's massive size. I was not previously aware it was particularly large. Lewis, unfortunately, never placed. But, it did spur him to begin building a 1/35th scale model of the gigantic German Dora rail gun from scratch. He joined the local chapter as I did and the three of us began hanging out together, Me, Wes and Lewis. We added another member, Mickey Eschevarria, a New York Puerto Rican American who was transferred here by his employer and a modeler as well. We began going to shows together, traveling around the country and eventually to Europe and England. Finally Lewis surprised us all including the large membership of our local chapter with Dora. It was spectacular. The size itself was overwhelming. However, there was a tight group of well known armor modelers who saw Lewis and myself as usurpers to their dominance. They criticized the quality of his rail gun unmercifully. He picked it up and walked out. I felt sorry for him and followed him to his car. I told him to forget what they said that they were simply jealous. It was an incredible piece of scratch building, especially for that time. I suggested some weathering tricks and to get more of a dramatic appearance by building the gantry cranes used to assemble the monstrous rail gun.

Long story short, he did all that and more and entered it in the Atlanta nationals in the summer of 1984. It won best of category and, like my Winds of War two years earlier, wound up on the cover of Fine Scale Modeler magazine. Lewis was ecstatic. That broad smile from ear to ear. I took home 27 trophies from that convention myself. Up to that point, Lewis and I had attended a lot of competitions and won a lot of trophies. I had also started a little mail order company with the pretentious name, "Warwinds Militaria and Hobby Limited". I was importing European manufactured aftermarket products and was amazed at how fast it was growing. At Atlanta, Lewis and I met Francois Verlinden, a Belgian modeler/hobby shop owner, who was publishing a line of Books called "The Verlinden Way. Verlinden and I had back to back articles in the second issue of Fine Scale Model magazine in February, 1983. With Verlinden came Jos Stok, A Dutch investor and Verlinden's new business partner. They had came to the show to locate an American distributor for their planned line of aftermarket products.. After becoming the third partner with them, changed the name of my company to Verlinden, Letterman & Stok, Inc. and later, The VLS Corporation. I was beginning to hear some objections to my competing with my customers and potential customers and stopped competing altogether after that show. Lewis began building dioramas for the Verlinden books as I did, and eventually ran into a collector in Rockford, Illinois, Ralph Keobbeman. Ralph began buying everything Lewis built, and Lewis began working for VLS. He did various jobs, beginning with producing the plaster buildings that Verlinden Productions marketed. Later, he began doing small commissions for modelers who specified the subject matter. Later on, Ralph and I became business partners in "The Miniature World Museum."

Aside from the business aspect, Lewis and I became closer friends. He was everywhere that I was as was Wes Bradley and my wife Susan. We were attending shows and conventions everywhere, including Shep's show, the MMSI in Chicago. Lewis continued to compete while I simply displayed. In the annual Chicago show brochure of 1985, My Legacies diorama, (display only), was featured on the cover next to Lewis' Paris gun. (in competition), which had taken the best of show. In the meantime, Verlinden had published the book "Superdioramas" featuring mine and Lewis' dioramas. We kinda became synonymous with each other after that. The magazine became a best seller and was distributed world wide.

Later on, Lewis wanted to try making a living building commissions on his own. I helped him get "Pruneau Dynamics" started with the legal work. Over the years, he was sought out by collectors all over the world, and, for the most part, he kept busy and, I might add, maintained a relatively lucrative living doing so. During that time and up until 1999, Francois and I bought nearly 50 of his dioramas that helped him through the lean times. When the partnership split in 1999, we divided up the Pruneau dioramas. I took half and Verlinden took half. Over these last 22 years, Lewis remained friends with both Verlinden and myself. We still did a lot together, but, after the Omaha IPMS Nationals in 2011, Lewis was reminded that his membership in the IPMS Nationals had been banned since the 1990s after an incident where Lewis lost his famous temper. He had entered his incredible Hindenburg Diorama there and they had accepted it in competition only to tell him after the awards ceremony, he didn't place because he was banned for life from IPMS competition. I had suggested he stop competing as I saw something like that coming. That ended his competitive career. He remained bitter about that till the end. Lewis loved to compete, so did I, but, after awhile, it just isn't worth it.

Here are some personal images throughout the years.

Wes Bradley, Don Wardlaw and the ever clowning Lewis. 1987, Washington D.C. for the very first World Expo Model Exposition. That was the last show VLS sat up shop. We had an entire wall of tables and 12 employees in gray uniforms. We dominated the vendor's room to the point, that our wholesale customers sold very little. I knew than It was time to stop selling at shows.

Don, Lewis, Washington.jpeg

A posed shot for advertising with Lewis sitting between Wes and Chuck Stuckerberg at our then new HQ in Maryland Heights Westport Industrial park. 1988.

In that photo you can see a profile of a German King Tiger tank with Porsche Turret. Lewis Favorite fighting vehicle. When we first moved into a commercial space, Lewis cut that out of plywood, painted it panzer gray and his twin brother, Clark, who was also an artist, painted the lettering.. I still have that tank and I'll be putting it in my private museum in a special section for Lewis I'm making.

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A quick story. Lewis, in his later years, seemed to be lonely. He never remarried after his unsuccessful first marriage and his friends had moved on for the most part. His brother Clark preceded him in death far too early and he was left with only his daughter Laura and long time friend, Jack Bullard. He was a very popular character in his home town but, not many close friends and no other modelers. He had been a successful drag race fan and followed that hobby throughout his life. One day, he called me and told me his brother from Australia had came to St. Louis and was with a racing exhibition for the company he worked for. He asked me to go with him to the St. Louis gateway track in Illinois across the river from St. Louis as his brother wanted to meet me. I finally agreed. We got there and went directly to the stands. I asked about his brother and he kept putting me off. When it was finally over, he mumbled something about his brother had probably already went back to Australia. It was then I realized he simply wanted company to take in the races with him. It made me feel sad that he had to trick me to get me to go to the track with him. Had I known that, I would have gladly went.

Gateway race.JPG


This was taken at Mastercon 3, 1994. Lewis and Shep Paine were good friends as well. Both made almost every Mastercon if not all of them, beginning in 1991.


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This its a famous photo of Shep, Lewis and Francois at Mastercon 3 during the grand opening of the Miniature World museum. There was a crowd of over 600 modelers attending.

Lewis, Shep, Verlin.jpg



There were shows and conventions everywhere back in those days. I would always take 8 to 10 VLS employees to those shows and to be fair to the single ones, I would pay for a "significant other" to travel with them. On this trip, I believe it was to Las Vegas, Lewis walked up to this gorgeous girl in a St. Louis nightclub and asked her to accompany him. She said yes. Lewis had this way with the ladies!

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Each time Lewis would finish a diorama, he would drive to St. Louis, stop at my house and then Verlinden's house to show us. This was one of his last trips, 2016.

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In my garage, 2016, with my Doberman, Southern Star. Lewis backed his pickup inside so we could look at his diorama in the covered truck bed.

Me. Lewis garage.jpg


The following are all photos taken at Mastercon 3. Lewis, Joe Porter, the Mastercon master of ceremonies, and Shep Paine.

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The Dias at Mastercon always included the attending V.I.P.s Left to right, Lewis, Verlinden, me, Wes, master of ceremonies, Ernie petit, CEO of The Testors Corporation, Bob Hayden, editor of fine Scale Magazine and so on.

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At a round table discussion, taking questions, left to right, Me, kinda hidden, Verlinden, Wes Bradley, Lewis and Shep.

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Closeup of lewis, taking a break, the ever-present cigarette in those days. He quit smoking in 2001, cold turkey and went on a diet simultaneously! Try that sometime!

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Lewis and Francois giving one of their many seminars.

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An example of Lewis size. This is Fritz Swanson, I don't think Fritz ever missed a master con. With lewis. Both are no longer with us. That's Shep on the left.

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At my house in Florissant, 1986 for dinner. Left to right. Judy Baggett, VLS sales manager, her husband, Milt, Susan, Me, Tom Gerringer, his GF, and Lewis. Wes Bradley took the photo.

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Photo published in the editorial page of the book Superdioramas, taken in Lier, Belgium, December, 1985. My God, we were all so young then!


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Each year, the VLS Crew went to Chicago to the annual trade Fair for models, the RCHTA exposition and Lewis was always there at our booth.

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The rest of the Lewis' diorama photos are mostly from my private collection.

Lewis did a lot of dioramas with me, Verlinden, Joe Porter and Gordon Stronach. In this Winter scene, Lewis used the 120mm scale 88 Flak box art that Verlinden built and painted and Lewis made the diorama to show it off. My private collection.

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Gordon Stronach, the founder of all the Planet model websites, Planet Armor, Planet Figure, Planet Aircraft and Planet Diorama, but this PBY and then Lewis built a diorama around it. My private collection.


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Lewis' friend all the way back to High School days, Buck McKlin, built this Nascar model. He used the kit hood and fenders to burnish their shape onto lead foil, then painted them and applied the decals. Then he smashed it into a pencil to get this effect. My private collection.

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This is a 120mm Civil War diorama Lewis built using the Verlinden figures and cannon. My private collection.

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Lewis built this diorama of The Disappearing guns of Corregidor while he worked at VLS back in the 1980s. They could be lowered out of sight and raised to firing position. My private collection.
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This was a castle scene and, I believe the smallest diorama Lewis ever built. It is 120mm scale. My private collection.

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Lewis' controversial Drag race diorama in 1/25th scale. All the figures were sculpted by Lewis. It was the one that got him banned for life from IPMS!
If you are interested in why and how he was banned, read page one of:

"My Buddy Lewis Pruneau Part 02"​


Lewis Drag strip copy.jpg


This is one I owned until a collector made me an offer I couldn't refuse. He had to have it. A 1/32nd scale diorama of the famous photo of the Hellcat crashing on the Carrier deck. He built that one while he worked at VLS as well.

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This I phootographed in Ste. Genevieve at the museum there. Iy is the only photo of the "N" scale diorama of Lewis' Home town as it looked in the 18th century. It was commissioned by the State of Missouri.

LewisMuseum_zpscae38cdc_copy_zpscopgq1jb.jpg


This is a link to a PBS inter view. It shows much of the detail of the above diorama.


This is in my private museum with 26 other Lewis dioramas. The motorcycle is from scratch in 120mm scale. My private collection.


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This is a diorama with a scratch built Russian siege gun. It was tracked but no self propelled. 120 mm scale again. You can see the photo Lewis used to build it on the lower left corner of the diorama. My private collection.

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This is a photo taken immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. The Battleship Pennsylvania and the Cassein and Downes destroyers.

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Lewis built this 12 foot long diorama in 1/72nd scale from the photographs. Absolutely genius!

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The last diorama Lewis brought to my house in 2016, just before I moved to Springfield. It went to a collector in South America. 1/35th scale.

train bridge 02 copy.JPG



Lewis loved submarines as well as railroad guns. He made this shadowbox of the U-505 interior in 120mm scale.

U-boat Shadowbox 01 copy.JPG


This was one of Lewis. very first dioramas. He carved the ship's shape from wood, Lewis could do amazing things with a knife and any old piece of wood, then took it to St. Louis and a company that did professional vacuum forming plastic, had it made into heavy gauge plastic in two halves, and then scratch built the V-80, an experimental German U-boat of WW II vintage. It was lit and the welder was animated using an electric circuit and flashing grain of wheat bulb and a tiny hidden speaker for sound. 1/35th scale. My private collection.

V-80 B.jpg


V-80.jpg


Joe Porter modeled the Elephant, Verlinden built the M-113, Lewis added the figures and created the diorama. 120mm scale. My private collection.

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Lewis' well known "Riverine" diorama. 1/35th scale, the boat was scratched. 1/35th scale.

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Another view.

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His daughter, Laura, sent me this photo of his last model. A 120mm mounted Napoleon. In 1985, Lewis went with us to Europe. While there, in Paris, we visited the Musee de armee at Les Invalides in the heart of Paris. It is a museum dedicated to the Napoleonic wars and contain's Napoleon's tomb. Lewis was fascinated with the Emporer's white horse. It was stuffed and on display. It seemed tiny to us, and he talked about it often. I see he finally got around to modeling it!

https://www.musee-armee.fr/en/your-visit/museum-spaces/dome-des-invalides-tomb-of-napoleon-i.html


Lewis' Last model Napoleon copy.jpg


And last, but not least, a 120mm WW I Trench diorama. Verlinden modeled the Tank, Lewis put it in the diorama with trenches and figures. My private collection.


WW I Tank.jpg


Lewis was the only modeler I ever knew who had many of the same modeling concepts as I did. We discussed that so many times. We were like brothers in many ways. I don't think I will ever see his like again. He had a bit of the genius about him. He could take an ordinary photograph and build everything in that photograph into a 3 dimensional diorama. He was an extraordinary. human being in many ways. This is the last photo of Lewis I have. It was taken this year with his daughter Laura.

Lewis and Laura copy.jpg


I hope you guys will enjoy these photographs. I only wish I had more. I still have three of his dioramas in storage. I am in the process of remodeling my private museum and hope to include those three. If and when I can get them out, I'll post photos on this blog.

Rest In Peace Buddy.

Bob Letterman
 

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Bob, I can feel the pain of your loss. I had a friend who was as close to me as Lewis was to you. that I lost just days before my birthday some years back. I have read all four of these incredible Lewis posts, and I feel that much poorer for having never met him. Because of that, being able to meet you and tour your museum is far greater thrill for me because of your role in all this history. I am ever so thankful to the Good Lord for allowing me to meet and spend time with you.

Thank you again for all these incredible pictures and memories!
 
Thanks for sharing your memories Bob. I know it is hard. I have similar kinds of memories of dear friends and a departed wife. I am lucky to have been given new friends over the years, and have been blessed to have you as one of them. Any time you need to talk, feel free to give me a shout.

I met Lewis just once back in the 80's down in Oklahoma City. He had his 1/32 B-52 there and won everything. I always wanted to get him to autograph my copy of SuperDioramas, but alas it was not to be. Take care my friend!
 
Thanks Bob for sharing your story and pictures. To see the good times had with those that are no longer with us are such cherished memories. Very special! Again, thanks!
 
Bob, I can feel the pain of your loss. I had a friend who was as close to me as Lewis was to you. that I lost just days before my birthday some years back. I have read all four of these incredible Lewis posts, and I feel that much poorer for having never met him. Because of that, being able to meet you and tour your museum is far greater thrill for me because of your role in all this history. I am ever so thankful to the Good Lord for allowing me to meet and spend time with you.

Thank you again for all these incredible pictures and memories!
Thanks Mark,

This one hit me harder than others. His daughter just told me they found an unfinished diorama he had started. We're going to St. Louis in a couple of weeks and she asked I I could finish it. I told her I'd see. If I can't finish it like he would, I don't want to try. It kinda depends on how far along it is, if I can determine what is happening within the diorama. She says the structure is an Egyptian monument.

We'll see?

Bob
 
Thanks for sharing your memories Bob. I know it is hard. I have similar kinds of memories of dear friends and a departed wife. I am lucky to have been given new friends over the years, and have been blessed to have you as one of them. Any time you need to talk, feel free to give me a shout.

I met Lewis just once back in the 80's down in Oklahoma City. He had his 1/32 B-52 there and won everything. I always wanted to get him to autograph my copy of SuperDioramas, but alas it was not to be. Take care my friend!
Thanks Paul,

I appreciate your call the other day.

Hope you can get up this eway before long!

Bob
 
Thanks Bob for sharing your story and pictures. To see the good times had with those that are no longer with us are such cherished memories. Very special! Again, thanks!
Thanks for commenting Bob,

We all shared in those during many Mastercons. I wish we could recreate those! I miss them, so does Susan.

Bob
 
Thanks Mark,

This one hit me harder than others. His daughter just told me they found an unfinished diorama he had started. We're going to St. Louis in a couple of weeks and she asked I I could finish it. I told her I'd see. If I can't finish it like he would, I don't want to try. It kinda depends on how far along it is, if I can determine what is happening within the diorama. She says the structure is an Egyptian monument.

We'll see?

Bob
I would volunteer to help on that if you would like. I am sure some others might be interested in helping as a tribute as well. Up to you and his daughter. When you decide to go over, if it is on a weekend I could meet you there.
 
I would volunteer to help on that if you would like. I am sure some others might be interested in helping as a tribute as well. Up to you and his daughter. When you decide to go over, if it is on a weekend I could meet you there.
Thanks Paul,

Not sure if it is far enough along to finish it as Lewis would have. She expects it to be done in Lewis style, etc. Not sure when I can make it up to the St. Louis area again as she will be out of town when I'm there on December the 11th. She is very particular about anything to do with her father's work. I told her if it was sufficiently along that I could tell what he had in mind, I would consider trying to imitate his style. There is no way I want to screw this up. It will be going in the Ste. Genevieve museum whether I finish it or not. Lewis is a very popular local celebrity there. I had told Susan if something happens to me before I finish Logistics that I wanted Lewis to finish it. Apparently he told his daughter the same in reference to me.

She believes I am familiar with her dad's unique style, I think I could mimic it. I'm not positive about that one, but, we have worked on dioramas together in the past and I remember his weathering formulas and the manner he paints figures. I only have a very vague idea of the subject matter. Too many considerations at this point for me to even make a decision one way or another. Obviously, this means more to her than just another diorama. Stay tuned until I have more information. I'll keep you posted but from our phone conversation this morning it likely won't be forthcoming until after the holidays.

Bob
 
Wow Mr. Letterman, I really appreciate this. It’s neat to see where the aftermarket business started!
 
Every now and again, a man tells a story about his brother that is so moving and inspiring I find there isn't one thing in addition needed. A fine tribute, Bob.
 
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