Bye, Bye Birdie

It was summer stock. Big musicals. Big theater.

A big actress.

I started that summer with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma. It was my second Oklahoma and it wouldn’t be my last. A very talented three hundred pound actress was cast as Aunt Eller. The dialogue in reference to the character being “scrawny and old” had to be changed.

The director wanted the actor playing Curly to the start the show singing Oh What A Beautiful Morning riding in from stage right to greet Aunt Eller on a real, live horse. The problem was there was a smallish scale house and smallish scale barn on stage. From some angles, it looked like the horse could look into Aunt Eller’s second floor window. And it appeared Aunt Eller wouldn’t fit in her own house.

The horse was cut.

The obese actress who played Aunt Eller was also in Bye Bye Birdie as the overbearing Jewish mother Mae Peterson. The director had the actress climbing a three fool tall pile of luggage in one scene. She had to wear discreet, black tennis shoes so she wouldn’t slip during her climb and the suitcases had to be seriously reinforced. All one could think about during that scene was, “That’s some amazing luggage!”

We may have had tiny scale buildings for Oklahoma, but that wasn’t the case for Bye Bye Birdie. The teenage ingénue, Kim MacAfee, lived in a two-story house plunked down in the center of the stage. This behemoth set piece moved into place with a super-duper-motorized wench. When not in use, the full-scale house lived upstage hidden behind a series of drops and curtains.

Kim and her mother (merely named Mrs. MacAfee) had a very fast costume change after a big chorus number that lead into a scene in their house. There was no time to get the actresses off stage to change clothes, then into place in the living room of the house. I was told by stage management that the women would have to change their costumes in the living room while it wenched into place.


The first problem was that there was no way to get me and the other dresser, Margo, on the house when it was resting upstage –there was a drop in front of it and the only exterior door on the set was flush against the back wall of the theater. A stage carpenter had to cut a hole in the kitchen wall under the Mrs. MacAfee’s sink on the stage left side of the set. Margo and I would crawl through a kitchen counter to get into place to complete her quick costume change. There we were –on our hands and knees with giant 1950’s dresses and crinolines –squeezing through a doggie door and popping into the dark kitchen upstage while the actors were singing and dancing their heart out on the other side of the drop curtain downstage.

Margo and I would take our place in the MacAfee house at the very edge of the living room and wait for the number to end.

Applause, applause, applause.

The lights would go out.

The drop curtain would rise, and right in front of us would be the two actresses. I dressed Kim. Margo would dress Mrs. MacAfee. The two would hop on to the darkened house with us as it lumbered downstage towards the orchestra pit. We needed to get the women’s costumed changed, then exit the house through the upstage living room door immediately. Another drop curtain would be coming down behind the set once the house was in place. If Margo and I didn’t get off stage in time, we would be trapped behind the house or be seen by the audience.

We did this change successfully many times. However, one evening there was a glitch.

Applause, applause, applause.


The drop curtain went up and somehow Kim had already gotten her dress completely off. She dropped it on the stage before hopping up on the lip of the moving house. I started dressing her and saw out of the corner of my eye her white dress and crinoline slowly disappearing under the moving house.


My arms were full of her blue dress and crinoline. I popped the costume over her head and bent over and frantically tried to rescue the white one.

The situation was quicksand, only vertical.

I was trying to get Kim’s dress zipped up as the set almost ran over my hand and the other dress. Margo stepped in to help. She got the women settled and ran for the living room door while I struggled to bail the dress out from underneath the set.

Everything was in slow motion.

I was flop sweating.

I have to get off the set NOW.

I don’t want to be stuck behind the MacAfee house.

I need to save this dress!

By this time, there was enough light onstage for me to be seen. I could hear the audience and the crew laughing at me. We were mere seconds away from having to stop the performance. The house finally spit the white dress out, and I leapt toward the door. The drop curtain lowered and lowered and lowered as I inched my way off.

Applause, applause, applause.

Only it wasn’t for the cast this time; it was for me. I saved the white dress and got offstage without being seen by the audience. After the show, I told Kim MacAfee to keep her dress until she was told to remove it.

Always listen to your dresser.



Dennis Milam Bensie is a writer and, for thirty years, has made his living as a dresser in professional theatre all over the United States. Short stories and poetry by Dennis have been featured in numerous publications and his essays have been seen in The Huffington Post, Boys on the Brink, and The Good Men Project. He has three books published by Coffeetown Press. This essay in the third in a series of columns for Queen Mob's Teahouse on his experience as a professional theatre dresser.






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