Thursday, May 1, 2014

Susan Claassen: Celebrating Edith Head!

SUSAN CLAASSEN, managing artistic director of the Invisible Theatre, was named Best Actress by Phoenix New Times for her performance in A Conversation with Edith Head
Edith Head was a fashion legend in her own time
Your dresses should be tight enough to show you're a woman and loose enough to show you're a lady.
Edith Head

Happy May Day!
In the entertainment industry, the key to success lies in knowing how to protect yourself. The subject of my blog today, and the subject SHE celebrates, both know/knew how to do that in spades. Today, I celebrate TWO extraordinary women.
 My introduction to Susan Claassen first came through KT Sullivan. KT had performed at the Invisible Theatre and suggested I contact Susan. We chatted a few times over the phone and last year I was lucky enough to be among the packed house at the National Arts Club here in New York for her one woman celebration of Edith Head. Leaving that night, I felt that I had spent an evening WITH Edith Head.
Susan and I sat down this AM to discuss the journey that has gotten her to this point and where she goes from here.
My first question for Susan comes from Tommy Tune.
Susan as Edith

How does Susan begin her day? With coffee! She hugs her partner, first of all, and says, "I love you. Did you sleep well?" THEN, she has her coffee.
Susan has been managing artistic director of Invisible Theatre  in Tucson, Arizona for thirty nine years.Thirteen years ago, Susan came up with the idea of doing a play about Edith Head.
That came about simply by watching the Biography Channel
As a director and primarily as an artistic director, Susan had put shows together for other people. She has created and directed a lot of cabaret shows.She also has appeared in one person scripted shows. Watching the Biography Channel, a biography of Edith Head came on. Susan thought that she looked a little bit like Edith Head. No one had ever told her that she looked like Edith Head prior to her doing the show. Susan had always been aware of Edith Head. She was of the age that she had heard about Edith Head all of her life, but she never really knew her story. As Susan watched, she realized it was an amazing story. Edith called herself an executive woman before there was such a thing.
Also as she was watching, she thought this would make a great theatre piece. Susan checked to see if a theatrical had ever been done on her. It hadn't. Susan checked to see where Edith had left her estate. It was with the Motion Picture and Television Fund (MPTF). She held a staggering resume at Paramount for 43 years before moving to Universal Pictures. She has created attire for celebrated films, such as Funny Face.
Susan immediately contacted MPTF to get right of likeness and right of publicity.She desired to do everything in the proper way.Susan started researching to see what books she had. There was The Dress Doctor and How to Dress for Success. Then there was this book called Edith Head's Hollywood. This book was published posthumously. This was an autobiography written with  Paddy Calistro. The book was long out of print, the publisher was long gone, but Susan decided to search for Paddy in the Los Angeles area where the book said she resided and owned Angel City Press.

Susan called "information" and found her. Susan called Paddy and said, "Hello,My name is Susan Claassen and I am the artistic director of an intimate theatre in Tucson, Arizona and I am very interested on doing a theatrical piece on Edith Head. Are you the Paddy Calistro who wrote Edith Head's Hollywood?" Susan could hear this reticence in her voice. Paddy answered, "Yeesss...." Susan offered to fly over to discuss this. Susan flew over and they were like two magnets.
They chose to collaborate and they became best friends. Through Paddy, Susan met her brother, who passed away a few years ago. He programmed the LA County Film Series and was very connected in the film community.
Paddy's publishing house, Angel City Press does a lot of books on Hollywood, Los Angeles, California. They went to the Academy where the Margaret Herrick Library is housed. Edith had left her papers to the Academy. It's in Beverly Hills and is the Academy's library. Anyone can go and peruse papers that have been donated from film and literally everything else. In addition to her papers, Edith left her sketches to the Academy. Paddy and Susan researched for about six months before they even did the first reading of the piece.
Susan as Edith!
They did the reading and then they premiered it in the winter of 2002. A miracle happened! The New York Times covered Tucson!
It was well received and Paddy had done work with the LA Times and reached out to them. Paddy told Susan that didn't mean that they would do anything. They requested high res photo images which Susan sent. Once again, Paddy told Susan that didn't mean anything would be done. THEN, the calls started coming four in the morning. Susan's pals in New York were calling and asking, "How the hell did you get this kind of coverage in the Times with a big picture?" Immediately, Susan got a call from the Chicago Historical Society in the costume guild saying, "Do you tour?" Like any good actor, the answer is always, "Yes! Of course!!" She spoke with Jim Blair, her technical director, and said, "We need to devise a touring set." That was the birth of A Conversation with Edith Head. They realized when they went to Chicago that they could set the show anywhere.
Edith Head sketch for Joan Crawford
Edith was everywhere. They set the show in 1981 when she was working on Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. The play was originally set at Universal Studios.But now, they were setting the show in whatever city they were playing. When they were in London, Edith was in London. When they were in Edinburgh, Edith was in Edinburgh. She talked more about Sean Connery. When I saw the show in New York, "Edith" talked about when Macy's licensed from The Perfect Marriage and when Edith was the commentator for a fashion show at The Waldorf Astoria. Susan is always looking for local references and when someone is in the audience who either worked with Edith or knew Edith, and there usually is, Susan carries on conversations, as I've seen. The formatting of the show changes depending upon the questions from the audience. She has a host who takes questions from the audience. The questions have to be time appropriate. She doesn't take questions referring to anything after 1991 when she died. Susan can't reference Edna Mode and The Incredibles.
This sketch, signed by Head, is for a costume to be worn by Jeanmaire in Anything Goes (1956).
When Susan is in full "Edith" persona, she remains there. People want to believe Edith is alive and there. There are some people that we have always seen on either film or TV. Edith is one of those people. Susan certainly knows that she is not Edith Head. In some people's minds and hearts, they don't even know that Susan is not Edith Head. She would be over one hundred!
People, however, desire to believe. They want to remember a film they saw or a person they saw or a movie palace they went to or when they met Edith, because she was so accessible, or when they went on the Universal Studios tour and Edith would have been the biggest celebrity they met. It is an incredible joy for Susan to be able to keep Edith's legacy alive.
She also feels it is an awesome responsibility. She is constantly researching. Almost every day does she get Google Alerts in which someone references Edith. A designer may be talking about her, for example. Susan never tires of portraying her. They interviewed so many people in the industry who knew her like Bob Mackie, he was a sketch artist for her. In fact, Susan's wig is designed by Renate of Burbank. She is Mr. Mackie's wig designer. She has done all the Cher and Carol Burnett  wigs in the heyday. The famous House of Westmore, Mike and McKenzie Westmore, McKenzie is probably best known for Faceoff, and Mike is an Academy Award winner for Mask. The first time they came to see the show, Susan got the "back story" that Mike's office was next to Edith's at Universal. His wife, Marion (McKenzie's mom), was a model for Edith. Mike saw her in a wedding dress, fell in love, and they have been married ever since. They have become dear friends of Susan's and huge fans. They have seen the show three or four times. Tippi Hedren has been to the show three times. Elke Sommer, Sally Kirkland, people who worked with Edith have all been to the show.
There have been many iconic people attending including contract players at Universal.

They've even had people attend who worked with Edith at Paramount. "She was a great gal, feisty, full of life and tenacity." She is a very interesting roll model for young people to follow a dream. Susan has young designers and people in any field who have come to the show and have signed in her guestbook that thanks to seeing this show, they now know what it takes to follow their dreams. These are the things that are so emotionally rewarding and touch upon her heart.
Artists know that when they can impact and pass something on to a new generation, it is a wonderful thing to be able to do.
When asked what her favorite part of the show, Susan says she really does love every part of it. What she thinks is the one thing that most people don't realize about Edith, because her exterior has a fierceness about it, is that she was very funny. She had a great sense of humor. Underneath it all, a great vulnerability. When she questions whether the costume designer is really important at the end of the show, that's actually transcribed from something she said. It's an amazing moment in the show. To think that someone so successful and iconic, underneath it all, like ALL of us, has that same vulnerability.
Yesterday, I interviewed Gary Dakin, who is a world renowned psychic. We discussed spirits and souls. I asked Susan if she is spiritual and if so, if she feels Edith's presence.
It's all speculation, of course, but, first of all, Susan feels, as do I, that Edith would be thrilled with this presentation. It was very important to her that her persona would live on. She had no children. She defined herself by her work. A Conversation with Edith Head presents a full picture.
She couldn't show vulnerability for the sixty years she worked in the business.
She never walked off a set in such an ego-driven industry. To see another generation understanding her and the impact that she has had, I think she would be pleased. People who knew her have said that to Susan and that means the world to her. Susan is spiritual and does feel Edith's presence. Susan does honor those who have passed on and have impacted her life enormously. There is always that moment before she walks out on stage of a bonding. As she has said earlier, it is an awesome responsibility. Before every appearance, Susan goes through the entire script. It changes but she goes through the entire script every day. She has done over 300 performances as of this writing. She never takes it for granted.
with Tippi Hedron
When they first did this show, the thought was that the demographic would be "gay and gray". That would be where the audience would lie. It certainly is, BUT in addition, there are executive men from every field. They relate to Edith. They all are keeping up a big exterior, when inside there is a tremendous vulnerability. Edith had to play the game better than anybody. Emmy Award winner Susan Clark, who was also married to Alex Karras, was a very good friend of Edith's. She was a contract player early on in her career. She appeared in such films as Airport at Universal after Edith had moved there. S usan Clark told Susan that Edith would come and talk to the contract players about just about anything. She was aware of sports, for example. She would get details so she could go back to the studio bosses and be able to better relate with them. "How about those Dodgers?", and talk their lingo.
Paramount did not renew her contract in 1967 when Gulf+Western took over. The Studio System was changing.Edith, threw her friendships with Alfred Hitchcock and Lew Wasserman, maneuvered her way to Universal. She accepted a big salary cut. She did what they desired her to do. She was an enormous team player. She did
what directors wanted her to do. She would let some people think that ideas were their ideas. She would also take credit for some things that were other people's ideas.

Susan leaves on Tuesday for Asheville, North Carolina. She will be doing a month long run at North Carolina Stage. She will be doing twenty performances there. Of course, "Edith" will be talking about Ava Gardner, who Edith dressed, a North Carolina native.
"Edith" will be making an upcoming appearance on the Red Carpet at the La Jolla International Fashion Film Festival July 24th-26th doing commentary. Edith was doing this LONG before Joan Rivers. Edith started the commentary.
THEN, it's off to the Decorative Arts Center in Lancaster, Ohio. Paramount has restored forty original Edith Head costumes. The archivist at Paramount, Randall Thropp, is curating an exhibit there of the costumes. Susan will be going in and introing two films, The Lady Eve, which is a fabulous film starring Barbra Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. Edith was really instrumental in redesigning  Stanwyck's look. The other film is To Catch a Thief, which is one of the most gorgeous films ever. There are fabulous costumes, all Edith, no Givanchy. That will be a full weekend. Edith will be taking people on tour with Randall, giving the back story on the costumes. She has done this type of event before.
A Conversation with Edith Head and subsequent appearances as Edith Head has far exceeded wildest
dreams. She has met the most extraordinary people through this show. She has traveled from the Republic of Georgia to Belize to Leningrad to London to across this country. Once again, she has been very privileged  keeping an extraordinary woman's legacy alive and touching people along the way. She feels there is so much more to do.
In between running a theatre, Susan has toured. She would like to do a lot more. When she did National Arts Club here in NY, where I saw her, this show had never played New York before! She's played London! She played London before she played Los Angeles. Since then, she has done three runs in Los Angeles.
It was great to do the National Arts Club. It was packed. According to Susan, there were about thirty people there who knew Susan and had a personal investment in her. The bulk of that audience, Susan had no idea who they were! To get a reaction like she got in a very crowded room was tremendous. It took her eight years of touring before she took it to Los Angeles. She desired to make sure the venue was just right. These are the things that are really important to Susan. The producing entity must be correct and the venue must be right. That paid off. She has had three successful runs in Los Angeles. First at the El Portal in North Hollywood. She has played the Odyssey Theatre on the West Side. She has also played the Carrie Hamilton Theatre  at The Pasadena Playhouse. That was lovely to do because Carol Burnett named that theatre upstairs in memory of her daughter. Carrie Hamilton died from
lung and brain cancer January 20, 2002. Edith loved Carol Burnett and loved dressing her.
It was nice to play that theatre.
Why does Susan perform?
It's something in her DNA that provides her great joy. She cannot imagine herself doing any other profession.
WE all are the better for it. I hope all producers who see this will join me in working to bring this show to New York! It's time!
Thank you Susan Claassen AND Edith Head for the gifts you have given to the world and continue to give!  
To all who read this blog, IF you like this blog, please leave a comment and share  on Twitter and Facebook for a chance to win fabulous prizes!

With grateful XOXOXs ,

Check out my site celebrating my forthcoming book on Hello, Dolly!
I want this to be a definitive account of Hello, Dolly!  If any of you reading this have appeared in any production of Dolly, I'm interested in speaking with you!

If you have anything to add or share, please contact me at


Please do what YOU can to be more aware that words and actions DO HURT...but they can also heal and help!  

Thank you, to all the mentioned in this blog!

Here's to an INCREDIBLE tomorrow for ALL...with NO challenges! 





  1. Wow - Thank you for this wonderful article!

  2. Many years ago, when I was living in West Hollywood, I met Edith Head in a book store. She was setting up a display for a book she had written. I happened to have my portfolio with me and she graciously took a look at me designs. She loved them and said they were perfect for the stage as they were a little too theatrical for the movies. I'll never forget her or that meeting. Cheers, Stephan

  3. Susan Claassen embodies Edith Head from the inside out. A show well worth seeing.