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All Dressed Up for Sale : Choice Bits of Filmland History to Be Auctioned

September 26, 1993|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOLLYWOOD — The upcoming costume sale at Butterfield & Butterfield has a simple premise.

There are people out there who are willing to pay big bucks to take home the loincloth Kirk Douglas wore in "Spartacus" or a Clark Gable jacket from "Gone With the Wind."

On Oct. 10 the Hollywood auction house will sell more than 350 costumes and accessories from the vast holdings of Western Costume, which has been making and renting Hollywood garments for more than 80 years.

It was Western Costume that made the ruby slippers Dorothy wore in "The Wizard of Oz"--a pair of which sold in 1988 for $165,000, still the highest price paid for a piece of Hollywood history.

Collector James G. Comisar, who is Butterfield & Butterfield's consultant on Hollywood artifacts, emphasized that Western Costume is not going out of business. It is bigger than ever, with more than 6 million pieces--everything from bowler hats to boxer shorts--in stock. In Comisar's view, the costume company is to be lauded for its decision to auction off many of its choicest items, taking them out of circulation and making them available to private collectors who are sufficiently obsessed to care for them properly.

"It's truly a miracle of the costume gods that these pieces still exist," said Comisar, citing such vintage garments as the embroidered vest Rudolph Valentino wore in the 1926 silent, "Son of the Sheik" (the star's last film). The piece is expected to bring as much as $7,000, said Comisar, adding that Western Costume "could have schlepped these costumes to every mall and county fair in the country and made more money."

So far, pre-auction interest has focused on two very different groups of garments: the costumes from "Gone With the Wind" and a sperm suit made for Woody Allen's "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)." Comisar said the interest in the sperm outfit was apparently piqued by Allen's personal problems. Before Allen became a hot item in the tabloids, his memorabilia were not especially collectible.

The "Gone With the Wind" garments are something else again. The auction will feature 17 items from the 1939 epic, including the two-piece traveling suit Scarlett wore during her foolhardy ride through Shantytown (estimated to bring $17,500 to $22,500).

The cache of costumes is the largest group of "Gone With the Wind" items offered to the public since the famous MGM sale of 1970, Comisar said.

One unforgettable item is the riding outfit in which little Bonnie Blue Butler took her fatal jump, breaking her Daddy's heart. It is expected to bring $3,000 to $5,000. You can also buy the nightgown Melanie wore in labor--the very one she had on when she helped Scarlett dispose of the body of the damned Yankee who pillaged Tara and foolishly contemplated raping its mistress. Pre-sale estimate is $4,000 to $5,000.

Remember the dress Scarlett made from her mother's green velvet curtains--so famous it inspired another immortal costume, Bob Mackie's dress for a Carol Burnett parody in which the curtain rod was still in place when Scarlett wore it? Well, the original curtain dress is gone with the wind, recut and turned into a riding habit for "The Virgin Queen." (Actually there were two. The other is still owned by the family of producer David O. Selznick.)

But you can bid on the dress the notorious Belle Watling wore in the same scene, the one where she and Scarlett both find themselves visiting Rhett in jail. Estimated price: $2,000 to $3,000.

Most of the "Gone With the Wind" costumes were designed by Walter Plunkett, one of Hollywood's greatest costumers. But the two jackets worn by Clark Gable have labels inscribed "Eddie Schmidt Inc." As Comisar explained, Gable went into a snit after he tried on his Rhett Butler costumes. "He said they fit him like a potato sack, and he wouldn't show up for work unless his personal tailor, Eddie Schmidt, recut them." The jackets, which are expected to bring up to $6,000, are in great shape, Comisar noted. "I have blazers in my closet that have been dry-cleaned three or four times that don't look as good as the Clark Gable jackets."

Comisar said that the vintage MGM pieces were made when the studio "boasted it had more stars than there are in heaven. And in those days, my dear, stars did not wear rags." Many of the pieces to be auctioned reflect the Hollywood of what he calls "brilliant excess," where 18-carat gold thread was lavished on costumes worn by extras. Garments that reflect Hollywood at its most extravagant include several from MGM's 1936 production of "Romeo and Juliet," including a hand-painted leather tunic worn by John Barrymore as Mercutio.

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