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Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2012
Legendary Western Costume is one of the oldest and largest costume companies in the world. It is so integral to Hollywood’s film and TV production that it’s impossible to conceive of Hollywood existing without Western.
How did the company become such a landmark? It all began with an adventurous Indian trader named L.L. Burns, who wandered into Los Angeles and set up shop with Harry Revier, supplying everything from a stage, a film laboratory and anything and everything else a film maker would need, including props, sets, and costumes. The partnership papers were signed June 30, 1912. In Cecil B. De Mille’s (unpublished) autobiography, he wrote of Burns and his partner, Harry Revier, “If I have sometime been mistakenly called the father of the Hollywood film industry, Burns and Revier deserve to be called its obstetricians.” They eventually sold their studio building to Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, which then became Paramount Pictures.
Prior to Burns’ arrival in Los Angeles, what little costume activity there was existed in the hands of a firm named Fisher’s. The motion picture industry was in its earliest stages of development and costuming was a highly helter-skelter arrangement. The motion pictures being made were one and two-reelers shot mostly on outdoor locations. Costumes were anything momentarily inspired, with little concern for accuracy. In the course of his extensive travels through the West, Burns had not only picked up a considerable amount of knowledge about Indian costumes and lore but in the process became a collector as well.
It was a chance meeting between Burns and famed star and director of westerns, William S. Hart, which laid the foundation for what has become Western Costume. Hart had made a film where the costumes worn by the Indian extras were so flagrantly inaccurate that Burns felt compelled to share his dismay with the director. Hart was impressed and invited Burns to become his official supplier of Indian garb for his future pictures. Around the same time, Burns and several associates bought out Fisher’s Costume House and moved to a location at 7th and Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles. The space was so tiny that it was nicknamed “The Hole in the Wall.”
Not a man of means, Burns resourcefully augmented his inventory of Indian costumes with more comprehensive stock from smaller studios and production companies then in existence. Burns was well liked and as the motion picture industry began to grow and prosper, so did Burns’ business, which he named Western Costume as an homage to the genre that started it all. Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Lillian Gish are just a few of the early superstars costumed by Western. The company made all the Civil War uniforms for D.W. Griffith’s classic picture, BIRTH OF A NATION.
Burns became good friends with such influential personalities as producer Joseph Schenck, and silent film stars Douglas Fairbanks and Norma Talmadge. Soon his ever-expanding business was forced to move again, this time to a location on the west side of Broadway between 9th and 10th streets. This location quickly proved inadequate and Burns found it necessary to rent several adjoining one-story buildings in order to accommodate the overflow of newly acquired costumes.
Around 1924, Western Costume took over a ten-story building of its own, which included such features as rooftop parking. Erich Von Stroheim, then at the height of his fame as a director, was given a gold engraved parking pass. Von Stroheim also had the distinction of having his car be the first to ascend to the roof when the building was formally opened.
Von Stroheim figures fascinatingly in the history of Western. One of his famed extravaganzas in the 1920s was a picture called THE WEDDING MARCH, a lavish epic dealing with Austrian court life in the 19th century. Von Stroheim, a stickler for authenticity regardless of cost, insisted every uniform and every detail of royal livery had to be the real thing. Nothing would satisfy the director but for Western’s European representative to scour Vienna and the surrounding countryside for relics of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. In the weeks that followed, boat after boat that docked in Los Angeles discharged whole cargos of uniforms, carriages, military decorations, and paraphernalia dealing with Emperor Franz Joseph’s empire. When they had served their purpose in Von Stroheim’s screen spectacle, the items helped swell Western’s inventory.
Until the middle 1920s, it was the practice of extras and bit players to go downtown to Western’s headquarters for fittings. But as motion picture production began to be channeled through established studios – most of which were located in Hollywood – it was obvious that the time had come to have a costume house that was closer to the scene of production.
Burns was also forced to compete with a former employee who prevailed on many of Western’s workers to form a rival costume house, United Costume Company. Burns fought back by establishing a Hollywood branch of Western Costume. The offices and a small portion of each department were located on Sunset Boulevard near Western Boulevard, with the bulk of wardrobe stock and the laundry housed in the big American Storage Building on Beverly Boulevard, just east of Vermont. Unfortunately, this competitive move undermined Burns and by 1928 he lost control of Western.
A new group took over the company but they proved totally inadequate at handling the complexities of the industry, so Burns was recalled to head up the firm again. But by now the tide was running too strongly against him and Western Costume went into bankruptcy during the Great Depression.
In the decade that followed, Western’s fortunes swung back and forth. Three brothers, Dan, Joe and Ike Greenberg, who were salvage operators, acquired the company out of bankruptcy. They liquidated Western’s various locations and in 1932 settled Western Costume into 5335 Melrose Avenue, a sturdy, imposing building that claimed a prime location in front of Paramount Studios. Although shrewd businessmen, the Greenbergs found operating a full-fledged costume house a bewildering challenge. In 1934, they sold out to Joe and Abe Schnitzer, who both had backgrounds in the motion picture business.
Once again Western experienced varying fortunes. Harry Warner bought out United Costume Company and integrated their stock with Warner Brothers wardrobe department, which eliminated one competitor. The advent of Technicolor brought an explosion of hues to sets and costumes. Western’s shoe shop participated in the creation of the most famous pair of footwear in film history – by sewing the red sequins on the gorgeous ruby-red slippers Judy Garland wore in THE WIZARD OF OZ. Western also supplied all the men’s costumes for GONE WITH THE WIND, including the sartorial splendor of film icon Clark Gable. Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, Abbott and Costello – all these comedy legends were dressed by Western Costume for their films.
In 1947, when it appeared that Western was undergoing another business slump, several of the studios stepped up and in a joint action, acquired controlling interest in the company. In 1950, a new management team headed by G.B. Howe and his assistant John Golden took over and began a major overhaul of the company’s romantic but highly obsolete methods. A short time later, a serious heart condition lead to Howe’s retirement and John Golden succeeded him as president.
Golden managed to revive Western Costume. It created all the costumes for the classic film, “The Sound of Music,” and costumed stars like Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Natalie Wood. In 1988, Paramount Studios bought the company. However, Paramount wasn’t interested in Western’s incomparable costume assets; all they wanted was its headquarters, which the studio planned to tear down and replace with an office building. Bidding for a buyer began yet again and in 1989, the company was sold to the Trinity Group, comprised of CAA agent Bill Haber, blockbuster author Sidney Sheldon, and businessman Paul Abramowitz who took the reins as President.
Abramowitz faced some daunting challenges. Paramount sold Western to the Trinity Group on the condition that they relocate the company within a year. Not only did Abramowitz have to find a new location for the enormous collection of costumes, props and library, he needed to orchestrate a move that would not interfere with daily business. More importantly, it was a Hollywood icon that had the potential of returning to celebrated glory.
In 1989, award-winning costume designer Ann Roth recommended Abramowitz meet with veteran costumer Eddie Marks. Abramowitz was impressed by Marks’ combination of experience as a costumer and his ideas on how to help move the company forward. Marks was then brought into the Western fold as Senior Vice President.
Marks’ first order of business was helping Abramowitz secure a new home for Western. They found the perfect location on Vanowen Street in North Hollywood right next to the Burbank airport. Marks was charged with the monumental task of moving the company. In a feat nicknamed “The Big Move”, Marks and Abramowitz managed to relocate the entire operation in a mere thirty days while keeping both locations open simultaneously.
In 1992, Haber and Sheldon promoted Eddie Marks to President, replacing Paul Abramowitz and in 1995, Haber became the sole owner of Western Costume.
In his twenty-year tenure as president, Marks and his team have weeded out worn inventory by holding and an annual ‘yard sale’. He has increased Western’s stock by acquiring the stunning private collections of designers Dorothy Weaver, Patty Norris, and Helen Larson. Marks also purchased the enormous Dykeman-Young Collection, which required six fifty-three foot containers to transport the costumes cross-country from Jamestown, New York to the collection’s new home in North Hollywood.
Marks also modernized Western’s world-class research library, which with its collection of over 15,000 volumes is one of the finest in the world. It represents one hundred years of intensive acquisitions of private literature dealing with costumes throughout the ages. It is the backbone of research for the Company and for the industry as well. The library features such rare materials as the complete issues of the Weekly Illustrated London News from its founding in 1842, the complete collection of Life magazine from its founding, and priceless volumes of magazines such as the Mentor and Godey’s Ladies Book, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and Fortune Magazine. Under the guidance of Research Director and Costume Archivist, Bobi Garland, the ever-growing collection continues to supply costumers, set designers, and all film professionals with its priceless source materials. An illustration of the value Costume Designers and costumers place on the library is that they have made and continue to make generous donations of their own books and research.
Determined to make Western Costume the number one destination for Costume Designers and Costumers, the company updated many of its facilities. Marks recently streamlined the business by installing “Rental Tracker Pro”, an inventory tracking software that simplifies and expedites the rental process.
Marks gives credit to his team for Western’s success. “None of this would have been possible without the direction of Sr. Vice President Frank Allegro and uniform specialist Kurt Cox restructuring the military departments,” he says, “and the organizational skills of Christina Munoz, Nancy McArdle and Susanna Sandke who oversee all of our collections.” Monica Allegro, Purchasing Manager, uses her worldwide contacts to get Designers and Costumers everything they need from work shirts to gold bullion embroidery . Bobbi Constantine and Becky Rossitar continue the tradition of dedicated customer service. One of Western’s best assets is their supply store, which is run by Marks’ brother Geoff Marks, the great inventor of “Schmere”.
The company continues to dress the world’s biggest stars. In 2009 Western Costume was contracted to manufacture costumes for Michael Jackson and his “This is it” tour, when the singing legend tragically passed away.
Producers, Directors and Costume Designers count on Western to get the job done, whether it is pulling stock costumes for a sit-com or creating all the costumes for a classic film like THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Although most of the major studios operate their own wardrobe/costume departments, over the years Western has been given the responsibility of costuming such major studio productions as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, CLEOPATRA, STAR TREK, TITANIC, both versions of THE ALAMO, TRUE GRIT and BATTLESHIP.
Since the infancy of television, Western has provided costumes for many series and mini-series, including classics like ROOTS, THE WINDS OF WAR, BONANZA and HAPPY DAYS. Currently Western is in TV production with MAD MEN, BOARDWALK EMPIRE, MAGIC CITY, and many more. Western also costumes many high school, college and theatre productions in cities around the country. In 1980 it was Western Costume that government authorities selected to research and execute the official uniforms worn by the Cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.
Western manufactures suits and men’s costumes in the Men’s Tailor Shop under the skilled hand of head tailor, Jack Kasbarian. Contemporary as well as period dresses and costumes are beautifully constructed in the Women’s Made-to-Order Workroom run by Nancy Arroyo. The “shops at Western” include a fully equipped Millinery Department, and Shoe & Leather Department. Milliner Harry Rotz and his team can custom-make hats of any age and period. Mauricio Osario has created oversized shoes for Michael Chiklis’ character in FANTASTIC FOUR and golf shoes for Shaquille “Shaq” O’Neal. Mauricio’s shop is the place for manufacturing shoes as delicate as opera pumps or as rugged as Rooster Cogburn’s worn boots in TRUE GRIT.
In 2012, the Costume Designers Guild presented Western Costume with a special Service Award honoring the company’s one hundred years of professional contributions from the silent era to the present. As Western Costume celebrates its past, the Company also looks toward the future and continuing to meet every possible need of the costuming community.