Tony Award-winning costume designer Patricia Zipprodt died July 17 at her home in Greenwich Village. She was 74. The cause of death was cancer.
Zipprodt was known for her technique of painting fabrics, a technique she employed on 1993's revival of My Fair Lady. In a March 1994 profile in TCI magazine, Zipprodt described how she painted the costumes for the Ascot scene in "vibrant colors that would sparkle against the blue cyc of the set." The silk and chiffon costumes were painted in shades of green, rose, lavender, and vermilion.
She was also known for her thorough research. She spent six months researching the costumes for the 1990 production of Shogun, the Musical, even traveling to Japan to study the weaving industry.
Born in Chicago, Zipprodt was trained at the children's annex of the Art Institute of Chicago. She then went on to study psychology and sociology at Wellesley before heading to New York to pursue a career.
Zipprodt describes that time in her life: "I was doing the 50s bit. I wore all black and my hair in a bun. I was thinking I would be a painter, and I had a little scholarship at the New School. I was doing things like waiting tables and ushering at Carnegie Hall. I really think I had a vision. That's what got me to New York, floundering around wondering what I was supposed to do with myself, and knowing that it was not the suburban route."
It was at that point that Zipprodt attended a New York City Ballet production of The Waltz, with costumes by Barbara Karinska. In the TCI interview, Zipprodt described Karinska's creations: "It was layer upon layer of tulle, with colors. From about the fifth or sixth row, I saw these extraordinary colors. And Karinska was such a colorist. It wasn't like I was seeing yellow and green and red. It was very layered, color upon color, air and light filtering through it." Inspired, Zipprodt spent three terms at the Fashion Institute of Technology. At FIT, Zipprodt learned, as she said, "the craft of making a garment."
Zipprodt assisted on Broadway and worked with the legendary Irene Sharaff. As a novice working with an experienced designer, Zipprodt learned "how the system worked. You could really see how people operated and how you had to organize yourself. Because it's a huge, huge job. It's not just doing these sketches. It's bringing them all the way through. From the relatively safe position of assistant, you get to watch the whole thing." After working for Sharaff, Zipprodt said, she felt "able to go out on my own."
Zipprodt did eventually design for ballet companies like American Ballet Theatre, the New York City Ballet, the Houston Ballet and Ballet Hispanico, as well as for theatre. She won Tony Awards for Fiddler on the Roof (1964), Cabaret (1966), and Sweet Charity (1985), all examples of her skill at designing dance-oriented musicals. She also designed for musicals like Pippin (1972), Chicago (1975), Sunday in the Park With George (1984; codesigned with Ann Hould-Ward), and My Fair Lady (1993).
Among the Broadway plays she worked on are Plaza Suite (1968), Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983), and The Glass Menagerie (1983).
Zipprodt also worked in opera, designing wardrobes for the Boston Opera, the New York City Opera, and the Metropolitan Opera.
Zipprodt's best-known film credit is 1967's The Graduate; she also did the costumes for the 1972 film version of 1776 (having designed the stage version's costumes in 1969). Her television work included The Glass Menagerie (1973) on ABC and Alice in Wonderland (1983) on WNET.
At least one event in her personal life matched, if not surpassed, the theatricality of her designs. After graduating from Wellesley, Zipprodt briefly returned to Chicago, where she fell in love with Lieut. Col. Robert O'Brien Jr., who wanted to marry her. But Zipprodt declined, saying she had to move to New York to "find out where to put my talent." In the early 90s, O'Brien, who had since married, retired, and been widowed, came across Zipprodt's name in a Playbill and learned she was an artist in residence at Brandeis University. According to The New York Times, O'Brien called the university, but Brandeis would not give out her number. The retired colonel told the university to call her and deliver the following message, "Bob O'Brien called, and I want to marry her." The Times reports that the university honored his request.
Zipprodt and O'Brien were married in 1993. Zipprodt then divided her time between homes in Upperville, VA, and New York. O'Brien died in 1998.
Zipprodt was inducted into the Theatrical Hall of Fame in 1992.
Entertainment Design asked some of Zipprodt's friends and associates to contribute their reminiscences:
John Lee Beatty: Patricia was a stimulating, fun, and challenging collaborator. What she knew! A true artist, she experienced the pain of being an artist and the crazy frustrations that go with it. She had the ability to see things with new eyes. She worked with the greatest and was one of the greatest.
Those color files she had! We spent long afternoons picking out colors together: What white would be "my" white, which would be "hers" and on through our palettes for the show. The stories she had! The warnings she gave! How crazy/smart she was.
A favorite story: By total coincidence, my assistant and I were seated next to Patricia having a pleasant solitary luncheon at a midtown restaurant. Beautifully dressed, she was enjoying her meal and smiling at the world. She radiated charm and offered a few dizzily shared opinions with us. I had heard the costumes for a huge musical were easily a week late, and I'm sure someone thought she was going to be somewhere at least in the state where that night's dress rehearsal was going to be held. Our lovely luncheon nearing its end, she calmly mentioned she had neither money nor a purse. I gladly treated her, delighted by her presence. Only outside as we walked away did my assistant ask me what would have happened had we not coincidentally been seated next to her if she knew she had no money when she went into the restaurant. Patricia didn't seem at all worried.
A guilty memory: A show in trouble in Boston, I hastily had to add colorful peasant wedding decorations. Patricia nailed me. I had promised "my" red was going to be "Russian" red--not "Chinese restaurant" red. I had promised "Russian" red when we had gone through the files. She had informed me there was one Russian word that meant both "red" and "beautiful" at the same time. Patricia was not amused, either artistically or professionally. That was at the heart of it all for Patricia Zipprodt--it all mattered. Design was not to be taken lightly.
Jules Fisher: She had the qualities of both home-grown American and European aristocracy. She was so proud when she talked of her horse always winning late in the race. Her knowing laugh and a touch of the exotic was so compelling. Her eyes were so expressive, with a slight flutter of lashes that communicated that she knew more than she was saying. Dining at "her" club, you were the guest of a tall, elegant, stately, slightly proper, beautiful artisan, until she made you laugh at the foibles of "producers." We commiserated over the struggle to fathom what Bob Fosse really wanted on Pippin, Chicago, and Big Deal. We have all lost a great lady of the theatre. We have all lost a great lady.
Ann Hould-Ward: Patricia Zipprodt brought such a dynamic vision into the lives of all of us who surrounded her. Just today I was speaking with someone who had served as a first hand in the costume shop that built King of Hearts in 1978. The quote was, "It was so exciting to work with her on it." It was always exciting! Patricia found a new way of looking at each project--there was always something to investigate--always something to learn.
In the very first letter I received from her saying I could come intern with her, she wrote, "I very carefully choose the projects I am to do." Indeed she did, always making sure she could give of herself artistically and intellectually to the fullest. This led to some of the finest collaborative work that has graced the stage. This is the way Patricia viewed everything--whether it was choosing a trim, a color, a fabric, analyzing a script--it always got infinite care and consideration.
To follow her from her draper's table to fitting room to darkened theatre to late dinners during previews was a graduate class in not only theatre but also in life. She spiritedly, elegantly, and graciously applied her talents of both looking and listening for the good of the theatre and also the world at large.
David Jenkins: I had heard all the stories. By then she was a legend. So, standing in front of her King Street building, I wasn't sure what to expect.
What I found was a generous host and enthusiastic homeowner, anxious to make one feel at ease--and one hell of a designer. Patricia Zipprodt was the consummate professional. Beneath that tough, quirky, off-center persona flourished a wonderful collaborator who strove for nothing less than excellence. Her passion was infectious and helped push and pull our designs to new creative heights.
Exhausted by her boundless energy, this designer retreated to reality--looking back--struggling to understand this woman so full of life.
Willa Kim: I met Patricia many years ago when we were both assisting--she, Irene Sharaff and I, Raoul Pene du Bois. I was struck by her sense of purpose. I thought--and said that I had no interest in being a designer, but she did and clearly understood and explained what the path had to be to achieve this--and she certainly did.
I have admired and envied Pat her intelligence, her articulation of what it meant to be a designer (what a wonderful spokesperson she was for the costume designer), her talent, her storybook marriage. The course she had set for herself many years ago, she accomplished. I am sad it is over.
Tharon Musser: Well, I'm going to miss Patty terribly.
She certainly believed in collaborative design. Every time we did a show together we would have long conversations about what color she was going to use and so forth.
The main thing is she was a collaborative designer.
She was just a joy to work with
Tony Walton: Beloved P.Z., in addition to being a buoyant life force, alarmingly talented, and a wonderfully goofy chum, was a design collaborator to cherish mightily. She brought such zest and humor to every day of every production on which we shared design challenges. Whether working with our much-missed Bob Fosse or on a Balanchine masterpiece or even on the rigors of the dreaded "Scottish play," Patricia was a constant fount of vitality, style, strength, affection, and fun. My wife Gen and I will miss her terribly, but are grateful to somehow sense her remarkable spirit darting all around us like some stunning dragonfly. Long may she--and her works--shimmer.