On the Set, the Runway and Broadway – Guild Members Share Stories of Early Careers on Stage
By Valli Herman
As a child actor in Los Angeles in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Phillip Boutté Jr. knew he liked telling stories, whether on stage or in his schoolboy drawings. Now a costume illustrator and concept artist, Boutté appeared in commercials and sitcoms from the age of 3 to 17.
“It was never a question for me. I knew I always wanted to be in entertainment, the question was, what part of entertainment I wanted to be in,” he said. He appeared on “Family Ties,” “Highway to Heaven” and in a string of commercials.
Yet as he got older, the parts available to him changed. “It was always a kid selling drugs, a thug, a criminal, but not someone like myself—educated, with two parents at home,” he said. “As I transitioned into an older adult, I didn’t like the way older black males were portrayed on TV, so I stopped.
“I wanted eventually to go back and tell stories or be in a part of the industry where I had creative control of the story,” Boutté said. “One thing I had to fall back on was all those years, sitting in my trailer, doing my homework and drawing. I drew. That’s kind of the base of what I’m doing now,” he said.
Boutté is an in-demand illustrator for costume designers Jeffrey Kurland, Michael Wilkinson, Louise Mingenbach and Trish Summerville. And he no longer has to compromise his identity to create beautifully rendered illustrations of Katniss, Wolverine or Superman.
Talk to any number of Costume Designers Guild members and it’s plain to see that the career path is nontraditional. However, costume designers and illustrators who have been actors, dancers, performers or even models bring a special kind of empathy for the characters that they create and dress.
Alysia Raycraft was a fashion model before she went on to design costumes for film, theater and television, including “The Office.” After earning a degree in painting and sculpture at the University of Texas, she took a one-year graduate program in textile surface design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. That’s where she joined the school’s program for models.
“Honestly, modeling was just a way to have money,” said Raycraft, who also earned an MFA in costume design from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She started walking runways for student designers and 7th Avenue fur designers, “The kind where you walk around a salon and say ‘chinchilla’ and you’re handed cash in the end,” she said.
Met with success, Raycraft signed with the Zoli agency to supplement her income.
“Now I have the greatest admiration for models and I find it to be an incredible skill,” she said. The experience gave Raycraft an appreciation for clothes from the inside out.
“I’m very much about the body and movement,” she said. “That was where my approach started from. A lot of people come to costume design in the way they do fashion designing, which is from a pure love of clothing. I came to it from the other direction: I aim to create clothes as a natural second skin. That becomes fortuitous when I’m working with actors, because I know, having been a performer, when they’re comfortable and when they’re not.”
She knows that performers don’t just want to look good.
“It’s a physical sport, acting. And coming to it as a model, that’s also a physical sport. Even if you are just standing there, your mind, lungs, body, everything, is moving. I can’t put anything on anyone that is going to inhibit any of that, even breathing,” she said.
That inside-out appreciation of costumes has launched more than one costume design career, though rarely intentionally.
As a child, Diana Eden wanted nothing more than to be a famous ballerina. She also sewed throughout her teenage years and continued after she landed dancing roles in “My Fair Lady” and the 1967 film version of “The Producers.”
The future Emmy Award winner took her tiny Singer sewing machine along to Broadway and began making clothes for herself, and upon request, for other dancers.
“When I got to ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,’ I had a whole dress line and went up and down Broadway,” Eden said. She sold to fellow dancers, door to theater door. Wearing her own clothing and dressing colleagues was great on-the-job training for a new career in costume design.
“I got to know firsthand how important it is for dancers to be able to move and be comfortable moving,” Eden said. “It sounds pretty obvious, but I get it from longtime experience. It also gives me a love of performers. I really do love dancers. The moment I get an opportunity to be with them, I feel I’m back on home turf.”
Costume Designer and Emmy Award winner April Ferry agrees that her experience as a dancer and Broadway chorus girl has been invaluable.
“That had a lot to do with how I thought about costume design,” said Ferry, from Mumbai, where she is designing costumes for the film “Mohenjo-Daro” about the ancient Indian civilization. “I think about how everything is going to move.”
Through a career that included roles in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “Kismet” she applied her lifelong dance lessons and a newfound interest in costumes. “I eventually wound up with the [‘Kismet’] part and the costume was important to it. I kind of just got it that costumes were something to explore,” said Ferry, who met another future costume designer on that 1950s production, Roberta Haze.
Haze, then 17, launched her dancing career on that production and went on to perform on “The Dean Martin Show” and originate the part of Tintinabula in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” on Broadway. In 1985, Haze began working in costumes on TV’s “The Facts of Life” and in 2013, the series “Dirty Sexy Money.”
“The Dean Martin Show” also was significant for Ferry: It’s where, freshly divorced, she found work from Ed Wassell, who headed the show’s costume department. “He hired me to zip up the Golddiggers, basically,” Ferry said. She later worked alongside Costume Designer Ret Turner on “The Andy Williams Show,” “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour,” working her way up the ranks of costume design.
“I never had any training and never studied costume design. I just eased into it,” Ferry said.
Luck, and a good amount of skill, also helped Turner transition from the stage to the costume department.
“When I first came to Los Angeles, I had in my mind to be an actor,” said Turner. “After a few months, it became quite clear that no one was looking for my particular kind of beauty,” he said. That didn’t deter his dreams of stardom. Turner continued to act in small theatrical productions.
“Somewhere along the line, a producer said, ‘Who can take care of the sailors’ uniforms?
‘Does it pay extra?
‘Yeah–$30 a week.’
“I was getting $30 a week for my acting career. That was big money in those days,” Turner said.
In the early 1950s, Turner launched his 20-year career at NBC working as a dresser on “The Spike Jones Show,” and later as a costume designer for “The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show” and “The Andy Williams Show.”
“I was lucky because I got into the beginning of television,” he said. A friend who sent Turner to NBC told him to approach another woman at the network to work as a dresser.
The conversation: “What do you have to do as a dresser?”
“You have to run fast.”
“I can do that.”
To this day, Turner says his early days on and near the set helped him to set priorities for costume design, especially for television shows.
“The producers would meet on Friday, and tape the next. Sometimes we had 100 to 150 costumes on those variety shows,” he said. His big takeaway from putting shows together in a week?
“You really had to know how to run fast!’’