But oh, how Fleming loved theater -- even though his best role in high school was as a chorus member in Grease. So he knew early on that he wasn't going to be a Broadway star -- or writer, director, or producer. Yet Fleming has been with The Producers since its first dress rehearsal at the St. James, getting ensemble members Robert H. Fowler, Matt Loehr, and a few others into the dozen or so costumes each must wear.
"Believe me," says Fleming, letting out the generous laugh that punctuates many of his statements, "'Springtime for Hitler' is all about quick changes. They actually start before the song, when the Hitler-wannabes do their scene. As I help Eric Gunhus get into his lead tenor garb, Robert walks across the stage as an audience patron, gets to me, and we get him into some Bavarian stuff and then some stagehand garb over it so he can be in 'It's Bad Luck to Say Good Luck on Opening Night.' While that's going on, I rush over to the stairwell and get two ladies into Bavarian dress, then I go back over to stage left when 'Springtime for Hitler' begins for another change." (While dressers don't necessarily exclusively dress members of their own sex, Fleming explains, an effort is made to keep men with men and women with women.)
Of course, no child ever says "When I grow up, I'm gonna be a dresser," and Fleming was no exception. He admits that he "fell into it" when he went to college at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, Missouri. A mandatory course in practical theater put him in the costume shop, where he feared for his future. (Remember that sewing machine?) But Ron rose to the occasion. He still remembers the first pair of pants he made for Snoopy: "A basic four-panel pair with a drawstring, not even a fly," he says. "But I'm still proud of it."
Finances being what they were, he had to move back near home, which meant trading in Northwest Missouri State for Southwest Missouri State in Springfield. There, too, his academic results did not inspire his parents to put a bumper sticker on their car. Recalls Fleming, "Cynthia, my costume teacher, would sit me down and say, 'What are you doing in school? You do great work in the costume shop and theater classes but not in anything else.' I said, 'I just want to do shows and if that means blue-collar backstage stuff, I'll take it.' At that time, I didn't even know what a dresser was."
Once Cynthia informed him that there was such an occupation, he left school in 1993 without a degree. Fleming had a cousin who was about to work on the Branson production of The Will Rogers Follies, so he applied to be a dresser. No one got back to him for such a long time that he had to take a job at McDonald's. Recalls Fleming, "My manager liked me and said, 'Why don't we talk tomorrow about your becoming a manager?' I was so discouraged. McDonald's! This was going to be my life? And while I didn't want to do it, I had to have the talk. But that morning, just as I was leaving the house, the phone rang and I was offered swing dresser for Will Rogers. It only paid $6 an hour but that was, like, two bucks more than McDonald's was giving me."
And more fun, too -- even though the show only lasted seven months. There were so many quick changes in the opening number that Fleming really came to believe that every production was this frenetic. "It was good preparation for what was coming," he says. That included Branson's version of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular -- coincidentally enough, the same show in which Brad Oscar, the current star of The Producers, would later play Santa Claus. Fleming only got the seasonal month's run out of that show, though -- so what next?
He went to live with friends in San Antonio, figuring he'd get a job as a dresser at Fiesta Texas Theme Park. He applied, only to learn there was nothing for him, but the industrious Fleming saw on a passing bus that The Phantom of the Opera was coming to town. So he called the local union and got a job stitching for the seven-week run. "Then Fiesta called," he says, "and I had to turn them down -- but offered to come in two months. They said yes and, when I got there," he says with a grin, "I was viewed with awe because I was this guy who had done Phantom."
Having "done Phantom" is quite different from a stitcher's point-of-view than from an actor's. "We never get to see a show but we do get to listen to it in the wardrobe room," he says. "Doing it seven weeks made me notice a lot of holes in the story." Similarly, though Fleming says he later "did Joseph with Sam Harris," he admits that he never once met the star. "When you're a dresser, you don't always meet everyone in the cast," he admits. "We have our specific roles and spaces."
When Fleming went on the road with Grease and Miss Saigon, he was both a dresser and a costume repairer, which meant staying at the theater from 1pm until the show ended on regular days but getting there at 8am on matinee days -- and lasting until 11pm. As arduous as that was, Fleming says a much harder job was going on the road with Disney on Ice: Toy Story, where he took care of all the costumes. "And there were many on that show," he says with a sigh. "I averaged out my hours to my pay, and it was like $3 an hour." But, in his second year with the show, he was promoted to wardrobe supervisor and it got him his union card, which was priceless.
Fleming moved to New York in July of 1998 and went door-to-door to each Broadway theater, giving his résumé to wardrobe supervisors. Within three weeks, he got a call from The Scarlet Pimpernel to fill in. He was with all three versions of the show as one of 12 dressers. Then came The Music Man, and then The Producers.
As for the job itself, Fleming reports that some actors are neat and take off their costumes very carefully, but others carelessly leave them inside out or with a shoe stuck up a pant leg. "Sometimes that's because of the ferocity and quickness of their changes," he admits, "but sometimes it's the actor's temperament. Most of the time, though, they take off their things nicely, so I have time to fold them, put them in the basket, take them downstairs and hang them up."
The fastest change he's ever had to do? "Jekyll & Hyde on the road," he moans. "Twenty seconds to get Philip Hoffman from a suit into a tuxedo. The tux was rigged," he confesses, "hooked together with sewn-together pants attached to the vest, and under the vest was a fake shirt. Most of the time, audiences actually see a real suit, unless something has to happen quickly. That's when we cut things apart." Velcro is not used as much as we might think -- "because it makes a loud ripping sound we wouldn't want the audience to hear."
And what does Ron Fleming think about Ronald Harwood's The Dresser? "I knew you were going to ask me that!" he says with glee. "I've never made it through that movie. It lost me when the dresser had to give his star a bath. That guy was more of a valet. I'll just stick to clothes."
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]