‘Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.’
So instructs the sign tacked to a strip of canvas hanging from the basement ceiling. Too late: a gap in the fabric offers a generous view of concrete floor, storage boxes, someone’s old bike. The wizard, it seems, has left the building.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”258″ ]
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”257″ ]
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”259″ ]
Shoppers quietly leaf through racks of vintage clothing and period costumes. Ambiguous organization places Native American garb next to imitation Chinese silks and cheap blue jeans. An overflow of XL T-shirts declaring “I’m a mean son of a witch!” have somehow landed amid a series of sequined capes. Save for the rustle of shifting skirts, the only sound is the occasional screech of deformed wire hangers. Under the basement’s fluorescent lighting, a kid who looks like Seth Green examines a tree costume. I’m a little miffed he found it before I did.
Upstairs, Jeff Russell sits at the computer in his dimly lit office. Covered in old photographs, news clippings, and stacks of files, the cluttered room is not unlike the rest of the Costume Bazaar, the costume shop started by Russell’s mother in 1964. After 47 years of business, the Russell family will vacate the premises on January 1. While the new owners will continue to rent out costumes for theater, film, and television, the retail section and the Russells will be gone.
“End of an era,” Russell declares straight off the bat, as one who has given more than a couple of interviews on the subject. The phone rings. He apologizes as he picks up the receiver.
“Costume Bazaar, hello!” He draws out the final vowel. After listening for a few seconds, he gives a toothy smile of recognition, and the soft skin around his eyes folds merrily.
Russell takes care of the call quickly; he’s been doing business here since he was seven. He re-centers with a stroke of his salt and pepper goatee before giving me a brisk history lesson. Dad was the original Happy the Clown on television. Twenty-two years in that role, plus side gigs as Santa and the Easter Bunny, generated a lot of costumes. Russell’s mother, who still works in the store, struggled to keep up with the constant additions: a closet of outfits turned into a garage and then a small place on the second floor of a building in West Haven. The collection also turned rental. Poke your head through a staff-only door on the first floor of the store, and there it is: a high-ceilinged, 5,000 square foot storage space where 40, 000 costumes hang on double-decker rows of hangers. Today, the Costume Bazaar rents its wares out to every high school and college theater from Springfield to Westchester, including Yale.
Removed as it is from campus — a ten-minute drive down State Street by bus — the Costume Bazaar has had a long-standing relationship with the university. On any given day, at least 20 percent of customers rooting through the racks are Yale students, Russell estimates. Yalies have worked here, too: Timothy Shriver ’81, now president and CEO of the Special Olympics, once clocked hours at the Costume Bazaar.
Right now, students are after Halloween costumes, myself included. As Russell helps his mother with a costume consultation, I wend my way around the racks of bagged costumes in search of something not called “Pilgrim’s Pleasure” or “Sexy Nun.” There’s a fantastic mermaid getup and a pleathery nightmare stretched taut over the plus-size model’s curves — sadism reigns supreme on All Hallow’s Eve. I check out the cheerleader section, hoping I can find something to approximate the Cheerio uniform from Glee. Unfortunately, gothic-zombie-cheerleader isn’t what I’m going for.
Overwhelmed by the costumes’ intensity and the Metallica playing overhead, I find myself listing toward the door. Across the store, Russell waxes enthusiastic about the tree costume, full of suggestions for jokes to crack when people ask about it. After all, costumes are his job, for now.