Sunday, April 09, 2006

Costume Guild Calls it Quits

Who will ever forget the image of Scarlet O’Hara taking the curtains down from the windows of Tara in order to make herself a fancy dress (or Carol Burnett’s parody of that same scene, complete with curtain rods)?

It was hard not to think of Scarlet O’Hara as I sat talking with Barbara Jackson, one of the few surviving members of the once very active Davis Theatrical Costumers Guild, now in the process of folding up its sewing machines, closing the door to its closet, and fading into the performing arts history of Davis. As Jackson and Charlotte French, the two remaining active members of the Costume Guild face decisions about what to do with the costumes which remain in storage, I met with each one of them to get their memories about 40 years of costuming history in Davis.

“In the early days, all the costumes were made out of people’s old draperies and tablecloths,” Jackson remembered. “We didn’t go buy fabric. The company didn’t have any money. So we really used everything we could get our hands on. We dyed things, used old sheets. There are still some petticoats and bloomers that we made for one of the Gilbert & Sullivan shows that were made out of my dining room curtains. They’ve gotten increasingly faded, but they are still there.” There are even a couple of men’s suits, from “The Gondoliers,” made from the old upholstery of Jackson’s couches, when she recovered the furniture.

Nobody set out to establish an official costume guild back in the 1950s, somebody just found a barn and decided to put on a show and it set the stage for several Davis institutions to be formed.

“The barn” was the school gym, when what is now City Hall was the high school. A group of people, headed by Dr. Robert Cello, then head of the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, decided to put on a production of “The Pirates of Penzance.” Cello played the Major General, Joe Pence, DDS was the Captain of Police, and Marinka Phaff made the costumes. (All three, sadly, are no longer with us.)

Marinka Phaff had costume making experience in Europe prior to settling in Davis with her husband Hermann, professor of Food Science and Technology. (“I think she may have worked with the Ballet Russe,” speculated Charlotte French, adding that Phaff had been a very private person who did not like to discuss her life outside of the work she did with the other costumers. “‘Eccentric’ is a word that is just perfect for her. She never talked about herself. She would never talk about her past.”).

At the time of the “Pirates of Penzance” production, Phaff was working in the costume department at UC Davis. “Marinka was dedicated to costuming more than to anything else,” remembers Jackson.

Phaff and Jackson began to make costumes for Davis Art Center productions in the 1950s. The Art Center had no building at that time, but had office space behind McNeil’s Rugs and Draperies. Classes were held in various locations around town. Cello, who was on the Board of Directors of the Art Center with Jackson, was the inspiration for productions sponsored by the Art Center.

Jackson’s first show was “Brigadoon.” Eleanor Barnes was in charge of costumes, which were rented, but which came missing some integral pieces. Barnes called Jackson, to ask if she would be willing to make four dancers’ costumes for the show. “I said I’d be glad to do it if she would just bring me the fabric and measurements and patterns.” Barnes arrived with a stack of fabric and a playbill that had a 2x3 picture of a Scottish dancer on it. “I asked ‘where’s the pattern?’ She said ‘Bill Barbe (the director) said you don’t need a pattern.’”

Always up for a challenge, Jackson, who had never sewn without a pattern before, decided that if her mother could do it, she could do it. “I knew how a sleeve was shaped and a how a skirt was shaped, so it really wasn’t that complicated.” She learned about things like the “dancer’s gusset,” which allows a dancer to raise her arms while dancing without distorting the fabric. “I learned a lot of things,” she added.

When the Art Center stopped doing shows, Bob Cello wanted to form a company to do comic opera. (“They started with Gilbert & Sullivan because it’s cheap--no royalties,” Jackson pointed out) and the Davis Comic Opera Company (DCOC) was formed. Phaff was in charge of costumes. Jackson was working full time at the University for English, Dramatic Art and Speech. She continued to work on costumes in the evenings, picking up material from Phaff and bringing it home with her at night. This arrangement continued for many years.

When Jackson left the University, and the knit shop she later owned downtown, the Guild began making costumes in her home, which was more conducive to a large number of women with sewing machines going for hours on end. “In the early days we had a lot of people who helped. We put four sewing machines at my table and we put up card tables. They put a couple of machines on one table and then I had a sewing table that had two sewing machines on it and we sewed. I think that among all of the people who worked on costumes, the only real ‘professional’ among us was Marinka, so she took things home and did fancy things.”

In 1975, Charlotte French moved to Davis and got involved with “The Bad Actors,” which performed such memorable pieces as “I’m Sorry the Bridge Is Out, You’ll Have to Spend the Night” at the old Palms Playhouse. Phaff built costumes for this group as well.

French began making costumes because her mother ran a dance studio. “I made my own clothes from the time I was 12. It just seemed a natural thing to make costumes,” she explained.

French pointed out that though the Costume Guild has come to be associated primarily with the Davis Comic Opera Company, in the early years, when there were several theatrical groups performing in town, the Costume Guild worked with them all--the Art Center, the Davis Players, The Bad Actors, and even the high school. (The high school costumes for “Brigadoon” still hang in the costume shop.) Jackson also became the costumer for the Sacramento Opera.

The companies for which the costumes would be built paid for the fabric, the seamstresses donated their time. The costumes were also rented to companies outside of Davis--to Sacramento or to Stockton or to several companies in Solano county, and the proceeds of those rentals went for the upkeep of the costumes, and later for the necessary maintenance of the Costume Guild building.

French recalled some of the wonderful women who were part of the Costume Guild in its heyday.

“Toshi Jestes did the most beautiful work. Fabulous tiny stitches and very very persnickity. Barb McKinney and Grace Noda had both sewed with Marinka, so they were all part of that group. Molly Ann Lipelt did sewing for years, but her kids were little-ish at the time and so she preferred to take stuff home and work on it. Amy Patten never sewed, but Amy would come and cheer,” she laughed.

Jackson remembers Anne Ough, who suffered from emphysema which was so bad that she was forced to spend most of her time living over on the coast, where she could breathe more easily. But she continued to sew for the Costume Guild, taking specific pieces along with her, and was noted for her intricate detail work.

“Anne Ough was one of my best friends,” said Jackson, sadly. “She was so young when she died. She had a very creative mind.”

Jackson also complimented Charlotte French. “Charlotte does gorgeous hats. I think she prefers to do hats to doing any of the rest of it.”

“I like the craft side of it,” says French “I still love hat making. I really like the period hats, which are wonderfully fun to make, but nobody wears them now.”

French, a costume designer, returned the compliment. “I got real picky about who built my costumes. Barbara, of course, was wonderful. If Barbara would sew for me I was in heaven.”

At some point the Costume Guild, realizing that they could not continue to store costumes in people’s attics or basements, where they risked damage by the elements, and could get misplaced, decided they needed a building. The group incorporated and began holding fund-raising events to raise the money to build a real storage shed for costumes. “We did all manner of things to raise money,” said Jackson. They held dinners which the guild members cooked, in the Veterans Memorial building before DCOC shows, for example, and they made a special quilt.

Each square was the depiction of one of the characters in one of the shows, and it as made from the same fabric that the costume was made of. “There were several of us that did blocks for it and then I put it together,” said Jackson, noting that Ellie Glassburner won it. “We made quite a bit of money doing it. It was really a beautiful quilt.”

With enough money collected, and land behind the Veterans Memorial Theater loaned by the city of Davis, with the proviso that the land and building would revert to the city when the Costume Guild no longer needed it, a building was designed by Gale Sosnick, a cement floor was laid, Costume Guild husbands built the building, and the Guild members painted it. Jackson’s husband Turpie (historian W.Turrentine Jackson) and a cousin of his put together the racks for the costumes. It was dedicated in 1979 as the Marinka Phaff Costume Library.

Barbara Jackson and I met Enterprise photographer Alison Portello at the costume shop for a photo shoot for this article. It was a trip down memory lane for Jackson, as she remembered the circumstances of the building of so many costumes. She pulled out a can can dancer’s costume from “The Merry Widow,” displaying the multicolored ruffles on the inside of the skirt. “There are 90 yards of ruffles on each skirt,” she said. “Everybody hated me!”

She also showed me the size 12 white patent leather ladies shoes which had been donated by someone and which Malcolm MacKenzie wore as the Duke of Plaza Toro in “The Gondoliers.”

She pulled one of the Beefeater costumes off the rack. The Beefeater costumes present a special dilemma for her--they were so intricate and took hours of construction to make, authentic and durable.

“Somebody gave Marinka a bolt of white interior tape, just old white cotton tape, which Barbara McKinney took and dyed black and ironed. She ironed tape until she just could have thrown it at Marinka.,” laughed Jackson. “That’s what the Beefeater costumes are trimmed with. Barbara dyed and ironed every piece of it.”

Jackson wants to see them go to a good home, but who needs Beefeater costumes these days?

Portello asked Jackson to stand beside a Costume Guild banner which hung on the back wall. Jackson fingered the trim on the skirt of the figure on the banner, then looked closely. “Oh!” she said, “I think that was one of my scarfs.”

It is unlikely that we will ever see the likes of the Davis Theatrical Costumers Guild again. It is an organization of a different time. “Most people don’t value live theater today,” said French. “And the spirit of volunteerism isn’t there. Everybody wants to be paid. People who have the time, like the people who were involved in the costume guild, came from an era where the husband went off to work and the wife stayed home. They had the time to do it; now they don’t.”

The Davis Theatrical Costumers Guild is, perhaps, like the costumes they built--a period piece. But the unseen women who labored so long and so lovingly behind the scenes for so many years made it possible for theater to live and thrive in Davis. Without their expertise, the cultural life of this town would have been significantly different.


Anonymous said...

Actually, I need a beefeater costume. I'll try to get a hold of you somehow to exchange contact info.

I can't wait!

Bev Sykes said...

Please note that this article was written one year ago. The costume guild closed months ago and the costumes are now gone. Sorry!

Alex Warn said...

The moment when She ironed tape New Trends until she just could have thrown it at Marinka.,” laughed Jackson. Awesome.