When she died — in 1981, at the age of 83 — costume designer Edith Head was, in show-biz parlance, a tough act to follow.
In her decades-long Hollywood career, Head won a whopping eight Oscars and dressed everyone from Ginger Rogers and Bette Davis to Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and Steve Martin. She worked on more than a thousand films for the industry’s most demanding directors — Joseph Mankiewicz, Billy Wilder, Sydney Pollack. Legend has it she was Alfred Hitchcock’s go-to frock star when he needed just the right garb to define his characters in “The Birds,” “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief.”
“What she did was unheard of,” says University of Denver alumna Susan Claassen (BA ’69), citing Head’s accomplishments in what was then male-dominated and studio-controlled Hollywood. “She was an executive woman before there was such a thing.”
An award-winning actress and the managing artistic director of Tucson’s Invisible Theatre, the Arizona-based Claassen also is the turbo force behind “A Conversation With Edith Head,” a one-woman show she has staged all over the world to glowing reviews. The pun-prone Chicago Sun Times dubbed it “‘Head’ and shoulders above the rest,” while the Scotsman in Edinburgh called it “a show to savor.”
Claassen, who studied theater at DU, had long known of Head’s work and reputation when she stumbled upon a television biography of the design diva. It struck her then that she could easily serve as Head’s double — and not just because they both framed their faces with blunt bangs. They also shared an appreciation for striking, but not exhibitionist, style — Head with her crisp suits and round spectacles, Claassen with her trademark colors. “I wear black, white and red a lot. It’s become a signature,” she says.
It also struck her that Head would make a great character for an actress to develop, that her inside stories — “She knew everyone’s secrets” — would provide unlimited material for a theatrical romp heavy on wit, wisdom and gossip.
She was right on all counts. What she didn’t know was just how much work it would take to put a script together. She began by reading Head’s two books and her posthumously published autobiography, “Edith Head’s Hollywood,” co-authored with Paddy Calistro. Upon finishing the latter, it occurred to her that the California-based Calistro, a prolific writer, editor and publisher, might have plenty of great material that never saw print.
Claassen tracked down Calistro, who had more than 13 hours of taped material to share. That was combined with archival material from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to provide the backbone of the final script. “Eighty percent of the show is things Edith Head actually said,” Claassen explains.
The Claassen-Calistro collaboration debuted in 2002 in Tucson as “Sketches: Edith Head’s Hollywood.” The initial staging was covered by The New York Times in an article read far and wide. In no time, Claassen was entertaining phone calls from venues across the country, inquiring about the show’s portability. Since then, she has taken Edith Head on the road for more than 200 productions — in Hollywood, Chicago and London, of course, but also in Tbilisi, Georgia; Key West, Fla., and Bartlesville, Okla. In March 2013, she donned her Edith Head persona in Denver as part of the Women+Film Voices Film Festival and in June performed at New York City’s National Arts Club.
In many ways, Claassen’s time at DU and in Denver provided the perfect preparation for the stamina associated with a one-woman show. Coming to the West from New Jersey, Claassen (then Susan Klein) took to the stage at every opportunity, both on and off campus. Her freshman year, she landed a coveted role in DU’s production of “West Side Story” and went on to reprise the role when the musical was staged at the Bonfils Theater. By the time she graduated, she had performed all over the city and was a member of the Actors Equity Association, the union for professional actors.
After moving to Tucson in 1972, Claassen found a home at the Invisible Theatre, known for its staging of classics and its support of new playwrights. Over the years, Claassen has played any number of fascinating women, including Alice B. Toklas in “Gertrude Stein and a Companion” and the title role in another one-woman play, “Shirley Valentine.”
“I have had incredible roles,” she says, “but I don’t necessarily feel like I want to do them again. But I can’t wait to do Edith again.”