‘Sunset’ Star Dazzles with Glam Garb
by Deborah Martin
San Antonio Express-News

June 30, 1999

Norma Desmond may have lost her mind when silent films went out, but she never lost her fashion sense.

Dressing to the mere nines isn't enough for the fictional star at the heart of "Sunset Boulevard" – she dresses to the 11s.

"Even her casual costumes are gold and black; it's all very elegant and high style with lots of jewelry," said Sandra Hanlon-Cressler, wardrobe mistress for the national tour. "She obviously gets up in the morning and thinks about what she puts on; she doesn't get a coffee in an old T-shirt and wander around the house like I do."

The show plays at the Majestic Theater through Sunday. Th

e costumes help Petula Clark, who plays Desmond, shed her everyday identity and slip into Desmond's troubled mind-set.

"It takes me about two hours to get ready for the show. I'm usually there before everybody else. Part of the process of getting rid of me and getting into Norma is putting on the clothes," she said. "They are incredible clothes. And some of them are extremely heavy; you can hear them as I walk across the stage, that sort of clunking."

Acclaimed British designer Anthony Powell created the costumes, and every one screams "star."

They could also scream "big problem," considering that Clark has 60 seconds or less to make most of the changes. Two dressers wait in the wings to whip off one outfit and wrap her in the next – there isn't time for Clark to race to her dressing room. Seven other dressers work with the rest of the cast.

"The changes are so complicated, it's rather like doing choreography for a ballet," said Hanlon-Cressler. "By a certain time, she's got to be gone in a complete costume and a wig. She has to put a wig, a turban or a hat on, plus changing her shoes, rings and gloves and getting these amazingly heavy costumes on her."

The clothes tell almost as much about Desmond as her dialogue, Hanlon-Cressler and Clark said.

"She's living in the past, trying to re-live a past and, obviously, a past in which she was a grand movie star and still thinks she is. She's very stylish; that's pretty much where she's coming from. There is nothing remotely casual about Norma Desmond," Hanlon-Cressler said.

"It's all part of her," Clark said, "her environment and the way she dressed up all the time. I think probably in the days when she was a star, they would get up and put their full makeup on and their jewelry and whole tra-la-la for no particular reason at all, just to have breakfast."

For the benefit of those who don't know the story: Norma Desmond is a deluded, faded silent-screen star plotting a comeback; a struggling screenwriter, sensing a meal ticket, agrees to help. Tragedy ensues.

The other actors' costumes aren't as involved as those for Desmond, but they are striking, Hanlon-Cressler said.

And, since most of the other roles are fairly small, the outfits help the audience ferret out the characters' identities quickly.

"The ensemble costumes are all so beautifully done, and period-wise, you get different characters, you can see them through their costumes," she said.

Lovely outfits, one and all. But, fittingly, none are as eye-catching as those created for Desmond.

One outfit in particular, a beaded stunner she wears on her addled walk down that grand staircase, is so heavy, it can't be suspended from a clothes hanger – it travels from venue to venue lying flat in a lined plastic case.

Otherwise, the weight of the beads would tug it out of shape.

"It's a jumpsuit, and then a long coat encrusted with seed beads – heaven knows how many are on it – with bugle beads going around the collar and down the front of the coat. We've had to re-line it because the beads are so heavy, they pull the material down," Hanlon-Cressler said. "It's an amazing costume because the lights catch it and it's just beautiful. And she has the turban in beads, too."

The sequins covering another costume can be dangerous. Julia Dirkes, marketing assistant for the Majestic Theater, cut her finger on one of the sequined numbers the theater is displaying to promote the show.

Two costumes can be seen at Foley's in North Star Mall and one can be seen at Foley's in the Rivercenter.

Sometimes, seeing the real thing can be disappointing. That wasn't the case with the "Sunset Boulevard" clothes, she said – they were just as striking up close as they are from the audience.

Clark didn't mention any injuries sustained from her cumbersome wardrobe.

But, she said, she has lost weight on the tour, which could be attributed in part to moving about in her weighty clothing.

No matter how heavy the clothing is, Clark never looks as if she's lugging it, Hanlon-Cressler said: "Miss Clark (moves in) it with great style."