Long before the crimson curtain draws on the Harbor Playhouse stage, Karen Mauch is at work with a pair of scissors and thread.
During an actress’ fitting, Mauch, the playhouse’s costume designer, was focused on a thin polyester hem of a black dress as the actress glided through a dance routine for Friday’s opening of “Chicago.”
Mauch’s yellow measuring tape draped her shoulders as she eyed the bouncing fabric of the 1920s vaudeville costume. She swooped in to solidify the a new hem line.
“You can’t just make what you want; you have to consider what movement they have to do,” Mauch said. “It’s our job to make them feel fantastic.”
Since 1925, the local actors have come and gone. It’s the racks and hangers of the troupe’s costume loft that serve as a partial timeline of the Harbor Playhouse, celebrating its 90th anniversary this season.
There are no costumes of the performers’ first production of “Seventeen.” At the time, there was no caretaker of costumes. It wasn’t until about the mid-1970s that costumes were stowed away.
Memories of the Harbor Playhouse’s productions are woven into the stitches preserved in the teeming costume collection.
Mauch, who has devoted more than two decades to the playhouse, knows each garment by heart.
“Every costume has a story,” she said. “Once you do your first show, you’ve already started a collection. And eventually, show after show, the collection grows, and you find a need to store it.”
Velvet and corduroy bordered by lace and sequins are packed together as tightly as the intertwining hangers allow, but that wasn’t always the case.
When the theater moved into its North Chaparral building in 1976, the 2,250-square-foot space was bare compared to the hanging sea of color and texture it is now. An alterations desk littered with costumes stood in the middle of an otherwise concrete slab of a room, but one volunteer had a plan.
“They had this space, and nothing was happening with it,” Mauch said, “and along came Martha Gillmore.”
Gillmore, the namesake of the costume loft, began volunteering in 1987 after watching her oldest son rehearse from the seats of the auditorium.
“If you sit down there long enough, someone’s going to ask you to do something,” Gillmore said.
Gillmore took her talent to the costume loft. After recruiting volunteers to install hanging rods, she chipped away at organizing the space. Gillmore’s five years of jotting down waist sizes and creating categories shaped the loft into a haven for the misplaced and used garments.
“It was a lot of hard work, but it was very welcoming. Everyone needs a place like that,” Gillmore said. “I’d probably still be doing that if I hadn’t gotten sick.”
In May 2003, Gillmore and Mauch were working on costumes for “The Wizard of Oz,” when Gillmore felt excruciating pain in her stomach. The growth the doctors found in Gillmore’s abdomen was colon cancer, and the veteran costumer passed her torch on to Mauch.
“Karen just stepped right in, and she’s been taking care of everything ever since,” Gillmore said. “She is so talented; I just really think so much of her.”
Mauch and her primary core of volunteers have stopped counting the hours they’ve spent in the loft long ago. Their feet memorized the path up the narrow concrete steps to the padlocked third-story room, where they have tediously tailored costumes into the early morning hours.
These dedicated few not only pour their efforts into the costume loft but also balance their time in many ways to the time-honored institution as the playhouse continues to evolve. When not tucked away helping with the alterations, Amy Goldson passes out popcorn and drinks at the concession stand.
“The theater always takes on the persona of the volunteers,” Goldson said. “Martha started making it a place to be proud of. With Karen’s design abilities and Martha’s organizational skills, they created one of the finest lofts in the state of Texas. At the core, that really has sustained the playhouse through the years, and their legacy will last for a very long time.”
Mauch threaded through the aisles as billowy sleeves and flowing skirts pulled behind her. The caretaker knows each aisle by name and every costume even more intimately by the work done.
Mauch begins readying the garments stored in the loft as early as five to six weeks before the opening weekend of a new show. The volunteers will take measurements of the cast and select existing costumes for alterations.
“Sometimes, I splurge, and I just go to the store and buy the fabrics I need. But if I can, I remake (a costume) into something else.” Mauch said. “You give me an old 1980s prom dress, I’ll turn it into no telling what.”
The collection spans more than reused or reinvented materials. Some costumes are the result of donated materials from Buc Days or the Houston Opera, but there are several items in the collection too cherished to cut.
“There are a few things that are sacred — too much money and time went into it,” Mauch said.
Among those irreplaceable pieces are the Lady of the Lake costume from “Spamalot” handmade from discontinued fabric; a wedding dress transformed into the white lace Mary Poppins ensemble and the Von Trapp sailor outfits that have survived 40 years of children performing the “Sound of Music.”
Care is tailored to each costume. Many of the Renaissance era garments are lined with a durable lightweight canvas to preserve the delicate embroidery. The feathered “My Fair Lady” headpiece hangs alongside other handmade hats from a peg on the walls to protect them from the crushing weight of other accessories.
“We have to make it last because we might want to use it 20 years from now,” Mauch said.
That dedication to preservation is imperative when mishaps occur during performances. JJ Jones’s quick sewing skills ensures instant care is given to a ripped pantleg or a stubborn button.
“Sometimes, the clothes will fall apart because they’re so threadbare,” said Jones.
Mauch and her volunteers also sit in on dress rehearsals and at shows to watch problem areas actors and directors may not catch.
The evidence the show must go on despite costume fails and tedious stitching lies most significantly in the legacy passed down. None know that better than the performers who graduate from in front of the curtain to behind the needle.
“I’ve definitely learned how to better myself as an actress, singer and dancer,” performer Griffin Greene, 18, said. “It was really the place I felt like I was at home, and the family here is so big and so welcoming.”
Greene has volunteered throughout high school in the productions and in the costume loft, learning the confidence that would help her on stage and outside the walls of the Harbor Playhouse.
The costume loft, a safe place for the personas the actors put on and take off, only scratches the surface on the impact 90 years of theater has had on the people who have stood onstage.
The thought and care that goes into each stitch mirrors the tedious preparations each volunteer dedicates — whether that be the lines memorized, the props made or the choreography sequenced.
The commitment of those help the playhouse evolve in several aspects is directly related the lasting impact their work has on the community.
“Truly, everything does revolve around costumes,” Goldson said. “It’s so important that the theater keep going because of what it does: The magic changes people’s lives. That’s what it’s all about.”
IF YOU GO
What: Harbor Playhouse performance of “Chicago”
When: Friday through April 24
Where: Harbor Playhouse, 1802 N. Chaparral St.
Cost: $18, adults; $15, seniors, military and students with ID; $10, children 13 and younger