Wednesday, November 18, 2015

How Marlo Thomas Ruined My Life (and Other Tales of Misplaced Blame)

Many women of a certain age (well, mine) and a few men (you know who you are), cite the TV show That Girl as an early fashion influence – and not in a good way. There is a special tone in their voices when a certain topic comes up – always early in the conversation – that is a mixture of admiration, envy…. and contempt. Oh no, not at the show, but at our ­­­­­­­gullibility. “She (meaning Ann Marie, the character played by Marlo Thomas) always had a coat to match her outfit.”

Oooh – those clothes!

The perfect (and endless) wardrobe, the impeccable hair flip, the kooky first apartment, the doting and successful boyfriend – we were mesmerized by impossibly high standards every week. Most of us were either hitting or had just hit puberty so the sad fact that our hair was never, ever going to hold that set was just hitting home; though some of us are still clinging to the hope that a Don Hollinger-perfect boyfriend lurks in our future. The fantasy of that New York apartment on a struggling actress’s salary…well, the hilarity of that punchline really doesn’t hit you until you look for your first apartment here on a struggling any-career’s salary, and then the laughter is more slap-happy after seeing too many apartments the size of your closet in your parents’ home, climbing too many staircases to count, and being greeted in each by a cockroach as big as the doorman you won’t have.

The fantasy of that wardrobe…giving that up is a bitter pill to swallow, and some of us have a harder time than others letting it go. I am in a sewing class with a woman who has informed her sister she will not be joining her in a Florida retirement because she has too many plans to sew too many coats, and wool coats aren’t needed in Florida.

The reason I’m bringing all this up is because last night Mr. Smarty Pants and I hauled my lighter weight clothes down to our storage unit to exchange for some warmer clothes, and I was confronted by the fact that…Wow. I have really got a lot of clothes. And there’s more coming.

Some people get rid of their clothes because they go out of style, or because they wear them out, or whatever, but those people would not be me. I cling to my clothes like a life raft, and take care of them like Anna Wintour is going to call to borrow them for her next Met exhibition. This was less of a problem before I got married because a) that was some years ago and the problem hadn’t gotten quite this bad, b) when you live alone you really don’t care if stuff hangs from the bookshelves, and c) all the closet space here was mine. When it finally dawned on me that having a husband meant giving up closet space I specified that the future Mr. Smarty Pants was allowed to bring in his cats and a change of underwear, but in his first (and final) act of defiance he brought a work wardrobe with him and it has been a bone of contention ever since. Our compromise has been what keeps many New York City marriages together: a storage unit.

We pay rent on a room for things like beach chairs because we keep swearing “this year” is the year we’ll get back to the shore, photo albums we swear we’ll scan and share with the family, record albums we’ve already replaced in several formats, a cotton candy machine (yes, really), and my off-season clothes. Last night I came to the realization that – Yikes.

I have given away shopping bags of clothes – it seems like hundreds of them – to various thrift shops and loved ones over the past year. A couple of weeks ago I gave away 36 pairs jeans in a rainbow of colors because I realized that even though I can still zip them, the sight of me wearing bright pink or neon yellow skinny jeans is not going to make anyone’s day better. However last night we moved some boxes that hadn’t been moved for a while (unearthing treasures like my box of newspapers and magazines featuring my beloved Diana, Princess of Hearts), and found clothes that I had been looking for or thought were already in my closet at home. It was sobering.

Here’s the problem: I can wear them all again. Anything I would think of getting rid of is coming back in style. RIGHT NOW. Which means the next time I have to purge I will remember this time and dig my kitten heels in even deeper – nothing will go. Ever.

Case in point:  (I have been bludgeoning various people over the head with this for various reasons lately. Today’s it’s my argument in favor of keeping all of my clothes for the rest of my life.)

I bought this skirt in Neiman Marcus circa 1995. It’s a cute cotton six gore circle skirt, and I doubt many people – if any – who bought it still have it. The reason I bring it up now is because the next picture is of Dolce and Gabbana’s Spring/Summer 2016 collection, shown at Milan’s Fashion Week Fall 2015:

The skirt on the right makes my skirt hot again, and you better believe I’ll be running around town feeling superior and looking fetching in it.

Another case in point, and this surprises even me.

Even I doubted I’d wear this again, but…I dunno, maybe I thought I’d wear it as part of a majorette costume some day, or maybe because it was sparkly (I do love sparkly). Anyway, it’s been in my closet a while, and now much to my surprise (and probably their editors’), variations of it are appearing in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar again.

Now, I am by no means saying that my little red jacket is in the same league as the Gucci beauty. However, I am thinking that an investment in beaded appliqués plus an evening of hand sewing while binge watching TCM, and this little beauty is at the forefront of my closet again.

Just look at the money I’m saving! I mean, if you don’t count the rent I’ve paid over the years on the storage unit. I have tons of examples like this, but that would take the fun out of making an entrance in one of my now vintage wardrobe pieces, to a mixed chorus of oohs, ahhs, and where-the hell-did-you-dig-that-ups.

My husband is surprised that I have decided to let go of my collection of Michael Simon Christmas sweaters. We started dating in 1998, when these sweaters were – were they ever actually popular? Anyhow, that’s when I bought them. I had just spent my first Christmas with my future in-laws, it was the best ever, and in the next few years I got carried away wardrobe-wise (who, me?), resulting in the purchase of a holiday-themed bedazzled sweater collection that when the light hits it just right probably reflects off the Mars Rover. It is a sight to behold, and here’s just a part of it:

My particular favorite is the one that depicts The Nutcracker in every kind of bead, sequin, and variation thereof you can think of; competing with Balanchine’s version in every way but beauty and talent. It’s an eye-popper.

But that’s really not clearing out a lot of room; it’s really just showing good intentions. And when it comes right down to it, will I really let these memories go? Only time will tell, because I sure won’t.

People who have attics and cellars don’t have this problem. People who buy clothes that only last a season or two and then fall apart won’t understand what the problem is. People who can’t leave the dinner table without a stain setting in are longing for this problem. People who can get rid of clutter and old clothes without a backward glance stopped reading this blog several paragraphs ago.

But the people who grew up wanting – expecting – coats to match their outfits know what I’m talking about. We want the coats, the hats, the gloves, the shoes, the purses, the whole Werlé experience*. Years have passed, but each time we approach our closets we’re still Ann Marie.

Oh, and by the way…here’s a picture of me with Marlo Thomas when I was in high school and she was in town drumming up support for the Equal Rights Amendment. My best friend (who had just gotten her drivers license) and I (a few months away from my permit) got the lucky break of driving our idol around town that day. 

No, she wasn’t That Girl, but she was That Great; a wonderful memory that my BFF and I still giggle over. (I know she’s reading this, and I know she’s relieved her face isn’t visible, and that is why we’re BFFs.) 

Yeah…we both still watch That Girl reruns when they’re on, and still have way too much in our closets (well, maybe one of us more than the other). Some things never change…like the contents of those closets. Which brings us back to the beginning…Yikes!

*Werlé was the designer for the first year of Ann Marie’s wardrobe, setting the style standard for the rest of the seasons. Loretta Young – another icon of movie and television wardrobe style – was Marlo Thomas’ godmother, and Werlé was her favored designer at that time. To make sure her goddaughter made the best possible impact on her show’s first season, she gifted Marlo with a complete season of Werlé clothes. That Girl, like most new half hour shows at that time, didn’t have a large wardrobe budget, so this was an incredibly thoughtful and generous gift. The show became a massive hit, the budget got bigger, and the show could afford to pick up the tab for Marlo’s clothing. The Ann Marie wardrobe is iconic, all because of a loving godmother. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

My New York State of Mind

Welcome back!

Thanks for writing, everybody keep those emails coming! (Well, everybody who decided to write. Everybody else – start those emails coming, I guess!) I’m glad you’re having a good time here, and so far so good and all. It’s interesting to me that the most common comment is how lucky I am to live in New York City.

Don’t think I don’t know it! As you can see from my bio on the right, every morning I wake up with that thought in mind, and it really does zip around my brain at various times of the day: I get to live here! As with any relationship we’ve had our ups and downs, but I’m not exaggerating when I say New York City is probably greatest the love of my life.

I’m really grateful I made the leap to make this dream come true, and even when times got rough was able to stick it out. Not everyone can live here for various reasons (including the lack of apartments!), and not everyone wants to live here (hey - I get it), but most people want to visit. And evidently a lot of people wonder what it’s like to live here! Who knew? Reading someone’s plea for a recommendation for a place to order a New York bagel online – I feel for you! (I get to live here!)

I can’t speak for the entire 8,000,000+ other citizens who are my neighbors, of course, so you’ll have to write to each of them for their answer. As for me…it’s really pretty great.

I moved here determined to make the most of what the city has to offer, and I have kept that promise to myself.  With literally hundreds of museums to choose from, concerts, clubs, readings, and theaters in every nook and cranny – hey, I can watch television when I’m old. Or have the flu! So most nights you’ll find Mr. Smarty Pants and me out enjoying what our town has to offer; most often with friends that feel the same way.

One night a few years ago we went to see the Slovenian group Perpetuum Jazzile in concert, and before one of the songs one of the lead singers marveled that he had sung the song “On Broadway” for many years; earlier that day he was in the company’s bus, looked up at a street sign, and found he actually was on Broadway. As he tried to relay to his audience how much that meant to him, I couldn’t help thinking how so many of us still feel that same thrill.

(If you haven’t found this group yet, here’s a treat for you. Look for the guy in the front row, brown suit/yellow shirt – I’ll never forget him.)


Too many people who come to New York City think only of going to Broadway shows when they come here; that’s not only terribly expensive but terribly limiting. Here’s my calendar for the last couple weeks, and if you’re coming to the city take notes!  

We started out with a visit to The Minetta Lane Theatre, a small theater down in Greenwich Village. Right now the troupe in residence is Company XIV, which is presenting their version of Prokofiev’s Cinderella. It’s hard to sum up in just a few lines so I’ll direct you to their website, but I can tell you it’s a combination of the best of dance (ballet to tap), music (opera to country-western), gymnastics (think Cirque du Soleil and pole dancing)…you name it, it’s got it.

This is breathtaking, avant-garde but be forewarned that you must be over 21 to be in the audience. The costumes are exquisite, but, well, there’s not a lot of fabric to them.

This show is about to end and their version of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker (Nutcracker Rouge) is about to open. We can’t wait!

The next night I went to the Lincoln Center Theater to see this year’s Tony Award winning show for Best Revival of a Musical, The King and I, starring Kelly O’Hara. I’ve seen the movie countless times, and was thrilled to see Yul Brynner in his last run on Broadway doing his signature role in 1985, but I thought at the time after that I really didn’t need to see the show again; that was pretty much the pinnacle. Mr. Brynner knew what his audience had come for, and he gave us every bit of it. How do you top that? Well, I tell you how….

This production is a fresh look at an old favorite, and it’s stunning and unforgettable. While paying homage to what came before – Jerome Robbin’s classic choreography can be seen in The March of the Siamese Children (although somehow this time you know something about their mothers, too) and the timeless Small House of Uncle Thomas ballet, and I’d probably miss seeing some version of Irene Sharaff’s stunning lilac satin ball gown so Miss O’Hara’s dress in that famous scene was a gift to the eye – it brought a more serious tone to the political inner dialogs of the king and the struggles behind his decisions, making the show more relevant to the times we live in. I know the Rogers and Hammerstein songbook inside out but these actors presented them with new thoughts supporting them, and as I left the theater I couldn’t help wondering how those two men could understand the hearts of a flirtatious farm girl, a young novitiate, a widow and a doomed, lovelorn slave so well. I won’t be thinking of their shows just as beloved warhorses anymore; they've changed as I've changed and I want to see them all again.    

One of best parts of the evening wasn’t even on stage; it was in the Lincoln Center Theater Review (Spring 2015 Issue #65). This magazine, offered for a donation in the theater lobby, has a short history about King Mongkut's Siam (he's the real life king in the musical's title). At the end of the show Prince Chulalongkorn is seen taking his father’s place, and his reign marked a period of significant modernization; part of which was evidenced by his love of photography. The article is illustrated by photographs taken by some of King Mongkut's daughters-in-law, and they’re mesmerizing.

Suddenly it was Halloween, and to celebrate the season we saw a really special show, done by a company we’re particularly fond of: Radio Theatre. This talented group of actors takes old radio scripts and recreates them, complete with original orchestral scores and sound effects. We’ve seen some remarkable productions from this group – their King Kong was unforgettable – and that night we saw Fright Night!, a collection “of terror tales guaranteed to raise the hair on the back of your neck and chill the marrow in your bones!” It was presented by candlelight in the 160-years-old St. John's Sanctuary right in the heart of Greenwich Village… Hey – we’re all in for stuff like that.

We also hit Broadway and squeezed in Something Rotten that week (that’s the show’s name, not a review), and Sylvia, with Matthew Broderick and Annaleigh Ashford. I think you’d like it even if you’re not a dog lover, but we really love dogs (REALLY), so we not only loved the play, we stayed past the end and watched the pictures of the company’s pets flash on the curtain as you’re supposed to exit the theater. I hope to see this one again, because I wasn’t ready to let go of that doggie.

(I guess you've figured out by now why this edition of my blog was late this week.)

The final show I’ll pitch is actually our favorite, and if you’re a musical theater junkie you shouldn’t miss this one: Tune In Time. It’s actually a gameshow involving three teams of songwriters (different each month) who have twenty minutes each to write a show tune based on words suggested by the audience, in a genre (Sondheim! Disco! Etc.!) selected by the spin of a wheel…well, you have to be there. (I’m not kidding – YOU HAVE TO BE THERE.) The team who holds this madness together is top notch, the judges are Broadway’s best (again, different each month), and each time we leave the theater we're simultaneously breathless from laughter and stunned by the incredible talent we’ve just witnessed. It’s only once a month; don’t miss your chance!

As long as I’m pitching Tune In Time, I really should pitch the company that gives them the space to hold the show: The York Theatre Company. The York’s been around for over forty years producing really big shows on a somewhat small stage. They're best known for developing new or rediscovering old musicals; my personal favorite that went from their stage to Broadway glory was Souvenir, but Sweeney Todd and Pacific Overtures benefited from their nurturing, too. We’ve seen some really memorable shows there, and their last two – Cagney, a new musical based on the life of actor James Cagney, and Rothschild & Sons, a re-imagined one act version of Harnick & Bock’s classic The Rothschilds will probably have lives far beyond that small stage. Without The York, where would productions go to get first rate people to produce and present their work? It’s a company to keep an eye on and support.

By now you know me as a fashion maven and a theater hound. Another of my favorite pastimes is sewing, and I have been taking classes at “Mood U” for a while now. If you’re a Project Runway junkie Mood Fabrics should be very familiar to you; in fact Swatch, the pup that runs the place, should feel like your own dog by now. Their school, which offers all sorts of sewing and fashion classes, is run by Benjamin Mach (Project Runway Season 11, Project Runway All Stars Season 4), and there are Project Runway designers showing up all the time; either as teaching assistants, in person or online workshop teachers, or as guest mentors in open labs. (Last week: Helen Castillo, a personal favorite of mine from Season 11 and All Stars 4. This week: Sean Kelly, winner of Season 13.) The array of classes is amazing, the level of my work and confidence has soared, and our home décor has taken on a look somewhere between Mood Fabrics and a dusty home economics class. Mr. Smarty Pants and Tommy Ramone, our cat who fills in for Swatch here at home, are very understanding and forgiving. (If you live in New York City you should be taking advantage of this, and if you don’t live here you can do it online.)

In and around all this there was a jazz brunch featuring a trio playing the music of Edith Piaf, and a dinner with live jazz. (Good food, good music, good friends – the best!)

Real Life with a job and chores poked its nose in there somewhere, but no one wants to read about that any more than we want to do it.

So there you go! Life in New York City! Granted, even by New York City standards our lifestyle is a bit off the beaten track. You might notice we’re up for just about anything. However, one of the things that first made me fall for Mr. Smarty Pants is that he’s not that into sports so I’m never stuck at a Super Bowl party pretending to have a good time; he really enjoys my sense of “Well, there’s a seat facing a stage…let’s go!” (Additionally, we don’t have kids, which as I understand it can really be a time and cash suck.)

Living here means we’re able to take advantage of a lot of ways to get discounts on tickets that aren’t available to Out of Towners (subscriptions, clubs, last minute lotteries, and volunteering for odd jobs in the smaller theaters in exchange for tickets, for example), and we have friends in the theater so we get seats to see them and/or their friends for the price of lots of applause from their entrance to their exits (sometimes I think we work harder than the cast does). So while this may look like we’re living large…well, we are, but not at the prices paid by the people in the seats next to us.

Again, I really appreciated your emails so keep them coming, and feel free to ask me any other questions about what it’s like to live here. One that was interesting was where do I grocery shop. I had asked that question myself before I moved here and was told Brooklyn, so for years I thought everyone had to go to Brooklyn for their groceries until I figured out, no, that woman just happened to live in Brooklyn. The City has neighborhoods just like every town; most tourists just see Midtown or the sports arenas. Most of us have grocery stores a few blocks in every direction from their home, and in between we have small stores called bodegas, which is Spanish for…I don’t know, but you can run in and get milk, a sandwich; whatever you need in a hurry. Every neighborhood here is like a small town, each with its own personality.

As the song goes, it’s a helluva town!