Don Weil Shares His Love for Miniature Soldiers
Don Weil is at ease paying attention to his armies
FRANK METHE PHOTOGRAPH
If a man’s home is indeed his castle to be enjoyed in comfort and safety as the poet’s opine, Don Weil is content, knowing his palace is well protected by soldiers, all manner of soldiers: American soldiers, Russian soldiers, Napoleonic soldiers, North Korean soldiers … you name it and it “lives” under Weil’s roof, always standing at the ready.
In fact, Weil, a retired businessman who once sold furniture on Magazine Street, is commandant of a Lilliputian army of some 5,000 soldiers of every stripe. He swears with a wink that he knows each one by army, rank and name. And he should – he made them.
Weil, at one time, was the owner of Le Petit Soldier, a “must stop” on Royal Street for collectors of miniature (please don’t call them “toy”) soldiers from all over the world.
Weil’s business stood out in a neighborhood of strange and iconic businesses and attracted collectors just as Gen. George S. Patton was attracted to a battle – “Don’t argue with me, dammit, I can smell a battlefield!” And who knows how many serious collectors today got their start when they first stood peering into that window and wondering what all those little soldiers were all about.
But what no man-made weapons could defeat withered in the face of Mother Nature. Just as Napoleon’s Grande Armée and Gen. Heinz Guderian’s Wehrmacht were defeated by cruel Russian winters centuries apart, Hurricane Katrina dealt a fatal blow to Le Petit Soldier, if not to Weir’s determination.
Weir, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps reserve, walks through his house, from room to room, as if leading an inspection. He stops to look around each room at the troops stationed at various points in his home. One almost expects the click of heels or a salute.
“I missed World War II,” Weil says. “I was too young. But my brothers, my dad, my uncles, guys in the neighborhood … they all went. I finally joined in 1948. When the Korean War came I was attached to a NATO unit in the Mediterranean. Well …” After all these years, the disappointment in Weil’s voice is palpable.
“I was stationed in Washington, D.C., in 1952,” he says. “As a kid, I had always built models and that’s where the bug for the miniatures first bit. I bought a kit and went home and built a soldier and painted it … and I was hooked. I came home and found a few other collectors and we started collecting together. I was hooked! I absolutely loved it from the beginning. One day it hit us, ‘Hey, these things will sell!’” He continues, “There were seven of us and we opened up a shop on Royal Street in ’62. In time, my partner, Dave Dugas, and I bought out the five other guys. Dave had been a pharmacist his whole life and he just got tired of people coming in a putting a gun to his face for narcotics. He loved the shop. And he knew his stuff. As for myself, Le Petit Soldier Shop wasn’t my primary source of income. I was in the furniture business. My collection just grew and grew. My wife, Betty, and I were living in a two-story house in Lakewood. Then Katrina hit. At the time, I had a collection of about 20,000 pieces, about 8,000 of which were downstairs. They were destroyed.”
Like Weil, Dugas also lost his house in Katrina and had “just had enough.”
Although Le Petit Soldier, like most buildings in the French Quarter, was damaged little if at all, the big loss was “the lack of customers,” according to Weil.
“We sold out to a guy who really ran the business into the ground. You can’t run a business if you can’t pay your suppliers and you can’t pay your rent.
Le Petit Soldier was padlocked, remaining only a memory in the minds of Weil, Dugas and an army of passionate collectors.
Dugas moved to Pelican Pointe and Weil moved to Metairie. In the interim Weil and another partner opened Vision Plaza, a mega optometry outlet. They built the business into 10 outlets around New Orleans with 130 employees. But with competing optometry business seemingly opening on every corner each week, the now 85-year-old Weil and his partner sold the business in 2006 and the retired marine now spends all of his time building armies instead of building businesses.
The tour through his home continues.
“Betty lets me have soldiers everywhere in the house except the bathroom, the bedroom and the kitchen,” Weil says. “And right now, I’m thinking of making a move on the bedroom.” Betty playfully shakes a finger her husband’s way. “But really,” he says. “Betty has been a good soldier about it all. If I don’t get miniature soldiers on my birthday or Christmas, I pout. She always comes through. It’s all supposed to be a big secret. She gets together with some of the guys I collect with. They’ll be asking me throughout the year, ‘What do you want?’ The Internet is going like crazy.”
One room opens to a large table holding the Battle of New Orleans. A sea of British redcoats is making its way through the swampy plains of Chalmette into the teeth of a rag-tag determined army led by Gen. Andrew Jackson. Weil points out the fallen British Gen. Sir Edward Michael Packenham. He also points out that the layout isn’t thrown together helter-skelter, but is laid out according to American and British battle plans of the time. “There is so much history to be learned with these soldiers, these battles,” he says.
We all know how that British misadventure ended. Damn: At this point of Weil’s tour you can almost hear Johnny Horton singing that Top 40 ditty from the late 1950s: “Well, they ran through the briar and they ran through the bramble and they ran through the bushes where a rabbit wouldn’t go. They ran so fast that the hounds couldn’t catch ’em, down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico …”
“A friend of mine who owns a funeral business was really impressed by the Battle of New Orleans exhibit,” Weil says. “He wanted to make a deal, he said, ‘I’ll give you $250 or a beautiful funeral for it.’”
A visitor sidles over to a model of a German “Tiger Tank.” “No,” Weil says with all of the aplomb of a teacher correcting a student. “That’s a German Panther tank.”
“Isn’t that Heinrich Himmler?” the visitor asks.
“No,” says Weil, “That’s Herman Goering … and that’s Benito Mussolini right next to him.” Each piece is delicately and accurately hand painted.
Past the Peloponnesian War; past the Nomonhan conflict of 1939 between Japanese and Soviet forces; past the Battle of Midway; all the way to the workshop in the little shed behind the Weil home where Don Weil builds his little men. There are a kiln and rolls of rubber molds representing unborn soldiers of just about any war or conflict one can imagine. Lead for the soldiers comes from discarded weights used in balancing tires.
“When the shop (Le Petit Soldier) was running I’d make 100 maybe 125 soldiers a week,” he says. “We were selling that many. Now it’s sort of an on demand proposition. I’ll do maybe 20 or 30 at a time.”
All of which gives Weil time to volunteer regularly at the National World War II Museum and prepare for and attend miniature solider conventions in Schaumburg Ill, and the occasional one in Atlanta.
Still, Don Weil is impatient. He says he sleeps entirely too late in the mornings and needs to start volunteering more. He needs to do more.
There are so many soldiers to be made; so many battles to be won.