Dressing up the Ritz

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 21, 2007

Preparing for a &#8220really big show” is more than just rehearsing songs and choreography. It's also a matter of putting your cast in the right costumes.

And that requires plenty of time, research, and dedication to designing and crafting the headgear, costumes and accessories. From the glitter on a pair of boots to the butterflies on a chorus member's hat, wardrobe in itself is a major production.

In the case of the upcoming musical review and fundraiser for the Greenville Area Arts Council (GAAC), &#8220Puttin' on the Ritz,” costume designer and builder Roberta &#8220Bobbie” Gamble, seamstress Shirley Huff and cast member/seamstress Joni Thomas have already collaborated on more than 110 costumes for the show.

&#8220That's so far! Plus 20 hats, which I have made,” says Gamble, who calls her experience working on the POTR costumes &#8220wonderful.”

‘Wardrobe Central'

Pay a visit to Miss Bobbie's big front bedroom and discover &#8220Wardrobe Central.” Feather boas in a rainbow of hues hang alongside colorful sketches of costume designs for different numbers in the shows. Mannequins display completed outfits, showy with sequins, beads and feathers. Other creative costumes, from furry &#8220Cats” to exotic &#8220South Pacific” and psychedelic &#8220Hair” outfits, hang on doors and racks and drape across the bed.

A charming pair of little boots waits on its finishing touches on Gamble's work table.

&#8220This has been so much fun,” Gamble says as she sits down in her living room to apply a few more beads to one of the costumes.

&#8220I'm not sure what I will do with myself when all this is done. It has certainly been enjoyable.”

Gamble's love of costume comes from a long-held interest in American fashion, &#8220especially as represented on the American stage.”

&#8220When I was in graduate school in theater, we had to study it all, not just acting or directing, so I learned about costume design there,” she explains.

Once the numbers for POTR were selected, the period in which they had originally been done, or represented, dictated the costume design, Gamble says.

The costume designer consulted some of her many books on theater and made numerous detailed sketches of costumes for each number.

&#8220I helped that I had seen all the shows. When we decided to do a ‘Follies' number to represent shows the GAAC had brought to the Ritz in the past 25 years, well - I really had a ball designing costumes for those shows,” Gamble says.

&#8220For example, the fairy costume that Angela James is so beautiful in, is from ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream.' The wings have been tricky - how do you sew Velcro on air? - but they do look great,” their creator says with a smile.

‘Like eating dessert first'

The most fun, Gamble says, has been creating the large, extravagant hats featured in the &#8220Sunday Clothes” number.

&#8220Making those hats has been like eating dessert first,” she laughs as she points out the display of headgear covering her dining room table, eye-catching confections decked out in flowers, beads, feathers and ribbons.

&#8220I knew if I was going to have hats as large as I wanted them to be, I would have to make them myself. I found a place in Oregon that sold hat-making supplies on EBay so I ordered buckram and covered wire from them. I also ordered that pattern that proved to be absolutely no use to me at all - too 18th century-looking,” Gamble says.

It took time and a lot of trial and error to learn how to make the hats.

And if Gamble had to start her &#8220millinery shop” all over again?

&#8220If I had to do it again I would find some place to get more head models to form the crown of the hats over. I had only one, so there was a lot of waiting for those crowns to dry, and so forth,” she explains.

&#8220And of course, everyone doesn't have the same size head, so we have had to make do.  It is terribly immodest to say, but I am really pleased with the results,” Gamble says with a warm smile.

&#8220I do think the hats are gorgeous and so much fun - and our ladies look so beautiful in them.”

Gibson Girl beauty

Beneath those showy hats will be costumes crafted by Greenville seamstress Shirley Huff - costumes Gamble calls &#8220Broadway quality.”

&#8220The toughest job in all this has been Shirley's. She has made all of these turn-of-the-century suits, and believe me, they are works of art,” Gamble says.

Huff says the hardest part of sewing the dozen Gibson Girl suits for &#8220Sunday Clothes” has been &#8220the sleeves. Definitely, the sleeves.”

Huff, who runs her own downtown Greenville custom sewing and alterations business, Modest Apparel, spent an average of eight hours crafting each leg-o'-mutton sleeve, featuring a full, puffy top and snug elbow-to-wrist cuff.

&#8220You have to make sure it's puffy and that it stays puffy on the wearer,” Huff explains.

Volunteering so many hours to the project has been &#8220a pleasure,” the soft-spoken seamstress says.

&#8220Working with Miss Bobbie is just great. The Ritz is a good place, a place for the whole community. This is a good thing.”

‘Harriet will know'

Hundreds of hours of research and labor have gone into creating the costumes and accessories for POTR.

Why go to so much trouble and effort to create such detailed costumes audience members will only see from a distance?

&#8220I can answer that best by telling a story about ‘Hello, Dolly!' in 1971. This was a high school play - but I didn't want it to look like what people thought of a high school play looking like,” Gamble says.

&#8220Harriet Bedsole (Foshee) was our adorable Dolly. In the last scene she turns up in a turn-of-the-century wedding gown, a beautiful ivory brocade dress Sis Hamilton had made. I was hand beading the entire bodice with seed pearls, when one of the other teachers saw me. She said, ‘Why would you go to all that trouble when no one in the audience will see it beyond the first row? My answer was simple: ‘Harriet will know she has it on,'” Gamble explains.

&#8220You see, the players react to their costumes and become more in character from the moment they put them on. They should be the very best that skill and money can supply for them.”