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Behind the Garb

Costume designer Ann Closs-Farley is in the basement of the Evidence Room theater holding up a little orphan “Annie dress,” as she calls it, made from bright-red plastic tablecloths reinforced on either side by clear, glossy packing tape. With a sweet Peter Pan collar made from coffee filters, the 3-foot-tall dress is so stiff it nearly stands up by itself.

“Packing tape is a major part of these costumes. We have a thousand-dollar budget from the theater, and half of that goes to tape,” says Closs-Farley, who this year will oversee the design and construction of all 89 costumes for Ken Roht’s annual musical Christmas pageant, “Route 99”: Orange Star Dinner Show.

The way the light bounces off the tape makes each actor look like a present, Closs-Farley says. [Each costume] has to be sealed on both sides,” she explains. “The first year we discovered if you don’t [tape] the back, the cast’s sweat dissolves the tablecloths.”

Closs-Farley, an award-winning 10-year veteran of the Evidence Room — and a 12-year veteran of the Actors’ Gang — has been designing the costumes for Roht’s 99-cent-store extravaganza for the past four years.

What originally began as an ambitious one-woman affair has now ballooned into a 17-person costume team, which this year includes: Mark Crowell, former personal hairdresser to tap legend Ann Miller; Audry Fisher of the Mark Taper Forum’s design team; Tina Zimmerman, a tow-truck company owner from Sunland who, after seeing last year’s show, begged to help out; and 7-year-old Isabelle Adams, daughter of Evidence Room owners Jason Adams and Alicia Hoge.

“It’s really becoming a community,” Closs-Farley says of her ever-expanding crew. “Once people start with ‘the 99’ they get addicted,” she winks, nodding toward Crowell, who is brushing out a black wig in the corner.

Made entirely from items purchased from, or donated by, the 99 Cents Only Stores chain, Closs-Farley’s Seussian costumes have such a witty sophistication, they seem like a new-millennial twist on Marcel Duchamp’s notions of ready-made or found art.

“The 99-cent store gave us a donation and that was worth quite a bit. I’m not quite sure how much — they gave us boxes and boxes of stuff. I have to say we have more money this year than ever before, and less people in the cast. I give each designer all their basics, like tablecloths and tape, and different elements that I think the character should have, and then I give them 25 bucks to play with.

“A package of combs and some tinsel goes a long way,” adds Closs-Farley, illustrating her point while pulling out a top hat from last year’s production. The costume prop is made from pink, white, and black plastic combs sealed in clear packing tape.

“Each hat is probably the value of 10 bucks. And, if it’s tinfoil, it’s less than that, maybe three. You can get, like, 25 hats from one roll of tinfoil. I think the hard thing we’re doing this year is longer dresses. Trying to make them look like actual clothes.”

One costumer, Anthony Garcia, has to make two dresses to complete a requirement for his school thesis, she says, and 7-year-old Isabelle Adams is charged with making a Don Quixote costume for the cast’s youngest member, 14-year-old Ian Rotundo, out of tin flowerpots — complete with a colander facemask.

Ian’s mom, Joni, was the one who made this year’s “Annie dress.” His dad, Jim, a professional cabinetmaker, made 10 portable horses for this year’s show. The beasts move their plastic heads when their jump-rope reigns are pulled. With bases made from an amalgam of baby chairs, lawn sprinklers and colorful belts, the horses have heads built from pink-plastic pitchers, ears from white-plastic stirring spoons, and mop tops for manes. They almost look like something that could sell at the MOCA store.

In keeping with this year’s dinner-theater theme (see accompanying sidebar on creator-director Ken Roht), Closs-Farley says that most of the characters’ hairdos can be summed up as “Dolly Parton meets Loretta Lynn.”

“I guess the best way to put it is we are doing much hair this year,” inserts Crowell, who is credited as the show’s wig master.

Though Crowell will use real wigs for this year’s performance, he’s been known to create hairpieces from cotton balls and Brillo pads.

“Last year, the Peace Pony’s [hair] was made from baseball helmets,” says Closs-Farley, referring to the mock boy band that starred in last year’s production.

“You have to wear these backwards,” she insists. “We tried to put them on forwards, but they don’t fit. I think they were made wrong, and they sell them at the ‘99 cent,’” she laughs.

Over the past four years, Closs-Farley and Co. have used just about everything the 99 Cents Only Stores have to offer, from shower curtains, to kiddie pools, to dried beans and rice.

Though Roht says he’s still waiting to see his dream costume, one made entirely from Post-it notes, he has seen a man’s suit made from 99 Cents Only Stores stickers (3,000 of them), a real drinking-straw hat, and (this year) bow ties made from bendable car-window visors.

The only things the team has yet to build are shoes, which need to be authentic and sturdy because of the show’s emphasis on dancing.

“Ken is definitely getting more adventurous in the choreography, more acrobatic,” explains Closs-Farley, a former dancer herself. In her first year, when she was building the costumes by herself and performing in the show, she put her 5-month-old baby in a plastic 99 Cents Only Stores bag, taped it to her side, then went out on stage and did her number.

“The chemistry between Ken and me is one of those things you wait a whole lifetime for,” says Closs-Farley. “We love each other until [we want to] kill each other. He’s a genius at what he does. I have to say that when the curtain goes up and the lights go on, everybody starts to cry, because it’s like Santa has come. That’s what it’s like — living toys.”

Ken Roht’s “Route 99”: Orange Star Dinner Showis being performed at Evidence Room, 2220 Beverly Blvd., thru December 18. Call (213) 381-7118.

Click here to read Seven McDonald's accompanying article on Ken Roht.

Click here to read Dam Christmas: A Mulholland Christmas Carol tours the Owens Valley by Steven Leigh Morris

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