Dressed to the 99s

Times Staff Writer

A day with costume designer Ann Closs-Farley lends new meaning to the phrase "holiday shopping."

Closs-Farley has worked with just about every small theater in town. But when the holidays roll around, ruffly muffin cups and coffee filters, clear packing tape, plastic fruit, rubber rafts, paper tablecloths and shower accessories are just a few of her favorite things.

For the last four seasons, Closs-Farley, 34, has designed the costumes for the "99 Cents Only Holiday Extravaganza" at the Evidence Room, affectionately known to company members as "The 99."

For the most part, all costumes for the show are created with items from the 99 Cents Only Stores, a chain of enticing shopping palaces in which any item, no matter how fabulous, can be yours for less than a dollar.

Growing up on a farm in Arizona, Closs-Farley was No. 9 in a family of 14 children. "I had no identity whatsoever," she recalls. "We used to have a count-off when I was a kid: 'One?' 'Here.' 'Two?' 'Here.' 'Three?' 'Here' ... There were 75 kids in my elementary school, and 10 of them were us. But being No. 9 was the perfect preparation for 'The 99.'

"Growing up with seven other sisters, I always chopped up my clothes and made them new because there was no way ... I was going to get any new clothes," she continues with a characteristic eruption of delighted laughter. "I was lucky because I went to school in the '80s, and what we do for 'The 99' is exactly what we did in the '80s, which was to come up with crazy clothes. It was like a big party -- you went to school and you either looked like Boy George or Madonna; there was outrageous freedom."

Ken Roht, who writes, directs and choreographs the show, says the idea for the family-oriented musicals was conceived during strolls through the 99 Cents Only aisles, sipping his morning coffee. "I wanted to do a holiday show, but I didn't want to make a conventional one. I saw plastic bowls and plates and plungers; I just kept seeing such theatrical possibility."

At the 99 Cents Only Store at Sunset Boulevard and Maltman Avenue in Silver Lake, Closs-Farley sees it too -- although she moves so fast through the 99 Cents Only aisles it's hard to imagine how she manages to focus. Her shopping motto: "If you can't get it in 20 minutes, you should probably leave."

Closs-Farley is embarking on one of the many budget shopping sprees for this year's show, a western extravaganza called "Route 99: The Orange Star Dinner Show," opening Saturday at the Evidence Room theater, near downtown Los Angeles.

This will be the first 99 Cents show to have both regular seating ($15) and an admission that includes dinner ($25), prepared beforehand by Michael Dunn, who plays Orange Star -- not only a carrot-topped lovely but right handy 'round the kitchen too. In real life, Dunn is a chef and one of the show's producers.

Closs-Farley -- a 2004 Drama Critics Circle Award winner who has distinguished herself as costume designer for productions at the Actors' Gang Theatre, Long Beach Opera, the Coronet Theater and others -- could probably control a heftier costume budget elsewhere. She is, after all, the creator of the costume for Miss New Mexico, Petrola Da Border, for the 2005 "Best in Drag" AIDS fundraiser at the Wilshire Ebell Theater.

But there's no escaping destiny: No. 9 had to move on to "The 99." Daughters Violet, 5, and Ruby, 3, offer costume critiques, and her husband, Keythe Farley, co-writer of the musical "Bat Boy," performed in the early "99 Cents Only" shows and remains unfailingly supportive. "We met as dance partners in a musical in Japan. How weird is that?" Closs-Farley says.

For the first couple of years, Closs-Farley designed and made all the costumes herself and also appeared in the show. But last year's mega-production included 56 actors and more that 280 costume pieces, so Closs-Farley and Roht gave basic guidelines and $50 each to nine of Closs-Farley's designer friends and told them to "go play." This year, with 20 actors and about 45 costume pieces, there is an ever-growing list of designers, including 7-year-old Isabelle Adams, who will get some guidance from her artist mom. The costume budget has been in the $1,000 range, and the average budget for an outfit is $10 to $15.

As she charges through the parking lot, Closs-Farley observes that each 99 Cents Only Store has its own character. The one at Sunset and Maltman is "pretty relaxed, but it has everything -- I always find golden goods there, and the Normandie store. The one in Pasadena, off Colorado? Wow."

Only the wigs are purchased elsewhere, from ersatz-hair maven Eun Ja "Ellen" You at Hollywood Wig on Hollywood Boulevard, who has supported Closs-Farley's wig habit for more than a decade and remains unfazed by the requests for hairpieces in electric blue and traffic-cone orange.

But right now, it's the 99 Cents Only Store, and green is the color as Closs-Farley races through the immaculate aisles for materials for the costume for Green Clover -- named, like several other characters, after the shapes of those Styrofoam-textured mini-marshmallows in Lucky Charms cereal.

"What we use most is tablecloths and all the plastic goods," she says, busily collecting contact paper, zip ties, swim goggles and hula skirts. "Silverware becomes corsets or fans; straws can become corsets because they are nice and sturdy. We use a lot of dust mops, Hula Hoop skirts ... this year, we're going to make a suit of armor, for a kid who's playing Don Quixote, out of trash cans."

The tablecloths serve as fabric for dresses, shirts and pants. Along the way Closs-Farley has learned that sweat destroys the paper and plastic items, so now the clothing is lined with clear packing tape -- not exactly breathable, but durable.

It usually takes about eight hours to "build" a costume. But the next afternoon, at her studio in borrowed space on the second floor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church on Wilshire Boulevard, Closs-Farley proudly announces that it took her only three hours to turn burly actor Jabez Zuniga into the dainty, breathless Green Clover -- oh-so-feminine except for the husky, hairy legs peeking out from beneath his skirt.

Green Christmas tree balls and tiny green stars decorate the dress, trimmed with muffin cup ruffles, pipe cleaners and colorful tufts from the grass skirts purchased the day before.

Jabez also wears a candy necklace, and curls of green ribbon decorate the fluffy green Afro, courtesy of Hollywood Wig. A green felt game table cover becomes a fashionable Las Vegas-themed cape. To finish off the outfit, Closs-Farley kneels to cover Jabez's black-and-white sneakers with green plastic tape.

"It's the best Christmas fun -- it's like Christmas morning," Closs-Farley says. "When the curtain goes up, kids go crazy. It's like a wonderland."

Observes Greg Reiner, managing director of the Actors' Gang: "She's a genius. She knows how to take a 99 Cents Only Stores budget and make it look like a million bucks."

Corporate leaders of 99 Cents Only Stores, which has 227 stores in four states, are enthusiastic sponsors, donating goods and even arranging to have one of their delivery trucks outside the Evidence Room during performances as a free billboard.

"The first year, we thought they were pulling our chain," says Chief Executive Eric Schiffer, who dislikes his title because, at 99 Cents Only Stores, "the customer is really the CEO." "But we played along, and they were for real. We're happy to keep doing it -- I don't know of another public company that has a relationship like this. Last year they had a 99 Cent Rap, rapping about ramen noodles and tinfoil .... "

But he expressed some disappointment that that 99 Cents Only Stores food will not be used for the dinner. "That would be even funnier."

*

'99 Cents Only Holiday Extravaganza'

Where: Evidence Room, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Opens Saturday; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays

Ends: Dec. 18

Price: $15, show only; $25, show plus dinner

Contact: (213) 381-7118

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