Dodie Shepard’s Legacy:
Child Actor, Dancer, Costumer & Costume Designer
July 24, 2015
By Diana Eden
Small but mighty! Her nickname used to be “Big Red”. That is Dodie Shepard, former child actor and dancer, before becoming a costumer and then costume designer. Her life, she says, wasn’t planned, it just happened.
Dodie was born in San Diego in 1934. It was just her mother and her, and after a few years of public school she was enrolled in the Powers Professional School in Hollywood, where she studied Elocution, Ballet and Tap.
One day in 1946, on a tip from a fellow student, and without an agent, she went to a “cattle call” at MGM, made the final cut, and was put under contract! Her life was now full time at the studio, with school in the MGM lot schoolhouse. Her first film was “The Unfinished Dance”, with Cyd Charisse and Margaret O’Brien, but she says she thought nothing of it, as she didn’t know anyone else her age lived any differently!
The old studio system collapsed a few years later, and after a brief six month stint under contract at Fox, she found herself “out on the street”, aged fourteen, and with no direction. She thought she had had enough classes and wanted to be “a regular person” so she enrolled in LA High School and graduated. During those years both she and her mother attended the “Wolf School of Costume Design” where they learned pattern making, sketching, and various things she thought she would never use!
What followed was a period where she managed to pay the rent dancing in television variety shows such as those of Eddie Fisher, Dinah Shore and Bob Hope, and even spent a short time in Las Vegas dancing at The Flamingo. She hated it there, not liking the fact that she was required to “mingle” with the audience between shows and feeling like an outsider. She returned to Hollywood, joined SAG and SEG, and managed to pay the rent playing small acting and dancing roles.
At NBC, Shepard says, the make-up department was always open and was a great place to hang out and meet people. One day she expressed that she was tired of doing what she was doing, and Bill Morley (head of the Makeup Department) set her up to meet the head of the NBC Wardrobe Department. Angie sent her to see Al Nichols at Western Costume, who gave her a task of sorting some shoes, and then told her she started at 9 am the next morning!
At the time (1957), Shepard says, Western Costumes was a great place to learn and “Mac”, John McClellan, took the employees down every aisle educating them in all the different periods. She would go upstairs at lunchtime to the research department to continue learning on her own. Eventually she was hired away from Western to work on her first movie as a costumer, a film with Ernest Bognine. Shortly after she was at Warner Bros. working on “A Distant Trumpet”, followed by a full year working on “My Fair Lady”, then “To Kill a Mockingbird “and “The Ugly American.” She also stayed busy with lots of episodic television, “Mannix,” “Mission Impossible”, and “North and South: Book 2”, to name just a few.
Shepard says she split her career down the middle, spending about twenty years as a Costumer and twenty years as a Costume Designer. She applied for 892 membership in 1974, but Sheila O’Brien did not make it easy for her. Regardless, Dodie took the test, had the interview, showed her sketches, and got her card.
Her credits are many during her film career, and she worked on two of the Star Trek Movies, supervising “The Final Frontier” and designing “The Undiscovered Country”. She wrapped up her career with Mel Brooks in the mid ‘90s, designing “Robin Hood, Men in Tights” and “Dracula, Dead & Loving It”.
How is she enjoying retirement? She says she recommends it to everybody! She has joined committees in both unions, (Education, Legacy), enjoys gardening, and for eight years taught for The Chicago School of Art, which presented a nine-week summer school in Hollywood, called Columbia College. She says, “I can’t teach someone to be a designer but I can teach them the mechanisms of getting a show together.”
At age eighty one, Dodie is every bit as vital and active as ever for someone who insists that “life just happened and I went along for the ride”!