Marilyn Sotto, senior costume designer at Walt Disney World, has had a fascinatingly checkered career. Beginning in the early 1950s, she worked as an assistant to many of Hollywood's top costume designers, drawing sketches for Herschel, Edith Head, Jean Louis, and Norma Koch, on films as varied as White Christmas Rear Window, A Place in the Sun, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? She has been a costume designer for films as well. Later, after many changes of career, she ended up at the Walt Disney Organization, working on Disneyland Paris, and the Spectromagic Light Parade, Fantasmic, and Tapestry of Nations, all at Disney World, where she is now based.
DB: How did you get started in the business?
Sotto: I was a mail messenger — just like Michael Eisner. It was my summer vacation. My father was a scenic artist at MGM; he spoke to an art director, said, ‘My daughter wants to be a costume designer.’ I had been drawing all my life — I must have been six when I got started! They hired me for the mailroom, which was a good job — I learned who was who. I was there when Judy Garland flipped out doing Annie Get Your Gun and it went to Betty Hutton.
DB: Then what happened?
Sotto: I did show my sketches around, but then I went to UCLA. I was a music and art major. I went to work at G. Schirmer's Music Company in Westwood, CA. I got to meet all the composers, conductors, and actors who were there buying sheet music. Anyway, I got a call from MGM. I was in total shock. I was told, ‘We have an emergency. Can you come in Monday?’ ‘But I manage a whole music department!’ ‘It's you or someone else.’ So I went to work on Julius Caesar, sketching for Herschel.
DB: What was Julius Caesar like?
My life — it's like a Jackie Collins novel.
Sotto: They wanted it done in black and white, except for Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr. I drew an emerald green dress for Deborah Kerr, who was playing Marc Antony's wife. Herschel taught me to do washes and sketches in his style. He said, ‘You know, you're not afraid to draw men.’ Well, my father had taught me! From that point on, I worked for Herschel for a couple of years. Then there was a slow period, when I went to work at Western Costume. Then I heard that Edith Head needed a sketch artist. I did a movie for her, called Red Garters , with Rosemary Clooney, a surreal film that didn't do too well at the box office. Pat Duggan, the producer, wasn't very kind to Rosemary Clooney at the rushes. He'd say, ‘Her pageboy makes her look like a guy in drag!’
Anyway, I worked for Edith Head on The 10 Commandments  It had five designers — Dorothy Jeakins, Edith Head, Arnold Freedburg did the concept painting, John Jensen did the armor. And Ralph Jester. I started sketching for Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston. Yul Brynner is the only actor I've ever met who made my knees weak. He was doing The King and I in LA and they had him in for fittings. His underwear was like a Speedo elastic dancebelt. He looked like Flash Gordon!
Then Herschel called: ‘Darling, I'm doing one of the biggest films ever.’ I said, ‘I'm doing The 10 Commandments.’ He said, ‘My film is much bigger. It's The Prodigal, with Edmund Purdom and Lana Turner.’ (Pause). And a BOMB! Although Lana Turner was absolutely fascinatingly gorgeous to look at.
DB: How many sketches would you do for a typical film?
Sotto: One hundred. One-fifty. On The 10 Commandments, I did between 300 and 400, and a lot of throwaways. I did a lot of the smaller parts — Jethro and Jethro's daughters.
DB: Did you ever design costumes yourself?
Sotto: I did Man of a Thousand Faces , with James Cagney. I asked Universal for screen credit, and it was like pulling teeth. Why couldn't they spend $40 for a credit? But I did get it, because I went to Cagney's manager, who couldn't understand why I wasn't getting a screen credit. Then Cagney came to me on the set and said, ‘Don't worry about it, sweetheart.’ Then I did an eight — week tour for the film. Now, Edith Head had a clipping service. When I got back to town after the tour, I didn't work for months. I found out it was all because of Edith. I guess she felt I was competition. I did some work for [designer] Norma Koch, sketching. She heard it from a secretary at Paramount: ‘Miss Head thinks she's doing a little too much around here.’ By then I had married my first husband and I didn't care.
My husband, Fabian Dean, was an actor, and I helped him. My father became an agent, at the age of 70, to support my husband, so I was an agent, too. I worked on commercials. Fabian was offered the role of Marty [in the Paddy Chayevsky film], then it went to Ernest Borgnine. He was cast as Archie Bunker, then he died, and it went to Carroll O'Connor.
DB: What did you do then?
Sotto: I moved to San Clemente. I remarried and it didn't work out. He ran off with a wealthy woman — he was 20 years older than me! Maybe it was better — he just turned 80. My third husband is John Erdman III, an architect who is 14 years younger than I am. My life — it's like a Jackie Collins novel.
Anyway, I lived on my own in Laguna, for about 10 years. I had an art business, and I painted, with the government taking most of the money. My nephew, Eddie Sotto, was an executive at Walt Disney Imagineering — he was vice president of conceptual design. He said, ‘Auntie Marilyn, you really ought to be at Disney.’
DB: Is that when you started working for Disney?
Sotto: No, I was selling these lithographs I did of John Wayne. A woman who bought one knew Bob Phelps, who was head of costumes at Disney. I contacted him, and Bob remembered my name from Western Costume. He interviewed me and asked if I wanted to work at Euro Disney. I said, ‘Who's the designer?’ He said, ‘Well, you are.’
DB: What kinds of costumes did you do there?
Sotto: I did the operations costumes — all the ride operators, hotel staff. I did 40 to 50 different operations costumes.
DB: Do you do operations costumes here in Florida, as well?
Sotto: I do. I did the costumes at the Animal Kingdom and the new Animal Kingdom Lodge. I also do show costumes for the Tapestry of Nations parade and for 100 Years of Magic, the parade that will be done in the Magic Kingdom.
DB: Do you work on more than one project at once?
Sotto: Often three or four. Take Tapestry of Nations. It's going to change. The Sage of Time character is going away. There will be two new floats and some new characters.
DB: How does your process work?
Sotto: First we have production meetings. They present the story, what the floats will look like, how many Disney characters are in it. You can take older costumes and, if you keep the basic idea, you can have fun with them. On Tapestry, I could totally, with direction, conceive something new.
DB: Then there's a review process with management?
Sotto: Sure. It's just like a Broadway show.
DB: Do you build all costumes onsite?
Sotto: There are vendors in Boston and Las Vegas — and we build here, too. Sometimes, we'll make the prototype here. The Dreamspinner Cloak was built here, because it's made of tissue-like material. Of course, I have to think about how to make things cooler and lighter — there are no bodies in suede outfits. We have to use Spandex that breathes.
DB: I suppose maintenance is a big issue in Florida, because of the humid weather.
Sotto: It's huge. We have to deal with daily cleaning of garments — there's heat, humidity, UV fading of fabrics. We test all fabrics. Even then, there are surprises, even with operational costumes. Also, everything has to be fireproofed — and that changes the color.
DB: What kind of a timeframe do you have a big project?
Sotto: I've been working on this new parade for two months. It just goes on. Of course, you have to wait for the budget. I'd say a year is cutting it close.
DB: Having done so many different things in your career, is there anything left you'd like to do?
Sotto: A Broadway show — and who knows? I watch couture shows, and I think, wouldn't that be nice? But that's such a hassle. At the studios, they made clothes like couture, but they only had to last for the film.
DB: Do you ever think about retiring?
Sotto: I'm sure there will come a time, but I like working. (Pause). Unless they carry me out feet first! (Laughs)