The Oldest Established: Costumer Alvin Colt Talks About Dressing Guys, Dolls, Sailors and More

Special Features   The Oldest Established: Costumer Alvin Colt Talks About Dressing Guys, Dolls, Sailors and More Legendary Broadway costume designer Alvin Colt, who just turned 90, has worked on so many Broadway shows in his lifetime that even he has lost count by now. However, the credits that immediately come to mind include the original productions of On the Town, Guys and Dolls, Li'l Abner and Sugar. Today, he is still at work making numerous outrageous outfits for the cast of Forbidden Broadway.
Alvin Colt
Alvin Colt Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Colt recently took a few moments to discuss his career with Playbill.com

PLAYBILL.COM: How many shows do you suppose you’ve done by now?
Alvin Colt: At this point, I’d say that I’ve done 90-something shows including Broadway, regional and all.

PLAYBILL.COM: From the beginning, what made you interested in costume design?
AC: As a little boy, I had my toy theatre in the attic of our house in Kentucky. I lost both my mother and father at a young age, but I did have a brother and he knew I wanted to do something in the theatre. So I ended up going to Yale for design. I thought I wanted to be a set designer. I didn’t have a BA, so I never got an MA, but I was there for three years. Then I went straight to New York. My first job was with a theatrical fabric house. I made fifteen dollars a week with commission. I worked summer theatre, painting and holding scenery. Then one summer I worked with a ballet company and that got me interested in costuming.

PLAYBILL.COM: How did that lead to Broadway?
AC: My Broadway debut was in 1944 with a little show called On the Town. Needless to say, it was a big hit and it got me going on Broadway. I had done a lot of things with the ballet before that. I had worked with all the On the Town people before in ballet like Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and Oliver Smith. That started it all off.

PLAYBILL.COM: And then came Guys and Dolls?
AC: At first Guys and Dolls was designed by someone else and it wasn’t working. Then someone, I think it was Abe Burrows, said “Get the guy from On the Town.” In Guys and Dolls, the characters were meant to look like New York people, street people. They weren’t all jazzed up.

PLAYBILL.COM: Did you also work Off-Broadway at the time?
AC: Have you ever heard of the Phoenix Theater? I was a charter member of that company and did 16 or 18 shows for them. It was the first real Off-Broadway theatre. It was at Twelfth Street and Broadway. They did a lot of classics like Chekhov, Ibsen, Shaw and Ibsen. It gave me the chance to design the plays that designers never get to do. It was a big break for me. It was so successful that everybody wanted to be a part of it: Tyrone Guthrie, Sidney Lumet, Uta Hagen and all these wonderful stars.

PLAYBILL.COM: Does your inspiration for design typically come from the script, the actor, the director, or maybe some other form of research?
AC: It should come from the script, but that doesn’t always happen. Or, your director will have a thought about what it should look like. There’s always a difference with the show and the amount of work, but the approach doesn’t change much. You take the look seriously cause every show has its own quality.

PLAYBILL.COM: In Li'l Abner, where did the inspiration come from for Julie Newmar’s legendary costume as Stupefying Jones?
AC: That was a challenge because she was supposed to be naked. So, I thought of doing black patches in the appropriate places, and let her figure do the rest of it. She was a wonderful girl. She loved the clothes that she was wearing. It was one of those great experiences you just don’t forget about.

PLAYBILL.COM: How has the business of costume design changed since back then?
AC: The computer has changed the way things happen and the way they look. There used to be huge costume shops and everything was done in one place, fabrics and trimmings and all. Now it’s been chopped into smaller places. A lot of the work is wonderful, but it’s hard to do something with five or six shops and there’s no one place to get everything. It doesn’t come to you anymore, but I don’t think it makes it less creative.

PLAYBILL.COM: How does costume design for the stage differ from film?
AC: I haven’t done many films, though I have done television, but even that’s different from Hollywood film. I did one film in New York and it was just terrible. Just forget about it. In film, you have to be very careful about color. They’ll change completely or they’ll vibrate. Also remember that the camera is very close. You need to get it perfect. Changes will happen, especially with jewelry. You take a lot more into consideration than on a Broadway stage.

PLAYBILL.COM: Tell us more about your work on Forbidden Broadway.
AC: This particular edition is one of their best. They’ve got very talented people. I enjoy it. It keeps me going. Most of my collaborators are all doing their shows up in heaven or someplace. I don’t know a lot of the current bunch and they don’t know me. Designers go in cycles. Sometimes they’re popular and sometimes they’re not. It’s part of the crazy business we’re in.

PLAYBILL.COM: Have you been with the show its entire run?
AC: I’ve been with it twelve years. That’s the longest run I’ve ever had with a show. When I was asked to do it, there were four people up there just in black. They didn’t have any of the production values that the show has now. Over the years, it’s grown and grown. That’s one of the reasons it stays so popular. It’s put together with a lot of thought. I tried to resign a few years ago and they wouldn’t have it. So, I’m still here.

PLAYBILL.COM: How does the cast coordinate wearing so many costumes throughout the show?
AC: The cast is wonderful about those quick changes. They don’t forget a thing. The choreography backstage is probably more complicated than what happens onstage.

PLAYBILL.COM: What do you think has been your most popular or critically acclaimed Forbidden Broadway costume?
AC: I think the spoof on The Lion King. It’s been in for a long time. I don’t know how I ever thought of it. The show itself was beautifully designed and thought out with great talent. The way I’ve done it, the costume is made out of strange things like coco cans and brushes and stuff like that. It gets a big laugh.

PLAYBILL.COM: Where did the idea come from to make an actress literally portray the flying car of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?
AC: That was not a show that appealed to me. But Gerard Alessandrini wanted to do something on it. So I went to a Saturday matinee and before I knew it I was really into it. So I wondered what we could do for a sketch. We only have four people. So, we came up with the idea that one girl can be a peasant doll and the other girl will look like the car. The car in Chitty was the coolest thing you’ve ever seen in your life. It flew right over your head. Luckily, the girl had a lovely figure. So, I made her into a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang showgirl.

PLAYBILL.COM: Are there any other new projects you’re interested in?
AC: If anybody came up with something I wanted to do, I’d grab it in a minute. I wouldn’t think of any other reason than to do it than that I wanted to do it. That may never happen. Several things are being talked about now, but I don’t know if they’ll ever come to life.

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