Meeting Jack Edwards


I met Jack Edwards by chance, on a lightsaber walking tour of the Whittier Artists in Storefronts exhibit. This was in July of 2012, during the second run of Whittier Artists in Storefronts, which included a pop up gallery featuring Edwards’ work: costume designs from his days at the Guthrie, costume pieces and sculptural characters from his days working for on the Dayton’s eighth floor holiday display, and original jewelry he had designed.

Visual artist Tim Carroll, who had been overseeing some of Edwards’s affairs including setting up an archive of his work at the University of Minnesota, introduced Edwards and began talking about his work, but it was not long before Edwards began speaking himself. A consummate storyteller, Edwards could have probably gone all night, sharing anecdotes about Lauren Bacall and Katherine Hepburn, and talking about his days at the Guthrie, where he was costume designer from 1971-1989.

He was dressed in a white shirt and pants, covered in a dark robe, and was supported by a cane. With his full white beard and twinkly smile, he looked like a Bohemian Santa Clause. He filled the room with his charisma, and though he spent his career as a designer, clearly had the stage presence of a performer.

Deguishe Cyrano

My friend Barbra Berlovitz was with me, and he made a point to mention how brilliant Theatre de la Jeune Lune had been, and how it was a tragedy that this community had let that theater go. To me, it demonstrated his generosity of spirit- not that he was exaggerating, but that he was attune to her presence (though she was in the back of the room) and was thoughtful enough to mention his admiration for her and her company’s work.

I realized he would be a perfect person to interview for my research project about theater in Minnesota in the 1960s and 70s. (If you are curious about the project, you can find my research here).  I approached him and made my pitch about the project, and asked if he would be willing to speak with me about his Guthrie days. That started a whole other conversation, and he began talking about theaters during that time while I kicked myself for not having my recorder at that moment.

But I arranged with Carroll to set up a time to meet Edwards at his home in Minnetonka, which happened about a month later. Unfortunately I got lost getting there, but when I arrived I was blown away by the idyllic setting where he lived, right on the lake and covered with beautiful trees.

Carroll was there, as was another young beautiful man, whose name I didn’t catch, who wandered into the room in a towel and then proceeded to take a shower during our interview, so that some of the audio has that background noise.

Edwards was dressed in his pajamas, and his voice was hoarse. It appeared perhaps he wasn’t feeling well, but as in my first meeting with him, he seemed happy to share his stories. He smiled that twinkling smile at me and was as gracious as could be, giving me a big hug as if we had known each other forever.

I asked him to repeat the story that he had told at his pop-up gallery about first coming to Minnesota. The audio is posted on the page I’ve set up about research about the Guthrie Theater– but here’s a transcription of that story. 

Jack Edwards:  I had left New York and moved to Hollywood, which I hated. The people were just unbelievable. Everybody was out for anything they could get. If they found out that you couldn’t do them any good, they’d pass you in the street and wouldn’t even say hello, no matter how long you had known each other. That was in 1970.

I came here in 1971. I had been booked to move to Hawaii to the University of Hawaii to design and run the department, and that was the year of the price wage freeze, and the president froze all jobs, so I lost the job, but at that point I hadn’t realized I had lost it, and my mentor Ray Diffen, who ran the best costume house in New York City at the time, called me and said he was coming to the Guthrie to redo the workrooms and he wanted me to come and help him. And I said Oh, Ray, I can’t, because I’m on my way to Hawaii. And he said well if you could come for any time at all, and I said well, I could come for two months, but it seems silly to go to Minnesota on the way to Hawaii from L.A. But he said please and I said okay. So, I came here, just as I say to work with him to redo what was going on. In the meantime, that’s when I found out that the job was frozen and I had lost it. So when Ray went back to New York, they asked me to stay, and I said well, I had no reason to go, but I also have no reason to stay. And that’s when they gave me my first show to design. And I said- that’s a reason.

So after that year, I went back to New York, because I wasn’t pleased with the situation here. At that point, the people in the workroom worked all hours of the day and night. They worked seven days a week. And most days were 12-dollar days for $60 dollars a week. And I said I cannot abide people taking advantage of craftsman and it’s done all over the world. I think that theater is parasitic. It takes advantage of the people that make it possible to exist. And I refused to be part of it. So anyway I was back in New York and I had gone to Joe Allen’s one night and Len Cariou was there and he said, you know it’s a shame you won’t go back to Minnesota. I said I never said I wouldn’t go back. I said I wouldn’t go back under the present circumstances. So Len obviously called the business manager at that time who was Don Schoenbaum, and he called me the next day and I said, well, I won’t go if you treat the people that way. And he said, well, what do you suggest? And I said well, you take the $60, break it down into 40 hours, and that’s what you pay them, and then after the 40 hours they go home. He said, in that case we won’t get the work done. I said in that case, you don’t deserve to have the work done. Anyway, we went back and forth and finally he agreed. And I said okay. So I came back, and that point I was really only coming back for one year and I had kept my apartment in New York. Then they wanted me to continue to stay and I said well, I won’t postpone my life, and they said well, we’ll pay for half of moving your furniture or whatever. So I said Okay. So I moved out here and lived in the Oak Grove Hotel, that’s where everybody from the theater lived at that point. So at that point there was a lot of pressure in the job because I wasn’t used to it. And so at the end of the day I would drive around for about a half an hour just to decompose. So it wasn’t unusual for me to pick up a hitchhiker, so I’d say, where are you going? I’m just driving so you point and I’ll go, and that’s what happened one day with a fellow from the University who was coming out to Lake Minnetonka. I said I haven’t the slightest idea where it is, but I said you point and I’ll drive. Well, when I got out here and saw trees and a lake and I adored New York and I’d still be there today if I could afford it. But after that, the fact of having this, was just such a change and such an unexpected possibility, so I said fine.

artists in storefronts

Here’s a bit more of my interview with him. Here he talks about his philosophy of making costumes. 

J.E.: I wouldn’t say I was a tyrant, but I was taught by the best, and that was the English way of building clothes, and we started from the inside out, and we did the underwear, we did the whatever, and people said that’s silly- and I said- it’s not for the audience it’s for the actor. They don’t feel like they do in a pair of sneakers and a pair of blue jeans. They’ve got on a corset and they know they’re somebody else. And I said that’s my job, to help the actor and propend the idea of the playwright. And I thought that one of the biggest compliments was when I was having a fitting with someone and they were looking in the window, in the mirror, and say, ah! Now I know how to play this part! Thank you, I’ve done my job. It happened a number of times. I can’t tell you specifically who it was. But, I loved my job. It was problem solving. That’s what all design is anyway. And I loved that. And when I design- and I did anywhere from one to five shows a year- I would always build things into my design that we had not done in the work room. I said, I’m not going to spend my life making another pair of pants. So I would do- well, any kind of needlework or whatever that we had to do some research on, and again it wasn’t a museum. But the more authentic it was, I thought the better it was for the actor and the play. So if we were working in a period that the looms were only 18 inches wide, I’d buy the 60 inch fabric and cut it apart and put it together again, because it’s all about movement, and a piece of fabric with a seem in it moves differently than a piece of fabric without one. And I know that that’s being niddly, but nonetheless, if you’re going to do it, you do it right, or what you think is right. And they never understood and I think that most people in the offices and whatever, they don’t know what the business is. Everybody’s mother sews, and I say yes, but not everybody’s mother can do an 18th century corset, but you know it didn’t make any difference. But I maintain the way I was taught. And yes, it was a lot of things that a lot of people thought was unnecessary. I did not. And I must say that I don’t think most of the actors did either because it was a help for them. But they kept telling me they wanted me to do this and they wanted me to do that and all of them were sort of lessening my beliefs. I said well, you’re my boss, and if you tell me I have to, I will. I said if you’re expecting me to do it on my own volition, it ain’t gonna happen, because I don’t believe in it. But they didn’t want to take the responsibility. Well, he made me do it. No, no, no, you have to do it. Well, I ain’t gonna do it. So, I was a thorn in everybody’s side, and I know that. But I had a little kingdom. I went to New York to buy fabric, not just for a trip to New York, but it was the fact that I wasn’t going to buy a piece of fabric that somebody in the third row had made a blouse out of. You know, because they’re sitting thinking, well I like what I did with the fabric better than what he did… Only for the idea that it took away- they weren’t thinking about the play. It was distracting. And I felt I was being detrimental to the piece if I did that. And of course the options were so much bigger. So, for me, and I don’t know if anybody else says this- they may. But generally speaking, I’m the only one at least that I know of that designs this way, is the fact that I do not sit down at the drawing board and make a sketch. I shop for fabrics and I find out what’s available. And I look for mood, and for period, and I find things I had no idea I was looking for. You know, so I would never have an assistant go fabric swatching for me. Never. Because no two eyes see the same thing. And so that was one of the things that I insisted on. At that point, they appreciated it, and they knew what they got. 

One of the things about choosing to do a research project about the 1960s and 70s is that in some ways it is a race to hear the stories of people who were involved with the theater at that time, some of whom are nearing the end of their lives. That was indeed part of the impetus to include interviews as part of the project. There’s no delicate way to put it- to make sure we hear from them before they die. Right as I was starting out on the project last spring, this was illustrated to me when I had made an appointment to interview John Cowles Jr., who had been instrumental in the formation of the Guthrie Theater (and for whom the Cowles Center for Dance and Performing Arts is named). The day I was supposed to meet with him, his assistant emailed me to tell him he had fallen on ill health. I asked her if we could re-schedule, and she said she didn’t think that was going to be possible. Two days later, he had passed away.

Luckily, I was able to meet Edwards and interview him before he passed, but I feel very sad he is gone. He told me that when he met Carroll, new life was breathed into him. He was working on new projects, meeting new people, excited about changes to his house. He was 78 years old, but who knows what he could have created and imagined had he lived for another 10-15 years. 

For those that knew Jack, we will have memories of his wonderful creativity, his sense of humor and wit, and his kindness.