I’ve worked with many directors, but there is one I have worked with on seventeen productions (and counting), and every collaboration has been a pleasure. He gives me a great deal of artistic freedom, and I’ve had some of my biggest design challenges and created some of my favorite looks while working with him. Because of these great experiences, I always love hearing about other great collaborations between designers and actors, writers, or directors. One of my favorites is the relationship between Carol Burnett and legendary designer Bob Mackie on her classic variety show. They both tell some great stories about the work they did together. As a designer, it’s inspiring to hear how much a part of the creation of comedy Mackie was. He and Burnett fed off each other – she asked him to create some iconic and fun costumes, and he helped create some of her most beloved characters and hilarious moments.
Probably the most iconic example of this came from the classic Gone with the Wind spoof. In the movie, Scarlett O’Hara, in a cash-strapped moment, memorably wears a dress and hat made from old draperies and mostly passes the ensemble off as the height of new fashion. On The Carol Burnett Show, Burnett’s version of Scarlett has a similar moment where she decides to use the curtains, but Burnett wanted to make it look ridiculous. It was Mackie’s idea to leave the curtain rod in the curtains, cementing Burnett’s entrance and descent down the stairs in comedy history. I’ve seen it many times now, and it never fails to make me laugh.
Mackie also helped create a unique character trait for Burnett’s dizzy secretary, Mrs. Wiggins. One of the many comical things about her was her walk. The skirt Mackie made for her was a little too tight, but by hiking it up in just the right places, it fit. And because of the way it fit, Burnett ended up walking with her behind sticking out a bit. One of the things people remember most about those sketches was the hysterical way Burnett would walk from her desk to her boss’ office, all the result of the costume’s fit.
There were so many more memorable looks. Burnett’s imitation of Norma Desmond was sequined, feathered, and over-the-top. And who can forget Charo’s mother, with her spangled bell-bottom pants and low, swinging tennis ball “bosoms”? The list goes on and on. And they’re all priceless.
On The Carol Burnett Show, the costumes were always important, which is part of the reason I love watching it. You can really see how the costumes play a part in the humor, and the stories of Burnett’s and Mackie’s wonderful collaboration back that up, in addition to demonstrating how a strong relationship between actor and designer can create magic.