Costume designer Alvin Colt, who made his Broadway debut in 1944, is still going strong.
Colt's Broadway debut was a full decade later, following an apprenticeship in summer theater and ballet, and it was a big one: On the Town. Since then, he has rarely paused for breath, designing costumes for some 200 productions in theater, film, and TV, including such legendary shows as the original Guys and Dolls, The Golden Apple, Fanny, Li'l Abner, The Lark, and Destry Rides Again. Connoisseurs may be even more intrigued by a partial list of Colt shows that didn't run very long: Barefoot Boy With Cheek, Pipe Dream, Copper and Brass, Greenwillow, Christine, Wildcat, Something More!, Henry, Sweet Henry, Golden Rainbow, and Sugar. More recently, he designed last season's hit revival of Waiting in the Wings. And, on the afternoon I interviewed him, he was lining up another assignment for the summer. This is not a man who lives in the past.
When you sit with Alvin Colt in his large, immaculate living room on the Upper West Side and review his career, it scarcely computes that this guy started out selling fabrics to the former wardrobe mistress for Pavlova's ballet company. His hair is dark and thick, his manner lively, his laughter frequent, and his recall total. He still sketches by hand; some of his most recent work can be seen at the Museum of the City of New York's current Guys and Dolls exhibit, where he has augmented his original 1950 sketches with re-creations from 2000.
We start our discussion with Forbidden Broadway, with which he has been associated since 1994. The show, he says, "is put together with spit and mayonnaise," but that's certainly not evident in Colt's lavish array of costumes.
ALVIN COLT: I started with [Forbidden Broadway] about six years ago, I think, when they were in that basement over on 60th Street.
THEATERMANIA: Oh, that awful place.
COLT: Yes, between 2nd and 3rd. My agent was a great friend of the group, and told me they needed some help with the costuming. They did nothing for costuming up till then; what they had, they brought from home, or Gerard found. It was very, very makeshift. Since then, it's gone to a new level--the whole show, not just the costumes. Oddly enough, every once in a while, they still go back to their old, Mickey-and-Judy way of thinking about things. You have to keep control of them; I call it policing. But in this particular [edition], if I counted correctly--I don't have a list in front of me--there are about 65 costumes. That's a lot. Some big musicals get by with less! And there are about 30 or 34 wigs.
TM: Do you do the wigs?
COLT: We have another person who does them, but we're always in contact. That brings to mind something about this show: I was there one evening and it was packed. I sat at a table with these two old ladies. They had a wonderful time but, during the bows at the end, one of them turned and said: "Oh! There are only four people in this show!" (laughs)
TM: What is the wear-and-tear on, say, the Lion King costumes?
COLT: Terrible, terrible. And they have only one person backstage that runs everything. She takes care of the changes, which are many and difficult, and she even has to cue some of the props. She also takes care of the maintenance; there's a lot of airing and laundry and all that.
TM: And the costumes have got to be easy to put on and take off.
COLT: You plan it so that things are "rigged," as we call it. You know, Velcro and snaps and things. The actors are very cooperative about that. There are thousands of items. Everything's spread out. There's still no room backstage, but it's better than it was on 72nd Street [at the Triad]. That was the worst. The shows have grown since then.
TM: And the costumes have become more integral to it. It must be very rewarding for you when a costume gets a laugh.
COLT: Oh, sure.
TM: I was thinking particularly of Forbidden Hollywood several seasons back, and the Audrey Hepburn dress from My Fair Lady. It always got a laugh, but I couldn't tell how it actually differed from the Cecil Beaton original.
COLT: You can't copy him direct; you wouldn't want to. You just make a comment on it--make it a little brighter or bigger than it should be, but certainly close enough so that the audience can identify it. For one thing, we don't have that kind of money. That My Fair Lady outfit, when Cecil Beaton did it, I'm sure was at least $10,000. We don't spend that much on the whole show! That particular costume, I struck it lucky: I found, right near here, a bridal shop. I took a wedding dress and added trim and a hat. I didn't have to make it from scratch.
TM: I assume that, before you do a design, you have to see the show you're parodying.
COLT: Not as often as you'd think. Sometimes, you do it from the press pictures. You know, they won't buy the tickets [for us], and I'm not going to spend 85 bucks to see something I don't really want to see anyway. They did, last year, get me a seat for Aida, and I only stayed for the first act of that. I don't go see a lot anymore, really. I haven't lost interest, except that... (pauses) the present directors and choreographers and producers don't come up to the ones during that wonderful era when I came up. As for revivals, I've seen the originals. And when you've seen Merman do something, or Robert Preston, everything else looks like summer stock. I don't know; maybe that's a naughty thing to say.
TM: I know that, among recent shows, Gerard loved Ragtime. He told me that was very difficult to parody, because he loved it so much.
COLT: Right. But it turned out to be a big hit, our Ragtime sketch. That show I had seen, and they didn't send me to it. I saw it because I wanted to.
TM: Well, you have excellent taste.
COLT: Aida, we had a terrible time with. My goodness, they redid it and redid it.
TM: The Broadway show, you mean?
COLT: No, our version of it! They put it in different places in the show. It was the first act finale, then it was in the second act, and it was just huge. It's been boiled down and it works better now. It's enough. We did a number in Forbidden Hollywood that Aida reminded us of--it was called, "That's the Bible!" Gerard wanted a whole satire on those Biblical movies, Cleopatra and such.
TM: Really? I never saw that.
COLT: Nobody did--it never went in. It was a lot of work. We did a lot of costumes and wigs, but it just never took off.
TM: Well, one thing about Forbidden Broadway: it's steady work. They're always adding new things.
COLT: Yes, that's what's so nice about it. The show goes on all the time and there are companies all over the place. The royalties aren't huge, but they're nice.
TM: It's like years ago, when they had 20 companies of Blossom Time running around.
COLT: Well, it's always at the last minute. Gerard calls on Monday and wants it Wednesday. And then he changes his mind.
TM: A lot?
COLT: No. Sometimes, he can be very explicit about what he wants. He'll even do a funny little drawing for me to follow--naïvely done, but it does tell you what he has in mind. Other times, he'll say, "I'll leave it up to you." I try to let him know what I'm doing, but usually there's no time to do the sketches. I'll dash off little things in pencil, and he may want things changed--the collar, whatever. He has a visual sense, which a lot of directors don't. I think that's why we've gotten along so well and done so many of these, because there's so much back-and-forth like that.
TM: If you don't mind, I'd like to ask you about a flop show you did. There's a feature in your file at Lincoln Center about a huge operetta called Music in My Heart...
COLT: (practically shrieking) Oh! Where did you find that?
TM: Well, it's this feature article by Vernon Rice, and it says that you did 200 costumes for the show. Is that possible?
COLT: Sure. That was a terrible experience! I did it in Southern California; I was trying to crash the movies then. Some producer, I think his name was Duffy, wanted to bring it to New York. They got Hassard Short to direct it--you know who he was? I did the show with him, and it was a disaster. You'll get me talking about this one forever! It never worked at all. A Tchaikovsky score, Vivienne Segal in a character part, Martha Wright as the lead. She was really the understudy: They had started with this woman who was married to Everett Crosby, Bing Crosby's brother--he had a lot of money in it, Everett Crosby did--and they got rid of her in Philadelphia. She was so upset about it, she almost jumped out of her hotel window. But this is how things happen: Hassard and I became great friends, and there was a show he directed called Make Mine Manhattan. He invited me to the opening. Afterwards, he had a supper party at the St. Regis. We were sitting at a huge table and I was next to a woman I'd never seen before in my life. Her name was Nella Webb, and she was a psychic. We were making ordinary table conversation, and then she turned to me, and said, "Remember..."--I forget the date, but she said "Remember this date. Something's going to happen to you on that day that's going to be very important. It may change your whole life." I thought, well, she's crazy. But I got home, I got out my big date book and turned to that page--it was, like, six months down the road--and I wrote, "Remember Nella Webb." That was the date they called me to do Guys and Dolls!
TM: I was looking at the sketches and photos at the museum exhibit. Why so much pink?
COLT: There's not, really. I gave a gallery talk there, and people asked a lot of questions about that. I told them that one of the most important things you can do is put a color on the stage that makes direct contact with the audience. They react to color more than anything else. For Forbidden Broadway, bright colors work. So [Guys and Dolls set designer] Jo Mielziner and I were figuring this out together, and we had the same point of view. Damon Runyon was a very sort of nighttime person--his whole life was nightclubs and cabarets and shows and restaurants like Lindy's, and all these things happened in the Times Square area at night. So that controlled the colors of the show. And the colors of the clothes are, really, the lights of Broadway. That's how all those bright magentas and pinks and reds and stripes got in there. Again, you go back to the subject matter and essence of the show, and that's the inspiration for your work. I think that was one reason Guys and Dolls was such a huge hit: Every department was infused with that essence. I was talking to Michael Kidd the other day in California, and he said the same thing. We were all on the same wavelength. I have an old saying: "If it's in the script, it should be on their backs." If you stay with the script, chances are that what they're wearing is going to be absolutely right. The revival of Guys and Dolls a few years ago, they paid no attention to that; the look had nothing to do with the characters at all. I called it "Smothered Runyons."
TM: So, sometimes, you get to see other people's interpretations of shows you did before.
COLT: Well, that was the first big one. I know Encores! did Li'l Abner, but I didn't see it. I loved that show--that was a wonderful piece to work on. Everything I did with Michael [Kidd] was fun. For that one, the Eckarts, who did the sets, and I had the same idea: Everything we did was outlined in black, for ink. If it was white buttons, it had little black edges. And it just worked. Even Al Capp couldn't get over it. And, of course, the colors were very pungent. It was a wonderful company, and Michael did such a marvelous job. It wasn't good in the movies.
TM: No? But you did the movie, didn't you?
COLT: Uh...kind of.
TM: You got a credit for it.
COLT: I know. They paid me for the sketches, but I didn't go there. And they did a lousy job. Michael didn't do [the movie], either.
TM: But he got credit for the choreography.
COLT: No, Dee Dee Wood did it. She was in the show. But the whole Washington scene, for example, was different. Guys and Dolls, too--that movie was a disaster. The wrong cast and all that. And I'll tell you one thing I find about what happens when a movie is done from a hit musical: They're not funny. It all falls flat. There's no energy.
TM: Your bio says that you also did the movie of Top Banana.
COLT: Ooh, that was awful! That was just photographed on the stage.
TM: Maybe. But, as historians, we're grateful to see what it looked like.
COLT: Yeah. That was a big show, but not one of my favorites. It was a hit, and Phil Silvers was marvelous, and the burlesque number was lovely--very, very funny.
TM: Are there any shows you regretted doing?
COLT: No. (laughs) Well, if there are, I've forgotten them. Copper and Brass, maybe, with Nancy Walker. I loved it, but it was the only show I ever put money in. Lost it all.
TM: Do you like working with stars? We civilians hear all these stories about temperamental divas.
COLT: It varies, it varies. Most of the time, they're absolutely wonderful. They respect you, you respect them. Other times it can be just...I went through a very difficult time, I don't even want to go into it, with Waiting in the Wings last year.
TM: I won't ask which diva.
COLT: Well, you know who it was. That was really...a challenge I'll never accept again. (laughs) All the other actresses, they were wonderful, marvelous. I loved them, they loved me. But the star never wore anything of mine.
TM: Are there shows you turned down and later wished you had done them?
COLT: I had one that I didn't really turn down, but it was unfortunate. After Guys and Dolls, Cy [Feuer] and Ernie [Martin] wanted me to do Silk Stockings. I signed contracts and all--but, at the same time, along came Fanny. I thought, "Well, I'll do both." Cy and Ernie didn't like that; they thought it wouldn't work. So I had to give up Silk Stockings.
TM: Both shows ran, but Fanny ran forever. And yet you never hear about it anymore.
COLT: It was a huge hit, but it's one of those shows that goes out of style. I don't think an audience today would sit still for it. Too sentimental, too romantic, too serious. (laughs) I mean, look at what they're going to see!
TM: I guess my wrap-up question for you is: Why do you keep working? I mean, we're glad you do, but you don't have to.