Monday, May 9, 2011

Remembering Theoni V. Aldredge

There was a memorial service for legendary costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge today at the New York Public Theater in New York City, where she designed 80 productions for them alone. The Public was/is also known as The New York Shakespeare Festival, run in those days by the equally legendary Joe Papp; it's now headed by Oskar Eustis, who hosted the service in the Newman Theater.

She was born in 1922, in Athens, Greece, and died in Connecticut this past January 2011. Her husband of 57 years is the wonderful character actor Tom Aldredge.

MTA: Tom Aldredge died on July 26, 2011, at age 83. He had been ill with lymphoma.

According to the program for today's memorial, Theoni designed over 100 Broadway productions, from plays to musicals, as well as feature films and ballet. Her Broadway career began in 1959 with Tennessee Williams' play "Sweet Bird of Youth" and continued with A Chorus Line, Hair, The Threepenny Opera (one of my favorites, starring the late, great Raul Julia) La Cage Aux Folles, Dreamgirls, The Rink, Barnum, Gypsy with Tyne Daly, 42nd Street, and so many others, some of which transferred from initial runs at the Pubic Theater. I think that my favorite was a production of "Much Ado About Nothing" in 1973 starring Sam Waterston and Kathleen Widdoes, directed by A.J Antoon, which was a beautiful show in World War I era ice cream colors that Theoni did so well. I had such a crush on Sam Waterston after that, and he spoke movingly of her today. Her film work included The Great Gatsby, Annie, Addams Family Values, The First Wives Club, The Rose, Moonstruck, and Ghostbusters. Here's a list of Broadway credits. Her last Broadway assignment, appropriately enough, was the 2008 revival of "A Chorus Line".

She was nominated for many awards and won, if my math is correct, 3 Tony Awards, for La Cage Aux Folles, Dreamgirls, Barnum, Annie, and 6 Drama Desk Awards for Peer Gynt, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Much Ado About Nothing, Annie, 42nd Street, and La Cage, again.

I met Theoni when I was a young teenager; I was so enthralled by her work on "Much Ado" that I wrote to her and she kindly invited me to meet her in the costume shop at the Public Theater. Dad came with me, and we had a lovely hour in her office, where she told me about her recent experiences on The Great Gatsby, and told me that it was a tough career with absolutely NO GLAMOUR involved. She was a quiet woman in sunglasses, elegantly dressed, calm, and very imposing. I never worked with her, which I regret, but I saw almost everything that she designed i New York and on film, and learned so much from her. For a number of years it seemed as if she designed every show on Broadway, whether it was a play or musical. The Public Theater was a hotbed of theatrical brilliance, and it's hard to describe how exciting the seasons were, especially the shows at the Delacorte in the summer. I assisted on a play there right out of school while Joe was still there, and really miss those days and the people we worked with.

At today's service, the speakers were Merope Vachlioti, her niece, actor Sam Waterston, set designer Ming Cho Lee, who collaborated with her on over 60 productions, actress Cigdem Onat, Tyne Daly, choreographer Bob Avian, costume designer and former assistant Martin Pakledinaz, Olympia Dukakis, Joel Grey and her widower, Tom Aldredge. All told stories, sang and/or read poems in loving tribute, and other friends and colleagues spoke afterward sharing memories. In the lobby was a slideshow of Theoni's many shows, and it was a treat to be taken down memory lane and realize how large a role she played in New York theatrical history. The range and style of her work, her skill with line, color and pattern and her eye for detail and character inspire me anew. It has been a tough year for me with more than one loss, including a loss of enthusiasm for resuming my design career, but as I stood there and watched the slide show twice, I felt the return of the excitement I felt as a teenager at the idea of making this my career. I had the unexpected pleasure of watching the slideshow with Olympia Dukakis and her husband, Louis Zorich, and we marveled at all of the famous faces in legendary productions that Theoni designed. It was magical, revisiting long-lost memories and memorable shows. Who can forget Olympia's performance as Rose in Moonstruck, with her proper suits that spoke volumes about her traditional background, her pride in what she'd accomplished as a wife and mother, as well as her sadness and fear at the idea of losing her husband's love. Theoni was as wonderful a storyteller as the many playwrights she worked with...and even better than some, truth be told. It is worth searching out some of her work... and happily, this is available! I ordered it and have enjoyed revisiting this lovely production.

Many thanks to Martin and all who put this moving tribute together!