“A group of 20 stood at the edge of Shubert Alley with Theoni’s Husband Tom…and watched as first the lights of the Shubert Theatre [A Chorus Line] went out; followed by the St James *[“Mr. President”, “ Two Gentlemen of Verona”, Barnum, 42nd Street, Gypsy (Tyne Daily), The Secret Garden] followed by The Majestic [Any One Can Whistle, Ballroom, I Remember Mama; 42nd Street] and followed by the rest until 44th Street was dark. As the lights slowly came back on the lights of the Shubert stayed off the longest; when they finally came back on we applauded this great lady and called out her name. Tom Aldredge summed it up the best… ‘We were so lucky’.” Wallace (Woody) G. Lane, Jr, Costume Designer
So describes the ultimate testimonial to an icon of American theatre held on 25 January 2011. The group of twenty was an intimate clique, each an accomplished costume designer mentored by this maestro of the theatre. Theoni V. Aldredge, who passed away on 21 January at 88 in a Stamford, Ct hospital, was so respected that beyond the generous obituary in The New York Times, their senior theatre critic, Ben Brantley, wrote a heartfelt memorial – especially remarkable in such a fickle business considering her last Broadway production was the revival of A Chorus Line a half decade ago.
Woody says there is not a lesson she taught them, “we don’t use every day.” It was this generosity of spirit that was a hallmark of her career; she was widely known not just for her mentoring, but for her protective nurturing of the actors she designed for.
Theoni Athanasiou Vachlioti was born in Salonika, Greece on 22 August 1922. Her mother died when she was five years old, but she described her father as “extraordinary”. Her Father who was the Surgeon General of the Greek Army as well as a member of Parliament, imbued his daughter with a love of travel. An avid doll collector as a girl, constantly fussing with their ornate dresses, the young woman had focused on a career in costume by the time she graduated from the American School in Athens. She emigrated to the U.S. in 1949.
She received a scholarship to the Goodman Theatre in Chicago (now the Theatre School at DePaul University). Two life changing relationships occurred in school. The first was meeting actor Tom Aldredge whom she married in 1953. Second, was her meeting upperclassman Geraldine Page.
Impressed with the younger student, Ms. Page told Theoni to make sure to look her up when she got to the Great White Way. She did, of course, and right out of the gate, she designed Ms Fitzgerald’s costumes for the premiere of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth in 1959
Once insinuated in the New York theatre scene she met Joe Papp of The Public Theatre. Theoni went on to have a twenty-year relationship with the Public as their Resident Designer doing more than eighty shows. Her work at the Public went from Shakespeare and David Rabe to launching the company’s crown jewels, Hair and Chorus Line.
In a 2001 interview Theoni confided, “Papp made me learn my craft, whether I liked it or not,” she said in her lightly accented voice, “He paid me $80.00 a week. I’d say, ‘Joe, that’s not enough for my cigarettes.’ He’d say, ‘You have to stop smoking.’”
While Theoni designed hundreds of shows, many classics and dramas like That Championship Season she is best known for the few that simply dazzled the audience. Ben Brantley says that when he thinks of her work he sees, “burning shades of gold and silver.” While in her personal life she tended to wear black high top Reebok sneakers and standard New York black, she created costumes that, “required sunglasses, “ Brantley declared, “for the people looking at them.”
Just think of the glamour and excitement generated by shows like Dream Girls, La Cage au Folles and 42nd Street, among others. When one watched A Chorus Line the cast is dressed in drab dance clothes, with color only in their leggings. Combined with the stark lighting and the often heart-rending personal tales, one wonders why these people would do this to themselves. Then, the finale arrives and the glamorous lights flood the stage and this ragtag group is transformed to beautifully dazzling, larger than life characters and at that moment Theoni lets us know what motivates these artists who she turned, “for a few precious moments [into] full shining stars.”
Incidentally, the show’s director Michael Bennet saw his cast dressed in bright red, Theoni, however, was able to convince him that, “Champagne was the color of celebration,” and lustrous dazzle.
Our own Tommy Boyer recalls that during his Broadway career there was a time when Theoni had five hits running simultaneously on Broadway, including the classics A Chorus Line, La Cage aux Folles and 42nd Street.
Theoni also had a formidable career in film, designing movies as diverse as Network and Ghostbusters. She received an Oscar for her creations on The Great Gatsby. So popular was the look of Gatsby that it spawned a retail line sold at Bloomingdales
For those who worked with her, it was more than unique talent with fabric – it was her civility. “I must admit what she taught me most,” Designer Martin Pakledinaz told Playbill.com, “was respect for actors. She loved actors.”
As that band of twenty protégés braving the frigid January night to cheer their mentor illustrated, she was an inspirational figure known for treating all those working with her with sincere respect.
Anne E. Gorman, a veteran Wardrobe Supervisor, in an e-mail, related one example. As a beginning costumer she assisted Theoni and her Wardrobe Supervisor at a fitting. When finished the two bosses left Anne to help the actress change into her street clothes. They stepped outside the door and continued their conversation. Concerned about the actress’s privacy she absent-mindedly reached over and pushed the door closed. A squeal followed and when the young costumer opened the door she found the Supervisor glowering at her and Theoni massaging her hand. “I had ended my first fitting with Miss Aldredge,” Anne wrote, “by closing the fitting room door on her hand.” Theoni’s response was to assuage the concerns of the subordinate to the point of suggesting the accident was her fault.
Theoni earned fifteen Tony nominations garnering three for Annie, Barnum and La Cage aux Folles. Additionally she received the Drama Desk Award six times. In 2002 she was honored with the Irene Sharaff Lifetime Achievement Award.
All who knew Theoni Aldredge speak of her humility and reticence to speak with the press – it wasn’t about her it was about the show and the teamwork. Recalling her reaction as a young woman to the 1946 film Caesar and Cleopatra, she told The New Yorker in 1973, “ ‘People can look so beautiful in clothes,’ I said to myself, ‘there is mystery to costume.’ And that’s when it started.”
For her unparalleled ability to unravel that mystery how else can you describe this woman except as “One singular Sensation” and, yes, Tom, we were so lucky.
* these are the titles of the plays Theoni designed in each of these theatres.
Cheryl & Tommy (with Roger Kimpton)