Get more Winged Monkeys! Costumes: Since 1868, lovers, singers and actors have come to A. T. Jones to become what they wanted to be.

March 14, 1997|By Debbie M. Price | Debbie M. Price,SUN STAFF

The sewing machine is whirring, the shop is stacked to the ceiling with crates -- incoming "La Traviata" gowns over here, outgoing Winkies and Winged Monkeys from "The Wizard of Oz" over there -- and is there enough spangled silver material to make a kerchief for the Rhinestone Cowboy? All 45 Roman centurion breastplates and plumed helmets have been rented for Easter pageants -- they could rent a dozen more if they had them. And has anybody seen Puff the Magic Dragon's head?

Oh, the demands, the demands. They are enormous when all the world's a stage and everyone on it wants to be a knight in shining armor or a glowworm or Captain Hook, and A. T. Jones & Sons Costumers is the place they all turn to because, well, because the Baltimore costume shop has been turning out operatic outfits and authentic armor since 1868.

"We're going crazy, absolutely crazy," says George Goebel, master of the make-believe, as he edges sideways between aisles of velvet jackets and ruffled blouses (from the musical "1776"), past fleecy lamb suits and bejeweled gold brocade fit for a king (Henry VIII).

On top of everything -- literally on top of everything -- Goebel has prepared 160 costumes for the annual Gridiron Club show in Washington this weekend. Gridiron Club members have been lampooning politicians, presidents and public policy for 112 years; A. T. Jones & Sons has been decking them out for at least 109 of those years.

Who's spoofing whom and what they're wearing to do it is strictly off the record. (Let's just say animals are big -- really big -- this year.) Goebel -- who has personally outfitted the singing scribes for 47 years -- wouldn't dare give away a punch line or a sight gag, even as proud as he is of that one costume, that winged creation with a devilishly funny backside that is bound to bring down the house, no disrespect intended to the dearly departed, well, maybe just a little disrespect. But then, that's the Gridiron.

For past Gridiron shows, in which members of the Washington press corps sing, dance and generally act silly before an invitation-only audience of the capital's elite, Goebel has created a giant rubber broccoli suit to gig one president (guess who?) and decked another chief executive in black sequins for his saxophone solo.

A pretend Gen. Colin L. Powell gyrated to the theme from "The Stripper" in a regulation uniform that Goebel rigged to be ripped open to reveal boxer shorts emblazoned with the year 2000. And when Congress threatened to cut funding for public television, Big Bird, a maid from "Upstairs, Downstairs" and others were sent off to the guillotine. (Big Bird's head came back on a platter.)

"He turns us from a group of reporters trying to sing into the characters we're trying to portray," says Carl Leubsdorf, Washington bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, this year's music chairman and the one-time front end of a camel.

One year, as Alan Emory, Washington correspondent for the Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times and veteran of 20 Gridirons, recalls, Goebel came up with such elaborate bird costumes that the actors had to remove their beaks to sing. On another occasion, a pseudo Barbara Bush was dolled up in a short dress and club members worried that the then-first lady might be offended. "Barbara Bush just laughed and said later she'd never looked better," says Emory.

The Gridiron -- while the show of the moment -- is just one of hundreds of productions that Goebel costumes. Operas make up "99 percent" of his business and he ships costumes for musicals all over the country. This week's crisis: three companies begging for Wizard of Oz costumes with only enough Winkie suits and Winged Monkeys for one play. (Winkies were the Wicked Witch's guards, a fact that Goebel knows by heart.)

The original A. T. Jones, a painter, came from North Carolina to Baltimore to collect a $500 prize from the Maryland Institute in 1861 and got caught up North by the outbreak of the Civil War. A loyal Southerner, Jones made flags for the Virginia army and had them smuggled out under ladies' hoop skirts.

The federal agents, who knew what was happening, were too gentlemanly to look under the skirts, so the story goes, and somehow from this start, Jones went from flags to costumes, dressing the legendary actor Edwin Booth among many others.

The original shop was on Baltimore Street. When it burned in 1904, along with the rest of downtown, The Sun reported that the costumer had lost 25,000 outfits, valued at a then-princely $200,000. (A coat worn by Benjamin Franklin during the Revolutionary War also burned in the fire.)

By 1939, it was estimated that shop had more than 100,000 costumes. Today the top hats and tiaras, ball gowns and battle jackets, sombreros (including one worn by President Ronald Reagan in a 1983 Gridiron) and Siamese headpieces, dragons and crocodiles fill two three-story buildings in Antique Row on Howard Street.

"I have no idea how many costumes we have," says Goebel. "There is just no way to say."

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