The problem with elephants is that they never stop swaying. Now, the loitering habits of pachyderms may not trifle most humans; but, in the theatrical costume business, it can be an issue.
Especially if you're Gail Baldoni, production coordinator for Dodger Costumes, the country's oldest and largest costume house. Trying to measure the biggest stars of a Ringling Bros. production isn't a picnic. In fact, it's a circus, as a couple of guys on ladders pass tape measures under an elephant's mouth and around, all the while trying to sidestep an amazingly agile gray trunk possessed of an alarming tendency to nuzzle.
It's all for a good cause, though: The audience will squeal with delight at how dazzling the elephant looks when he and his cohorts march into the arena draped in gold sequin-lined purple blankets and matching headpieces.
"We can make so many things--and make so many things happen," Baldoni says of the Long Island City, New York-based warehouse that holds more than one million costumes and accessories. Since 1863, the company now known as Dodger Costumes (formerly Eaves-Brooks) has been supplying not only wardrobe but considerable expertise and services for American stage productions.
"Dodger is just this wonderful old institution that has a lot of stuff," is how Judith Jarosz of Theater Ten Ten (which recently produced Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill) describes the company. "They have a myriad of fabrics in that huge warehouse, and they can measure and build on the spot. They have that craftsmanship, which is really nice." As producer of the Weill show, as well as artistic director of Theater Ten Ten, Jarosz was responsible for coordinating the costumes that she and her three fellow cast members wore for a production that required "a Victorian, tarty look" for the first act and an "elegant, 1940s style" for the second.
The 100,000 square-foot space that houses Dodger Costumes is six stories high and boasts complete wardrobes for more than 100 musicals, plays, operas, and ballets, from Meet Me in St. Louis to Madama Butterly. Other costume houses exist throughout the country and in New York City, but they tend to specialize in genres--costumes for animals, costumes for humans dressing up as animals, historical eras, uniforms, and the like. Dodger Costumes is perhaps the only such house still in existence with such an array of choices and services all in one place.
"This is a dinosaur. There's no place like it in the country," says Baldoni, who began working for Dodger Costumes in 1990 when the company was still known as Eaves-Brooks, its name for most of the 20th century. In 1998, Dodger Theatricals, which produces Broadway shows and tours, bought the costume house and renamed it.
Costuming an average of 30 shows a month, the 26 people who comprise the Dodger staff of tailors, embroiderers, seamstresses, and coordinators take their art quite seriously, no matter who the customer. Whether they are dealing with high school productions or Broadway musicals, the approach is the same. According to Baldoni, prices range from $75 to $2,000 or more per costume rental, depending on the length of a show's run.
Along one wall in the millinery department, a gray, steel storage unit is lined with different size wooden "heads" on which felt hats can be steamed and stretched. Like those of elephants, human heads obviously come in all shapes and sizes. Some hats are one of a kind. A black and white number with an elaborate bow and a brim 25 inches in circumference was perched on a hat stand ready for anyone needing to recreate the Ascot scene from My Fair Lady. On a vast table nearby lay an array of hat styles, including a silver turban adorned with enough plastic fruit to give Carmen Miranda pause.
Everywhere, it seemed, were headless, limbless fitting dummies on steel stands in various stages of dress. A pair of tan, glittery slacks hung from a rack, awaiting repairs for its return to the legs of the deejay in Saturday Night Fever. The materials for that show were purposefully made from "slimy, sleazy" fabrics, Baldoni says, and they often tear during dance numbers.
Sometimes, costumes are ruined beyond repair, such as the original costume Nathan Lane wore in the Broadway revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. After that show closed, Dodger rented out the frock for use in another production, and it came back with a rust stain across the front. It now hangs forlornly among the racks. Dodger charged a percentage of the rental cost in damages, but the costume can't be used again, Baldoni says.
"We lose a percentage of stuff--but costumes wear out anyway," Baldoni says philosophically. "We're constantly making new things."
One of Dodger's original creations is also its most expensive: With a manufacturing cost of $15,000, an intricately beaded and embroidered Hello, Dolly! dress was recently rented to a Michigan high school for four weeks for a production of the show. According to Baldoni, the cast and crew were totally awed by the costume.
"Everyone loves the art of what we do here," Baldoni says. "They cried when they got that dress."
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