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Dresser Up!

Three Broadway dressers share their secrets to finding success and happiness in their jobs.

Sutton Foster at the 2011 Tony Awards
(© Tristan Fuge)
When Sutton Foster accepted her Tony Award on June 12 for her smashing turn as Reno Sweeney in the current Broadway revival of Anything Goes, she paid homage to her longtime dresser Julien Havard, who has been a beloved mainstay in her professional life for the past nine years. Meanwhile, in his Tony Award acceptance speech the same night, Norbert Leo Butz heartily thanked both his dresser on Catch Me If You Can and his former dresser on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Their emotional tributes elevated public attention to a backstage job that has always seemed below the radar in the theater hierarchy -- even though a dresser is more than just a person who helps the star in and out of his or her costumes. A dresser, as any Broadway star can attest, can also be a personal assistant, a confidante, nurse, and cheerleader.

"It can be so many things, depending if you're dressing seven ensemble men and it's a show full of quick changes," says Broadway veteran Kimberly Faye Greenberg, who has worked on such shows as The Lion King and Billy Elliot. "That's very different if you're working with a star of a show who needs a little more attention -- like water, a pat on the back, whatever."

The path to becoming a dresser can be a circuitous one. Greenberg got a head start as a dresser when she was interning one summer at the Sacramento Music Circus. In between acting, she had to assume assorted backstage duties every week, one of which included being a dresser.

"Dressing was up my alley," she recounts. "So I started there and ended up moving into the more professional realm in Sacramento during the winter, becoming a professional theater dresser with another professional regional stock company there." After some time in New York accumulating acting credits -- while waitressing and working as a caterer during her down time -- she ran into a former colleague who was now a Broadway dresser. "He got me a job working on Aida," she says. "Since then I've been professionally dressing for the past nine years."

Barry Hoff, a Texas native who has been dressing some of Broadway's most luminous stars for over two decades -- including Sean Hayes, Matthew Modine, and Patty Duke -- has a master's degree in English and theater from Texas A & I University. "I moved to New York in 1983 and got a job at Manhattan Plaza's health club in membership," he relates. "About three years later, this woman joined the club and we got along famously. She turned out to be Celeste Holm's part-time assistant."

Through her, Hoff soon scored a spot as both Holm's assistant and dresser on a show she was doing in L.A. Later, while working on the Broadway production of I Hate Hamlet, Hoff became friends with another dresser who introduced him to Barry Bostwick, the star of Nick and Nora, who needed a dresser for his show. Discovering that both were prolific potters, Hoff clicked with Bostwick, landed the gig, and a Broadway career was born.

Kimberly Faye Greenberg
backstage at Billy Elliot
(© Lyssa Everett)
Unlike Greenberg and Hoff, Barbara Berman got her start as a dresser in mid-life, following an over 20-year career as a music teacher. While studying for a certificate in entertainment marketing at NYU, the seeds for a new vocation were planted. "A professor invited the class to observe the goings-on at Fashion Week," Berman recalls. "I thought this was wonderful. So I became involved with Fashion Week, and discovered that my favorite place was backstage and I had a passion for wardrobe and clothes."

In addition to her ability to multitask both backstage and onstage -- Greenberg has been starring Off-Broadway in Danny and Sylvia: The Danny Kaye Musical and One Night With Fanny Brice while working as a dresser -- she says that being a quick study when it comes to learning "tracks" (a series of movements for a given actor) has put her in good stead in the backstage hierarchy. Sewing skills and ironing are also important, she admits, but they can be taught.

For her part, Berman, who also teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology, feels sewing is an essential skill for dressers. In fact, she wishes some of her colleagues weren't so cavalier about it. "That's part of the problem," she says. "The younger generation doesn't know how to sew; it's not taught in the school any longer. Unless you have a mom or a grandma who sat you down, you won't know how to sew."

Hoff agrees that there are dressers who are better technicians than him -- people who really know how to sew well and can attend to a variety of costuming mishaps. But he believes that it's more important to be able to take care of the star. "You can take care of their fan mail, you make sure food is there, and that the costumes are pressed," he says. "Whatever it takes, you make sure your charge is happy."