The Broadway theatre has many unsung legends — practitioners who excel at their backstage craft, are sought after by knowing stage professionals, but labor largely in obscurity, their names unknown to the general public. Still, for all their anonymity, the loss is felt keenly within the theatre when one of these seasoned pros retires.
One such vacancy occurred earlier this year when wig maker and designer Bob Kelly closed his Times Square shop. After 60 years in the business, Kelly, shuttered his workshop on West 46th Street. He waited until he was 85 to do it, and didn't stop working until the very end. Shrek was the final show he contributed to. For a last job, it wasn't exactly a cinch, despite Kelly's decades of experience. "Very challenging," he said of building the musical's wigs, which were designed by David Brian Brown. "They were difficult, because they were different. You never know if you're going to have a hard wig or easy wig to make."
"Saturday Night Live," which he has serviced since the late-night comedy program debuted in 1975, purchased much of his stock. "They bought all my stuff they needed, because they might open up a wig department themselves now," said Kelly. "About $5,000 worth of stuff."
Wig-making is a family business for Kelly, but it skipped a generation. "My grandfather made wigs in Brooklyn in 1900, for the theatre," he explained. "He made wigs for Brooklyn Academy of Music. On Fulton Street, his business was. He also had a beauty parlor on Sand Street near Navy Yard. He probably used the hair he cut to make the wigs." Kelly's father did not follow his dad's footsteps, becoming a trolley conductor and, later, a bus driver. Young Bob, an only child who had little affection for school, began learning the trade of creating manes soon after World War II, apprenticing under several leaders in the field, including Ira Senz, who designed the wigs for the Metropolitan Opera and the original My Fair Lady.
Bob Kelly struck out on his own in 1958, founding Bob Kelly Wig Creations. His first solo Broadway credit was The Good Soup, a David Merrick production of 1960. A decade later, he created Bob Kelly Cosmetics. From then on, he worked equally as a make-up artist and a wig maker. His make-up work was frequently in film and television; his credits included "Sgt. Bilko," "The Exorcist" and "The Ed Sullivan Show." Kelly said it was he who dabbed up the young English faces of the Fab Four when they performed on the program in 1964. "You should have seen the crowd outside that theatre," he remembered. "You couldn't get in it was so mobbed." (Kelly admitted he didn't know who The Beatles were at the time he did their make-up.) The make-up line, once ubiquitous, was discontinued in 2005.
Over the years, Kelly has designed and/or built wigs for countless plays and musicals, including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Rothschilds, High Spirits, South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof, Legally Blonde and many more. He and his staff haved worked frequently with many of the leading Broadway hair designers of recent years, including David Brian Brown and David H. Lawrence.
Throughout the years, Kelly cut an appropriately original figure. He typically crew his gray hair long, tying it into a ponytail. He has large tattoos on each upper arm, and was once known to smoke ten large cigars a days. (His doctor forced him to stop smoking some years ago.) He has known many of the great actors of the past several generations, and does not keep his opinion of them to himself. Many of his appraisals are too salty to print on a family website. Suffice it to say that Rex Harrison and Christopher Plummer left him unimpressed. He was, however, good friends with Zero Mostel, Gene Kelly ("He used to wear a hairpiece and always used to call me") and Jason Robards, a regular drinking buddy. He vividly remembered being thrown out of Robards' apartment in the Dakota by the actor's then-wife Lauren Bacall, after the two men had returned from an all-night session of imbibing.
After 60 years, Kelly knows that, whatever your skills, you can't please everyone. "One I couldn't satisfy was Angela Lansbury," he recalled. Kelly said he worked with Lansbury on Sweeney Todd. "She didn't want my wigs. She wanted them from England. On Sweeney Todd, she got stuck with me."