Stephen Cabral, the director of the Theatre Development Fund’s Costume Collection, navigated down one of the 13 aisles of a cavernous warehouse space on West 26th Street in Manhattan. Pausing at a particular spot in front of a rack where hundreds of costumes hung, beneath yet another rack of the same, he instantly reached out for the one he was looking for.
He displayed it proudly, a shimmering toga meticulously crafted by sewing together several individual pieces of fabric, with blue and silver detailing.
“I call this Egyptian disco,” he said. The costume appeared in the original 1998 Atlanta production of Elton John’s musical “Elaborate Lives,” which went on to be called “Aida” when it appeared on Broadway.
At the Costume Collection, where some 75,000 outfits donated from theater productions are housed, there are no computers or digital records. The only demarcations amongst the thousands of hangers are small handwritten signs noting either a type of costum˝ — “peasant skirts,” “hoop” or “bustle” — or a time period. Which makes Cabral, who has worked for the nonprofit for 18 years, in many ways as valuable a resource as the Collection itself. He is a walking trove of theater history, a central database of sorts, and he will, like the collection he sentinels, be making the move to Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens this October, where the Theatre Development Fund has signed a new lease.
In 1976, when the Collection first moved into its current Manhattan home — whose ground floor originally accommodated a railroad — the massive former manufacturing space seemed ideal. Now, with neighbors like Hugo Boss and Martha Stewart, the building has become prime fashion real estate. When the Collection’s lease recently went up, it found it could no longer afford the rent.
“We’re sort of the odd man out,” Cabral said.
He believes that will change in Queens at Kaufman Astoria, the film and television studio. A 16,000-square-foot space with 23-foot-high ceilings will become the Collection’s new home. There, surrounded by film and TV productions, and just next door to the Astoria Performing Arts Center, the Museum of the Moving Image and the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts High School, Cabral thinks the Collection’s treasure trove might find its perfect fit.
“I think of it as a synergy that works both ways,” said Stephen Powers, an associate at Denham Wolf, the realty firm that helped the Collection find the Kaufman location. While the Collection focuses on renting its costumes as cheaply as possible, on a sliding scale, to nonprofits and groups in need — whether it be a high school in Idaho looking for “Grease” costumes or a small theater company in the city — the Fund has started opening up its coffers to film and television productions as well.
But before any “synergizing” can take place, the Kaufman space must be completely gutted and renovated. A dropped ceiling that Lifetime, the lot’s former tenant, had installed has already been removed, Cabral said. In addition, a set of “massive” computer servers were ripped out, according to Powers. As for moving the actual costumes themselves, Cabral said the process would take a week or two at least.
Once the move has taken place, sometime in October, according to Cabral, Queens will have the distinction of being home to what is probably the last major costume collection of its kind. While many different companies used to provide a similar service, many have disappeared or gone out of business, he said.
“We’re really one of the few that are set up to do what we do,” he said. There are a few boutique collections that rent out specific genres — such as Helen Uffner’s in Long Island City, which offers mostly 1930s and 40s vintage pieces — or large places that serve the film industry and are thus hard for smaller productions to rent from, such as Western Costume in Los Angeles.
Yet even the Costume Collection can only preserve so much. Under the best circumstances, an ensemble’s shelf-life is limited, Cabral explained. Actors, who perform night after night in the same outfit, are pretty hard on fabric and seams. Eventually, a given piece just gives out.
For this reason, Cabral keeps a small rack of his favorites out of the fray. An Anna Nicole Smith outfit from the 1994 film “Hudsucker Proxy,” for example, hangs on this special rack, along with the unassuming gray jacket Jude Law wore in “Hamlet” on Broadway.
Even with the regular stock, Cabral said it can sometimes be hard for him to watch a costume “go out.” But luckily for the theater community both nationwide and in New York, this shepherd of sorts cares as much about keeping the theater alive as he does keeping it well-dressed.