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By Rob Weinert-Kendt
One night back in 1977, Paul Reubens, a wiry sketch comic at the Los Angeles improv company the Groundlings, came up with the character of a hapless, unfunny standup comic called Pee-wee Herman. To complete Pee-wee’s awkward look, he borrowed an ill-fitting glen plaid suit from Groundlings founder Gary Austin.
Thirty-three years later, a row of identical glen plaid suits hangs backstage at the Stephen Sondheim Theater, where Reubens’ now-iconic creation is having a triumphant Broadway moment in The Pee-wee Herman Show. These retro two-piecers—not to mention the bright, color-coded costumes for Pee-wee's friends like Cowboy Curtis and Miss Yvonne—come courtesy of designer Ann Closs-Farley, who built and sewed most of them herself for the show’s initial bow last January in L.A.
Director Alex Timbers told Closs-Farley he wanted “everything glittered and gemmed—I want it to sparkle,” she says. “So I pretty much put glitter and sparkle on everything, and it looks really homemade-y, crafty.” Touring the backstage, she holds up a gem-encrusted, “bedazzled” version of Pee-wee’s jacket that he wears in a moment of onstage bliss. “This is what I spent the month of August doing—I basically had a glue party for two weeks.” She points to a swirling figure emblazoned on the jacket’s back: “The phoenix is my interpretation of Pee-wee rising again, Elvis-style.”
Closs-Farley is an apt choice to handle the candy-colored, thrift-store aesthetic of the show, which unfolds in a grown-up playhouse full of talking furniture. After all, she cut her teeth as a performer and designer with another of L.A.’s indigenous ensembles, the Actors’ Gang (where she starred in and costumed the original Bat Boy: The Musical), and her design style has always been a cocktail of good vibes and Goodwill.
“All of my costumes have a sense of humor about them,” Closs-Farley says, and she acknowledges that some of her peers look askance at her work. “Some costume designers don’t like me, because I’m not worried about creases and pleats, and I never brag that my stitching it straight. But no one’s checking my seams, they’re checking what I’m presenting.”
Indeed, she got the Pee-wee gig in part because of her skill with a glue gun. For a number of years now, she’s done the costumes for Ken Roht’s annual “99 Cent” holiday show in L.A., in which the all the sets and clothes come from 99-cent stores. (After she opened Pee-wee on Broadway, she was off to build 150 costumes for this year’s edition.)
The 99-cent shows got her noticed by a theatre colleague who works for Disney’s theme park division, and soon she was designing a Toy Story stage musical on Disney’s cruise lines—an experience that helped prepare her for the unique challenges of Pee-wee.
“I’d never done a show where the images are so iconic,” Closs-Farley says of Toy Story. “How do you recreate something that’s already pretty perfect? At the Actors’ Gang, the work was all about making the actor a huge part of the personality of the character, but with Toy Story and now Pee-wee, it’s already provided for me. So how do I stay true to the aesthetic of something that already exists?”
It helps that her aesthetic was partly formed by Pee-wee.
“I remember seeing [the television show] Pee-wee’s Playhouse at a friend’s house [in the 80s], and it blew my mind,” Closs-Farley recalls. “Everything was semi-tacky and real, in a sloppy, cool, theatrical way. The TV show was about the boy who doesn’t have to grow up, and I feel like that infused who I am today. That’s what I identify most with Pee-wee—I’m lucky enough to have a job where I don’t have to grow up. I get to play for a living; I chose theatre because it has the word ‘play’ in it.”
Rob Weinert-Kendt is associate editor of American Theatre. He served as founding editor in chief of Back Stage West from 1993 to 2003