Susan Claassen in 'A Conversation with Edith Head' at the Sheldon

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture
Susan Claassen in A Conversation with Edith Head.

Susan Claassen in “A Conversation with Edith Head.” Courtesy of Sheldon Concert Hall and Art Galleries.

“I don’t know if I will be remembered as the most endearing costume designer, but I sure as hell am the most enduring,” actress Susan Claassen says in character in “A Conversation With Edith Head,” a behind-the-scenes look at the life and career of the iconic Hollywood fashion designer opening this Friday, Dec. 7, at the Sheldon Ballroom.

That Head was enduring is undeniable. In her six decades as a designer, she worked on over 1,000 films, received 35 Academy Award nominations and won an unprecedented eight Oscars. In Claassen’s one-woman show, Head is also pretty endearing.

How the show came about is almost as intriguing as the designer herself. While watching a documentary about Head, Claassen noticed a strong physical resemblance. In fact, when she’s on stage wearing the custom wig made for her by Renate of Burbank, she’s Head’s doppleganger. But what really inspired her was Head’s inspirational story as a female executive before such a thing even existed, and how she thrived for 60 years in what was undeniably a boys’ club. Head had invented herself.

“Her story is an inspiration for people to follow their passion,” Claassen says, “and understanding the work that goes into a dream.”

Claassen set about bringing Head’s story to the stage with a passion. Having contacted Paddy Calistro, who co-authored Head’s auto-biography, “Edith Head’s Hollywood,” an unlikely but perhaps inevitable event occurred. “We became instant best friends and decided to collaborate,” Claassen says. The show opened the following year in Los Angeles, and thanks to coverage by the NY Times, began getting requests to tour other cities. It has now been performed nationally and internationally as far away as the Republic of Georgia. The performance at the Sheldon will be the first in St. Louis.

Head’s biography reads like a who’s who of Hollywood. When Dorothy Lamour appeared in “The Hurricane” in 1937, wearing the Head-designed “sarong” dress, it made Lamour a star and Head a household name. Head’s costuming could make careers and actresses loved her for it. Ginger Rogers, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, Elizabeth Taylor are just a few marquee stars who wanted—sometimes insisted—on working with her. Head was in such demand by female stars that Paramount frequently lent her out to other studios.

“She was very much celebrated in her life,” Claassen says of Head. “She got press galore. She even had trading cards.” Now, Head has achieved pop culture status. Just last October she was honored with a Google doodle. She’s also been honored on a U.S. Stamp, had several books written about her and been immortalized as cartoon character “Edna Mode,” the designer of superhero costumes in Disney/Pixar’s “The Incredibles.”

Through her hundreds of hours of research and interviews, Claassen has come to know the designer almost as well as she knows herself. She takes questions from the audience, written on slips of paper before the show. Portraying Head has become so meaningful to Claassen that she saves all those little pieces of paper and occasionally takes them out and reads them. One of her most touching moments was after a London performance when a young girl from India told her Head’s story had given her the courage to pursue her dreams.

“It’s a privilege to keep her legacy alive and an awesome responsibility that I embrace wholeheartedly,” Claassen says.

During Edith Head’s eulogy, Bette Davis said of her friend, “Her contribution to our industry in her field of design, her contribution to the taste of our town of Hollywood, her elegance as a person, her charms as a woman—none of us who worked with her will ever forget. Goodbye, dear Edith. There will never be another you.”

There might never be another Edith Head, but there is a Susan Claassen.

Susan Claassen stars in “A Conversation with Edith Head” at The Sheldon. Performances begin at 8pm on Friday, Dec. 6, and Saturday, Dec. 7. Seating is at reserved four-person tables. Tickets are $40, and can be purchased by calling 534-1111 or by visiting the Sheldon’s website.

This event is presented in conjunction with the exhibition “Glamour: Costumes and Images from the Collection of Mary Strauss,” on view at the Sheldon Art Galleries from Oct. 4 to Dec. 28, 2013.

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