Palm Beach Arts Paper

Marilynn Wick: South Florida’s costume mogul revives a theater

Marilynn Wick, president and chief executive officer of Costume World, the major national retailer and renter of theatrical costumes, has given herself a new challenge.

Having bought the dormant Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton to house her 1.2 million costumes — many of them Broadway originals — and to place her Broadway Collection Museum in larger quarters, she also gained a 333-seat auditorium.

So she is fulfilling a long-held dream by founding her own resident theater company and producing mainstream shows, mainly musicals, beginning this September. But first she sat down to discuss her plans for the theater — renamed The Wick — and how she got to this point.

Erstein: People who tour your costume museum love hearing how you built this theatrical empire from scratch. Tell me a little of that story.
Wick: I started this company as a home project to teach my daughters how to sew. On a hot summer day in 1976, it all started on my dining room table with five Santa suits. I had never been a seamstress, but in 4-H as a child I learned how to make an apron and a skirt. So I put a little ad in our local paper and, lo and behold, people came to our house and we rented the suits to them.

I was in the industrial high-rig window cleaning business here in South Florida for 20 years. And for 15 of those years, I started this costume company. I went to New York with the kids and we bought $10,000 worth of products — novelty things. We set up a little store and at Halloween we made $25,000. But Halloween was the only thing.

In 1976, there wasn’t a costume shop from Miami all the way to West Palm Beach. And I said, “Wow, there’s a real market for this.” From a little one-line ad, the phone was ringing off the wall. I became more and more obsessed with the costumes as time went on.

I would hear about costume shops for sale around the country, I’d fly out there and buy them. In 1977, I purchased Stage Right Costumes, an 18-wheeler load, probably 5,000 costumes. I bought the costumes for $35,000, $5,000 down and my home in Boca Raton for collateral. I could have been homeless. So now we’re in the costume rental business. High schools came to rent stuff. Just the local area.

In the early ’80s, I bought all the costume shops in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. With that came a store in Buffalo, NY. That one didn’t do well, so I closed it and moved it to Houston, Texas. Two years later a lady in Dallas wanted out of the business, so we took over her store. So I felt like I was really going to change the face of the costume rental business.

This was going to be my livelihood. I’d call a theater, introduce myself. They’d say, “We want to do ‘Dreamgirls,’” and I’d say, “I’ll build it.”

Erstein: You have such a profitable costume business now. Why would you want to open a theater, one of the riskiest businesses there is?
Wick: First of all, we do not intend to screw things up with a theater. Don’t you be thinking that for one minute.

Erstein: But running a theater is not a business you know.
Wick: First of all, it is the business I know. I know this business like the back of my hand. I’ve been servicing it, I’ve been backstage for years and years. I know how a theater works, I know every good producer out there.

And the idea that every theater is constantly broke is a myth. Lots of them are making money and they’re making it correctly. You have to know your market and you have to know what people want. It’s just like being in the costume business. You’d better know what’s hot this year, and that’s what you put in the stores to sell. The same goes for theater. What’s hot and current will move and sell.

The museum is its own draw. It’s its own profit center. Half the (theater) seats will be filled with the people who are interested in the museum. They’re already booking.

This museum will be a historical site for Boca Raton. The oldest shows on Broadway — they’ll be able to see the original clothes from the best costume designers who won all the Tony Awards since the beginning.

Erstein: The Caldwell was a Boca institution, yet it did not get enough local support or donations and had to close. Why will it be different for the Wick?
Wick: The Caldwell Theatre went out of business, I think, because of their fare, their programming was wrong. Don’t you? People have actually said that to us. The Caldwell’s old subscribers are very, very happy to come (to The Wick) and they’re happy that there’s going to be musicals, because that’s what they want.
Erstein: Had you been thinking on going into the theater business previously?
Wick: Yes, a year ago I tried to buy the Broward Stage Door (Theatre). That deal did not work out. I did a lot of due diligence, believe me, on all of this. I never believed that this museum would be in such jeopardy a year ago. It’s in jeopardy now in this space (in Pompano Beach). This city has made it pretty clear they want me out of here. It’s a zoning issue and an assembly issue. So I have been looking for a space for seven to eight months to get out of here.
Erstein: So now you’ll have a building large enough for a museum and a theater.
Wick: It was kind of a perfect little dream for me. The theater and the museum will go hand in hand.

And this (the existing space in Pompano Beach) is going to be the rehearsal hall. It’s going to be the production studio. The auditions will be here as well as costume warehousing.

Erstein: Didn’t the idea of buying the Caldwell come about as you would pass the empty building?
Wick: Oh, yes. I would drive by there and when I realized, “My gosh, the place is actually empty,” I thought, “Well, somebody will open it.” It’s such a beautiful building and I wondered, “Why is this not working for them?” I just couldn’t figure it out, and then when I would go online and see the shows, I said, “This is why it’s not working.”

The facility is breathtakingly wonderful. And we are totally renovating it. You will not believe it when you see it. The entire lobby of that facility is being beautifully renovated. Crown molding has been put in. The whole place has been painted, wallpapered. Given a hot kitchen, cold kitchen. The chandelier I got from Tavern on the Green is going to be installed there. We’re knocking the entire back of the facility down, the museum will be back there. It will have a private entrance. You’re be able to see a big, functioning costume shop, you’ll see the whole experience of backstage.

The stage itself is very good. The rigging is not. The lights and sound are passable, but I’m going to invest the money to make them the way I want them. The place has been closed for a year, so cleaning it up, getting rid of the mold, making it presentable s a big job. We’re re-carpeting, painting everything. Erstein: Tell me about the people you are hiring to run the theater.

Wick: I am putting together a fabulous team. I have an artistic director, Jonathan Van Dyke. I have a director who’s going to be full-time on staff from Boston, Stacy Stevens. And we have a full-time musical director on staff. There’s going to be a really great team of people. They’ll be paid reasonably well, but these huge salaries you hear about for non-profit theaters are frightening. That’s not happening here. That’s how the theater will survive.

The other thing I want to put emphasis on is that we have a talented community here. They don’t get much chance to perform. Let’s hope they’re going to get a chance now. The focus is on local talent. And if they’re not great in the beginning, there will be more chances that they’ll be great in the end.

Erstein: Will your casts be Actors Equity performers?
Wick: We will have some Actors Equity performers in every production. But the ensemble is going to be our local people.
Erstein: I’ve also heard that you intend to bring in some nationally known talent to star in your productions.
Wick: Once in a while. We were trying to get Debbie Reynolds to come to open the museum, because she’s a collector like myself. And I went to her auction and we have many of her pieces here. We’re trying to get some of these celebrity performers. Lots of these people I’ve dressed and they know me personally. So once in a while, I think we should have a celebrity.
Erstein: Like who? Drop a few names of possible headliners.
Wick: Donna McKechnie, we’ve talked to her. I dressed Shirley Jones many times. (Costumer) William Ivey Long and I are good friends. We’d like to get him here for a speakers’ series. I’ve had Joan Collins at my home in Pittsburgh for dinner. Loretta Swit, I’ve been on tour with her and I’ve dressed her many times.

I’m trying to figure the right fit, who would be good. Remember all of this has only been going on for a couple of months or so. A lot of them are already committed for this season. A lot of these ladies do one-woman shows. But I’m working on it. It’s a possibility, yes.

Erstein: You plan to organize your theater operation as a not-for-profit. Do you think it can or should break even financially?
Wick: Yes, we’d better. I’ve crunched the numbers, it should be fine. And of course Costume World will be there to support it when needed. So it will have a back-up. That will be me. I’ll be the angel.
Erstein: Your first season opens in mid-September with The Sound of Music. Then you have four other mainstream musicals and one dramatic comedy. How did you select the season?
Wick: Well, it was very difficult. First of all, we didn’t know until April 1 if we were even getting the theater. So the rest of the theater community had already picked their seasons. That ruled a lot of things out.
So by the talent and the directors that we know and the artistic directors, we got together and decided we wanted to start with a very family musical, which is The Sound of Music. That would give the children a chance to audition and be onstage. We have a lot of interest from Dreyfoos (School of the Arts) for those students to be onstage.

Then the next show was a Christmas show, so White Christmas was a natural. I love the show and it hasn’t been here a lot. I love the music and I think it makes you feel good when you leave.

Then, of course, 42nd Street, we’re doing at the height of the season, in January. We wanted to pull people in so they get to see this beautiful theater. We felt if we were real strong with these musicals in the beginning, the community will know how serious we are. Then we’re going to do The Full Monty. A great show, a comedy for the ladies. They’re all booking that right off. And then Steel Magnolias, a more serious piece in some respects, but still a wonderful show.

Then at the end it’s Ain’t Misbehavin’, happy, great music. I think it’s a great season.

Erstein: What will tickets cost at The Wick?
Wick: $50. A season is $300. Free valet parking. Every car will be parked. We have 149 spots and they all will be valeted. And for the museum there will be valet, too. The museum will open every day at 11. You will come and have your tour and then at 2 o’clock you’ll have your matinee or you can leave. On Sunday, we’re going to have the tour, the museum event, a beautiful brunch and a show. Or you can just come and see the show.
Erstein: These are not inexpensive shows to produce, even with a break on the costumes. Are you sure you can do them for $1 million, the operating budget you mentioned elsewhere?
Wick: No, that’s totally wrong. It is easily that.
Erstein: So if it costs more, you are ready to spend more?
Wick: Yes. To do it right, and it will be done right.
Erstein: How large a staff will you have to run this complex?
Wick: This will have at least 20 on staff. The executive staff will probably be about 10 people. The other service people will be ushers, food service, cabaret people, it’s got to be 100 people. This facility will have five revenue streams — the gift shop, the cabaret, the museum, the theater and the special events. And that should sustain us, with no problem.

I’m getting ready to write a letter to all of the Caldwell subscribers, introducing myself. I know the first year is going to be a little hard. Or maybe we’ll have a little holiday in the first year and it’s the second year that’s hard. But I think there’s enough people to support it.

This community has been wonderful to me for 37 years. I started my business career here and it has meant a lot to me. I’ve had fabulous support from Fort Lauderdale all the way to West Palm Beach in my costume business. Without them, we couldn’t have gotten to this point.

Erstein: So some of the motive is to give back to the community in appreciation for your success?
Wick: Of course, it is. It has to be. If you have a passion and love for what you do, like I do, that’s a natural.