Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Thing Is, Part III: The Man Makes the Suit

Previously, our erstwhile hero amazed the audience with his daring tale of bravely navigating the wild environs of Los Angeles—without GPS, Sacajawea or Magellan—by skillfully practicing the ancient art of map-reading as he made his way to meet the maker of The Thing and Iron Man.

A few hours later I was at my motel, an odd diminutive structure on a major thoroughfare of Hollywood that looked as if it had been built in the ’20s as a boarding house for the rare traveling salesman. It belie the modernity of the surrounding architecture, adamantly standing firm in its resolve to remain unchanged despite the town’s boom. It was probably the only business of its kind back in the day, singly owned and managed by someone seeking a quieter life in what at that time was considered the ’burbs.

A veritable rainforest fronted the building bursting against the wrought-iron black fence lining the motel grounds. All that was missing was Norma Desmond, with a martini in hand, greeting me at the entrance. Still, despite these unusual characteristics, it was well-maintained; the paint seemed fresh, the vegetation—though thick—was neat and trimmed, the concrete walkway lay uncracked and the architectural moldings and details appeared unchipped and complete.

A ludicrously-small in-ground swimming pool was just to the right of the walkway to the entrance. It was the size of a two-door sedan, and the only reason why I knew it was a pool and not a fountain was the security fence around its perimeter, on which were hung the motel’s swimming rules and hours. No running?!! There go my plans for a Chinese fire drill. It was evident that the motel’s owners installed the thing in an attempt to keep up with the competition. But it seemed to me that its Lilliputian size would only serve to accentuate the differences between the motel and every other accommodation in the area.

A wooden porch—the type one might see in a Country Time Lemonade commercial—fronted the building. Surprisingly the caretakers missed a perfect opportunity for a porch swing. As I ascended the front stairs, a wooden swinging sign jutting from one of the porch roof columns, brought to light the building’s immaculate appearance. Where I expected to read ADDAMS ESTATE, was imprinted a Comfort Inn logo.

As I passed through the doors, I felt like Dorothy exiting her fallen home and stepping into Munchkinland. Before me stood a modern, carpeted hotel lobby, complete with a free-coffee urn opposite the marble reception desk. I was strangely disappointed. A part of me was looking forward to Aunt Bea’s homemade family dinner with peach cobbler for dessert that I would share with my fellow wayfarers at a single long table in the kitchen before lights-out.

The manufactured cheery tones of the Recepticon snapped me out of my reverie. In moments I was dropping my things in the room. And soon thereafter sitting in the North Hollywood office of the Vice President/General Manager of Shafton, Inc. Custom Costumes, David Janzow.

If memory serves—and believe me the service has been going downhill over the years—Janzow inherited the company from his father, its founder. Shafton, Inc. may not be a readily familiar name to most of you at home—I certainly hadn’t a clue who they were or what they did—but undoubtedly you, Faithful Bloglodytes, have encountered their product, perhaps even shaking hands with it!

Shafton specializes in designing and constructing all manner of character and meet-and-greet mascot costumes. Taking a peek at its creations on the company website is like perusing a photo album of Who’s Who pop-culture icons, classic and nouveau alike. And their client list includes some of the biggest names in Hollywood, television and comics. Batman, Shrek, Caspar, H.R. Pufnstuf, and Bob the Builder are a mere smattering of costumes they’ve created, for companies such as DreamWorks, Universal, Warner Bros. and Sesame Workshop.

The scope of Shafton’s work never hit me until I attended my first Radio City Christmas Spectacular. One of the show’s most popular segments is the “Nutcracker Suite.” But in the Christmas Spectacular version a little girl dreams not of dancing with personified nut crackers, but rather a bevy of dancing bears of all breeds, from Polar to Panda, Kodiak to Koala. Imagine my surprise to see Shafton, Inc. listed in the program as the ursine architect for the sequence’s costumes.

On the surface, Janzow’s office was that of any company executive, stereotypically staid and business-like. A large centrally-positioned, wood desk sat against the far wall opposite the door; two chairs fronting it. I entered suitably disheveled from my six-hour, early-morning flight, wearing my signature Spider-Man–tee, faded jeans, untied high-top sneaks and baseball cap. My face featured several days’ worth of stubble and I had a momentary bout of nervousness, fearing my bedraggled appearance might offend.

Fortunately, Janzow belay the corporate starkness of his office. Where I expected Brooks Brothers, I instead was greeted with Structure (a hip, men’s clothier of the time. Please feel free to substitute with today’s cutting edge equivalent). Janzow sported a colorful, printed, button-down shirt, comfortable pants and shoes. His mien reminded me of the Laugh-In comedian Alan Sues, albeit not nearly as wacky, and quickly put me at ease.

Janzow acted as if I were a breath of fresh air compared to the corporate types with which he was most beset and took great interest in the San Diego Convention with which he was unfamiliar. I was a bit stunned at his admission of ignorance. Sure, the comic-book universe was my milieu and the con was not yet an internationally known annual spectacle of all things pop culture. But Janzow was in the business of building costumes of pop culture icons, and the show was awash with possible opportunities for Shafton, Inc. And it was virtually at his doorstep, a mere three-hour drive south.

Interestingly, Janzow’s excitement about the convention was that of a fan, rather than a company honcho looking to score new clients. As we talked, I began to notice some unusual decorative flourishes to his office, the sort of things one would normally not expect in the uninspired environs of a corporate nabob. Is that a statue of Frankenstein’s monster? Wait, that isn’t a photo of a loved one on his desk; it’s a shot of someone in a Woody Woodpecker costume. It began to dawn on me that Janzow was a geek like me, just not a comic-book one.

His passion arose from the Universal Picturess monsters, those endearing title characters from the studio’s classic horror movies of the fifties, made famous by such actors as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney (both Sr. and Jr.), i.e. The Mummy, Dracula, Wolfman, et al. Well, that explains the bisque figure of Mary Shelley’s famous bolt-necked creation.

And that wasn’t just a photo of someone in a Woody Woodpecker outfit. It was an example of Janzow’s work. Lo and behold, Shafton. Inc. was the creative house that designed and supplied the Universal Studios theme parks with their costumes of Walter Lantz cartoon characters, i.e. Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda and Chilly Willy.

With the social niceties taken care of—though, truth be told, Janzow and I could have kibitzed the afternoon away—the costume creator led me to the factory part of the building wherein the magic was made. Janzow’s office was walled on one side by a large window which actually overlooked the floor. So the trip was a simple matter of descending a flight of stairs.

The plant resembled something out of Norma Rae, only without the oppressive air. Rather the enormous space was filled with creative energy. Distributed throughout the floor were construction stations manned by workers all but hidden by costumes in various stages of development. Their heads peeked up over mounds of fabric, stuffing and fur, like the ubiquitous “Kilroy was here” motif of World War II. The very nature of the product, most of which were larger-than-life, hollowed-out, stuffed creatures in which a human was emplaced, made space a commodity. Aisles were compromised by the overflow of brightly-colored animals, giant raisins, anthropomorphic pop icons and the like.

The room was well-lit, a soft glow from tiers of frosted windows that lined the upper reaches of the walls joined a bevy of fluorescent lamps that descended from the ceiling. A circuitous track from which were hung hundreds of completed and as-yet-unfinished costumes—each with a protective clear plastic garment bag—traversed the upper reaches of the space, at times moving as workers needed to access particular pieces, like the bedroom doors during the climactic chase scene in Monsters, Inc. With my head craned upward and mouth agape at the wondrous collection of colorful costumes pirouetting above me on their suspended track, I’m sure I resembled the many New York City tourists, who stare up transfixed at the skyscrapers surrounding them, that I often mock.

NEXT: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

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