Susan Claassen becomes a fashion icon in A Conversation With Edith Head

A Hollywood stylist before the term was even coined, costume designer Edith Head was the imagination behind the wardrobes for hundreds of films. For decades, the petite, behind-the-scenes boss oversaw a majority of Paramount's clothing-design work, dressing stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Bette Davis. She was the recipient of eight Oscars, wrote three books and was an influential voice for fashion on television long before couture went mainstream.

As part of the programming for 2013's Women + Film Voices Film Festival, Susan Claassen brings her one-woman show, A Conversation With Edith Head, to the L2 Arts and Culture Center this Sunday, March 3. Claassen's expertly researched, elegantly portrayed tribute to the fashion icon is so dead-on, friends of Head -- who passed away in 1981 -- have carried on conversations with the actress while in character.

In advance of this special one-night performance, Claassen -- who also wrote the play -- talked to Westword about the depths of her Edith Head research, the Academy's gracious help and why Head is important to contemporary fashion.

See also: - Night & Day: A Conversation With Edith Head - Night & Day: Women + Film Voices Film Festival - Director of fashion documentary Versailles '73 on the runway show that changed history

Westword:Your discovery of a personal resemblance to Edith Head physically seems to be what planted the seed for this show. How did you go about it from there?

Susan Claassen: Yes, and it's so interesting because I've been doing theater for a very long time, and no one had ever said that to me. Isn't that funny? People would say, oh, you look like Imogene Coca or a short Carol Burnett. But now everyone says, we know why you're doing this show! You look so much like Edith Head. I had never thought of that, so it was a most interesting kind of thing.

The next step, literally was, well, I was watching Biography. That's when I saw the biography of Edith Head. I had always been aware of Edith; I certainly knew who she was and what she did, but never to the detail. When I watched it, her story was intriguing; she was an "executive woman" before there was such a thing. Forty-four years at Paramount and then maneuvered her way to Universal when big corporations took over the studio. She saw the writing on the wall.

After watching that, I thought, this would be great. I'd performed other one-woman shows, having the good fortune of performing as Shirley Valentine. And I'd put shows together for other people, but I had never done anything for myself. So I immediately went to find out if a theatrical piece had ever been done on Edith Head -- and there hadn't.

Then I went to see how many books there were written by Edith. There were three.The Dress Doctor, which is how she referred to herself. There was How to Dress for Success, and then there was a book called Edith Head's Hollywood; it was published posthumously with Paddy Calistro. At that time, all three were out of print.

I saw that Edith had left her estate to the Motion Picture and Television Fund, so I contacted them and got right of likeness and right of publicity. Then I asked if they knew where I could find this woman, Paddy Calistro. They had no idea. [When the book was published in 1982] it said she lived in the Los Angeles area, so I just called information and there she was. I her called and explained that I was the artistic director of an intimate theater in Tucson, Arizona, and that I was interested in doing a theatrical piece on Edith Head.

I asked, are you the Paddy Calistro who wrote the book, Edith Head's Hollywood? You could hear her, so reserved, say, "yes." I told her I wanted to fly over and meet her and explore the possibility -- which I did. It was like kismet; we became immediately like best friends. Paddy had thirteen hours of taped interviews. So you could really get a handle on her speaking voice.

Exactly. People say I sound exactly like Edith, but nobody really knows what Edith sounds like. But she was a teacher -- so we studied the speech patterns. She was pretty flat and authoritative and sort of barked. (Laughs.)

She won eight Oscars for her work and was nominated for dozens. How did you incorporate that into the show?

Legally, you're certainly not supposed to replicate Oscar because it's trademarked, or use Oscar's name in vain -- but you can't do a play about Edith Head without mentioning the Oscars. She loved them. Because Paddy has a great publishing company, Angel City Press, which publishes edgy, California-based books and has done things for the Academy, we contacted (their legal department.) We explained that the play was about Edith Head and they asked if Oscar was talked about in a favorable way; I faxed pages (of the play) over and we got the permission and they loaned us two prop Oscars, which you'll see in the play. They're the Oscars they use to set shots. Edith actually left her Oscars to the Academy's wonderful library, which has been an incredible resource for us.

What kind of preparation did you do in order to write this play?

We spent almost a year researching. This was in 2001. It wasn't quite as easy then to find everything online as it is now. You can go into the Academy's library, which is open to the public in Beverly Hills, and say, I want to know everything about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They will give you files and files of everything they have.

Edith left the bulk of her papers there, even some of her furniture from her house. They had everything and we just read and looked through everything and we catalogued the thirteen hours of taped interviews. We met with Bob Mackie, who was a sketch artist for Edith, and we met with Lew Wasserman, who was the head of Universal. His wife, Edie, was a good friend of Edith's. We went up to her house, which was incredible because we were really in the midst of Hollywood history.

They were wonderful, because that's how we got back stories. Edith was extremely discreet; Lucille Ball said, "Edith knows all of our secrets. But she won't tell."

Each performance of A Conversation With Edith Head can vary, because you interact with the audience. What is that like for you?

I stay as Edith after each performance to answer questions -- and obviously, I know I'm not Edith, people know I'm not Edith. But there's a shared moment, a memory that people really want to relive a film they saw or a movie palace they went to, or who they were with or what date it happened on.

If I get enough back story or information -- if there was somebody who knew Edith and they are in the audience -- the show will change. When we were in San Diego, we got a call at the box office that a woman who had been a model for Edith was coming to the show. I had enough information that I could address her; her name was Gladys.

So (in the show) I said, "And we would always fight Gladys, about how I wanted her to wear red and she wanted to wear another color. And who won?" And she said, "You did, Miss Head." It was chilling, the audience was weeping because it was just a suspension of time.

You mentioned Lucille Ball. From working on hundreds of films and dressing people like Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Bette Davis, Edith must have known many stars personally. Is there anyone in particular that stuck out in your research?

Often as myself, I'll introduce a film, and I love to do A Place in the Sun. When you see that dress move with Elizabeth Taylor in it, you see Edith's work. Edith would have people come over to do the action that was in the film to make sure the clothes would move the way they needed it.

Or Rear Window -- it is a really great fashion film with Grace Kelly. The way Hitchcock shot it is magnificent; it's like she's walking the runway in the opening shots. The opening kiss is cinematic history.

One last thing: You have a Denver-connection -- you went to school at the University of Denver, correct?

Yes. Denver really was the beginning of the passion I have for theater. I graduated in 1969, so I was in Denver until 1970 and taught at Smiley Junior High School. I have a major in theater and, like all people in of my age (laughs), I have a back-up degree in education.

I loved University of Denver at that time; For a girl from Jersey coming to Colorado, it was a fabulous shock. It was wonderful. There were a lot of little theaters at that time. I had the opportunity to work with some of the more avant garde theaters -- there was a theater called the Changing Scene. It was the closest thing to a loft and they had all the new plays. They really paved the way. Then there was a theater called The Third Eye, which I performed at. There was the Trident Theater. These were all very exciting theaters that added to my experience at the university.

Then I worked at the Colorado Music Hall which was a dinner theater, and that's where I first went equity. Really, I haven't performed in Denver since I moved. I am thrilled to come back and do this show.

A Conversation With Edith Head plays for one night only this Sunday, March 3, at 7 p.m. at the L2 Arts & Culture Center, 1477 Columbine Street. Tickets are $25 to $100 and can be purchased at the box office, online or by calling 303-595-3456. For more information, visit the f Sie FilmCenter's website.

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