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Theater group moves massive costume collection
Have outfits, will travel: 1 of the nation's largest theatrical costume rental houses moves
By The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) ' Like so many New Yorkers making the move from Manhattan to Queens, the Theatre Development Fund was after one thing: closet space.

That's a serious concern when your wardrobe includes 75,000 outfits and accessories. You can't just call up U-Haul.

"It's like moving your apartment. But a much, much, much bigger apartment," said Stephen Cabral, director of the Fund's costume collection, which this week opened the doors at its new 16,000 square-foot space in the Kaufman Astoria Studios.

The move means the nonprofit Fund, which operates the TKTS booths, will be better able to offer its professionally designed theatrical costumes to theater companies, schools, community groups and religious groups across the nation, as well as film and television productions.

As one of the largest theatrical costume rental houses in the country, the collection's items have appeared all over, from "Saturday Night Live" and "The Smurfs" to a high school in New Jersey, a synagogue in Nevada and an opera company in Alaska.

Rows and rows of costumes hang three levels high now in the new hangarlike space, from military jackets to puritan outfits to 19th-century dresses. One box reads: "Men's Assorted Gray Fedoras." In 2010, 949 productions were mounted by 466 organizations in 33 states with costumes from the costume collection.

The collection is fed by donations and keeps growing. The recent Broadway production of "American Idiot" dropped off its costumes, finding a place on the racks next to outfits from "The House of Blue Leaves," ''Jelly's Last Jam" and "West Side Story," and the films "Tin Cup" and "Men in Black III." A hunt through the racks can uncover one of Kevin Kline's old costumes from the days he attended The Juilliard School or a jacket Jude Law wore in "Hamlet."

Costumers are invited to search the racks for items for their productions or they can email their requirements and measurements. The Fund will send digital photos of the potential items, and then have the costumes mailed.

You never know what you might get. A few years ago, Cabral was asked to send costumes for a theater company in Chicago that was putting on "Follies." He soon got an email response: One of the young actors, an aspiring opera singer, looked at her new costume's label and burst into tears. It said "The Metropolitan Opera" and, below that, "Beverly Sills."

"I thought, 'There's a really good example of how little things like that can change lives,'" said Cabral, who started working with the collection 18 years ago and intuitively knows how to find virtually any item, even though the collection hasn't been fully inventoried or computerized.

The costs of the costume rentals are on a sliding scale, calculated by the number of weeks the performance is planned and how many seats are in the theater. So a nonprofit with 99 seats that runs "Oklahoma!" for a week might pay $45 for an outfit, but that includes the whole costume ' a shirt, tie, suit, vest, hat, gloves and coat. Profit-making companies pay higher rates.

There are a few stipulations: All items need to be dry cleaned before they are put back in the racks. Also, all the costumes are "as-is," meaning they must be accepted in their current condition. While you can change buttons and make alterations, the Fund's six-person staff doesn't have the manpower to, say, mend hems for the clients.

Sidney Fortner, the resident costumer and costume manager for the Metropolitan Playhouse in New York, has for years depended on the Fund to mount her shows. She was recently flipping through the racks to outfit a production of "The Jazz Singer." She found a pink flapper dress and feather boa, Orthodox Jewish prayer shawls and a yarmulke, and a little black hat.

"They're always very organized. They're always extremely polite. And as long as you don't do anything nasty to the costumes, which I'm careful never to do, they're always happy to see you," she said. "It's really about the only resource there is right now. If they go under, we're in big trouble."

The collection's move was prompted by rising rent in its old home, the massive Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea that was once the center of the city's garment district but has now become too chic and unconnected to the world of costumes. Current tenants include Hugo Boss, Martha Stewart and Verizon.

"Our presence in the building really doesn't make much sense," said Cabral.

The Fund found a new home in Kaufman Astoria Studios, one of the largest film and television production centers on the East Coast. The facility in Queens has six studios and is home to the Showtime hit "Nurse Jackie" and "Sesame Street."

The costume collection has slipped into the old operations center for Lifetime television. The space has been gutted and its air-conditioning system altered to accommodate the thousands of outfits. The ceilings are higher, there's room for a library and, what is most important, it's likely to get more attention now that it's in a hot place for performing arts.

"It just fits in perfectly with the campus we've create here," said Hal Rosenbluth, president of Kaufman Astoria Studios. "To the clients who are here, the ability to take an elevator ride downstairs is just an enormous advantage for finding costumes before they go shop for something."

The move also means the Fund will now be able to display some of the most unusual and precious items in two huge window display cases. That includes the original costumes from "Rent," a Humpty Dumpty costume made for Matt Lauer for a Halloween edition of "Today," a Joel Grey costume from "Cabaret," some Patti LuPone stuff from "Gypsy" and an Anna Nicole Smith costume from "The Hudsucker Proxy."

"It's funny how things find their way here," Cabral said.

Sometimes people will find some odd items, such as costumes that were cut from "Shrek: The Musical" that are colorful and weird, and clothes from Broadway's most recent "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," which Cabral calls "very leather, very vinyl, very dark."

Over his years as administrator of the collection, Cabral has seen tastes change. When he started, productions of "Carmen" and "Fiddler on the Roof" were popular; now "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "The Drowsy Chaperone" are in vogue. As far as Shakespeare, "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" have given way to "Measure for Measure" and "Twelfth Night."

Also, back then, everything was very traditional. "Now it's very, very rare for things to be done in the actual period," he said. That means he sees more theaters setting, say, "The Taming of the Shrew" in the 1950s, or "Man of La Mancha" in Franco's Spain.

Finding the perfect costumes leads to other, more subtle goals, Cabral hopes. It helps inform students about the beauty and design of theatrical clothing, teach them about historical shifts and impart how the right costume can affect a performance.

"It starts people off at a younger age to appreciate," he said. "I think providing that kind of experience to people all across the United States is an amazing thing because I don't know without us what a lot of them would do."

The staff obviously loves the costumes, but one thing it actively discourages is people who show up and want to rent an outfit for one night to attend a fancy-dress bash or themed shindig.

"We don't do and will not do Halloween. We don't do and will not do 'I'm going to party and I want to look like I went to Studio 54 in the '70s,'" said Cabral. "It's not what we do and most of the people who are looking for those kinds of costumes are disappointed when they get here."




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