He made his Broadway debut as a costume designer for “On the Town” in 1944 and is currently the costumer of the long-running revue “Forbidden Broadway.” Its new edition, “The Roast of Utopia,” recently made its debut, while a show of his Broadway sketches is running at the Museum of the City of New York.
At 90, Alvin Colt may be the oldest prominent costume designer working today. But his seven decades of creating clothes for Broadway musicals and dramas, television specials and ballets haven’t dampened his enthusiasm for his profession. Far from it. Colt, who, at 6-foot-7, is startlingly tall, still possesses the energy of a much younger man, together with the courtliness that was de rigueur when he was growing up in Kentucky in the Twenties and Thirties.
Not surprisingly, he has more than a few good stories to tell. Colt was the designer for the original production of “Guys and Dolls” in 1950. When he sketched the scanty, playful costumes for the showgirls who work with Miss Adelaide at the Hot Box, the producers, Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, were enthusiastic, but they felt that some of the chorines might consider the little gingham shorts numbers with their off-the-shoulder bodices and sassy bustles too racy. So they contrived to have each of the chorus girls come one by one to a room where they were shown the drawings. If a girl had objected to the costume, she would have been cut from the show — but in the event, no one demurred.
Before the musical opened, however, one of the backers dropped out. Colt was approached and asked if he wanted to buy a “unit,” or invest $5,000, in the show. “Well, I didn’t have that kind of money,” he says — and he told them so. Would he like to gather a group of friends to put it up? Colt tried, but all of his acquaintances felt that the enterprise was too risky; some didn’t consider Vivian Blaine, who played Adelaide, to be stellar enough. So he had to turn the offer down. Shortly thereafter, the show opened, it was an immediate and massive hit and, before long, Blaine was on the cover of Life magazine…in abbreviated gingham.
“On the Town” was the first Broadway production for writer-performers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins, along, of course, with Colt. “Everyone was just starting out, so it was very exciting,” he says. “But everybody was also very nervous, and there were no cell phones then, so as soon as a rehearsal or a performance went out, there was a big rush for the telephones in the lobby, calling their boyfriends, girlfriends, shrinks…”
In the past, Colt recalls, there were buildings full of costume shops where you could buy all kinds of laces and materials and do fittings for clothes and hats. In the old days, he says, they’d ask how many of one costume you wanted. “Sixteen girls for a big order,” he recalls. “Now there are no more dancing girls. The composers only write sad music, you know. There are no more Ethel Mermans, and Carol Channing can’t get a job.”
One of his own favorite jobs was producing the Fortnightlies for Neiman Marcus, which he worked on from 1963 to 1985, and which involved installing an elaborate series of shops, cafes and decor centered around the theme of a specific country — Japan or France, for instance. To produce these two-week holiday shopping events, Neiman’s gave him an office in New York and sent him on trips to the countries in question. The mise-en-scènes he conjured up were remarkably elaborate and were clearly the forerunners of the international promotions in other department stores. “I was terrified when the head of Versailles came to the opening gala [of the France Fortnightly],” Colt recalls. “But he gave me a big bear hug and said, ‘You have done this with the soul of a Frenchman.'”
Colt is, as a potential biographer who recently approached him said, the last of the great old Broadway costume designers. But little in his background would have prefigured his longevity or the mental and physical stamina that has accompanied it. His parents, in fact, had both died by the time he was in his late teens, and it was his older brother who suggested that he apply to Yale Drama School’s design department and contact the noted set designer Donald Oenslager, then on its faculty.
“He asked me to send him a drawing of a set,” Colt says. “I did something a five-year-old child could have done, but the first thing you know, I was admitted, and the last year on scholarship.”
Colt’s first job was at a fabric showroom, and it was there that he met Lincoln Kirstein, who eventually commissioned him to do a series of costume designs for his Ballet Caravan. Then, with “On the Town,” Colt was off and running. His dozens of other productions have included “The Sea Gull” in 1954, “The Master Builder” and “Finian’s Rainbow” in 1955, “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Li’l Abner” in 1956, “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” in 1963 and “The Crucible” in 1964. Colt also costumed numerous television specials and miniseries, such as “The Adams Chronicles” in 1976.
When he had preliminary meetings with Mae West for a proposed revival of “Sextet” on Broadway, she found him so handsome she told him he had to be an actor. He told her that he’d never wanted to do that; the show was never produced, he notes, nor was he ever paid for the sketches.
His designs for “Sextet,” however, are represented in the current show at the Museum of the City of New York, which has 3,000 of his sketches for theater costumes. The Lincoln Center Library has the drawings of his designs for ballet, and a curator there once asked him why he hadn’t given his Broadway sketches to them. “I gave the sketches to the Museum of the City of New York a long time ago,” Colt says. “I don’t think Lincoln Center existed then.”