Costumes from New York Theaters Find New Life in Other Plays

10 November, 2017

In a huge, underground space in New York City, below the largest sound stage east of Hollywood, 80,000 costumes wait for actors to claim them.

This is the TDF Costume Collection, run by the not-for-profit Theater Development Fund. The clothing, jewelry, hair pieces and other wearables come from Broadway, Off Broadway, opera, film, and regional productions.

People can pay to use the costumes. But not all people, says collection director Steven Cabral.

"We're not renting for Halloween, and we're not renting for parties with food or liquids where something could happen to the costume. But if you're doing something that seems of an artistic nature in some way, we're going to be able to rent to you."

Cabral notes that the collection has a little of everything - from medieval warrior wear created in the 1920s to modern ball gowns, and some stranger things.

Stephen Cabral (upper right) and TDF staff pose with some of their favorite costumes.
Stephen Cabral (upper right) and TDF staff pose with some of their favorite costumes.

"That is...yeah, that is an elephant head."

Cabral says TDF got into the costume business in the mid-1960s, when the Metropolitan Opera was about to move into a new home in Lincoln Center.

The opera house, also known as the Met, had costumes for 22 full operas that officials were not planning on keeping. But they did not want to throw them away either.

So, Cabral says, TDF took on all these old production elements and began to rent them for a very low cost.

High school, college and community theater groups, movie production companies and TV shows have all used costumes in the collection. Opera companies can find almost anything they need at TDF.

Cabral says he got a call after one gown from a Met production of Lucia di Lammermoor arrived for an opera in the Midwest. It was the opera company director on the phone.

"'You had one of my singers in tears last night.' The person being fitted for this costume was a young opera singer, and when she saw the costume, and saw that it had the Metropolitan Opera label, and it said Lucia, and it said wedding scene, and it said Beverly Sills.

"The young woman broke down because she couldn't believe that she was so fortunate to not only wear Metropolitan Opera, but to wear something owned by Beverly Sills."

Costumes from the Met are built to last, so when they arrive, they go into a small room of "special stock." After these costumes have seen their share of use, they move to another room. And once they start looking pretty worn, they move again. Some even go on sale. Cabral says those twice-yearly sales have a set price for everything a shopper can fit into one bag.

"And the rule is, we just don't ever want to see the costume again."

There is always a new crop of donations waiting for space at TDF.

I'm Caty Weaver.

The Associated Press reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.


Words in This Story

sound stage - n. an area of a movie or television studio for the recording of sound, typically used to record dialogue

rent - v. to pay money in return for being able to use

costume - n. the clothes that are worn by someone (such as an actor) who is trying to look like a different person or thing

medieval - adj. of or relating to the period of European history from about A.D. 500 to about 1500

fortunate - adj. coming or happening because of good luck

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