A Conversation with Susan Claassen About Edith Head

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Susan Claasen
Susan Claasen

Sitting with actress/producer Susan Claassen in the cozy confines of North Hollywood’s historic El Portal Forum Theatre, it is easy to see how she could pull off a one-woman show on the life and career of legendary Hollywood costume designer Edith Head. Claassen is almost a dead ringer for the woman who helped define glamour in tinseltown for almost 60 years, mostly at Paramount Studios.

“This is just the way I look,” Claassen shrugs. “I saw a documentary about Edith Head on the television series Biography and first became intrigued with the similarities in our appearance. As I watched, I became increasingly fascinated with how much we were alike in our interests, especially clothes and fashion. I knew I had to do a show about her.”

Co-scripted by Claassen and Edith Head biographer Paddy Calistro, A Conversation with Edith Head begins previews at the Forum on Sept. 23 with a Costume Designers Guild Gala press opening scheduled for Friday, Oct. 1.

Claassen understands one-person biography plays usually profile a personality with a highly recognizable public image, not a behind-the-scenes crafts person whose job it was to decorate public figures. She quickly points out Edith Head was not a behind-the-scenes kind of woman. “Actually, Edith really became a household name, mostly due to her own self-promotion. During the 1950s, she made frequent appearances on television’s Art Linkletter’s House Party, making her a very recognizable personality to all of America.

“She also wrote for Photoplay Magazine, offering her advice and insights into fashion. She felt the American woman and man could have the secrets she had. She wanted to make fashion accessible to everyone.”

Sketches by Edith Head

Claassen, who works professionally as an actress, director, producer and writer, and serves as Managing Artistic Director of the Invisible Theatre in Tucson, Arizona, launched herself into her quest of bringing Edith Head to the stage with a laudable, tenacious resolve. “I immediately researched whether the rights to her story were available. They were through the recipients of her estate, The Motion Picture and Television Fund. For research material, I located Paddy Calistro, the co-author of the autobiography Edith Head’s Hollywood.”

Finding Calistro took a bit of earnest detective work since the Head autobiography was out of print. Then Claassen was clued in that Calistro might be living in Santa Monica. Claassen called information, got the number, made the call and Paddy Calistro answered. Claassen was almost immediately on a plane from Tucson to Santa Monica.

“What a resource she turned out to be,” recalls Claassen. “Paddy had over 13 hours of recorded interviews with Edith.  Every word the audience hears is Edith’s and they are delicious.”

Susan Claassen in A Conversation with Edith Head

Calistro, who is co-scripter of the play, certainly has the credentials for this project. One of the leading authorities on the life and work of Edith Head, she was selected to be the official biographer of Head based on her experience as a fashion journalist. A former fashion and beauty writer for the Los Angeles Times, Calistro wrote the weekly “Looks” column in the Times Magazine for four years. She was the West Coast reporter for Allure and has written for Glamour, Mademoiselle, House Beautiful, Elle, Four Seasons Magazine, Fitness and Los Angeles Magazine for which she was the lead interior design writer for more than a decade.

The co-founder of Angel City Press, an independent book publishing company based in Santa Monica, Calistro currently serves as its Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. The 25th anniversary edition of Edith Head’s Hollywood has recently been reissued and will be available for purchase at all El Portal performances.

<p>Edith Head</p>
Susan Claassen as Edith Head

Claassen, who originally premiered A Conversation with Edith Head at the Invisible Theatre in 2002, subsequently has toured the show around the U.S. and internationally, including London’s West End and a sold out engagement at the 2007 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  She has become so comfortable inhabiting her persona, she takes questions from the audience as Edith Head.

Says Claassen, “This is a woman who, despite having no art or costume design experience, started as a costume sketch artist at Paramount in 1924 and, through sheer talent and perseverance, worked on 1,131 films, earned 35 Oscar nominations and won eight, more than any other costume designer in the history of filmmaking. Audiences really have a lot of fun getting to know her and the fascinating movie star tales she has to tell.”

A Conversation With Edith Head, presented by Weddington Street Productions, previews Sept. 23-26, tickets $25; opens Oct. 1; plays Thur.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 3 and 8 pm; Sun., 3 pm; through Oct. 24. Tickets: $35. El Portal Forum Theatre, 5267 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; 818.508.4200, 866.811.4111 or elportaltheatre.com.

Julio Martinez

Julio Martinez

Julio pens the weekly LA STAGE Insider column for @ This Stage Magazine, as well as the monthly LA STAGE History column. He is a recurring contributor to Written By (the monthly publication of the Writer’s Guild of America) and is the TeleVision columnist for Latin Heat Entertainment. On air, he hosts the weekly Arts in Review program for KPFK 90.7 FM. An active journalist for over 30 years, Julio’s articles and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Weekly, Stage Raw, Backstage West, Westways Magazine, and Drama-Logue Magazine, among others.