When I was a kid I had the movie poster for Steve Martin’s “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” in my room — Mr. Martin was my favorite comedian at the time — and I memorized all the names on that poster, including a certain Edith Head, who had designed all the costumes. As I grew up watching old movies, I noticed Edith’s name popping up everywhere. I also didn’t know that the Steve Martin film would be her last, as she died just after the film wrapped, at age 83. She left behind a filmography of 1,131 films as costumer, with 35 Oscar nominations and 8 wins.
“A Conversation with Edith Head,” which opens tonight at Center Stage Theater and runs through Sunday only, brings to life the woman who dressed Betty Davis in “All About Eve,” and Robert Redford and Paul Newman in “The Sting.” This one-woman show, co-written by and starring Suzanne Claassen, has earned rave reviews since it opened in 2002. Performed as a chatty conversation between Ms. Head and the audience, it takes in Ms. Head’s 60 years in the business and even opens up the floor to questions at the end, answered just as Ms. Head would do herself.
Ms. Claassen, who has directed several one-person shows as well as other plays at Invisible Theater in Tucson, Ariz., traces her interest in Ms. Head’s work back to a television documentary, which led Ms. Claassen to Ms. Head’s own out-of-print and posthumous autobiography, “Edith Head’s Hollywood.” Ms. Claassen contacted the co-author Paddy Calistro and flew out to Los Angeles, where the two became “instant best friends.” While working on the play, Ms. Claassen had access to 13 hours of taped interviews with Ms. Head.
Ms. Claassen has Ms. Head’s flat San Bernardino accent down pat, and once in make-up and wig, bears a striking resemblance to the designer.
“I thought to myself, ‘My god, I look just like her, I really do,'” Ms. Claassen says on the first time she fully dressed up for the role.
Over her 10 years of performing this show, Ms. Claassen has met many people who worked with Ms. Head. Some love the idea so much that they talk to the actor as if she is Ms. Head, and Ms. Claassen will respond in character. One couple told “Ms. Head” how her name on a film put them in safe hands, and that they could indulge in luxury in the cinema while hard times continued outside. Others have shared great anecdotes along the way, which Ms. Claassen has added to the play. The show has what is now a “liquid” script, meaning it never plays out quite the same from performance to performance.
Ms. Head has now become a part of Ms. Claassen’s life; Ms. Claassen says her friends now turn to her “inner Edith” for fashion tips. She also sees herself playing the role for at least 15 more years.
“She understood what true style is; that it comes from the inside out,” Ms. Claassen says. “She was an executive woman before there was such a thing. She played the game better than anyone. She said she was a better diplomat than a designer. And she put a face to what a costume designer was.”
with Edith Head’
When: 8 p.m. tonight and Sat., 2 p.m. Sun.
Where: Center Stage Theater, 751 Paseo Nuevo (upstairs), Santa Barbara
Information: 963-0408 or centerstagetheater.org