Woody Shelp, a Theatrical Milliner Whose Lids Were Seen in A Chorus Line, Follies and More, Dead

Obituaries   Woody Shelp, a Theatrical Milliner Whose Lids Were Seen in A Chorus Line, Follies and More, Dead Woody Shelp, who created hats for more than 140 Broadway shows and scores of films and television productions, died May 26, after a long illness.

Considered the major figure among American theatrical milliners, Woodrow Lee Shelp was born in 1927 in Bancroft, MI, to Elburn and Agnes Shelp.

Mr. Shelp first developed a fascination with millinery in 1946 while creating window displays for B. Siegel Co., the Detroit retailer. Before moving to New York, he also worked for the Michigan-based couturier, Ruth Joyce, creating hats for the wives and daughters of Michigan’s automobile barons. Moving to Manhattan in 1950, he found work packing and shipping hats for Hattie Carnegie, the doyenne of American fashion millinery.

Mr. Shelp's career aspirations changed after he attended the original run of The King and I. His door to the theatre world came from designer Irene Sharaff, the Oscar-winning costume designer for "The King and I." She often purchased her personal hats from John Frederics, another fashion milliner for whom Mr. Shelp worked as an assistant. While visiting Frederics' shop, Sharaff announced that she needed assistants for three productions she was preparing for the 1957 Broadway season. Mr. Shelp was hired, and he made his Broadway debut helping to create hats for Ethel Merman and Fernando Lamas, the stars of Happy Hunting.

In 1962, working again with Sharaff, Mr. Shelp was able to launch his own business. Jenny, starring Mary Martin, was the first Broadway show to offer the credit, "Hats by Woody Shelp."

Mr. Shelp's detailed creations helped to define the visual style of the majority of important plays and musicals on Broadway and on tour for the next 30 years. Memorably, he designed feathered and beaded headdresses for the towering showgirls in Follies (the stunning photographs of the original run, with ghostly chorus girls towering over scenes, stimulated the imaginations of thousands who never saw the staging). He also designed the picture-brim hats worn by Mia Farrow in "The Great Gatsby"; the outrageous black-and-white headgear for Glenn Close as Cruella De Vil in "101 Dalmatians"; and the top hats for the finale of Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line.

Mr. Shelp's association with Bennett continued when the director-choreographer purchased 890 Broadway, a commercial-industrial building, which soon became a veritable factory for Broadway productions. In addition to rehearsal studios, "890" provided a home for theatrical artisans – costumers, cobblers and milliners, including Mr. Shelp, who was among the first of the tradespeople persuaded by Bennett to move their studios to his building. Mr. Shelp relocated his business to 890 Broadway in 1980 and continued to work there, often with only one or two assistants, until his retirement in 2002.

For his work in the theatre, Mr. Shelp received the Irene Sharaff Artisan Award in 2000. In 1989 his work was honored by the Fashion Institute of Technology in a retrospective of 20th-century millinery.

In addition to his nine nieces and nephews, he is survived by Frank and Patricia Shelp of Wolverine, MI; Howard and Marie Shelp of Portage, MI; and Doris Denfield of Littleton, CO.

The Shelp family asks that donations in memory of Woody Shelp be made to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a charitable organization with which Mr. Shelp had a long and active association.

A viewing will be held June 3, from 6-9 PM at Love Funeral Home, 503 West Maple Avenue, Bancroft, MI. A final service and burial will be conducted Friday, June 4, at 1 PM.

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