Pearl Somner Debuskey, a costume designer for Broadway shows including Shenandoah and films including Love Story, died January 5 at age 94.
The Chicago-born Ms. Somner explored a variety of careers before discovering her primary vocation. She left the University of Illinois during World War II to work with the Office of Strategic Services’ documentary unit. After the war she came to New York and eventually settled in at the legendary Café Society Downtown as a cigarette and checkroom attendant.
She moved on into the realm of theatre, first as an actor, appearing in a national touring production of Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo with Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach. She was involved as an actor in the emerging Off-Broadway movement, but then switched to her ultimate career, as a costume designer for Broadway, Off-Broadway, TV, movies, and commercials. Best remembered among her films was Love Story. Among her Broadway credits are Whose Life Is It Anyway?, Shenandoah, 84 Charing Cross Road, and Ulysses in Nighttown. Off-Broadway, she costumed the musical I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road for The Public Theatre.
Designs for the musical Yankee Doodle took her abroad to the U.K., followed by a two-year stint with Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble in what was then East Germany. During her time with the ensemble, she spent many days in Prague making rubbings of the tombstones in the Old Jewish Cemetery that were later published in book form. Her costuming career concluded with her designs for the landmark 1987 production of the musical The Music Man in Beijing, China.
A self-described “Red Diaper Baby,” she was involved with several left-wing political organizations including the American Labor Party and the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship.
She studied at the Art Institute of New York and became proficient in the making of cloisonné jewelry and beading. Retired, she went back to college and completed her BA at Empire State College some four decades after having matriculated at the University of Illinois.
She is survived by her husband, longtime Broadway and Off-Broadway press agent Merle Debuskey. Contributions to her memory may be made to The Actors Fund.