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Historians Strive to Identify MGM 'Gems' : Costumes a Model of Film Finery

February 01, 1987|JEFF BURBANK | Times Staff Writer

The clown costume, complete with baggy pants, pointed hat and slap shoes, was easy to identify. The brim of the hat was labeled "Durante," for the late comedian Jimmy Durante who wore the costume in the 1962 MGM film "Jumbo." Leopard-skin costumes worn by Doris Day and Martha Raye in the same film also were labeled. A soiled full-length dress, however, was a mystery.

"It's a period dress, around (the year) 1900, with light netting overlay and silk, a detailed trim," said film industry seamstress Dennice Lancer as she inspected the costume. "This is fragile fabric and it has aged. It may have been worn in a lot of Westerns or something. It's dirty, worn and probably not worth restoring"

Lancer added the dress to a list of costumes that must be researched to identify the film it appeared in and the actress who wore it. It is one of 68 costumes that the city obtained 14 years ago from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Culver City designated the Culver City Historical Society as caretaker of the clothing.

Effects of Age

The garments, most of which are 20 to 40 years old, had not been removed from cardboard boxes in a city-owned building for more than four years, and society members had feared the ravages of pests or mildew. So far, however, age seems to have been the worst enemy, said Lancer, who works at the Lorimar-Telepictures studio in Culver City.

"They mostly look to be aged and brittle," she said. "What we want the city to do is find a better place for the costumes. One with even humidity, not too damp, not too dry."

City officials have proposed establishing a museum on the history of Culver City and the movie industry, but the plan has been put on hold while a site is worked out.

The costume collection includes gowns worn by Lucille Ball in the 1954 film "The Long, Long Trailer" and Maria Schell in the 1958 movie "The Brothers Karamazov."

Identifying the costumes is the society's No. 1 priority. It has documented about 20 of them, using name labels, film production numbers and an inventory list from MGM.

In her research, Lancer is using a guidebook on MGM films, old movie stills and other sources on file in the research library at MGM's former studio, which Lorimar now owns.

The next step will be to restore the damaged costumes. Marti Diviak, who heads the museum project for the society, said some of the costumes can be repaired with needle and thread, while some need replacement parts that are rare.

"We'll have to assess exactly what we need and find out where they are available. They're not in everybody's inventory," Diviak said. "Some things will probably have to be duplicated by hand. Some (costumes) have custom-made buttons that cannot be matched, so we will have to try and make them ourselves and match them as closely as possible."

The city obtained the costumes from MGM in 1973, when the studio was auctioning off props and large chunks of its back lots. Syd Kronenthal, the city's human services director, said MGM employees wanted "a number of costumes to be kept in perpetuity" for the public.

'Gems of the Archives'

The costumes represent the "gems of the archives," he said, adding that employees hoped "there would be an opportunity someday for people to have a place to view them."

In the 1970s, civic groups used the costumes in fund-raising fashion shows. Kronenthal said some of the women modeling the clothes found it hard to fit into the garments.

"It was difficult getting people to model them because just about all of (the costumes) were very small," he said. "Some women dieted to get into them. For a while, the 'in' thing to do was to get into one of them. . . . There were probably more pounds lost in town during that period than any other."

The costumes hung on racks for more than five years in a vacant tower in City Hall. Under the advice of experts, the city placed the garments in boxes and moved them to their current home inside a telephone equipment room in the city bus maintenance yard.

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