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Wednesday, September 1,2010

A seamstress’ swan song

Charlotte Deardorff, LCC’s costume queen, retires after 22 years

by Lawrence Cosentino
Charlotte Deardorff’s eyeballs have been red since the Reagan administration.

Prized in local theater circles for her unerring sense of color and attention to detail, Deardorff, 60, will retire this month after 22 years as costume designer at Lansing Community College Theatre Department.


She leaves a legacy of thousands of hours of close work — up to 13 or 14 hours a day when a show is about to open —hanging on the LCC costume shop’s racks.


“It’s a very stressful job,” Deardorff said.


“I lose a lot of sleep thinking about how much work there is to do.”


Deardorff said she hasn’t been forced out of her job, but she confessed to a “feeling of uneasiness” after LCC laid off 20 staffers in the summer of 2009.


After some intense family meetings, she decided to take an early retirement incentive.


“It’s hard to leave the place where you have … ” Deardorff began, then paused to look at the racks Friday afternoon.


“This is me, I did all this.”


On the racks, distinct bands of texture and color mark a string of shows going back to 1988, when Deardorff started at LCC.


“When I do a show, I don’t necessarily think in terms of costumes,” Deardorff said. “I feel like I’m painting a picture on stage.”


She ran her hands past the earthy burlaps and cheesecloths of “King Lear,” the all- American flannels and crinolines of “Our Town” and the lacy hoopskirts and military piping from a Civil War-era “Romeo and Juliet.”


Deardorff designed almost every garment here. A small staff of part-time and student employees helped her cut, dye and assemble them.


She poked at a balloon-y jumble of padded costumes used in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and smiled at the memory of LCC’s drama students rocking their tight corsets.


“A lot of actresses grumble about corsets,” she said. “They were doing cartwheels and all kinds of stuff.”


Deardorff has been at LCC long enough to do two sets of costumes for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” One set is a billowing, brightly hued fantasy of chiffon and silk. She described the other as “’50s, yet with a Japanese hint.”


Her shrug seemed to say, “It made sense at the time.”


The racks turn black at one of Deardorff’s favorite jobs, a 2007 production of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome.” Tucked into the dark folds are a glossy black jacket, an ebony dress with a dizzying moiré pattern, and a midnight body suit with black lace gloves sewn into the sleeves. Who knew darkness came in so many seductive forms?


“That show was wild, a lot of fun to do,” Deardorff said.


She paused to look at a tigerstriped electric blue body suit with a huge center cutout. “Abby Murphy wore that,” Deardorff said. “She had her belly hanging out, and she was in great shape.”


“It’s a great moment when an actor puts on a costume,” she said. “You can just see them go deeper into the character.”


The ruthless work rhythm of theater — obsess day and night until a show is over, then forget about it — has left Deardorff with fuzzy memories of some shows. She blinked at a shirt with a strange landscape of boulders and trees painted on the front.


“I know it was for some concept,” she said.


A shelf of masks and monsters are the work of Deardorff’s staunchest supporter, her husband, Don Green. The two met in the early 1980s while working at a civic theater in Fort Wayne. Deardorff was acting then, but her sewing skills landed her in the costume shop.


“I would go into the costume shop to make sure my costumes were done,” she said.


After a stint in New Orleans, Deardorff came to Lansing to design costumes at the now-defunct BoarsHead Theater.


She started at Lansing Community College in 1988, when the costume shop was tucked into a small corner of the old Carnegie Library.


“I was always spilling out into the hallway, and Paul, the safety officer, would kick me back in,” she recalled.


The shop now fills a generous suite of rooms in an old arts building north of the main campus.


Last week, Deardorff turned her nervous energy to the task of leaving a clean shop, packing fabrics, costumes, hats and shoes in the hundreds of carefully labeled boxes lining the halls, storage and work rooms.


Last week, she finished the last big organizing job: a hat room with boxes sorted by size and style. These include golf hats, nun’s hoods, baseball caps, a little box of yarmulkes and two big boxes of turbans.


“We just did ‘Arabian Nights,’” she explained.


While patrolling the shop, Deardorff suddenly curled her nose.


“Oh, this is nasty,” she said.


She buried a pointy hood — a yet-to-bestored costume from a recent production, “The Foreigner” — under a pile of clothes.


“That show was not particularly fun to do,” she said. “We had to make Klan robes.”


There may be things about the Deardorff’s job she won’t miss, but neither is it clear she’ll be able to slow down, dig in the garden and look after her grandkids.


“My husband told me to try retiring for a day or two — I might like it,” she said.


Melissa Kaplan, LCC’s performing arts production coordinator, has already named Deardorff a “guest designer” for the first LCC show this fall, “A View From the Bridge.” Deardorff will work with one parttime costume designer and three students.


“We’re not going to let her off the hook that easy,” Kaplan said.


Kaplan, said “discussions about possibilities” for replacing Deardorff are underway, but nothing has been decided yet.


In the meantime, Deardorff expects to be jobbed in for some shows, but she’s not used to anything less than total involvement. Students often ask her advice on a matter as small as the thread color for a routine hem.


“I don’t necessarily want that control, but they know I’m picky,” she said. “To be jobbed in would be different. I don’t know how that would work for me, exactly.”

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