Pear's 'Conversation With Edith Head'

Susan Claassen keeps style icon's legacy alive

With eight Oscars on her shelf and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, costume designer Edith Head (1897-1981) dressed such legends as Mae West, Clara Bow, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly during a six-decade career. She also fashioned her own inimitable image: severe bangs and chignon, dark-rimmed glasses and tailored suits in neutral colors, and a sparrow-like appearance that could not subdue an opinionated, larger-than-life personality. Told she would never be beautiful, she opted to be distinctive.

"She really came up with this persona and she was like a sponge. She learned it and kept redefining herself," award-winning actress Susan Claassen said during a phone interview from Coronado, where she was performing in "A Conversation With Edith Head." The show's Bay Area premiere runs Dec. 7-16, with a Dec. 6 preview, at Mountain View's Pear Theatre, where Claassen will be joined onstage by local actor Michael Saenz, who serves as host. Because tickets are selling out quickly, the Pear added additional matinees and a Sunday evening performance.

The largely one-woman show, written by Claassen and Paddy Calistro, author of "Edith Head's Hollywood," opened in 2002 at Tucson's Invisible Theatre, where Claassen is in her 48th season as managing artistic director. Since then, Claassen has toured as Head throughout the country as well as to London, Edinburgh and Tbilisi, Georgia. But the local premiere is somewhat of a homecoming, as Head received her undergraduate degree at U.C. Berkeley in 1919 and her master's in Romance languages the following year at Stanford University. In addition, Claassen has a long professional and personal association with Pear artistic director Betsy Kruse Craig, formerly of Tucson. "Susan Claassen has been a mentor and friend since 1992, when I did my first show at the Invisible Theatre in Tucson," Kruse Craig wrote in an email. "I have been fortunate enough to see her tour-de-force performance as Edith Head a number of times. When we were planning the current season at the Pear, it seemed like a perfect fit for our patrons and our space."

While the script grew out of Calistro's authorized biography, co-written with the designer but published after her death, Claassen spent months researching Head, including studying the designer's books, "The Dress Doctor" and "How to Dress for Success," and hours of audiotaped interviews. In the process, she discovered information that the designer guarded during her lifetime. She knew everybody's secrets but she never repeated them and she was cagey about her own backstory.

"There haven't been any kiss-and-tell books about Edith," said Claassen, who unveils some of these secrets.

For one, Head was a notorious liar. In fact, during a late 1970s interview with this reporter, before one of her touring fashion shows for Vogue patterns, she said her first film was the 1933 "She Done Him Wrong" with Mae West. However, a decade earlier, she had designed an elaborate costume of fruits and flowers for an elephant in "The Wanderer," which the elephant ate.

Confronted during a follow-up interview, Head looked this writer in the eye and said unabashedly, "I lied! What's wrong with making yourself a little younger as long as it doesn't hurt anybody?"

Previously untrained as a costume designer, Head managed to garner a summer job at Paramount in 1923 by submitting sketches "borrowed" from other students at her art school.

In addition, like many 20th-century actresses, she concealed her Jewish background. Born Edith Claire Posener to Jewish parents in San Bernardino, California, she took on the surname Spare when her mother remarried. However, the surname that stuck was that of her first husband, Charles Head. In 1940, four years after her divorce, she married art director Wiard (Bill) Ihnen, a marriage that lasted until his death in 1979.

Claassen, herself active in Arizona's Jewish community, enjoys outing the designer, but with flair. In character as Edith, she tosses out a few barbs, grumbling that legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland "told the Hollywood Reporter that I was Jewish. Diana is impossible! Vogue was right to get rid of her. What difference does it make that I was born Jewish? I'm now an ardent Catholic. My mother always told me to blend in."

Said Claassen, "Whenever we have a Jewish audience, that line gets a great laugh."

Taking on the role of Edith Head was serendipitous. As artistic director at Invisible Theatre, she has watched numerous biography shows seeking ideas for one-person shows for other actors, "but I never did anything for myself," she said. However, when she watched Head's story, she was bowled over.

"She was an executive woman before there was such a thing," she said. Then she did a double take. "Gosh, I look like her!"

Reading everything about Head that she could get her hands on, she stumbled upon Calistro's book, found her phone number "the old-fashioned way, through information," flew to Santa Monica to meet her, and she and Calistro developed the show. "We were like two magnets," she said.

Sixteen years after its Tucson opening, Claassen has performed "Conversations" nearly 400 times, developing a routine to transform herself into her character. On the day of an evening performance, she stops all tasks unrelated to the show at 2 p.m. Then she has a light meal, goes over the script twice and goes to the theater early, donning a custom-made wig and emulating Head's voice and posture long before curtain time. After the performance, she continues in character to answer questions from the audience.

"Most people know I'm not Edith, but they want to suspend belief," she said. "I stay as Edith after the show. ... I feel comfortable being able to improvise and answer all their questions."

Over the years, Claassen has had a number of encounters with people who knew the designer, either at Paramount, where she worked until 1967, or at Universal, where she completed work on "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" just weeks before her 1981 death.

"People would say she was the biggest attraction on the Universal Studios tour," Claassen said. "When she heard the 'beep-beep' (of the tourist tram as it passed her bungalow), she would grab a sketchpad and go out there. She was so accessible to the public."

In fact, after a performance in Phoenix, a former tour driver at Universal asked "Edith" if she remembered her.

"Of course," the actress replied, recalling the woman's distinctive beep.

Because of questions from the audience, and visits from people who knew Head, "every show is different," said Claassen, who gives fashion critiques to audience members, much as Head would have. (In fact, the late designer told this reporter her skirt was too long and she had on too many layers.)

Before a performance in Solana Beach, near San Diego, Claassen learned that an elderly woman who had modeled for the designer at Paramount would be attending. She brought her into the show.

As Edith, she addressed the former model: "We always had an argument about what color you were going to wear. And who won, Gladys?"

The woman replied, "You did, Miss Head. You did."

Said Claassen: "It's such an honor to keep her legacy alive."

Freelance writer Janet Silver Ghent can be emailed at ghentwriter@gmail.com.

What: "A Conversation With Edith Head."

Where: Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View.

When: Dec. 7-16, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., plus Sunday, Dec. 9 at 8 p.m. and preview Thursday, Dec. 6 at 8 p.m.

Cost: $35, with senior and student discounts.

Info: Go to Pear Theatre or phone 650-254-1148.

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