By BRIDGET MORGAN, Senior PR & Communications Manager
For the last 28 years, any actor who has crossed the stage in a 5th Avenue Theatre production has at some point or other worked closely with Deb Engelbach in our costume shop. Very closely. Deb has a curious specialization in the world of costumes: shoes and underwear. In addition to some more general operational work in the costume shop, Deb is the person who is purchasing and fitting undergarments for performers, purchasing shoes, building and stretching tap shoes, and adjusting shoes for quick changes. In a sense, Deb is responsible for the most basic layer of confidence an actor or actress has when they dance their way onstage.
A warm-hearted and cheerful woman, Deb can often be found in her bright pink office on the second floor of The 5th Avenue Theatre where the costume shop and dressing rooms are located. By her desk is a bulletin board full of mementos from her many years at The 5th – original costume renderings, photos and notes from the many designers she has worked with, bits and pieces of various costume accessories. Behind her is a wall filled with shelves and bins full of earrings, necklaces, brooches, glasses and more, everything thoroughly organized and labeled. Her hair is short and blonde, her eyes crinkle at the corners when she smiles (which is often) and you will rarely find her without a touch of lipstick.
“I’ve probably done about 140 shows in 28 years here,” she tells me on a beautiful Seattle morning as sunlight and the sounds of Downtown traffic pour through her office window. Well, after 28 years, it’s time to hang the tap shoes up, so to speak. Deb, after a magnificent and wide-ranging career in the theater, is retiring.
“If you look back, the first season we did three shows. We generally did about three shows a season in the beginning, and most of them were packages…We brought our own sewing machines back then. The theater didn’t own any. And we had our head wardrobe mistress, Judy Cooper, and she pretty well got us all started. There were maybe three or four of us. And we would occasionally dispatch out to the union for people who could sew. So that’s how we started… and of course back then, all the sewers also dressed the shows.”
Today, sewers (who spend a traditional eight hours in the costume shop building) and dressers (working the actual performances) are part of two entirely separate departments: costumes and wardrobe. In the early days, one team did it all.
Deb’s first production at The 5th was Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music in December of 1989. At the time, she was a student of Western Washington University taking classes in fashion and apparel in Downtown Seattle. “Someone I knew, Laurel Cancilla, who worked here with Judy Cooper starting up the actual theater, called me and said ‘We need people who can sew. Bring your machine!’ So I showed up and I started working!”
For a time, the theater only did a small handful of shows in a season. During those early years, Deb could also be found in the costume shops of Seattle Opera, Seattle Rep and the Pacific Northwest Ballet. She also wrangled fashion shows for Frederick and Nelson and I. Magnin, two high-end retail stores that closed their doors years ago. “The designers would come in with their fall and spring shows and I came in and hired dressers, helped run the shows backstage, and accessorized all kinds of things: purses, jewelry, shoes… I did that for about five years while I was still in school and here at The 5th starting off.”
But things got exciting at The 5th very quickly. In 1992, the first national tour of Phantom of the Opera launched at The 5th Avenue Theatre. “It stayed for quite a long time,” she tells me. “We started it here… every label, every pin pad. It rehearsed here. The costumes all came from New York. Fittings happened here. A lot of the fitting people would come from the shops in New York and would fit here and then fly back. Hal Prince was here, and he hung around a lot to make sure things were going good. And oh, it was the best opening night party,” she recalls. “We went to the Four Seasons in the Chandelier Room and there flowers and food and little chocolates with Phantom masks… It was the old glamorous days of theater!”
I ask her for some of the highlights of her career, her favorite productions. Deb doesn’t miss a beat when she says “Hairspray. Hairspray is one of the most fun shows that I worked on, mostly because when we all started doing it, we all knew it was special. We knew it was going to be a hit. And all the people were so talented. It was just a different caliber. And it was hard work because we started it here, and we had William Ivey Long here in the shop, a Tony Award-winning designer!”
“And then, of course, Aladdin was a special time in my life, mostly because the costume designer, Gregg Barnes, was a fantastic human being. He made me feel special all the time and I worked hard for him and was basically his assistant. And we sat in this little room and made the show happen! He used to always tell me, ‘They don’t know it, but you are living treasure!’ And that meant a lot to me. I told him I’m retiring and he said ‘At last! Now you can come see me and you can finally see Aladdin on Broadway! And I just might take him up on that…
“I’ve learned a lot in my career, you learn new things every day from different people,” she says wisely. “And that’s how I started to specialize in shoes and underwear… I just sort of fell into it. A lot of people don’t want to do it because it’s hard. You’re dealing one-on-one with actors and you have to make their feet happy! If their feet are sore and they can’t dance and they can’t move, that’s a big problem! And they need someone who can help. So that’s what I did. I learned a lot over the years. I learned from people who came through on tours. I learned from designers. I learned from the people and companies that build dance shoes for us. Everyone has something to share.”
“Holiday Inn is going to be a big tap show and taps are challenging.” The theater considers itself lucky that Deb will be working on contract with us for that production. “Number one is the fit. Taps can be put on a lot of different shoes. You just need to know what kind and what type and what will make the sound more right, because it is all about the sound. Most of the time if the tapper is truly a good tapper, they will adjust their own sound, but then you have to have all the tools for them. I remember once Sean Hingston, who was a tapper here years ago, I had to go find a special screw for his shoes at Tacoma Screw because he needed a special kind of Australian screw (he was Austrailian) and I did! It’s his living. He knew the sound he needed. The thing about actors, and they can tell you this—they know that I will listen to them and they know that I will do my best to take care of them. And I do.”
I ask Deb what she is proud of in her career and she pauses, looking back across the years. “Well,” she says after a time. “I’ve done a lot of beautiful shows and I’m proud of that. And I guess I’m just proud that I survived! Because there were sometimes that I wondered, and particularly knowing what a hard job this can be.”
We can hardly mention a show without Deb sharing some tidbit, some story about her experiences and we laugh. “Every show is a story. No matter what you think, not one show is the same, ever, and that’s why you keep doing it!” she says with a bright smile. “The people, the challenges, the creativity. That’s the part that keeps you going. It’s always different and you are always learning. And it’s not always glamorous. Someone has to take the garbage out. I do that a lot. I clean up. On Catch Me, Bob Mackie was the designer. And we’d sit at the computer and he’d help me find underwear. And I learned a lot from him! And we shopped a lot. And he saw me in the alley one day taking all the garbage out and he goes ‘Ahhh, the glamorous part of theater!’ And the thing is, he knew that was an important part of it too. And he respected it. I loved him. He is a wonderful man. I still get Christmas cards from him!”
I ask her what she will miss. “The people,” she says without hesitation. “All the people.” A few tears are ready in her eyes and I find myself a little choked up too. She passes the tissues. “It’s a family,” she says with a smile. “It’s a family…”
It’s so true. And Deb will be missed terribly by her 5th Avenue Theatre family, though we are happy to know she will be coming back to us on occasion. And in the meantime… if you know anyone who has amassed several years worth of knowledge about shoes and underwear, understands the intricacies of quick changes onstage, imagines accurately the complexities of dancing in platform heels, eagerly assists in finding the perfect bra with the perfect amount of lift, has assembled and adjusted a tap shoe or two, and understands the pros and cons of LaDucas versus Capezios dance shoes… please, send them our way.