Longform

The Wizard of Wickenburg

Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.
Build a better clothes hanger and, well, you'd better hope the world has a compass, a four-wheel-drive vehicle and maybe even a can of javelina repellent. Actually, the man who hopes to revolutionize the country's clothes closets probably couldn't care less if the world ever darkens the threshold of the hilltop hideaway he calls home, a spacious desert dwelling located atop a knoll five miles northeast of Wickenburg. Better it should flock to the hundreds of K marts that are scheduled to soon sell his latest invention, a newly patented device he's dubbed the "universal collapsible clothes hanger."

To jaded consumers weaned on dazzling domestic conceits like the Kitchen Magician, the Buttoneer and the notorious Inside-The-Shell Egg Scrambler, 63-year-old Romanus "Sonny" LaMont's latest brainchild is bound to sound a tad prosaic. And while his white plastic hanger will never win any design awards (in its collapsed state, the device resembles a Halloween skeleton that's missing a few limbs), the innovative gizmo is both deceptively clever and functional. Simply insert the device into a garment's neckline, pop a flange with your thumb and the arms of the hanger stand at attention, saving wear and tear on the garment . . . and untold frustration on the part of the garment's owner. Another pop of the flange reverses the process, collapsing the hanger's arms.

Okay--so Sonny LaMont isn't exactly Thomas Alva Edison. Still, one can't help wondering about the stroke of creative genius that drives a man to create a push-button hanger.

To paraphrase Sir Edmund Hillary, "because it wasn't there." "Every once in a while I'd see someone rasslin' to get a regular hanger into a sweater or shirt with one of these supersmall necks, and I figured there had to be an easier way," says LaMont, a diminutive, soft-spoken man whose face simultaneously suggests Gene Wilder and Doodles Weaver. "I started fooling around with it and eventually sold myself on the idea that I could sell enough of 'em to make some money on it."

Judging from a track record that includes such canny creations as the patented Robosoc (a robotic-looking disposable plastic light socket used on construction sites), Sonny LaMont will probably not lose his shirt on the hanger. And if he does? Well, at least he'll have the consolation of knowing that particular garment didn't cost too much in the first place.

"Instead of coming up with an idea and having a machine shop make that part, I actually carve a model myself," explains LaMont, who cut his teeth on the molding biz while machining parts for Motown's auto industry. "Then, rather than take a pattern and have a tool shop carve it for thousands of dollars, I take patterns, rubber molds, ceramics, whatever, and pour my own mold right here. Something that might cost the average guy 50 grand, I can do here for $800--and in days, instead of months." (Using this technique, LaMont recently manufactured a clip-on sun visor extender for motorists.) The molds are then delivered to his small plastics manufacturing plant in South Phoenix; the finished products are later marketed by a plastics distributor in Detroit.

The one invention that the former high-school dropout wishes he could perfect is a polite way of dealing with the perpetual parade of Gyro Gearloose wanna-be's who badger him about their own half-baked brainstorms. "A lot of people actually ask me if I'll teach them to invent," LaMont smiles lamely. "Either that or they've got this idea for something and they'll say, ~`Will you be my partner?'" The answer, invariably, is "no." "You should see some of the crazy things people bring over here," volunteers his wife, Lee, an amiable woman who seems oblivious to the mean-looking pet macaw that is noshing on the neck of her blouse. "Don't even ask me what they were--half the time they won't even take it out of the bag because they're afraid someone's going to steal their idea."

Forty years after he began dabbling with inventions (his wife Lee still rhapsodizes about the "sharp-looking" custom-made Venetian blinds her husband designed for the back window of their '51 Ford), LaMont estimates that he's invented several dozen items but for one reason or another has bothered to patent only a handful of them. For starters, a patent can be relatively expensive, which is why LaMont probably never spent the several thousand dollars necessary to gain exclusive claim on rather marginal masterworks, like his artificial fishing worm laced with glittering metal flakes. ("I don't know whether the glitter did anything for the fish, but people sure seemed to like it," chuckles Lee.) But LaMont reports that one of the biggest reasons for not protecting an invention is, ironically, to protect that invention. Because the U.S. Patent Office demands detailed explanations of how one potentially patentable idea is different from another, LaMont has never submitted plans for his unique plastic- molding technique. Smiling wryly, he says, "If I patented that, I wouldn't be the only one who knows it anymore, would I?"

Does Coke tell Pepsi?
As a result of his secrecy (and those products that have resulted from it), Wickenburg's foremost father of invention has lived a life of modest luxury since settling fifteen years ago in the desert hamlet fifty miles northwest of Phoenix. Today, he works just two months a year, a leisurely lifestyle that allows plenty of time for painting ("I did this one in 45 minutes," LaMont boasts, holding up a De Grazia knockoff) and trips to Laughlin, Nevada ("He's not much of a gambler but he enjoys the shows and the gourmet dinners," confides Lee). And when company drops by, there's always time for a little tomfoolery: Whenever guests make the mistake of asking to see the spooky mine shafts that burrow through his property, LaMont likes to spice up the tours by tangling with a giant rubber spider or feigning fright as he beams his flashlight at a five-foot-tall inflatable dinosaur he's planted at the end of one tunnel. Since retiring from the auto industry rat race after a near-fatal bout with bleeding ulcers, LaMont claims to have discovered inspirational nirvana in his Wild West oasis. "I found that this was the way to go," he confides, leading the way through the spacious ranch-style home he designed several years ago. "I can work whenever I want to and I don't need to punch a clock anymore. This is better than being a doctor or a lawyer or whatever." Dressed in a homey shirt and slacks, LaMont seems more like Ozzie Nelson than Rube Goldberg as he wends his way across the spacious living room he designed. An amalgam of styles that reflects LaMont's eclectic tastes, the room simultaneously suggests The Jetsons, Graceland and the set of one of Dean Martin's Matt Helm movies. The floor is carpeted in acres of green-and-yellow Herculon, an eye-scorching color-scheme reflected in several pieces of impressive metallic sculpture that LaMont whipped up between inventions. But the piece de resistance is undoubtedly an indoor rock garden that dominates one corner of the room. This desert diorama features bleached cow skulls and a full-scale cactus skeleton that serves as a perch for the menacing macaw, a bird that Lee LaMont says is capable of "breaking a broomstick with his beak."

Stopping in front of a massive Santa Fe-style sand casting hanging from the wall, the usually laconic LaMont grows introspective. "I do a lot of dreaming," he says, revealing that the imposing artwork is actually a chunk of die-cut plastic foam he'd sprayed with glue, then covered with sand. "I'm instinctively inclined that way. I guess I'm gifted both artistically and mechanically, plus I've got the gift of ambition." Always thinking on his feet, LaMont's problem-solving ability really came in handy several months ago when, hot on the trail of the family poodle, a rampaging javelina charged through their home via an open arcadia door. "It was a mess," LaMont recalls matter- of-factly as he inspects the spare bedroom where he calmly grabbed a shotgun and mowed down the wild boar in cold blood. "We had to change the carpet in there."

Lee LaMont smiles with wifely pride. "Sonny is very organized.

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Dewey Webb