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Non-profit Costume Bank supplies the sartorially challenged
By Zack Stentz
I love costumes. I mean, I really love costumes. Ever since I can remember, I've been captivated by the transformative powers of wearing strange clothing. Captain Kirk, the Grim Reaper, an FBI agent (I know, a redundancy)--I've been them all. As a child, I was lucky enough to have indulgent hippie parents who let me wear my Puff the Blue Kitten Halloween costume to school every day until mid-December, by which time the foam-filled tail had nearly fallen off and the eyeliner pencil used daily to apply my whiskers had worn down to the nub. To this day, All Hallows' eve remains my favorite holiday.
But since no 12-step groups for compulsive costume wearers exists ("I'm Zack, and I've been a costume wearer for 21 years." "Hi, Zack."), I've come instead to the Costume Bank, where they understand my peculiar passion.
They're not costuming 12-steppers, but they are definitely addicted to costumes. Check out the Greater Bay Area Costumer's Guild to network with costume fanatics from Sonoma to Santa Cruz, as well as find more costuming resources locally and on the web.
Started in 1989, the non-profit Costume Bank supplies Sonoma County theaters, schools, churches, and other groups with an inexpensive supply of costumes for their every theatrical need. "We've gotten 40 new clients within the last year alone," says executive director Karen Simon, who co-founded the Costume Bank with the late Bill Sherman, a theater arts professor at Sonoma State University.
The bank is currently located in the back of Simon's Sebastopol home, but is rapidly outgrowing its current facility. "We're in desperate need of a new space," she says. "The roof leaks and we've used up all the space in here. What we really need is for someone to donate about 2,000 square feet of space somewhere in the county."
In the current location, literally thousands of costumes hang from densely packed racks, grouped loosely by historical era. The outfits span the centuries, from Roman and biblical wear--"we supply a lot of church plays"--through Elizabethan attire and on up to the styles of the present day. Near one wall sit several sewing machines used to repair old costumes and construct new ones.
The collection has accumulated over the years through donations from individuals and defunct theater groups, and expands each time Simon and her volunteers are called upon to supply a new play. Simon is particularly eager to fill in the gaps in the bank's collection, which she identifies as early 20th century, Restoration era, and Dickensian. "We get the most requests for 1930s and '40s costumes; then comes the Victorian era," says Simon. "And last summer we did the costumes for two Shakespeare plays, which kept us busy."
The Costume Bank is also kept busy by Petaluma's Cinnabar Theater. "We've used them for every play we've done in the last year and a half," says Cinnabar wardrobe mistress Jerrie Patterson. "By providing an inexpensive source of costumes to non-profit theaters like us, they let us stretch our resources in a way we couldn't before. They're a tremendous resource to the community."
But being a community resource by supplying costumes below cost doesn't come easy, and the bank's board of directors is searching for ways to put the enterprise on firmer financial ground. "It's tough for us right now," admits Simon. "We're very dependent on grant money to operate, and that's difficult to come by."
"Fundraising is a big priority," agrees Pamela Haystrom, who in her capacity as Sonoma State University costume designer often works with the Costume Bank and sits on its board of directors. "We really want to be able to be more accessible to the public."
This is all quite interesting, but I'm beginning to get fidgety. The Roman centurion breastplates on the wall, no doubt worn by Christ-tormentors in some long-forgotten passion play, the conquistador helmets from Man of La Mancha, and Rumanian army headgear from Mad Forest hanging from the ceiling, they beckon me.
Finally, I pop the question. "Can I try one on?" I plead, knowing the Costume Bank's policy of not loaning costumes to individuals.
"OK," Simon answers generously. "What would you like?"
"I don't care. Anything weird."
Simon nods and sends her teenage daughter into an adjoining storage room. She soon returns, bearing a silver lamé jumpsuit garish enough to make late-period Elvis cringe. "It was the costume for Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar," Simon explains helpfully.
I disappear into the changing area, and within moments I'm no longer a mild-mannered reporter, but David Bowie circa 1972, lacking only a guitar and the Spiders from Mars to be ready for the stage.
"Very nice," Simon says. Her daughter rolls her eyes.
But despite her willingness to indulge me, it's clear Simon's costume passion differs from mine in one respect. "I love making them, but I don't really like to wear costumes very much," she says, and explains that she gets much more joy out of supplying others with their sartorial needs and using the costumes as a window to provide history lessons on the eras they represent.
So after resisting the temptation to belt out a chorus of "I Don't Know How to Love Him," I return the outfit. It just wouldn't do for the bank to break its policy for one person. And besides, lamé itches.
For more information about the Costume Bank, write to P.O. Box 1524, Sebastopol, CA 95473, or call 824-1201.
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From the Feb. 15-21, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent