Web-posted Friday, March 21, 2008
Gun shows to gunbelt leather
Jim Dakota has done it all
By Joe Southern
Michael Norris / Amarillo Globe-News
Jim Dakota, 74, seen Friday, has had a colorful career. He was in the Army and has also been a quick draw competitor, a show performer, a rodeo competitor, and is now a leather crafter, making custom-made knife sheaths and holsters.
Michael Norris / Amarillo Globe-News
Jim Dakota shows the hand stitching that goes into one of his custom holsters.
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If the name Jim Dakota doesn't come across Western enough, or his black felt cowboy hat and gray Buffalo Bill style goatee don't give one the feeling of days gone by, then the decor of Dakota's home and the color in his stories ought to be enough to convince anyone this is a man born out of his time.
"I have lived in the past and not the future," Dakota said. "I enjoy the history of the Old West."
These days Dakota spends his time tooling in his shop, making holsters and knife sheaths. Around him hang reminders of his former acting career working with some of the biggest names in Hollywood's golden age.
Among the photographs hanging in Dakota's shop, many stained with the ink of an autograph, is a picture of him shaking hands with John Wayne.
"I performed for him at his 60th birthday party," he said.
In his 74 years, Dakota has appeared in numerous Western movies, television programs and promotional films, usually as a stuntman or extra. His roles were uncredited, and he doesn't have a listing on the Internet Movie Database Web site - not that he'd have any use for the Internet. He has also been a quick-draw artist, singer, rodeo rider and a stage performer, having done Western stunt shows in New York and at Six Flags theme parks.
"I don't do nothin' anymore except work in leather," he said.
Born Jim Lusby in South Dakota near the area where "Dances With Wolves" was filmed, he took the name Dakota when he got into his showbiz career.
"We didn't even have a car. We rode everywhere on horses," he said.
"As a kid I used to hang around a saddle shop," he said. "The saddle maker gave me miscellaneous chunks of leather to work on."
That interest in leather paid off years later in 1955 while he was serving in the Army in Arizona. He befriended a hobby shop owner who taught him leather work. About that same time, MGM was filming "Wide, Wide World" nearby. He went to check it out and got hooked.
After he was discharged, he began working as a Tombstone Vigilante in Tombstone, Ariz. He got his first break when MGM came to film a documentary on the history of Tombstone. From there he returned to Dallas, got married and had a child.
"The bug had come in me to become an actor," he said.
A friend advised him to stay away from Hollywood but instead go on location and get hired onto films that way. He moved out to Phoenix and got involved in the Arizona Gunslingers and in re-enactments. He joined a group that split off and went professional. He even joined the Screen Actor's Guild.
That's when he started getting work as a stuntman and taking bit parts wherever he could find them.
"Usually when you saw me I was falling off a building or getting shot off a running horse," he said.
Most of his acting career was spent making promotional films. It enabled him to work with many stars including Sheb Wooley, Amanda Blake, Jim Backus, Jill St. John, Betty Buckley, Hugh O'Brian, Peter Breck, Roy Rogers and numerous others.
In 1964 Dakota headed to New York and got a part in the Frontier Palace at the World's Fair. There he worked with Goldie Hawn, who was cast as a dance hall girl.
Though he was contracted for two years, the show went bankrupt and he returned to Texas for a steady job doing Western shows for Six Flags.
"I did a lot of gun dexterity and fast draw," he said.
He worked for Six Flags for several years. He started making his own gun leather and sheaths because he could make it better than what he was given to work with.
Dakota said he turned down the role played by Will Geer in "Bandolero" so he could keep a commitment to Six Flags, a decision he now regrets. He left the theme park due to a dispute with management. He came back in 1977 when they asked him to produce the shows.
He produced shows at the 26 parks operated by the company, but left again to come to Amarillo to work at Six-Gun City.
It was here that he met and married Catherine Sorenson, the mother of famed Western artist Jack Sorenson.
"It will be 29 years next month," she said.
"I'm still here in Amarillo," Dakota said. "I never did go back to pick up where I left off."
He said learning to ride a horse before he could walk and his quick draw helped him go far in life.
"A gun and a horse have got me into more doors than you can shake a stick at," he said.
Joe Ed Coffman, 48, got to know Dakota back in the 1990s when he formed the Amarillo Gunfighters group.
"We were entertaining tourists and taking advantage of our Western heritage," Coffman said.
He said he met Dakota at a gun show where he had a table of holsters for sale. They struck up a quick friendship with their love of the West.
"It was like we were meant to meet," Coffman said.
For several years Dakota let the group perform at his Rusty Star ranch near Palo Duro Canyon.
"He always called me his adopted son," Coffman said.
Dakota has slowed a bit with age, but he continues to tool gun leather for his customers, which today mostly consist of members in the Single Action Shooting Society, a group of Old West gun enthusiasts.
"Those things (holsters) are built like a saddle. They'll last a lifetime or two or three," Coffman said.