It's a familiar showbiz story: A young boy smitten with the Technicolor magic of MGM musicals decides to stick around for the end credits, and realizes that behind every glittering silver-screen star is an army of designers. That was Bob Mackie's story in 1953, when he was blown away by the costumes in An American in Paris
"I watched the credits, which I never really paid any attention to, and I saw the name Irene Sharaff," Mackie told Lynn Pecktal in an interview for the book Costume Design: Techniques of Modern Masters
. "I started watching for her name. Of course, I realized I'd seen her things before, and I liked them."
Several decades and several thousand eye-catching, award-winning TV and Broadway costumes later, Mackie's name will be joined to Sharaff's in a new way this week, when TDF presents its 13th annual Sharaff Awards for theatrical design, Mar. 23 at the Hudson Theatre. Mackie will receive the Sharaff Lifetime Achievement Award for his work on Broadway and on television.
This story of far-flung influence repeated itself in the next generation: Murell Horton, who will receive the Young Master Award at the Sharaffs, grew up in Kansas as the grandchild of antique dealers who acquainted him with history and art. But it was exposure to Mackie's work that pointed him toward his current career as a frequent costume designer for the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. and the Berkshire Theatre Festival.
"The first time I noticed clothes was watching The Carol Burnett Show
and Sonny & Cher
," Horton says on break during tech for the Shakespeare Theatre's upcoming production of Titus Andronicus
. "Somehow I understood then that Bob Mackie showed how you can do it: You can make costumes that are sexy, tasteful, and witty all at same time. And there's nothing wrong with being a little over the top."
The formative influence on the theatrical and dance costume design of 91-year-old Kermit Love, who receives the Sharaff's Artisan Award, was his experience dressing marionettes as a child.
"When I look back, I see that the rod puppet and marionette actually do everything that theatrical costuming requires," Love says. His illustrious career went on encompass designs for actual people, too, in such seminal dance works as Agnes DeMille's Rodeo
and Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free
(co-designed with Oliver Smith), and in Broadway shows like One Touch of Venus
and Suds in Your Eye
Years later, Love returned to his first inspiration, in a sense, becoming one of Jim Henson's most trusted puppet-builders: Among other beloved characters, Love built Big Bird and Snuffleupagus. Hard to believe as it is, Love insists that it's pure coincidence that he shares a first name with Henson's most famous alter-ego, Kermit the Frog. He recently realized, though, that Henson "rarely called me Kermit; he always called me 'Mr. Love.' I certainly admired what he did with his Kermit, and I think he had a great appreciation and patience for the characters I did."
Greg Poplyk, who heads the TDF Costume Collection, says that among the most gratifying moments at past Sharaff Awards have come during the presentation of the Memorial Awards (previously called Posthumous Awards). This year's goes to the late Rouben Ter-Arutunian, who won the 1959 costume Tony for Bob Fosse's Redhead
"It allows us to relive a career," Poplyk says. "And it can be from any era. In 2000, we did Lucinda Ballard, who did a lot of Tennessee Williams' plays, including A Streetcar Named Desire
." Indeed, Poplyk says, the costume design community seems to relish these revivals of little-sung past masters: "It's not only been a successful part of the show, it's a highlight. Last year's tribute to Lila de Nobili was almost churchlike. It got the most responses from anyone."
Not that the awards are buried in the past: The recipient of the Robert L.B. Tobin Award for Lifetime Acheievement in Theatrical Design goes to Santo Loquasto, currently one of the busiest designers on Broadway. Poplyk says the award, named for a noted collector of scenic designs from Europe and the U.S., is intended to recognize a rather rare and precious breed, at least in the U.S.: scenic designers who also design the costumes (or costume designers who also do sets, if you will).
Loquasto, whose long career includes Ragtime
, Grand Hotel
and Lost in Yonkers
as well as several films with Woody Allen, certainly fits the bill. As he told Pecktal in his book: "I discovered early on, as a college student in the '60s, that I felt compelled to create the entire picture…My concern was not so much control--an unfortunate word--but to bring a consistency to the visual picture. The costumes became an instrumental way to punctuate the set."
Asked by Pecktal to define what a theatrical costume designer does when he or she is doing the job well, Mackie offered a memorable summation.
"When you're working in the theatre, if you can make it look like it's all out of butterfly wings and yet it'll last forever, that is the secret," Mackie said. "You can whip an audience into a frenzy just by the way you've dressed a star. Get somebody who really performs in a great costume with a great audience and terrific music-then you've got magic. That's what it's all about."
This year's TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards Ceremony, to be held Friday, Mar. 23, at the Hudson Theatre, 145 West 44th St, starting at 6 p.m., is being generously underwritten by The Tobin Theatre Arts Fund.
pictured above from top: (1) 2007 TDF/Irene Sharaff Awardees: Bob Mackie, Murell Horton, Kermit Love and Santo Loquasto
(2) presenter Christine Ebersole with Bob Mackie
(3) Murell Horton and presenter Michael Kahn
(4) presenters Elmo, Kevin Clash, Grengetta Grouch and Pam Arciero with Kermit Love.
(5) Santo Loquasto, Kermit Love