Interview: Bob Mackie talks THE ART OF BOB MACKIE at Provincetown Public Library

Award-winning costume and fashion designer comes to Provincetown on August 29

By: Aug. 25, 2023
Interview: Bob Mackie talks THE ART OF BOB MACKIE at Provincetown Public Library
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Interview: Bob Mackie talks THE ART OF BOB MACKIE at Provincetown Public Library

With a career in films, television, and stage spanning six decades, Bob Mackie had long secured his status as an iconic costume and fashion designer when he won his first Tony Award for Best Costume Design of a Musical for “The Cher Show” in 2019.

Winner of nine Primetime Emmy Awards – the first in 1967 for the NBC-TV production of  “Alice Through the Looking Glass” – a member of the Television Academy Hall of Fame, and a three-time Academy Award nominee, Mackie had to wait a bit for recognition of his Broadway career, which began with the 1971 revival of “On the Town” and has since included 1974’s “Lorelei,” 1994’s “The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public,” 1995’s “Moon Over Buffalo,” and 1999’s “Minnelli on Minnelli.”

“The Tony Award was a long time coming,” explained Mackie with a laugh by telephone recently from his home in Palm Springs. “I was delighted to win, though – it was definitely worth the wait.”

The winner of numerous fashion industry awards, and honored this spring by RuPaul with the “RuPaul’s Drag Race” inaugural Giving Us Life-time Achievement Award, Mackie was happy to make room in his home for the long-awaited theater accolade.

“The Tony is the new girl in town, so she’s in the living room,” he says. “I have a lot of friends who either work in theater or just love Broadway, so I get many requests to see my Tony.”

Television viewers shouldn’t fret, however, because Mackie very much values his many Emmy Awards, now housed at his studio in Palm Springs.

“When I had my studio at the corner of Melrose Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard in West Hollywood, my Emmys were on a shelf looking down on people getting fittings. I found that when they noticed the nine Emmys, their moods would improve considerably and they became much more cooperative,” he says.

His many awards may remain at home but Mackie will be at the Provincetown Public Library on August 29 at 5 PM when East End Books Ptown presents “The Art of Bob Mackie,” a look at the 2021 book of the same name by Frank Vlastnik and Laura Ross – the first-ever authorized compendium of Mackie’s life and work, featuring hundreds of photos and dozens of never-before-seen sketches from his personal collection. The event will feature Mackie in discussion with director/producer and activist Dan Guerrero, followed by a book signing.

There will be plenty to talk about, too, with the designer known for dressing everyone from Lucille Ball and Beyoncé to Diahann Carroll, Carol Channing, Cyd Charisse, Cher, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Mitzi Gaynor, Whitney Houston, Elton John, Angela Lansbury, Bette Midler, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, Pink, Juliet Prowse, Debbie Reynolds, Diana Ross, Dinah Shore, Barbra Streisand, Tina Turner and more. Mackie was also the costume designer for all performers on “The Carol Burnett Show” during its 11-year run on CBS-TV.

A native Californian, Mackie came by his interest in design early.

“I was the strangest child you could ever meet. I wasn’t interested in anything except designing clothes. From the time I was a young child, I went to movies – lots of them. By the time I was about 11 or 12 and had seen ‘An American in Paris’ three or four times, it clicked in. I remember thinking, ‘This is beautiful, I could do this.’”

Within a decade, he was – starting out as a sketch artist for some of the most legendary movie costume designers of the time, including Edith Head and Jean Louis. It was 1962, when Louis was designing the costumes for Marilyn Monroe’s unfinished final movie, “Something’s Got to Give,” that Mackie made the original sketch of the gown that Monroe famously wore when she sang, “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden.

“Marilyn wasn’t having an easy time in that period. She was fired from the movie after completing only a handful of scenes and I believe that made her feel very vulnerable. She wanted people to pay attention to her, and so she asked for a gown that would make the audience think she was nude,” according to Mackie. “When she took her fur coat off, however, her body was covered in diamonds and she looked absolutely spectacular.”

“Spectacular” soon became one of the watchwords of Mackie’s work. Indeed, no sequin was spared when song-and-dance woman Mitzi Gaynor chose him to design her 1966 stage show at the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

Gaynor had first approached Mackie’s then personal and professional partner, and fellow costume designer, the late Ray Aghayan, who had to decline because he was off to do the 1967 film “Dr. Dolittle” in England, so he recommended that Gaynor consider his talented partner instead. While Aghayan and Mackie would take solo projects, they also often collaborated, as they did on the films “Lady Sings the Blues” in 1973, and “Funny Lady” in 1976 – for which they shared Academy Award nominations for Best Costume Design, with Mackie earning a solo nomination for 1982’s “Pennies from Heaven.”

“Mitzi likes to have fun and she’s great to be around. From the beginning, Mitzi always understood where I was going with my designs. And she never wore the same thing twice so she kept me very busy,” says Mackie, who won his third Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design for Music-Variety for Gaynor’s 1976 CBS-TV special, “Mitzi...Roarin’ in the 20’s.”

It was while designing for Gaynor in the 1960s that Mackie first came to the attention of Carol Burnett and her then husband, producer Joe Hamilton, who hired him as the costume designer for “The Carol Burnett Show.” It was the beginning of a friendship with Burnett that continues to this day.

“Working with Carol is a joy. Being part of her show was like being a member of a great theatrical family,” says Mackie. “I met and got to design for so many amazing people during those years.”

The Burnett show also gave Mackie the opportunity to create what has become one of his most famous costumes, an ensemble made from still-on-the-rod velvet draperies, which Burnett wore as Starlet O’Hara in the 1976 movie-parody sketch, “Went With the Wind.”

“I went back and forth on what Carol should wear in the particular scene when Starlet and Capt. Ratt Butler (Harvey Korman) reunite after the burning of Atlanta. I didn’t come up with the idea to use the draperies until the night before we taped.

“When I wheeled in the mannequin to show Carol, she almost fell on the floor laughing,” he recalls. “She said it was the greatest sight gag she had ever seen, and then told me, ‘You have to tell Harvey, otherwise he’ll break up when he sees the dress and he’ll never get through the scene.’”

Korman may have been able to contain himself, but the studio audience was another story.

“The audience just roared. It was the longest laugh of all the Burnett shows and went on for several minutes, so long that some of it had to be trimmed from the final edit,” says Mackie. The designer gifted the gown to the Smithsonian for its National Museum of American History, which is also home to the Charwoman costume he designed for Burnett to wear at the end of each episode.

Mackie knows that no matter what else he has done or will do – including designing some of the most dazzlingly beautiful clothes for some of the world’s most famous entertainers – will ever equal the fame earned him by the drapery gown.

“Even today, 47 years later, I can be shopping in the grocery store in Palm Springs and, invariably, someone I’ve never seen before will come up to me and say, ‘I loved your work on “The Carol Burnett Show.” You know what my favorite costume was?’ And it’s never anything but that gown,” says Mackie with a laugh. “That dress will be carved on my gravestone.”

The engravers will probably be waiting a very long time for that call to come, however, as Mackie remains a very active man. In London alone, his work can currently be seen as part of the DIVA exhibition, now through April 2024, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, while Bernadette Peters will be wearing at least one, perhaps two, new Bob Mackie designs when she opens a 16-week run in “Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends” at the Gielgud Theatre on September 16.

While London may be getting his attention right now, Mackie would welcome another Broadway assignment.

“I love working on Broadway and being in New York City. When we were working on ‘The Cher Show,’ whenever I had an evening free, I’d go to see a show,” he says. “If I got a call, I would design another Broadway show in a minute.”

Photo caption: Bob Mackie. Photo credit: Harry Langdon. Sketch of the three different decades of Cher, by Bob Mackie, for the Broadway musical “The Cher Show.”


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