I went to Occidental College in Eagle Rock the other morning. At the top of the campus is the Greek Bowl. I climbed the concrete steps to the very back of this outdoor stage and sat pretty far to the right. Is that stage left? Or do those stage directions apply if you are not actually on the stage? While sitting there I painted the first piece you see. But when I finished it, I realized it was too close up and the viewer might not get the sense of the details and scope of this type of theater. I wasn’t sure if the three vertical ivy “wings” on either side of the rectangular lawn looked like anything other than just more greenery. I also wondered if I “scrubbed” some of the “plant” sections too much…and it was “overworked.” So when I got home I did the second one, from a photo I had taken. I like that it includes more details like the stairs and the round patch of lawn—not really sure why that’s there. Maybe it had originally been some kind of pond or fountain that was later filled in with dirt and grass seed. I understand that in ancient Rome they used to fill the Coliseum with water and have “mock” sea battles. Maybe Oxy students in ancient times had tiny “mock” sea battles there.
Starting in 1960 Occidental College began presenting plays (summer drama festival) in the Greek Bowl—adding a proper stage over the circular lawn and steps on either side for the run of the festival. Omar Paxson, an Oxy theater arts professor, started the festival and he ran it for some 26 years. And it was only a couple years ago Occidental stopped the program. (I remember hearing a local story about its last summer, but don’t remember when that was. But I can safely say that the summer drama festival ran for over 50 years.) Each summer they produced 5 plays, which included a Shakespeare, a Shaw, a Gilbert and Sullivan, and two other dramas. In the summer of 1984, I helped with costumes for that season. Earlier in the year I had taken a “costuming” class at UCLA extension and was looking to design and make costumes for plays, movies or TV. That summer they produced “Midsummer’s Night Dream,” “Iolanthe,” “Pygmalion,” “Our Town” and “Guys and Dolls.” I was in charge of costumes for Pygmalion, but helped make costumes for all the other plays as well. Most of the performers were theater arts students and they each had parts in all 5 plays. But the program had a unique learning/teaching component as each student was also assigned “behind the scenes” jobs besides their “on stage” roles. Some were assigned to be directors or stage managers. And some were assigned to help with lighting, sound, props or help us with various jobs in the costume room. The theater department was down the hill from the Greek Bowl, in Thorne Hall. Once rehearsals (in Thorne Hall) had begun for “Guys and Dolls,” the students and crew (like me) loaded everything we would need for the five different plays in a large truck and drove it up the hill to the Bowl. Once we got the sewing machines, sergers and worktables into the Treehouse, a small narrow building just below the bowl, we went to work. I immediately set up meetings for discussions with the director, scheduled measurement sessions for the actors and did sketches for costumes for Pygmalion. Our day-to-day crew, like me, and the student helpers worked really hard and got a lot done. The head costume designer for the summer program said we were all going to start looking like Quasimodo because we spent so many hours hunched over a sewing machine, or leaning over tables to cut out fabric. It was pretty warm in Eagle Rock that summer and it was pretty warm in the costume room we lovingly called the “sweatshop.” I had a blast! It was wonderful!
As the head designer for Pygmalion I designed quite a few costumes for women, especially for Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins’s mother. I also helped make countless long white and aqua tulle ballerina skirts for the many fairies of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. We went to local fabric shops in downtown LA to get a lot of the fabric we needed for such costumes. However, we didn’t fabricate all the costumes. We didn’t make men’s clothing, like suits or shirts for Henry Higgins or Colonel Pickering. Most of what was used for them was rented. As you might imagine, there are a number costume rental businesses here in LA. One of the big rental companies at the time was Western Costume Co. We got a few things from there, but most men’s clothing I got for Pygmalion (hats, ties, suits, overcoats etc) was from a costume shop in Glendale, called The Costume Shop. If you have never been to a theatrical costume shop it can be overwhelming. Just imagine a huge warehouse with floor to ceiling racks and racks of clothing and accessories. Huge places like this are divided up into sections such as western wear, Victorian, vintage 60s or 70s, circus clowns, suits for aliens, costumes for children and so on and so on. You can almost get lost in a place like that. But we found suitable suits and hats for the men in Pygmalion as well as Guys and Dolls.
Not only did we make costumes on the spot and rent them nearby, but we also used costumes from the huge store of costumes in the theater arts department at Thorne Hall. OK, probably the best part of this story, at least for me, is the women and men’s costume rooms that were connected to Thorne Hall at the time. First, to get to the women’s costume room you first entered the theater arts office, through another door and then ducked down a bit to enter a cavernous windowless room that was filled floor to ceiling with women’s costumes and accessories. It was not as large as The Costume Shop or Western Costuming, but it was big and also divided into sections much like the costume businesses in the area. Oh, and this room had only the women’s clothing. To get to the men’s costumes, it was a bit more harrowing. On the far side of this room was a ladder that went up about 15 or 20 feet. First you climbed up the ladder, and then crawled on a horizontal ladder that went lengthwise across the very tiptop of the Thorne Hall stage. Oh, and it was pitch black up there and you made this journey by feeling your way along the ladder. (Would have been great to have a miner’s headlamp.) Then when you got to the other side you climbed down (again in complete darkness). Finally, you went through a door into the men’s costume room. Fortunately there was a light in that room, so at least you weren’t looking for men’s coats, hats, shirts and shoes in the dark. And as you might imagine, eventually you would found what you were looking for and had to repeat the dark journey back to the women’s room—only this time you usually had only one hand to hold on as you were carrying whatever you had found in the other one. A number of times I could hear the actors rehearsing on the stage below me. I thought of making some ghost-like sounds to help me with the eerie feeling I had up there. But, you know that heat rises, right? And it was stifling up there and it was all I could do to talk to myself in my head and get to the light of the women’s costume room on the other side. Quite a story, right? When I was on the Occidental College campus the other day I looked for that outside door to the theater arts office that would have lead to the women’s costume room, but couldn’t find it. Looks like all of those buildings have since been remodeled. Actually, I can’t imagine it is still set up like that. But who knows!
In the summer of 1984 I was living in Long Beach and I drove to Occidental College each afternoon. It was also the summer of the Olympics, which was held in LA. Needless to say, it was pretty crazy all over town. Most evenings we worked in the costume shop until 2 or 3 in the morning and then I would drive on the “empty” LA freeways home. I would get up late the next morning and be back at Oxy by 2 or 3 in the afternoon. (The freeways were pretty jammed at that time of the day—quite a departure from my early morning drives.) Many of the actors in Occidental’s summer plays performed at the opening ceremony at the LA Memorial Coliseum the evening of July 28th. I can’t remember where we all sat and watched that on TV, as there sure wasn’t a television in the costume room, and there wasn’t any spare surface for anything. But we did watch it, hoping we would see some of the people who were performing that summer. Pretty cool.
So, that’s how it was that summer—hot, fast and furious. But maybe there is one more 1984 “costume” story left to tell. The wrestling events for the summer Olympics were held in Long Beach. My aunt was a volunteer for the venue. She got a really cute and colorful uniform to wear. So, that Halloween I went to a cool party in Laguna with a friend. She went as a cheerleader and I borrowed my aunt’s outfit and covered the business end of a toilet plunger with foil and went as an Olympic torchbearer. There I was, again surrounded by people in costumes. But this was a very different group of people and there was to be a very different evening of drama. Besides the usual vampires, witches and the lone wholesome Olympic torch bearer and her cheerleader friend there were quite a few men in drag, someone wearing a mask on the back of his head and huge fake genitalia attached to the back of the costume (it was his party) and a clown that had cut out a hole at the back of his costume, so his bare butt was showing. Oh, but we weren’t yet done. My cheerleader friend and I had had enough and were about to leave when one of the party goers, dressed as a nurse, turned on some music and started taking off her clothes. The guy who hosted the party (the fake genitalia guy) had hired a stripper. That was our cue to leave. And that means it is now my cue to end this LA story.
Oh, first day of summer was just yesterday. Hope you have a nice summer!