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Chelsea Costume Collection Offers Second Act for Theater Wardrobes

By DNAinfo Staff on March 25, 2011 8:29am  | Updated on March 25, 2011 11:33am

By Tara Kyle

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

CHELSEA — After the lights go down, and the last cast member exits stage right, where do pricey, meticulously crafted theatrical garments go?

For some 75,000 Elizabethan gowns, Viking hats, and World War I era military jackets once worn in hallowed halls including the Metropolitan Opera, the answer to that question is the racks of the Theatre Development Fund's Costume Collection.

The 45-year-old treasure trove located in a warehouse near the Chelsea waterfront at 601 W. 26th St. has been renting out donated costumes to to non-profit theater groups around the city and beyond for as little as $45 a week. The Theater Development Fund is the same not-for-profit organization that offers half-price tickets at TKTS kiosks in Times Square and elsewhere.

The store is a vast expanse of rack upon rack of un-sized, un-catalogued garments, staffed by six workers who lend them out to everyone from off-off Broadway playhouses to high schools in New Jersey to synagogues in Chicago, according to the organization's director, Stephen Cabral.

It's a resource that fits the tight budgets of local community organizations like the Hudson Guild Theater Company, which is currently renting a wardrobe for its production of W. Somerset Maugham's "The Letter."

But part of the reason the shop can keep prices down is that wardrobe designers are responsible for piecing together their desired look by themselves — item by item.

"You have to come in and know what it is you're looking for, and create the costume,"Cabral said. "We do have people who walk in and get very overwhelmed.”

In recent years, the Costume Collection has expanded its clientele to rent wardrobes to some non-theater groups they deem to have "artistic merit."

They lent the dresses used by Betty White and Amy Poehler in their Saturday Night Live sketch in which White repeatedly called Amy Poehler's character a lesbian.

But while almost everything here is available for rent, the exceptions are tucked away in the back of the Costume Collection's special section.

They include a dress worn by late actress Anna Nicole Smith in "The Hudsucker Proxy," several items from "Rent," and Joel Grey's original costume from a 1987 revival of "Cabaret."

"We're not a museum," Cabral said. "But there are some things that I just can't let get out."

Cabral's own connection to the Costume Collection stems from his first week in New York, 18 years ago. On a visit from Rhode Island with his costume designer brother, he picked up part-time work at the facility, and stuck around through years when the space was dimly lit and lacked air conditioning.

"It's not glamorous," Cabral said, but he did call it "endlessly fascinating."