On Location: Willie’s Shoe Service leaves footprint in Hollywood
For a recent episode of the TV series “Modern Family,” Raul Ojeda crafted a pair of shoes covered in red sequins for actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson. His character, Mitchell, shows off the shoes for a “Wizard of Oz"-themed birthday party he throws for his partner, Cam.
A decade ago, Raul Ojeda was working as a shoe shiner. Now the 29-year-old is leaving his own footprint in Hollywood, supplying custom-made shoes to stars such as Steve Carell and Sally Field.
Ojeda is the owner of Los Angeles-based Willie’s Shoe Service, a shoe repair shop that has been providing footwear to the entertainment industry since 1956, when Willebaldo “Willie” Rivera opened a small business across from Paramount Pictures on Melrose Avenue. The operation quickly became a staple for made-to-order shoes for the film and TV industry.
Rivera created the sandals worn by Charlton Heston in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 classic film “The Ten Commandments” and the boots worn by the Starship Enterprise crew in the 1979 movie “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (to this day, Trekkies place orders to purchase them), as well as several pairs of bright red clown shoes for Ronald McDonald.
Ojeda, Rivera’s apprentice for nearly three years, bought the business in 2007 and has carried on the old-fashioned handmade methods he learned from his former boss, while also introducing new styles and launching an offshoot called Don Ville on La Brea Avenue that makes custom shoes.
The companies together employ a staff of eight and generate nearly $500,000 a year in revenue, with about one-third of the business coming from Hollywood sales. Ojeda’s recent clients include the TV shows “Mad Men,” “Modern Family” and “Glee,” as well as such upcoming films as “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” and Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”
He charges $1,800 to $3,400, depending on whether a client wants to refurbish a shoe or create a new one from scratch.
Ojeda, a native of Mexico who was raised in L.A., began his career in 2000 as a shoe shiner, working at several stations before joining Rivera as an apprentice. Without any formal business education or even a high school diploma, Ojeda still leapt at the opportunity to fulfill his longtime dream: owning a custom shoe service and repair company, especially one that played such a vital role in the movie industry.
“For me, it is so rewarding to know that we are part of the magic of theater, television and motion pictures,” Ojeda said. “It is a way to immortalize the craft of shoemaking with the satisfaction that my grandchildren will tell stories about Willie’s working for certain movies that one day will become classics.”
When creating a pair of shoes for the costume designer of a film or television show, Ojeda frequently will have only the designer’s oral description to go by — he rarely sees an image. Most often, costume designers approach Ojeda to refurbish shoes rather than make them from scratch, bringing their own fabric or shoe to meet their description.
“I always compare my work to cooking — you can either get the bean, clean it up, boil it, marinate it and serve it, or you can just open a can of beans and pour,” Ojeda said. “That’s one of the things that makes us different.”
For the upcoming December release “Lincoln,” Ojeda spent three weeks creating the boots and the slippers to be worn by Sally Field’s character, Mary Todd Lincoln. The film’s costume designer, Joanna Johnston, provided the horsehide leather to be used for the boots and had an extensive discussion with Ojeda on how she wanted the shoes to look.
He also fashioned a pair of red velvet boots covered in rhinestones worn by Steve Carell in the forthcoming comedy “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.”
Allison Leach, assistant costume designer for “Mad Men” and “Glee,” turned to Ojeda and his team when she needed help crafting a pointy Mexican cowboy boot made out of snakeskin. The boot was worn by Cory Monteith’s character, Finn, in a recent episode of “Glee.”
“Whether it’s 1960s or snakeskins, the quality of the workmanship is always great and they always meet their deadlines, and that is indispensable in the film industry,” Leach said.