With this semi-regular column, roving A&E columnist Allison Frank will endeavor to uncover what’s simmering under the surface of the local arts scene — worthy (and often quirky) people, places and events that haven’t yet flared up to capture widespread attention.
Are you aware of such an entity? Ms. Frank welcomes suggestions and comments. She can be reached at Allifrank@aol.com
Making costumes wasn’t John Pankow’s lifelong ambition. In fact, when he embarked on his current career, he couldn’t even cut out a pattern. But now, after almost 10 years in show biz, John is one of the most sought-after costume designers around. And his arsenal of anecdotes is as prolific as his costume collection.
Casting about for something to do after college, “my idea was to go to law school,” says Pankow, bathed in the pale winter sunlight of his Victorian living room, smoke from his ever-present cigarette curling around his head. “I had in mind that being a lawyer was sort of like [being] Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird — that lawyers always fought for justice, truth and honor. But I learned too much about what the law was [really] like, so I decided to become an actor.”
Tossing law in the trash, John soon got involved with little-theater productions — but his big break came in 1991, when Last of the Mohicans (the Daniel Day Lewis vehicle shot partially in Western North Carolina) asked him to be a prop assistant; specifically, they wanted John to make gunpowder cartridges. He remembers: “I thought, oh cool, it takes place in the 1700s, so there will be all this fascinating stuff to work with when I get there.”
But his first job on the set was merely heeding his supervisor, who explained the process in no uncertain terms: “‘First you mezhah the powdah, then put it in the cahtridge, then glue it,'” John intones, in a delicious send-up of the British prop master.
He continues: “Well, I smoke, and of course you can’t smoke around gunpowder. So I’d make 100 cartridges, go outside to smoke, then go back inside and make 100 more.” So many more, in fact, that they asked him to extend his temporary position and sign on for the length of the production, doing this and that. John handed out muskets, and helped out in the art department.
Most importantly, however, he got to see his name in the rolling credits.
Then the film’s production coordinator recommended him to an ad agency that specialized in car commercials. “A lot [of the] running footage that you see in automobile ads — cars going through the woods — is shot around here,” he notes. After working on several national commercials, he figured out that prop assistant is a fancy term for “doing anything they tell you.”
Meanwhile, his work in local theater continued with the Montford Park Players’ production of Richard III. John played six different roles, requiring a range of accents (Welsh, Cockney, King’s English, etc.). He also helped paint all the banners and shields. In 1995, John was asked to costume Painless Productions’ Red Emma, a play that spanned 30 years and needed 89 costumes.
It should be noted here that John didn’t actually know how to sew, at that point. Undaunted, he researched the period, borrowed some outfits, and taught himself that ancient craft.
And when the curtains came up, there was no question it was 1889.
When the Montford Park Players’ Hazel Robinson offered him a second costuming job (the lavish A Christmas Carol) he agreed to outfit 75 people. “If I had known a lot more about it, I would have said there’s no way I can do this. It’s a lot more complicated than you think it is,” John reveals, admitting, “It was during this play that I almost lost my mind completely.”
After that, though, he took to his design work like Dali did to painting: Obsessed, industrious and unconscious. John has hunted up machetes in the middle of the night; stitched intricate patterns from scratch; and hand-written love letters (for close-up shots), among other frenzied endeavors. Of course, he comes by it all naturally: The costumer’s mother is a major movie star who’s appeared in more than 30 films in the past eight years. (I know you want to know more, but we’ll save that for a later column.)
John works doggedly for both the Montford Park Players and local contemporary-theater group Consider The Following; unloads trucks and runs lights at the Civic Center; and has developed an educational program called Shakespeare Goes to School. He even honors requests from the occasional retro-minded wedding party, cloaking guests in Civil War-era formal attire.
And though theater is his first love, John says there’s yet another item left on his creative agenda: The costumer would like to add author to his list of accomplishments.
“I have about half a dozen unfinished novels lying around,” he notes expansively.
And then he deadpans: “I minored in creative writing and majored in history, so I’m qualified to do absolutely nothing.”