Working in the Theatre: Odd Jobs


[music] In my field in my work, it’s a specialty. It’s not easy to do beading. And not everyone can take to it. You could teach ten people, and maybe you’ll
get one good beader out of it. But if you love it, and you love embroidery,
then you have a chance of becoming a good beader. I’m a perfectionist when it comes to beading,
it has to be perfect. And of course when I taught, if I didn’t
like the stitches, take it out, no good, take it out, no good. *laughs* And the girls used to get so upset
because they had learned to do the stitching but they skipped beads and stuff, and there’s
a method to it. I’m semi-retired at this point, I don’t
do it full time. But at least I’m able to visit my children,
because I have beading equipment in every house that I go to. I started my career in beading when I was
nine years old. My mother’s sister, Aunt Jenny, used to
take the work home, and I used to lay under her frame and look up at the beads and sequins
going onto the garment, and I was mesmerized. And I asked her to teach me, and she said
“you’re too little to learn this.” And I said “oh please, please, I love it.” And she says “if I teach you you can’t
go out with the children, you know, if I’m gonna teach you you have to really be serious.” And so I was, and she taught me and the first
week’s pay was three dollars. From there, I got a job in the neighborhood
beading shop, and I was the youngest one there and they took me in, and then I graduated
to a different place where they gave me a dollar an hour. I got married and I went into my own business
and I opened up a little shop and I had little neighborhood ladies working for me. I always I think was the boss you know I always
had to be bossy. From New York I moved to California and I
worked on the beading with Helen Maller and Nolan Miller. We went into our own business with a partner
of mine, Stella Ruwada. We opened a little shop in Crossroads of the
World on Sunset Boulevard, and the first week we got so many customers we had to work night
and day we couldn’t believe it. We were so in demand, because we were very
good beaders I must say. We got clients like Jean Louis, who did all
Loretta Young’s gowns. And then Bob Mackie came along and we did
a lot of the movie stars, we did the Carol Burnett Show, Cher Show, Sonny and Cher, and
many movies and many of the stars. “And that’s why Bessie Nelson will keep
beading and keep being the pride of Cranford and the toast of Broadway.” *One from A Chorus Line playing* Richard Schlesinger,
CBS News, On Broadway. We did all Michael Jackson’s with Bill Whitton. We created the glove, we must have made six
gloves, because he had to you know wave and do all that, and then we made socks for him
and we did all his jackets. So then my husband passed away and I didn’t
want to be in the business anymore. I moved to New Jersey with my family, and
Ray Aghayan called me, who was partners with Bob Mackie, and he said Bessie dear, I have
a job for you to do to help us out, and I said “No Ray I’m not doing it anymore.” He says “But darling, you are the best.” *laughs* And that’s all he had to say, and I said
“All right I’ll do you this favor,” and I did him the favor and the rest was history. I was a beader in demand all over New York. This is Wicked, this is Macbeth. For theatre, when I moved back to New York,
William Ivey Long, who’s the greatest designer, oh I work so well with him, he started me. The first show I did was Guys and Dolls. I did The Producers, Sunset Boulevard with
Glenn Close. I think everybody you could mention we did
some beading for. The costume designer has something in his
mind and he usually makes a sketch. I work with him, I read the sketch, and I
try to get what he’s thinking in his mind, to put it down with my beading. Like, he may want feathers and he may want
different colors, and I have to incorporate it and ombre them in, and I would most likely
do samples to show the designer and he would pick out what he liked, and lots of times
I didn’t like what they wanted, so I would be naughty and I’d do a little one of my
own, and lo and behold they would pick my sample. After I do my beading I send it back to the
shop where they build the costume, and they make it up and you know that’s the final
thing before it goes into the theatre. And they have to build these dresses and gowns
and costumes so well that’s why they say they build them, bc they have to last on stage
and they have to be worn day in and day out, and they have to hold up. And I have a reputation for my work to hold
up very well so that made me very happy. I’m happy to say that in my whole career
I have never missed a deadline. I’ve worked night and day, I’ve worked
where I didn’t take my clothes off, I would go and work all night, jump on my bed in my
work room, get a couple hours of sleep and start all over again. I mean, that’s show business, you have to
love it and you have to be on time, and production deadlines, you have to make sure you make
them. The theatre, they love to see sparkle, you
know, with the lighting and everything the sparkle comes out, they’re beautiful. But that’s part of creating theatre, I’m
one little phase of it, with the costumes. I do the beading sparkle, but then there’s
the lighting directors, there’s the scenery people. I mean there I so much, and when you go to
see a Broadway show you sit there and enjoy all of our work, hard work. There’s so many diff things you can do with
beading. It’s so beautiful because you work with
all different color beads and sequins, and jewels, and Swarovski jewels, and you sew
them on and it’s just, it’s an art. I loved it, it’s my heartbeat. I love it so much that as old as I get, I
will never stop, til the last day. In a show, everything that’s on stage that
is part of the set, props, curtains, masking, virtually everything except costumes under
certain circumstances, need to be flame retardant. Costumes do need to be treated when they’re
exposed to flame within 8-10 feet. The reason that it’s important to make sure
that everything is flame retardant is because these are very small enclosed spaces that
are very high with a lot of draft, so fires can go from very small to very big very quickly. In Broadway, it’s even more of concern,
because these are very very old theatres, and even though they have fire curtains and
over the stage they have sprinklers installed over the last 20-30 years, in the house, these
are hundred-year-old theatres almost, and there aren’t any sprinklers there, so there’s
great, great concern. What everybody wants out of this process is
the magic piece of paper that says things don’t burn. Every time we treat something, we keep them
from burning, so I would say every show that we work on is kept from being a fire disaster
partly because of us. I think most people have no idea that this
exists or that it has to be done. People are always surprised when I tell them
what I do, but production supervisors, props people, set people are normally familiar with
this requirement, and for questions that they have or services that they need they do come
to us. To basically fund my artwork I was working
in technical theatre as a stagehand technician, lighting, set, whatever I could do, and one
of the things that kept coming up were that things needed to be treated and a certificate
provided that was in compliance with FDNY. I became familiar with those things and good
at it and after another interlude I decided that I would start my own company doing this,
and at that time we were the only company that did only this. We started Turning Star in 1998. There were a lot of people that I would talk
to and hear stories about that people would say “I got a violation from the fire department,
I don’t know what I should do,” or they go into a theatre with a touring show and
they’re like “well what do you mean we need this certificate? It’s good in Iowa why isn’t it good here?” And the thing is that fire code and fire rules
are different from city to city and state to state, and I knew about those things, and
it was interesting and it was a way to help people. Since I started, the two things that have
changed the most are that when I started there were five fire codes across the country. Now there’s three, and one is in California,
one is the rest of the country, and the last one is New York City, which has its own particular
fire code since it was the first fire code in the country. And it’s kept it updated, made revisions,
improvements, and while New York City has adopted the national fire code, there are
still some differences between the two. So it’s knowing those kinds of things that
I’m good at. The other things that has changed is that
I think there is more awareness of the need for this work to be done, and there are people
that are more aware of it. There are still people who are completely
unaware and they’re blindsided and they’re calling us and we’re going in to do work
at midnight. People as a whole are more safety-conscious,
and there are fewer people that are just trying to get by with things. The process of making something flame retardant
is we get the material, whatever it is if it’s fabric or a wicker picnic basket that’s
being used as a prop in a show, or artificial foliage, we get it. If it’s something that we haven’t seen
before or we’re not familiar with then we’ll do small scale samples. We’ll take a piece off, we’ll treat it
with say three or four different chemicals, then we’ll try to burn it. And once we’re really satisfied that we
found the best chemical with the best application concentration, then we’ll treat the entire
thing. Adjust the flame. The types of things that can’t be treated
that are still flammable are really from our point of view broken into things that don’t
absorb any liquid because the flame retardants are a liquid and they need to absorb into
the material so that they can be flame retardant. You know things like plastic sheeting or a
high density nylon, that’s also very hard. Things that are laminated with glue, glue
is typically very flammable. There is a lot of different things to figure
out about what gets treated with what, what different certificates get used for different
things, and I like to solve puzzles. That’s always the challenge and the exciting
part of being presenting with something new that we haven’t done before, and seeing
the best way to do it. When people ask me what I do and I say I sell
feathers and they go “what?” I say hey, it’s light work, you know? I enjoy it. I tell them that the simplistic version would
be, we buy a bunch of feathers, we dye the feathers different colors, we sell them, and
then we repeat that over and over again. And that’s the simple version, but that’s
the truth. Well, the story began when my wife, who wasn’t
my wife yet, attended St. John’s University, and in her classroom she made friends with
a lady who became engaged, you know you see a ring on someone else’s finger you start
to talk. My wife was engaged to me at the time, and
they became friends, and it turns out that this lady was marrying a fellow named Anthony,
and Anthony became my best friend. Anthony’s grandfather and father and brother
were feather dyers. He had a feather business going and he asked
me to work for him. I had been a schoolteacher, but he kind of
sucked me into the feather world. I don’t regret it, the money was good, and
of course it’s always nice to work with friends, I worked with him for close to thirty
years. I think it was probably around 1974-75 it
would’ve been, because our first project was to make a bicentennial feather pen. 1976 was coming, the 200 year anniversary
of our country, and i was peddling feather pens kind of door to door, store to store,
and that’s how I got started in the feather business, by selling feather pens. And then, of course 1976 ended, and the feather
pen craze died out a bit, so I just started working with feathers in general. Working with rooster feathers, peacock feathers,
quill feathers, ostrich feathers, and just sort of gravitated towards the business, I
loved it, I loved it. I left school teaching, and I loved school
teaching, but I left it for this. Although I do miss teaching. My first job with theatre was for the Broadway
show Sugar Babies, starring Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, and among other things they
needed feather fans, which, I’d never made feather fans, but I made those. And then I remember, I think it was Barbara
Matera costumes, they had a sketch, they needed something to look like powder puffs they wanted
them made out of marabou feathers, and I was I was hooked. I loved theatre after that. The way it was, as a fringe, not many people
buy it that way they would like it to be turned into what we call a feather boa, ready to
wear. Singers like these, dancers like these. The thing that made me most excited about
theatre was the calibre and the brilliance. The people that I met, like Barbara Matera
and William Ivey Long, it was just a pleasure working with them because they knew exactly
what they wanted, and if they showed me a sketch and I could do it, I would build what
they wanted, or at least give them the feathers, the right feathers, that they could build
what they wanted. The key things you need to know about feathers
are the name of the feather, the qualities that are available and the pricing of course. And then you have to know your market. It wouldn’t pay to stock up on turkey plumage
in a color like orange, we only sell that around Halloween time. You learn as you go. We work with any decorative feather that’s
from a bird that’s not an endangered species. These would be Chinese pheasants, this boa
is made of ostrich, this is made of turkey marabou, ostrich again, marabou with glitter,
turkey ruff. These are rooster, natural rooster feathers,
these are dyed rooster feathers. And we also work with the common, you know,
peacock and turkey plumage, and whatever they like, you know, we have any feather that,
other than bedding feathers, we don’t stuff pillows, that’s not our business. We handle feathers that are made to be seen,
visual feathers. They’re called fancy feathers in the industry. We say we sell them to all trades, being millinery,
fly-tie fisherman, theatre, circuses, carnivals. When you do feathers for stage, everything
has to be a little sturdier, a little more, they have to read a certain way from the balcony. So if you just put a single plume onto a costume,
from far away it doesn’t quite look like a single plume, but if you make it a double
plume, then even from far away the density makes it read properly. And of course you have to stitch it together
in such a way that it’ll last for years for eight performances or nine performances
a week. Beautiful work, beautiful. This is going to be a sample that we will
show to people who need to see what a double curled plume looks like. Usually when I work on a play or a musical,
the costume designer will send some sketches to me, or have one of their shoppers come
over. The shopper sometimes has an idea of what
the budget will be, the producer will tell them we only have x amount of dollars to spend,
or spend like a sailor, whatever you like. And I will show them different feathers and
give them the various prices and they take that back to the designer, and if the designer
likes what I’ve shown them, then they’ll ask the producer if this is in the budget
I guess, and they purchase it from me. The most important thing to know when you’re
working with costumes and with theatre people is, you have to put your own ego aside I think,
and you have to see, what does the designer really want, and you have to sort of get inside
their head and try to make their dreams fulfilled. You want to help them realize their vision,
and if you can do that, you’ll do well with feather costuming, and it’s a good life
lesson in general also. Well, I pick the right feathers depending
on what the sketch looks like. If they’ve drawn something that looks like
this, they might draw something that’s, uh, it used to be egret, but you can’t do
egret anymore it’s against the law, so we imitate egret by burning some ostrich feathers,
and we get as close as we can. It’s a poor substitute, but it works, you
know? We have to send the feathers out to be dyed. We have several dyers who we work with, the
best one of them is retired now so we have to use secondary dyers, but we’ve found
some good people both in the Unites States and offshore that can match a color pretty
well. There was a period of time when feathers were
extremely popular. The feather dyer used to call that a “Eugenie
season” because there was a princess Eugenie years ago who wore some feathers on her hat,
and it was all over the news, and all of a sudden every woman had to have similar feathers
on her hat, whether it was marabou feathers, ostrich feathers. Feather dealers just couldn’t keep up with
the demand. At that time there were probably 30 or 40
feather dealers in New York alone, and now we’re down to just a few, but that was the
Eugenie season time, everyone made money those days. Tourists will pay two-to-six hundred dollars
a night to stay in a hotel in this section, so the landlords don’t want to rent spaces
to people like us, when they can make a fortune making a hotel. The last two times Dersh Feather had to move,
what went up in it’s place in that building became a hotel. You have four fairly large hotels on 36th
Street between 5th and 6th, and you have four or five on the block, 38th Street, and hopefully
it’ll end at some point and we won’t all be out of the garment district. One of my daughters, my youngest daughter,
is going to come into the business in January and work with us for one year, and she’ll
see if she likes it or not because Jay and I, we intend to be here forever, but it won’t
happen, so we have to have someone else to take over eventually.

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