Cecil B. DeMille once waited five months for his peacocks to shed so that Edith Head could use their feathers in the spectacular cape that she designed for Hedy Lamarr to wear in “Samson and Delilah.”
A tasty tidbit offered by Edith Head — in the person of Susan Claassen — at the El Portal Theatre this month. Claassen, who is the image of Head, thick straight-cut bangs, chignon with a pencil stuck through it, dark granny glasses and all, presents “A Conversation with Edith Head, an Evening of Wit, Wisdom and a Whisper of Gossip.” She and co-writer Paddy Calistro’s extensive collections of Edith-a-bilia are displayed in the lobby, while affectionately autographed glamour shots of Head’s famous “clients” and re-creations of some of their costumes are part of the scenery onstage.
The set itself is at audience-level (there is no stage), so that Claassen can prowl back and forth, talk to various members of the audience, critique the clothes of the women (as Head used to do on Art Linkletter’s TV show “House Party”), and be prompted and kept on track by Stuart Moulton, who serves as her “host” for the production.
Her story begins in 1923 when, armed with a master’s degree from Stanford, she began teaching French at the Hollywood School for Girls. There she was introduced to the father of one of her students, a big shot at Paramount. So, stuffing a portfolio with other people’s drawings and designs, she applied for a job in the costume design department at the studio — and got it. Assigned to designing clothes for animals, she tells of the elephant who paid her the highest compliment: “She liked her costume so much, she ate it!”
Stopping to read a question submitted from a woman in the audience, she snaps, “My private life is just that. Private!” But she does acknowledge that she was born Jewish and became “an ardent Catholic” in order to “blend in.” She was also married twice: once to Charles Head, about whom she reveals nothing more than his name, and then to set designer Wiard Ihnen, whom she affectionately calls “Little Billy.”
Her first costume design for a real person was for Mae West in “She Done Him Wrong,” with co-star Archie Leach. “But you may know him as — (pause to let the audience respond) — yes, that’s right! Cary Grant!” She admired West not only for her measurements (38-24-38) but also for the fact that she “died without a regret in the world.”
Head talks of the “figure challenge” of Barbara Stanwyck, who had an excessively long waist and a low-slung tush. A problem Head solved by dressing her in a gown with a sash that was wide in the front and narrowed and hung low in the back.
She also talks about the three top glamour stars at Paramount in the 1930s: Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, and Claudette Colbert, but she saves her digs for Colbert, whom she accuses of “pretending to be so sweet,” when she was, in fact, “mean-spirited” and “most difficult.”
She has kudos for Bette Davis, who had “integrity as well as glamour,” and for whom she designed the famous fur-trimmed gown that Davis wore so elegantly in “All About Eve.” (“When in doubt, trim with fur,” she says.) And she laughs about dressing Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in kilts for “Road to Bali.”
Uncharacteristically modest, she says, “I’m merely an interpreter” of other people’s assets. “I supply the camouflage — and the magic.” The magic that she brought to some 1,100 films during 44 years at Paramount and 14 years at Universal garnered her 35 Academy Award nominations (including one every year from 1948 through 1966), and had her winning eight. “As for the men in my life,” she likes to say, “I have eight of them. And they’re all named Oscar.”
Her only regret, she admits, in answer to a question from the audience, is “never having designed for Marilyn Monroe — or for my darling Cubbies.”
“A Conversation with Edith Head” will continue at the Forum Theatre at the El Portal, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood,
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. through Oct. 24. Call (818) 508-4200 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.