Theater Finds the Costume Biz Plays Well, Too

Paraguassu is a Glendale free-lance writer.

When the Dietleins present a play, they make the scene with their own costumes. And the public not only gets a chance to see eight plays a year, but can rent the costumes, too.

Their Glendale Centre Theatre, now presenting its 448th production, said Allan Dietlein, 56, is "one of the four oldest, continuously operating theaters in the United States." The Glendale theater presents eight productions a year, five nights a week.

And above the theater, their Costume Shoppe, which stocks about 60,000 costumes, has been so successful that "customers lined up from the downstairs lobby all the way up the stairs" during Halloween season last year, said Tim Dietlein, 29.

Allan is artistic director of the theater. His wife, Sandy, 53, is responsible for the costumes. Two of their five children, Tim and David, 27, each produce four shows each season.

"We've had some thoughts of opening another theater in Orange County, but it takes all four of us to run this plant," Tim said. "My parents, my brother and I, we build sets, do lighting design and act. It's a lot of work."

The theater has always been a family operation.

Sandy's parents, Ruth and Nathan Hale, left Salt Lake City for Hollywood in 1947, looking for film roles. When acting jobs failed to materialize, the Hales borrowed $1,500 and with another couple started their own theater.

The theater at 324 N. Orange St., which is in a 12,000 square-foot New Orleans-style building, is the third consecutive theater the family has established.

In 1965, the Dietleins sold their house in La Crescenta to contribute $20,000 toward operating the theater on North Orange Street. The theater in the round, which contains 440 seats, is still allowed to operate without an Equity contract because the theater has never been Equity at that site, Sandy said. Thus, all the actors work without pay, she said.

"Four years ago we decided to give the costume rental business a whirl and found the response was incredible," Tim said, leaning back in a bright and roomy upstairs office at the theater. "Without any advertising, all by word of mouth, we rented everything we had, about 1,000 costumes. We worked day and night."

The costume shop resembles a well-kept museum. On the second floor of the theater, down a long hallway with hardwood floors, doors on both sides open into various rooms. Inside are costumes for about 65 animal characters and strawberries, grapes and other fruits. There are outfits for saloon girls, pirates, fairy-tale characters, cowboys, cowgirls and tin men.

In the uniform room, historically correct military gear can be put together to the last epaulet, and uniforms for such lawmen as English bobbies and Canadian Mounties are available.

Because of the public response to their costume rentals, the Dietleins started buying collections throughout the world, including New Orleans, Paris and Rome. Last year they flew to Morocco and acquired 3,000 exotic costumes for such roles as Arabian princes, pirates, Cleopatras, sultans and Roman soldiers.

If the Dietleins don't have it, they have it made.

Their strangest costume? An eyeball they had made two years ago for an ophthalmologist who "wore it as an attention grabber at a seminar he was presenting," Tim said.

As their costume business has expanded, so has their space. The shop above the theater contains about 10,000 costumes and a big warehouse stores about 40,000. A rented building at 349 N. Brand Blvd. behind the theater contains 10,000 costumes, "to help us accommodate the holiday crowds," Tim said. "We're calling it Back Alley Costumes."

About 2,500 costumes were rented out last year, and a 25% increase in business is expected by the end of this year. Some costumes are set aside for other theaters and for schools. Those renting to the public cost $30 to $40 apiece.

The theater is operated not only by a family but for families.

Sandy said they strive to keep their material "family acceptable" and are patronized by families that come from as far away as Orange County. Nothing on stage conflicts with the Dietleins' Mormon faith.

"We've been criticized over the years for doing nothing but fluff," Sandy said. "That has probably helped us."

Tim added: "We tend to stay away from the avant-garde and cut out swear words, innuendoes and uncomfortable scenes. People can bring their kids at any time and leave the world behind. We're not trying to preach any messages."

"Their shows are good, clean, wholesome fun, and their prices are super. 'Les Miserables' is $45. Glendale Centre is considerably less," said Nancy Kapell, acting manager of the Employee Recreation Club at Jet Propulsion Laboratories, which often buys tickets by the block. The tickets are $7.50 to $9 without a group discount.

"There is such a family atmosphere, we love it," Kapell said. "One night there was a downpour. The roof leaked, and not only were the employees helping, but patrons were mopping up, too."

George Strattan, director of the theater's current production of "Arsenic and Old Lace" and three other productions this year, said the Halloween season is a "difficult time to do a show. The Dietleins are torn between the costume shop and the show. They'll often be up until 3 in the morning."

To handle the Halloween crush, the Dietleins have hired 30 part-time workers. The part-time workers will also be on duty for would-be Santas and elves who will follow close behind the Halloween trade.

The holiday season will be followed by a rare production, scheduled to open Feb. 13 and run through April 1, featuring three generations of the family.

Nathan and Ruth Hale, who returned to Utah five years ago and opened a 230-seat theater there, will appear with Allan and Sandy and Tim and Dave in a play Ruth wrote about her life, "Thank You, Papa."

Other productions at Glendale Centre Theatre have included "Heaven Can Wait," "No Time for Sergeants," "Harvey," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Hasty Heart," "My Fair Lady" and "Carousel." "A Christmas Carol" has been the holiday tradition--and sell-out--for the past 24 years.

And the theater has had its share of well-known actors and actresses, among them Ellen Wheeler, who has won two Emmys for her acting in daytime soaps; Mike Farrell, Connie Stevens, Gordon Jump, Diane McBain and Denver Pyle.

"Although we're non-Equity, people from the other unions, television and screen, work with us," said Edmund Shaff, an actor-director who has worked at the theater for five years. "For instance, Deborah Reunard played Guinevere when we did 'Camelot.' She is a regular on 'Dallas' as Sly, the secretary to J.R. Ewing."

Allan and Sandy are talking about retiring in five or six years and leaving the whole show to their sons. "It's nice for us to know that our kids will take over," Sandy said.

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