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One On 1: Broadway Costume Designer Alvin Colt

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If you go to the Museum of the City of New York in the next two weeks, you'll see an exhibit that could be a history of New York theater for the last 60 years.

It's also the story of Broadway costume designer Alvin Colt, who also happens to be the subject of this week’s One on 1 with Budd Mishkin.

After more than 60 years on Broadway, how does Alvin Colt still have the energy to keep working?

“I got a lot of pills. All from my doctor, all legitimate,” says Colt.

You probably don't recognize him.



But if you love theater, you might recognize his work as a costume designer, in shows like “Li’l Abner” and “Guys and Dolls,” and his latest show, “Forbidden Broadway.”

When Colt did his first show on Broadway, Franklin Roosevelt was president and the allies had just stormed the beaches at Normandy. It was December 1944. The show? “On the Town.”

"The first show — all of us connected with it. Leonard Bernstein's first show, Jerry Robbin's first show, Betty and Adolph, mine, Oliver Smith. None of us had ever done a Broadway show before,” says Colt. “None of us had arrived yet.”

I spent a day with Colt at the Museum of the City of New York, walking through an exhibit of sketches from his long Broadway career.



Some are on the wall.

“This was ÎFanny.’ This is the first big show I did with David Merrick,” says Colt.

Some are kept in storage.

"This is ÎWildcat’ again. This is a whole scene, a Mexican scene,” he says, describing the sketches.

In all, Colt says there are 3,000 sketches.



And almost as many stories about people with whom he's worked.



“One of the critics said that Orson [Wells] had everything in it but the kitchen sink, so at curtain call, he used to push out the kitchen sink,” Colt recalls.

And meeting Mae West for a show that eventually was scrapped.

“I'm in this room all by myself, waiting, and my goodness, this is Mae West's bedroom, what am I doing in here?” says Colt.

But dish the dirt on camera about stars he's worked with? Never.

“No no no, that wouldn't be fair. That would be bad,” he says.

Colt is too much of a gentleman to do that, a product of a different era.



When you've been working on Broadway for more than 60 years, it's easy to lose count of the number of shows you've worked on.



But Colt vividly remembers some of the reviews along the way.



The good ones:

“Brooke Atkinson, who was the critic of the New York Times and highly honored, and in his review he said, "not since ÎMy Fair Lady’ have we seen such beautiful costumes.’ I thought that was a pretty good compliment,” says Colt.



And the not so good ones.

“And the costumes were Îsadistically repulsive.’ Well you know, you think twice when you read something like that,” says Colt.

He's clothed thousands of actors through the years. Easier clothing them than remembering them all, as Colt experienced at a recent event.

"I never had so many people come up and shake my hand, kiss me on the cheek. I don't know who in the hell they were,” says Colt.

But the reality for colt now is that most of the people he's working with in the theater are 50, 60, even 70 years younger than him.

“All my collaborators, just about all, are gone,” says Colt.

“It's empty,” he adds. “There's nothing you can do about it. ÎCause you meet the new ones and they're all impressed that you did shows with this one and you did shows with that one, and you dressed this one, you dressed that one. I mean you get, they love hearing about it and all, but it doesn't mean that you're gonna get together and collaborate on something. You might and you might not. You never know.”

How does Colt view himself in his 90s? By looking around.

“When I go to the doctor's office, people waiting, I think, my goodness, look at that guy over there. He’s not as old as I am and look at what mess he's in. It's true,” he says.

His story began in Louisville where he made his theatrical debut creating shows in his room.

“I had my toy theater that I built with the curtains go up and down and side to side. I had my Humpty Dumpty circus, some very small miniature dress figures,” says Colt.

What he didn't have was an appreciative audience.

"My brother always made the excuse that he had to do his homework; my mother would be on the telephone; and my father would lock himself up in the bathroom,” says Colt. “So I would have to do the shows all alone."

Only a few years later, both of his parents died. Colt says the deaths didn't make him bitter, but perhaps more independent.

“I think I probably went after things and did things that I probably never would have dreamt of doing before because I had no one to say don't do that,” says Colt.

He would eventually go to the Yale School of Drama in the mid-Î30s. His height, six foot six, kept him from being drafted. And eventually he made his way to New York City.

“What was it like? I was learning about all sorts of things that I never knew about before,” says Colt.

He first worked in ballet, doing costumes for a performance that opened at the old Metropolitan Opera House.

"I'll never forget that opening night when the big gold curtains swooshed up like that and all my girls were on the stage, and the audience applauded. You don't forget things like that. Gets you right in here,” says Colt, pointing to his heart.

His ballet connections led to the theater.



He won a Tony in 1956 for his combined work on three different shows. Perhaps his most famous show? “Guys and Dolls.”

“It was a big hit and we all knew it was going to be a big hit, too,” says Colt.

Colt says he had a chance to invest $5,000 in the show, but couldn't convince his friends to contribute.

"So I couldn't raise any money, and I had to turn it down. And of course the show was a smash hit,” says Colt. “And here I regretted that I never invested because I could have made a bundle.”

It’s not many of us who can say that one of their first paying gigs was almost 70 years ago.

Before Colt became part of Broadway, he actually designed costumer for the Ford Motor Exposition at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. The exhibit was called “A Thousand Times Neigh."

He also did costumes for the movies like “Li’l Abner,” and the opera.

But mostly his work was seen on the Broadway stage, up through the 90s and this decade.



Retire? Colt says he hates the word.

"I might be fooling Îcause if you don't get asked to do anything, I guess in some ways it's kind of, you're in that retirement,” says Colt.

Colt’s story is a major part of the story of New York theater through the second half of the 20th century.



But Colt hopes it's a story not entirely in the past, a story with a few more chapters to go.

"I like to fell that I’m not finished. This may be archaic material, but if somebody came to me right now, and it was something that I really wanted to do, and I really feel that I could do a great job on it, I'd jump on it,” says Colt.

— Budd Mishkin

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