Reflecting on over four decades in show business
By PAMELA BARKER
Community Reporter/ Social Media Editor
North Palm Beach Life/ firstname.lastname@example.org
One evening, on Amtrak's northeastern bound Silver Meteor train, we strolled into the gently rocking Dining Car and sat down at a table for, well, dinner. Facing us from the other side ... a woman and a man. We were not alone.
In the event you don't do train travel, the Dining Car (I am not speaking of the Club Car) experience is community-style seating. In other words, you are seated with others. Random. Dining with strangers on a train, if you will.
Basically, here's how it goes...you either meet truly fascinating people...or you do not.
If you have opted for the Sleeping Car, you can, of course, take your meals in your room.
But, why do that for every meal, when true adventure, possibly, awaits just a few cars away?
The trek from West Palm Beach to Penn Station in New York City takes approximately (give-or-take, it's a train, not a plane) 24 hours. So, you have the opportunity to partake in several meals.
On our most recent trip to New York, we were fortunate enough to have been seated across from that woman and man I mentioned above, who turned out to be...both friendly and fascinating.
So, let's break it down about this particular woman...who, I discovered, was a certain, Penny Davis.
My wandering focus snapped into focus when she said she had been a Wardrobe Supervisor on Broadway and beyond.
Over dinner, the four of us had a rousing discussion about that, and more.
After departing the Dining Car, I regretted not exchanging contact information.
In situations like this, it can go either way. One, you stay in touch after the train meet-up. Two, you do not.
Fortunately, for me, I saw Penny the next morning in the Dining Car, and although she was seated with others, I kept my eye on her, as I planned to pounce (another way to think of it, I wanted to see if I could contact her later on).
As the minutes ticked along, my food arrived, and I dug in with abandon, when all of a sudden, I realized Penny was departing the car.
Shoving Gerry almost to the floor, I leapt to my feet, and began waving my cloth napkin like a crazed person.
Fortunately, for me, Penny was unfazed by this outburst on my part and stopped. Upon hearing my request, she smiled and gave me her email address. I hoped it was real, but would not have blamed her if it had been bogus. You see, Internet on the train is tricky, at best, so testing it out prior to train departure was pretty much not going to happen.
Well, here we are , a few weeks later...the email was real (yeah, I had a small glitch, but it was my fault) and she could not have been more gracious about chatting about her career.
Now, at this juncture, after agreeing to do a Q&A with me, Penny wants me to be clear that she is not a designer (which, in my excitement, I slipped into calling her).
Research tells me that back-in-the-day (whenever THAT is supposed to be) the title "Wardrobe Supervisor" was "Wardrobe Mistress" (for women).
Call me sentimental, but I like that term. I think it sounds glamorous and theatrical. I see no negative connotations.
Of course, anything having to do with wardrobe has my absolute attention, so as we began chatting with Penny and her mate (maybe we can convince Penny to convince him to do an interview in the future, because we enjoyed speaking with him, a great deal). But, I digress (as usual).
Anyway, whatever you want to call it, this wardrobe person has full-on responsibility for the clothing used in productions once the
Director and Designers have completed their jobs (which we are not going to break down here). A current resident of Miami, Ms. Davis was kind enough to share some her background with me (and a Podcast is cooking).
So, Ladies and Gentlemen, let's welcome to this virtual stage...Wardrobe Supervisor, Penny Davis:
Stage Direction To Readers: This is where you envision her standing, dressed ever-so elegantly, on a stage answering my questions.
NPBL: You currently reside in Florida, but where are you from, originally?
Penny: I was born in Philadelphia but we moved to Miami when I was about a year old and I lived here until I moved to NYC in 1969.
NPBL: Why Florida?
Penny: I lived in NYC for 42 years. It was always my intention to come back home when I retired. I brought my husband down here to see how he felt about it. He loved it so we moved back in January of 2012. No more winters!!!!
NPBL: Do you have any pets, if so, would you like to tell us about them?
Penny: We have three cats. One old lady (Dusty)and two “kittens” (3 years old) brother and sister rescue cats (Mad Dog and Prissy). Their names tell you everything you need to know about their personalities. Mad Dog was named for the gangster Mad Dog Coll. The older cat loathes the kittens and doesn’t hesitate to let them know. The younger girl cat follows her around anyway and tries to be friends. The boy cat just sneers and swats at her when she gets too obnoxious.
NPBL: Did you spend your entire career as a costume designer?
Penny: (This is where she, rightly, sets me straight) Let me be clear. I was not a designer, although I did design one show off Broadway that was very successful -- “When You Coming Back, Red Ryder." I began as a dresser and became a wardrobe supervisor. “The Me Nobody Knows," was my first show as a wardrobe supervisor. As a wardrobe supervisor, I work closely with the designer to execute the costumes with the nature of
their use in mind. Help with budgeting when needed. I lay out quick changes and oversee the “deck” and the dressers and interact with the director and the performers to make a smooth running show.
NPBL: What were some of the shows you worked on?
Penny: (Her resume is extensive, so here are just a few) Some of my favorites were “The Real Thing," “Smokey Joe’s Café," “Lost in Yonkers” and “Sweeney Todd."
NPBL: What was the most rewarding aspect of setting up a show?
Penny: Making very quick changes happen so it looks like magic.
NPBL: The least rewarding?
Penny: Standing on my feet (in high heels (until I admitted I was short) for 12-hour tech rehearsals.
NPBL: Does a wardrobe supervisor have to sew?
Penny: Not necessarily but it helps. I can sew but I am not a draper. But I know who to hire!!!
NPBL: Do you make things for yourself?
Penny: Not often. That’s why I earned money!!
NPBL: What is a favorite look you like to style for yourself?
Penny: A bit bohemian.
NPBL: Do you offer helpful hints on attire to family and friends?
Penny: Yes, when asked!
NPBL: When you see random strangers on the street (or a train), do you silently imagine how they could change/improve what they are wearing?
Penny: Absolutely. I have seen strangers on the street dressed so outrageously that if you were to copy their look for stage or film people would say you’ve gone over the top and yet, there they are, walking around.
NPBL: As a lover of fashion, even as a kid, I always paid attention to movie credits, who designed the wardrobe. Of course, Edith Head was huge (but, there were some questions about her actual
contributions, brought to light by Audrey Hepburn -- the whole Givenchy situation), and Helen Rose. There was this small movie called, "The Reluctant Debutante," in which Sandra Dee wore Helen Rose, but Kay Kendall wore the most fabulous wardrobe by
Balmain. The designs are striking, unforgettable, and could easily be worn today. Who are your favorite costume or fashion designers, past and present, and why?
Penny: In film, Theodora Van Runkle. You can really tell the difference a designer can make by watching "Godfather Part I" (which was designed by Anna Hill Johnstone) and "Godfather Part 2," which Van Runkle designed. Both periods were interesting and specific but Van Runkle really captured the times in her design. (The Designers) Adrian, of course, and Orry-Kelly. On stage, Martin Pakledenaiz and Jane Greenwood. Jane is my favorite designer to work with. She is a lovely person and so good at what she does. Marty died tragically not too long ago. He was so specific and detailed in his designs.
NPBL: Are you a fan of vintage clothing for yourself or being worn by the everyday person?
Penny: Oh, yes!
NPBL: Do you have a favorite vintage designer, and why do some stand the test-of-time, while others do not and simply appear dated?
Penny: My favorite period in design are the 1920s. I love the shapes and the colors of the period.
NPBL: Who was your favorite person to dress, and why?
Penny: I dressed in Miami at the CG Playhouse from 1963-69. Lovely people came through and I had a great time with Rita Gardner, Kenneth Nelson, Karen Black and Ethel Merman. In NY, I did a few shows with Christine Baranski and I love her (NPBL: We do, too.). She is one of the smartest people I have ever met and one of the best actresses around.
NPBL: What was your favorite production?
Penny: “The Real Thing," and “Smokey Joe’s Café," I loved those shows. “The Sound of Music," because I just loved those kids!
NPBL: Did you watch the HBO series, "Sex and the City"?
Penny: No, I watched one episode and didn’t care for it so I never went back. I’m kind of SJP (Sarah Jessica Parker) averse. Should I? (NPBL: The wardrobe can be a fun topic over cocktails).
NPBL: Are there any shows currently airing with outstanding costuming?
Penny: Well, "Downton Abbey," of course. I don’t really watch too much episodic television. I’m kind of a movie gal. I do think they do spectacular work on “Dancing with the Stars." So many good things made so quickly! I’m dazzled by their team.
NPBL: Did you prefer costuming period or modern day vehicles?
Penny: Period is more interesting but modern day is easier.
NPBL: As the so-called, celebrities of today seem to be constantly parading themselves in front of the paparazzi, do you have an opinion on their attire...or lack of?
Penny: I prefer a more classic look than a lot of the “celebrities” are wearing today. Cate Blanchett, of course, stands out for klass with a capital K (not lost on us), and Helen Mirren. Taylor Swift is a nifty dresser.
NPBL: Speaking of TRUE celebrities, I am a huge Jack Lemmon fan, and I see in your Facebook photo (because you told me) that you are holding awards belonging to Jack Lemmon. I always loved, or so I heard, that at the beginning of filming he would always say, "Let the magic begin." Anything you wish to share about him?
Penny: Actually he did say “magic time” at the start of each show.
I did two shows with Jack. A play called “Tribute” in 1978-79 and then “Long Day’s Journey into Night” in 1986. He was a great guy and a wonderful storyteller. Remind me and I’ll tell you my favorite of his about Walter Matthau and Tony Curtis. “Tribute” was a show where the company was like a family. Some of us are still good friends 40 years later. Jack and three of us (Angie, Cathy and I) used to have dinner almost every matinee day at Delsomma, an Italian restaurant (sadly, now gone) next to the theatre. One day, a few years after “Tribute” had closed, my friend Angie and I were having dinner there. The front door opened and there stood Jack, by himself. He looked about the place and spotted us and came right over. We welcomed him with hellos and how are yous.
He said “I knew if I came here I would see someone I knew to have dinner with." I just loved that. He was a great mentor to young actors. Bob Picardo who was in “Tribute” and Peter Gallagher and Kevin Spacey who were in “Long Day’s Journey.” Kevin often gives credit to Jack for his career. He was a very generous soul and I am glad to have known him.
NPBL: Any other favorite celebrity anecdotes you care to share?
Penny: There are several notorious Ann Miller anecdotes. I can tell you most of them are true! She could be outrageous, but no one
ever worked harder than she did and she gave me my start in NY for which I am grateful. But,she took a lot of energy and by 25 I was too old for her, so I became her “mammy in chief” and trained younger people to work with her.
NPBL: Are you considering writing a book, because you really should?
Penny: A number of people have asked me that and I’m of two minds. Most of my best stories I cannot tell as, in my job, discretion was a most important component. But, if I could get hold of some
Coconut Grove Playhouse programs from the 60s my memory might be jarred sufficiently to get me started. Anyone out there know of an archive?
NPBL: What have I failed to ask, that you would like to add?
Penny: I can’t think of anything.
Fade-to-Black...and, take a bow, Ms. Penny Davis, after this Q&A, I have even more admiration than when I me you. I mean I have shared air with someone who shared air with Jack Lemmon and Christine Baranski, and she admires the iconic, Helen Mirren.
So, the next time you are on a train...don't be afraid to step into the dining car and pull up a seat (well, slide into one) with strangers.
You just never know what you will discover.
Now, let's hope Penny will have a little spare time to speak with us on a Podcast! I want to hear more. Plus, if anyone knows anything about those vintage (from the 60's) Coconut Grove programs...let us hear from you!
Listen to the Podcast
Penny reflects on her career in show business,
including her time with
Jack Lemmon and Christine Baranski.
About the Photo:
"This was 1979 in California at Jack Lemmon's house. Beautiful Tudor house above the Beverly Hills Hotel. I hate pictures of myself! It is with Jack's dresser, Gino, and Jack's two Oscars. Yes, the Oscars are heavy!!" (Photo courtesy Penny Davis)
"This is my favorite photo of me. Taken in Jack's house. We were doing "Tribute" in L.A. and he had a pool party for the company and other notables.......his best friends, Walter Matthau and his wife and Edie Adams, widow of Ernie Kovacs, one of his best friends. Do you remember the Nairobi Trio on the old Ernie Kovacs show in the 50s? Did you know that Jack was the piano player in the trio. If you never saw them YouTube it. They still make me laugh and laugh."
On Jack Lemmon: "I did two shows with Jack ... He was a very generous soul and I am glad to have known him."
I have seen strangers on the street dressed so outrageously that if you were to copy their look for stage or film people would say you’ve gone over the top and yet, there they are, walking around."