NY CULTURE JULY 22, 2011
The Wall Street Journal
Finding Closet Space for 75,000 Garments
By PIA CATTON
Think it's hard finding a home in the city with decent closets? Try finding space for more than 75,000 costumes—all of which have to be accessible year-round. Such was the challenge facing the Theatre Development Fund, the nonprofit theater service organization that operates the TKTS booths.
Since the 1970s, TDF has amassed thousands of donated garments from Broadway, Off-Broadway, opera and occasional film and TV productions. The costumes are then rented primarily to nonprofit theater productions around the country. But last year, when the rent for its 13,000-square-foot space inside Manhattan's Starrett-Lehigh Building became too expensive, TDF began looking for a new home. The search led to Queens, where, in the fall, the enormous costume collection will move to Kaufman Astoria Studios, the seven-building campus where numerous films and television shows, from "Men in Black III" to "The Smurfs," have been shot.
The collection began more than three decades ago with several donations from the Metropolitan Opera. At the time it was managed by the New York State Council on the Arts in a warehouse upstate. TDF was then asked to take over the collection, which was initially moved to Harlem, then to Chelsea. For 35 years, the costumes have been packed into the Starrett-Lehigh Building, but as the city evolved, so did the rent. "The west side is a different neighborhood than when we came in," said TDF executive director Victoria Bailey.
TDF's needs made the move a tricky one: The entire collection needs to be constantly and easily accessible, rather than boxed away in storage. In 2010, the organization loaned out costumes to more than 900 productions in 33 states. Costume designers call up needing everything from the entire wardrobe for "The Wizard of Oz" to just a few police uniforms (many donated by "Law & Order"). As a result, the space housing the collection needs to be either broad enough to accommodate acres of singleheight racks, or tall enough to accommodate two-story or possibly three-story vertical racks. "The double-height ceiling was critical," said Paul Wolf, principal of Denham Wolf Real Estate Services, which brokered the 20-year lease for the Astoria space and its 23-feet high ceilings.
The space comprises about 16,000 square-feet within the original Kaufman Astoria Studios building, which sits adjacent to the Museum of the Moving Image. It was previously used by Lifetime Networks and various post-production teams, but it will be gutted and custom-designed for TDF by Perkins Eastman, the firm that created the new Times Square TKTS booth, with its popular red steps. Into the renovated space will go rack upon rack of theater and film history. There are costumes from multiple productions of "Ragtime," as well as pieces made for famous faces—the label of one coat indicates that it was made by New York's legendary costume house Barbara Matera for Patti LuPone in a 2008 Encore production of "Gypsy." For the well-endowed, there's Anna Nicole Smith's leopard-print number from the 1994 film "The Hudsucker Proxy."
The collection is not digitized, so the inventory resides in the memory of collection director Stephen Cabral, who joined TDF 18 years ago after a career as a costume designer. The costumes are divided into Regular and Special Stock, the latter being more valuable in history or quality. Special Stock includes, for example, costumes donated by the Met, which are immediately identifiable for the richness of the fabrics and colors. "The Met Opera stuff is built to last 1,000 years," Mr. Cabral said.
The collection mainly rents to nonprofit productions, and prices are scaled according to theater size and the duration of a production. With the closure of many costume rental houses, however, TDF has seen a rise in requests from commercial operations. "They don't have anywhere else to go," said Ms. Bailey, adding that rentals have gone to fashion shoots or scenic designers. For-profit enterprises are charged at a higher rate. (Individuals cannot rent the costumes for Halloween.) The emphasis is always on nonprofits. "We are making it possible for schools, regional theaters and operas to raise their production value," Ms. Bailey said. "As a service organization, it's something you do for the field."
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