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He was larger than life, literally and figuratively. At 6 foot 7 inches, prolific designer Alvin Colt, who died May 4 at 91, and who created costumes for 50 Broadway productions during a career that spanned seven decades, towered over his peers. He did the costumes for the original productions of “On the Town,” which opened in 1944, “Guys and Dolls,” which bowed in 1950, and “Li’l Abner,” which made its debut in 1956, along with “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” which opened in 1989. But his achievements hardly ended with his impressive Broadway credits.
Colt also created costumes for ballets and miniseries, among them “The Adams Chronicles” (1976) and numerous television specials. He worked all of his life, most recently for “Forbidden Broadway,” with which he had been involved for 15 years. He received a Tony Award for costume design for “Pipe Dream” in 1956 and the TDF/Irene Sharaff Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996.
Colt grew up in Lexington, Ky., and attended Yale Drama School. His first New York job was as an assistant in a fabric showroom in Manhattan. Before long, Lincoln Kirstein had drafted him to do costumes for the Ballet Society, which later became the New York City Ballet. “On the Town” was the first Broadway production for writers-perfomers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, composer Leonard Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins and, of course, Colt. “Everyone was just starting out, so it was very exciting,” the costumer said in 2007. “But everyone was also very nervous, and there were no cell phones then, so as soon as a rehearsal or a performance ended, there was a big rush for the telephones in the lobby, calling their boyfriends, girlfriends, shrinks….”
When Colt was working on “Guys and Dolls,” he also recalled in 2007, the producers, Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, liked the sketches for the abbreviated costumes he had designed for the showgirls who work with Miss Adelaide at the Hot Box, but were concerned that the girls themselves would find them too scanty. So Feuer and Martin arranged to have each of the chorines go alone to see the sketch. If any of the young women had objected, they would have been out of a job — but, in the end, none of them did.
“Opening night in New York, I stood out front and watched my sketches come to life, moving around on the stage,” Colt said in “It Happened on Broadway,” Harvey and Myrna Katz Frommer’s 1998 oral history of the Great White Way. “That’s your gratification. The audience, the critics, they never know what you’ve gone through to reach this goal — your research, your work at the drawing board, in the costume shop, what it cost or didn’t cost. It’s what’s onstage that counts. What your audience is seeing. That impact…that’s the magic.”
Bob Mackie, who met Colt when the latter was coordinating one of the editions of “Night of 100 Stars” at Radio City Music Hall, called him, “kind of a hero in a way,” adding, “When you’re young, if you see a show, you may like certain things, but you don’t pay much attention to the designer.” Before long, however, Mackie began to notice that some of the designs he liked best were Colt’s. “When I got to know him, we liked the same kinds of things,” Mackie noted. “He had a great sense of humor; right into his 90s, he still always had a joke for you.”
One of Colt’s own favorite gigs was as a designer for Neiman Marcus’ Fortnights, the precursors of the single-country promotions in other department stores, on which he worked from 1963 to 1986. For these extravaganzas, Colt, rather than doing costumes, was called upon to create a variety of stage sets, restaurants and other environments. Tom Alexander, who traveled with the designer for years as a senior marketing executive for the store, said that the two would head to the country in question, then spend days out in the field coming up with “ideas, events, performers and entertainment” germane to their theme. Alexander described Colt’s designs as “serious tongue-in-cheek,” noting that the decor was intended to be authentic, but over-the-top and amusing, too. The Fortnights, he added, were held “before many people had traveled to foreign countries.” When Gerald van der Kemp, curator in chief at Versailles, saw the re-creation of the Hall of Mirrors that Colt had done for a French Fortnight, he hugged Colt and said, “You have done this with the soul of a Frenchman!”
Sandy Marple, a longtime Neiman’s employee who grew up in Kentucky and who is currently vice president of special events for the store, called Colt a “gentle giant” and said that she and he often teased one another about being from their mutual home state. Actor Richard Tone, who was Colt’s companion for 47 years, died in 2004. A memorial service for the costume designer is expected to be held in the fall.
Retail executive Philip Miller, who was president of Neiman Marcus from 1977 to 1983, recalled coming into the store wearing tennis whites on a Sunday during the countdown to one of the Fortnights, and asking Colt if he needed any help. “His answer was, ‘No, no, no. Go play tennis,'” Miller said.
“He certainly had a rich, full life,” Tom Raney, who was marketing director of Neiman’s in the Eighties, said of Colt. “During the Fortnights, there was almost nothing that Alvin did not do; he did the store design, the exhibit design. He was an impresario filled with joy and ideas. He was always amazing; he had a verve, love of life and theatricality, and it just never shrank with age. He was truly one of a kind.”