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How to add the Mackie look to Catch Me If You Can: hire the original legend

© Bob Mackie, courtesy of 5th Avenue Theatre

Author's note: First and foremost, it only takes about five minutes of chat with Bob Mackie to know why so many famous women wear his gown. The guy is a charmer! I only had twenty minutes or so on the phone with this very busy man, but it remains one of my favorite interviews.

When in Seattle earlier this summer, Bob Mackie hit Nordstrom’s Rack. The legendary creator of fabulous gowns was looking for cheap pair of men’s shoes. Maybe a suit jacket or two. Not for himself, but for a chorus member in Catch Me If You Can.

“I came out of variety TV,” explained Mackie, chatting by phone from California. “Sometimes, if you need it quick, it’s easier to buy something. Besides, we have a budget for the show and I want to help keep the costs down. So I told them let’s go look and see what we can find that will work.”

At the same time, Mackie reached back to his glamorous roots and created numerous original costumes for Catch Me that evoke the beginning of 1960s and the “living color” of early TV variety shows.

Warm, effusive, and with nothing but nice to say about the many stars he has costumed, it's easy to tell, even over the phone, why Mackie has remained one of Hollywood's most popular designers. The man could make any actor feel fabulous about how she or he looked even before they saw the costume designs.

Mackie's actual sketches for Catch Me If You Can are both charming and evocative of another era, a skill developed in his earliest job as a fashion illustrator. "That's a profession that isn't around any more," he chuckled. Mackie, like young Andy Warhol, earned his first salary illustrating others' designs, but quickly found work designing costumes.

“I started working professionally in TV in 1961; I was an assistant designer for a Judy Garland special,” Mackie said.

Throughout 1960s and the decades to come, Mackie worked with practically all of TV’s leading ladies and singing sensations. His instantly recognizable style was swinging, sexy, and eye-catching on such stars as Mitzi Gaynor, Dinah Shore, Diana Ross, and Cher. A 1975 Time cover showing Cher barely covered in a glittering Mackie gown raised a ruckus in some states, nearly getting the staid news magazine banned from racks.

“That’s one of my more memorable moments,” said Mackie, who had not known the Time cover was going to appear with one of his gowns. The resultant media storm caught him by surprise and also propelled him into new levels of celebrity fame. In these days of “wardrobe malfunctions,” the whole fuss seems a bit quaint. After all, Mackie never let his gowns reveal anything that his ladies, from Cher to Pink, weren’t comfortable showing.

But the Mackie dress in the Smithsonian collection could never be called risqué. It’s the green velvet “Scarlett O’Hara” dress complete with a curtain rod through the shoulders. Worn in a sashay down the stairs by Carol Burnett, it was just one of a multitude of funny moments created by the star with Mackie’s help. During his eleven years of working for Carol Burnett Show, he designed the costumes for her characters Mrs. Wiggins, Nora Desmond, and Eunice, among others.

Even after the show ended, Mackie continued to create outfits for Burnett (including the 2005 TV remake of Once Upon a Mattress) as well as expanding into such ventures as designing home furnishing, perfumes, and ready-to-wear clothing. And, of course, dressing Barbie for limited editions issued by Mattel for more than sixteen years.

“Some little girls, and their mothers, just know me because of the Barbie costumes,” said the man who apparently never plans to retire or rest on his laurels, despite having racked up 31 Emmy nominations, three Oscar nominations, nine Emmy awards, and the first induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame of a costume designer.

So when Marc Shaiman and his partner Scott Wittman came calling, asking if Bob Mackie could create a true “Mackie look” for their new musical, he was happy to clear some time in his busy schedule. “It’s so exciting to be working on this. Frustrating too. A number gets changed and you have to work out something new for the costumes,” said Mackie, who spent his summer shuttling between his office in Los Angeles, rehearsals in Seattle, and his TV gig for QVC in Philadelphia.

The look that Mackie created for this show is part fashion history, part fantasy, and all Bob Mackie. “The early 1960s are not what we think of as the 1960s,” said Mackie, who went into his own archives to look at sketches and photographs to catch the high fashion look of the early Kennedy years.

The fantasy comes from the set-up of the musical. Teenager and con man Frank Jr. is telling the story as he wants to see it, which means the stewardesses and nurses encountered are not, as Mackie emphasizes in the interview, wearing anything like what real women would have worn. “They’re dressed in Frank’s fantasy of what these women should look like,” said Mackie.

And if anyone knows how to make a woman look like a dream, it is Bob Mackie.

5th Avenue's Catch Me If You Can