It was two full weeks before Halloween, but even so the place was packed. Customers (not dressed as sardines) were jammed into the lobby of Western Costume near Melrose and Western avenues, seemingly undaunted by the 2 1/2-hour wait for one of 14 costumers on hand to service the pre-Halloween crowd.
Once inside the world's largest costume company, they typically spent another hour or two trying on assorted masquerades--everything from the actual, fake leather get-ups worn by Madonna (on her last world tour) to white, sequinned jumpsuits in the style favored by the late Elvis Presley. "My husband's going to freak out," exclaimed Donna Visciglio of Lomita as she tried on a cleavage-baring, imitation black leather Madonna number. "I'm a mother with two kids. My husband usually sees me in jeans and T-shirts."
Fishnet and Feathers
Her sister, Gloria Sem, a nurse who lives in Manhattan Beach, also opted for an against-type look with a show girl's costume, featuring fishnet stockings and feathered headpiece. "I wanted something different, fun and sexy," she explained, fingering a rhinestone necklace to complete her outfit.
Meanwhile, Robert Bolger, who teaches deaf students in Compton, quickly found exactly what he was looking for: a Russian army officer's costume, complete with fake gun, to wear as his personal contribution to glasnost.
For many, the trek to Western was an event in itself. Karen Jenson, a secretary and West L.A. resident, and her friend Jacqui Kaye, a party coordinator who lives in Playa del Rey had each budgeted between $100 and $150 for their costume rentals--plus five hours of their time (2 1/2 hours for waiting, 2 1/2 for being fitted).
"Halloween is my favorite time of the year. I love seeing people gassing up their cars and driving around in costumes," said Jenson, as she picked through a rack of saloon girl costumes.
"Why don't you go as a Chiquita banana lady?" Kaye asked. "I don't want to balance fruit on my head all night," Jenson shot back.
A check of L.A. costume houses reveals that the Halloween rush isn't confined to Western. "Right now is the height of the season--now until the end of the month," said Janice Jackson, manager of the Costume House in Hollywood. In Glendale, Sandy Dietlein, co-owner of the Costume Shoppe, reported that more than 100 Halloween costumes were rented before Oct. 1. And at Noblitt's costumes in North Hollywood, owner Gloria Noblitt found her shop "real busy at the very beginning of October," and "it should be door to door people from here on in."
Western, however, with its six floors of more than a million costumes, is where most of the Halloween "hard core" can be found in greatest numbers.
Customers not only put up with a wait, they may also pay higher prices (the average costume rents for $85, and needn't be returned until Nov. 6). It's common to find renters at Western who plan to attend two, three or even more Halloween parties.
You want to show up in the same Elizabethan gowns Cybill Shepherd wore last year in "Moonlighting's" "Atomic Shakespeare" episode? Western will rent them at about $275 a dress. A Vampira costume, however, goes for $72 while Wonder Woman's a relative bargain at $61. Men with more than a little spare change in their party clothes budgets can dress as Gen. George Patton (complete with medals and props) for $385 or a "Right Stuff" Mercury astronaut (for $500 a day).
A simple "radiation outfit," however, can be had for $82 (booties included). And among the lower-priced options are monks' robes that go for about $30, while more elaborate rabbi gear is $83.
Although Western stocks basic priest, nun, Pope, police officer and Nazi costumes for film and television productions, it refuses to rent those costumes to the public. According to assistant vice president Jim Tyson, the policy was created partly out of respect for religious figures and partly to keep customers out of trouble.
A number of other costumes, such as the tuxedos Paul Newman and Robert Redford wore in "The Sting" or the headpiece Claudette Colbert donned in "Cleopatra" are similarly reserved for use by only studios.
Tyson reported that pirate costumes appear to be the most requested costumes thus far this year and that "Indiana Jones" styles were big last year. He pointed out, though, that Western specializes in period costumes and carries very few pieces of modern apparel.
Thus, people seeking to impersonate such celebrities as Jim and Tammy Bakker are unlikely to visit Western. And those in search of Judge Robert Bork beards would similarly search in vain--as the firm carries no hair pieces, wigs or even masks, with a few exceptions.
None of those limitations seemed to concern the crowd that descended on Western last weekend.
Brought His Pals
Michael Pethel, a 25-year-old special-effects engineer at a Hollywood production facility, had such a great time wearing a Zorro costume he rented at Western last year that he had persuaded two buddies to rent costumes with him this year.