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Costume Maker Fits Into Movies Behind the Seams

April 10, 1986|DEBRA SORRENTINO LARSON | Larson is a Newhall free-lance writer

During her 21 years in the motion picture studio wardrobe business, Catena Passalacqua has worked with top designers Bob Mackie ("Funny Lady"), Edith Head ("The Great Race"), Theodora Van Runkle ("Mame") and Don Feld ("Prizzi's Honor"). But it was Feld, she found, who had the most inventive method of fitting stars.

"If we did period movies," she said, "to put the actress in the right mood, he would play music from that period."

While fitting Jane Fonda for her role in the 1969 film "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?", set at a marathon dance, Feld played music from the '30s.

Did it help? "Oh, definitely," she said.

Started With Warner Bros.

Passalacqua has been privy to much of Hollywood behind the scenes since joining Warner Bros. as a costume assembler in 1965. Today, she is manager of the wardrobe department at the Burbank Studios, a 108-acre production facility jointly operated by Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures. She is the only woman to hold such a position at a major studio.

Since her appointment in 1982, Passalacqua has ruled over what is reputedly the largest wardrobe department of any movie studio. Its costumes number in the untold thousands and are housed in several buildings.

Exuding a gracious but authoritative manner, Passalacqua oversees a staff of eight. Depending on production schedules, however, as many as 25 costume makers of the Motion Picture Costumers, Local 705, and 15 tailors may be added to the payroll.

Day Begins at 8:30 a.m.

There is no such thing as a typical day for Passalacqua. The staff arrives about 8:30 a.m., and "we never know what's going to happen next," she said. "You never know when you're going home. You try to leave at 6:30, but it's usually 7 or 7:30."

"We have people calling in, 'I need a helmet right now,' and that might be 10 minutes to 6," she said. "One day, 'Twilight Zone' came and pulled some 'Camelot' clothes and armor."

One recent day, a New York costumer was there collecting clothes for a new play. San Diego State University, La Jolla Playhouse and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival often rent costumes. Museums sometimes display the studio's wares.

Passalacqua's mother, who works in beading at MGM, inspired her to enter the costume field. "I was in awe of her talents," she said. "I visited her at work a couple of times. I used to sit underneath the frame.

"At that time, she didn't drive, so the studio actually used to send a limousine for her--pick her up, bring her to the studio and bring her home again."

Degree in Costume Design

Passalacqua graduated from the Frank Wiggins Trade School (now Los Angeles Trade Technical College) with a degree in costume design, then operated her own dress shop for several years.

After joining Warner Bros. as a draper, she spent the next 17 years as a cutter and fitter (pattern maker and costume fitter) and "foreperson" (as it is designated by the costumers' union), before becoming manager.

Her office reflects a bit of studio history. A locked glass case contains a collection of 300 medals that belonged to the late Jack Warner. Another case contains the Excalibur from "Camelot" and a sword from Errol Flynn's "Adventures of Don Juan." Glass-enclosed shelves protect crowns from "Camelot," and pale walls display colorful sketches of costumes from the movies "Mame," "The Great Race" and "Annie."

While preparing for "Camelot," Passalacqua said, she and her co-workers made about 35,000 medieval costumes in a year. The cost was more than $2 million.

Undergown Made of Raw Silk

"I don't think we'll ever have a movie like that again," she said, while thumbing through photographs. "This is the wedding gown. The train was about 10 feet long. The undergown was raw silk, and then we pulled in colored threads to make different tones of beiges and browns. Then the overlay, which was all ecru-colored medallions with little, teensy seashells, no more than a half-inch to three-quarters. And then we put lacquered pumpkin shells on it.

"Everyone who had a moment would pick up a crochet needle and crochet little medallions. And he didn't want you to start from any center," she said of designer John Truscott. "He wanted them asymmetric."

The spectacle was shot on the Warner Bros. back lot, she said.

"We had people on the set all the time, dressmakers as well as tailors, in case something had to be hemmed up or something went wrong."

Passalacqua laments the passing of the "old days" when major studios had a few contract designers who conceived costumes for all projects and oversaw them throughout the films. "Nowadays, it's 'let's make enough money so we can stay alive,' " she said, laughing.

"Now, everyone is on such a tight budget that it's very difficult. They'll hire a designer just for the first couple of weeks. You set it up and you leave. Well then, you don't know what might be changed. Everything is in and out fast . And some things will be made, some things will be bought, some things will be altered."

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