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Obituaries

David Berman; Costumer for Films, Stage

March 08, 2000|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Berman, whose family costumed British infiltrators of the Nazi army, and who personally dressed the movie "Cleopatra," television's "The Untouchables" and Broadway's "Annie Get Your Gun" and put the neon in Liberace's suits, has died. He was 90.

Berman, who in one period created virtually every costume on the Las Vegas stage, died Thursday in his Los Angeles home, said his daughter, Sally Sherman.

The scion of the family that started one of the first costume businesses in the world, Max Berman & Sons, David Berman launched its Hollywood division in 1949. The company was begun by Berman's great-grandfather in London, where it made uniforms for the royal family during the 19th century and later expanded, becoming one of Europe's leading suppliers of costumes for the stage and eventually films.

During World War II, Berman & Sons worked with British officials to create authentic-looking Nazi uniforms for an espionage operation behind German lines.

After the war, the company established offices in Paris, Madrid and Rome, supplying the rapidly developing motion picture production business. Berman, who moved to Los Angeles in 1939 and served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps making training films during the war, established the company to supply Hollywood film companies, the American stage, the new medium of television and Las Vegas.

Within a few years, he was costuming all the lavish stage productions in the neophyte Nevada gaming city. When a Times columnist suggested that the nearly nude showgirls must require very little costuming and that had to be bad for business, Berman countered that so-called nude outfits didn't come cheap.

Berman created one essential gizmo called a "bicycle clip G-string" for the leggy Las Vegas ladies and told The Times in 1960 that dressing a single showgirl in a rhinestone bicycle clip and ostrich, osprey and vulture feathers with a fancy headdress could run $2,000.

Other costumes were also pricey, even 40 years ago. One nightclub singer paid $55,000 for what Berman designed for her to wear on stage. Pearl Bailey paid $6,000 for a costume made, appropriately, with pearls, and Jayne Mansfield once paid $25,000 for a skintight dress made of gold that was fashioned by a metalsmith rather than a seamstress.

His company churned out 1,000 costumes of various types a month. Berman may have gotten the most attention for the glittery outfits he created for the flamboyant pianist Liberace.

When a London reporter, obviously eager to show how the hometown business was faring in far-off Hollywood, once asked Berman how many beads were on one Liberace tuxedo, the costumer gave him a number with a straight face: 1,286,475.

"And you know, he quoted me," Berman told Times columnist Gene Sherman, dumbfounded by his own ruse.

Although Berman had little serious competition in his heyday, he made a calculated business decision to destroy his overstock rather than sell it to any potential competitor.

He supplied the wealthy with costumes for their own use, and when he and his wife, Jean, went out to a Halloween party, they became as the town's best-dressed clowns.

Berman dressed the casts of motion pictures such as "Lawrence of Arabia" that became known as costume dramas as well as lavish extravaganzas. His company worked with renowned designers to turn their drawings into hats, dresses and other items of clothing. One collaborator was Cecil Beaton, who won the Academy Award for his lavish designs for "My Fair Lady." The costumes Berman made for "Cleopatra" also won an Oscar for designers Vittorio Nino Novarese, Renie and Irene Sharaff. The Berman company also costumed casts of smaller but no less demanding period films such as "Sophie's Choice."

On television, in addition to trench coats and fedoras for the treasury agents and mobsters on "The Untouchables," Berman dressed Lucille Ball and her colleagues in "I Love Lucy." He also provided a full range of costumes for skits and serious song and dance productions of such variety shows as "The Danny Thomas Show," "The Carol Burnett Show" and "The Red Skelton Show."

Berman produced the buckskin ensembles for "Annie Get Your Gun" and costumed stars for Broadway productions of "Flower Drum Song" and "Guys and Dolls," among others.

His personal garb was less colorful than the show business outfits he designed, but he was rarely seen without his signature red socks.

In addition to his wife of 64 years, Berman is survived by his daughter, Sally, of Beverly Hills; his brother, Monty, of London; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

A memorial reception is scheduled for Sunday. The family has asked that any memorial contributions be made to the Center for Healthy Aging, 2125 Arizona Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404-1337.

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