As luck would have it, the rope broke as he was driving and one of the machines fell from the truck, she says. Bob Nims picked up the parts and said, “Well, we now have our parts department.” He sold them the next day and used the money to buy his next pinball machine.
“That’s the kind of person he was. He never got discouraged,” says Jeri Nims of the man she married in 1953. “He would keep going. And that’s how he got started, one of the machines falling off the back of the truck and picking up the parts for the other machine that he went in debt for. Some people wouldn’t have that kind of courage, but he had that kind of courage.”
Bob Nims, a son of the Great Depression, made an extended visit in 1942 to his sister in New Orleans while serving a tour in the Merchant Marines. He fell in love with the “city of dreamy dreams,” says Jeri Nims. Born to a musical family in Spokane, Wash., he took a temporary job with A and M Amusement Company servicing a jukebox route in New Orleans. One tour later, he moved to the Crescent City.
Following World War II, Americans sought simple entertainment: pinball, pool tables, cards, shuffleboard. A born businessman, Bob Nims found his niche in an open market. He established his own jukebox and pinball machine servicing routes and in 1945, formed the Lucky Coin Company in his mid-twenties.
Eight years later, he married Myrtis “Jeri” Laiche, who was the State Jitterbug Champion and a professional dancer at the Blue Room and other New Orleans clubs. He would introduce her as his “wife, partner and sweetheart” for the rest of his life.
Together, Bob and Jeri Nims built Lucky Coin and in 1956 purchased A and M Amusement, Bob’s original part-time employer, and established American Music and Amusement (AMA) Distributors, Inc., continuing to reinvest profits and dividends and watching their businesses thrive for more than 50 years. When Bob Nims died in February 2000, the Robert and Jeri Nims Foundation was born and the philanthropic organization continues to spur Louisiana culture, growth, innovation and industry development.
Jeri Nims, who still prays to her husband for guidance, has carried on his admiration for the arts and love of the music and entertainment industries as a chief benefactor of cultural institutions throughout Louisiana, including the University of New Orleans.
“It’s a local university and Bob always said they had a strong administration,” she recalls. “They offer an outstanding
education to the community, opportunities for students to improve themselves, to pursue their ambition in life.”
She was working three jobs when she started dating her future husband and doing the books for his business when they got engaged, says Jeri Nims, who learned everything one could know about coin-operated machine businesses, even oiling the machines.
They met when she was 17, she says. He drove her to school on his way to clean jukeboxes, change records and type title strips for A. M. Amusement, she recalls, and she always pestered him for new phonograph records. They lost touch for a while and when they met again, he offered her a job.
Jeri Nims describes her late husband as a reserved man, a kind man, a generous man and a gentleman. They worked side by side for more than five decades as their entertainment and amusement businesses grew from coin-operated pinball machines and pool tables to include electronic gaming. Bob Nims, who served for many years as a national leader of the Amusement and Music Operators Association, helped to lead the amusement and entertainment industries through various changes.
“When Bob and I got married, we had four employees and we
were two of them,” recalls Jeri Nims. “I ran the office and Bob was the collector. We grew to 85 employees. Self-made, that’s what he says.”
Today, she gets a thrill when she sees a parking lot full of cars outside the University of New Orleans Robert E. Nims Center for Entertainment Arts and Multimedia Technology in Harahan, La., knowing that she is helping to provide good paying jobs for creative young people in Louisiana’s burgeoning film industry.
Operating under director Roger Benischek, the Nims Center Studios helped to launch “Hollywood South” 10 years ago, drawing major motion picture productions to Louisiana with the emergence of state tax credits for the film industry, now estimated to bring the state more than $1 billion in annual revenues.
The nearly 100,000-square foot Nims Center Studios boast five stages totaling more than 50,000 square feet, four green screens, 45 production offices, editing suites, a mixing room, state-of-the-art sound and film equipment. The UNO Nims Center is home to Cineworks, the only full-serve film processing lab in Louisiana and the only post-production studio offering a full range of digital processing services.
This spring, the studios will be renamed the Robert and Jeri Nims Center for Entertainment Arts and expanded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration to include a 5,000-square foot incubator facility where young and talented film industry entrepreneurs will be able to work and take advantage of the studios’ technology, industry internships and project development opportunities.
Originally a Campo furniture warehouse and with no production amenities, the studio attracted the first blockbuster filmed in Louisiana, Runaway Jury, a 2003 American drama adapted from a John Grisham novel by the same name, says Susan Krantz, professor and dean of UNO’s College of Liberal Arts. The film, directed by Gary Fleder and starring John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman and Rachel Weisz, instantly raised the profile of the UNO film program and the Louisiana film industry.
“From there, we leveraged her gifts (to complement and attain) state and federal economic development funding and to expand the film industry in tax credits, partly because UNO’s goal is to build a new industry in film in Louisiana. And I think that anybody who looks around sees that is beginning to happen,” says Krantz.
“Jeri Nims is the little, little lady behind the scenes, but I sometimes think of her as the little man behind the machine in The Wizard of Oz. He’s running the machine and has insights and abilities but what we see on the outside is much bigger and flashier.”
Where Jeri Nims finds joy in her philanthropy is where entertainment and the arts intersect. The performing arts — film, theater, music, dance — provide joy, help to bring people together, train young people, promote the entertainment industry and keep it going, she says. Helping children and helping students to attend college was what her industrious husband wanted to do with his money and was always part of their plan.
“Anything that had culture to it, Bob wanted to learn,” says Jeri Nims. “He wanted to better himself in knowledge.”
Jeri Nims has provided numerous film and music scholarships to UNO students and paid to enter their work in competitions and film festivals. Every December, recipients of the Jeri Nims Graduate Thesis Scholarships gather with her for an annual luncheon, where she gets to know students and view their graduate thesis films. Getting a thesis film completed is no small task, says Benischek, and without the Nims scholarships, some students would have difficulty or go deeply into debt doing so. Past scholarship recipients include Kd Amond, who is now winning awards with her thesis film, The Woodshed; Ji Choi, whose thesis film, Madchen, recently screened at the New Orleans Film Festival; Paul Catalanotto, who owns his own production company; James Roe and Kevin Hughes, both now working professionally in the Louisiana film industry.
On main campus, UNO students perform throughout the year in the Robert E. Nims Theatre, which received a sweeping and transformative post-Katrina renovation thanks to Jeri Nims, whose gifts helped to provide a new professional sound stage, inviting lobby and concessions area, upholstered seating, a prized trophy case and other unique touches designed to enhance the theatre going experience. For the UNO film curriculum she has provided the resources to retrofit space in the Performing Arts Center to create a much needed sound stage for a university’s growing number of film production majors.
“When the students are enveloped in such a professional space, it elevates their work and their seriousness,” says David Hoover, professor and chair of the Department of Film and Theatre, who believes the improvements also profoundly affect the audience. “From the moment they walk in they think they’re in good hands. What they are going to see is going to be of a certain caliber.”
Her husband wished to create a lasting legacy to the arts, entertainment and cultural heritage of New Orleans and to benefit projects that support education and promote a sense of community, Jeri Nims wrote in a foreword to a biography of her husband, A Legacy Earned, by Charlotte N. Laihonen and J. Steven Picou.
Since his death, Jeri Nims has helped to establish the Jeri and Robert Nims Recreation Center for the Magnolia School, the Nims Black Box Theatre at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) and the Robert and Jeri Nims Performing Arts Center at the Academy of the Sacred Heart.
She worked with Blaine Kern Artists to build the Robert E. Nims Jazz Walk of Fame, an interactive pedestrian tour through the musical history of New Orleans located along the banks of the Mississippi River in Algiers. She generously contributed to the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Jefferson Performing Arts Society. Recent projects include gifts to St. Anthony’s Gardens in the French Quarter and the National World War II Museum, where a wall of entertainment and the Jeri Nims Soda Shop, a 1940s era soda shop run by Chef John Besh, honor Nims and her late husband.
UNO remains special and close to her heart, says Jeri Nims. “I’ve talked to so many students who have graduated from UNO and I’ve gotten the same answer from them: An outstanding education,” she says. “They have a high respect for their university. And you always support your local.”