The Marvelous Mr. Mackie

Posted November 30, 2018 7:50 p.m. EST

-- PHOTO MOVED IN ADVANCE AND NOT FOR USE - ONLINE OR IN PRINT - BEFORE DEC. 2, 2018. -- FILE -- Stephanie J. Block in the musical "The Cher Show," in New York, Oct. 31, 2018. Thanks to the new musical, Bob Mackie, Cher’s favorite designer, may finally get the respect he deserves. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

He has outfitted mannequins as diminutive as Barbie and as Amazonian as RuPaul, and, in between, beglitzed every brand of bombshell: Madonna, Tina Turner, Raquel Welch, Mama Cass, Ann-Margret, Bette Midler and many more.

But it is in Cher, as the singer, actress and emoji-loving Twitter warrior Cherilyn Sarkisian Bono Allman is more succinctly known, that Bob Mackie, 79, found his perfect muse.

Since the two met in 1967, when she appeared on “The Carol Burnett Show,” for which he served as costume designer, Cher and Mackie have over thousands of concert, movie, TV and award show appearances forged as formidable a fashion partnership as Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy, Liza Minnelli and Halston, or Lady Gaga and her butcher.

In 1975 Cher wore one of Mackie’s creations — what Vogue these days calls a “naked dress” — on the cover of Time. “Glad Rags to Riches,” read the headline. Forty-three years later, a new jukebox musical called “The Cher Show” will open in New York City on Monday at the Neil Simon Theater, to the general hysteria of her fans.

The show has put the spotlight back on Mackie, who has won multiple Emmy Awards and is responsible for some of the most instantly recognizable costumes of all time. For it, he has designed a plethora of the kind of paillette-drenched ensembles for which he is known. He is also a character, embodied by the actor Michael Berresse.

“He can sing and dance, which has nothing to do with me,” Mackie said.

But a first-act costume cavalcade that everyone who works on “The Cher Show” refers to simply as “the Mackie number” has everything to do with him. As Jason Moore, the director, said, “You can’t really tell the Cher story without telling the Bob Mackie part of it.”

The sequined sequence, featuring the three women who play Cher at various stages of her life (Stephanie J. Block, Teal Wicks and Micaela Diamond), lets Mackie “turn back time,” to borrow a song lyric, and revisit Cher’s most infamous “get-ups,” as he calls them.

“When you stick them all together, it becomes this feast,” Moore said.

In quick succession, audiences will gorge on such memorable looks as the metallic handlebar headdress and sci-fi bikini from the cover of Cher’s 1979 “Take Me Home” album; the seat belt, mesh and garters in which she straddled an aircraft-carrier cannon in the video for her 1989 hit, “If I Could Turn Back Time”; and the wittingly tacky tiger-striped unitard (with one black bra strap showing) that she wore as her most famous comic character, the launderette-lingering cutup Laverne Lashinsky, on her various TV variety shows in the 1970s.

“Her look didn’t always correspond with the rest of the world,” Mackie said in October at Tricorne, a garment district costume shop in Manhattan, “but she has always had a definite taste in how she likes to look.”

And how.

Oscar’s Mascot

Nowhere has Cher style been more apparent than in her choice of attire for the Academy Awards. In “The Cher Show,” her renowned award show ensembles (including her most famous, the 1986 Mohawk-inspired costume and feather headdress in which she upstaged that year’s Best Supporting Actor winner, Don Ameche) appear in a swiftly paced number set to the 1967 Sonny & Cher hit “The Beat Goes On.”

“We copied them all exactly,” Mackie said.

Early reviews have hailed this painstaking accuracy, wrought by highly skilled artisans in workrooms in New York and Los Angeles. Variety went so far as to call Mackie’s creations “the real star of the show.”

Cher herself doesn’t mind sharing the spotlight with the man who has dressed her as everything from a Native American princess to Popeye’s main squeeze, Olive Oyl, and every “vamp, scamp and a bit of tramp” in between.

“When I saw the show in Chicago,” Cher wrote in an email from Las Vegas, where she was on a string of concert dates, “the audience gave his fashion show segment a standing ovation. They went crazy and deservedly so. Bob has taken Broadway costume design into the stratosphere.”

Whether creating for lithe dancer Juliet Prowse (“the more naked she was, the better she looked,” Mackie once told me) or more generously proportioned comedian Totie Fields, he has always reached for the outer limits. “A woman who wears my clothes is not afraid to be noticed,” he once said.

“When that curtain comes up, and the lights hit those sequins and you hear the audience’s intake of breath, there’s nothing like it,” said Mitzi Gaynor, the actress who played Ensign Nellie Forbush in the 1958 film version of “South Pacific.”

She and Mackie began working together in 1966, when she was putting together a splashy Las Vegas revue. “Bob has made everything I’ve worn on stage or in a TV special since then,” Gaynor said. “He revolutionized me. I love being his first ‘star lady.'”

It was Mackie’s second “star lady,” Carol Burnett, who made the designer a household name. She hired him for her new CBS variety show in 1967 after seeing the clothes he had done for Gaynor at the Riviera. Over 11 seasons, he designed upward of 17,000 costumes and wigs for cast members, dancers, singers and guest stars.

Mackie was particularly skilled at creating costumes for such film parody characters as Nora Desmond, Mildred Fierce and Shirley Dimple. Sending up the classic leading ladies of Hollywood was easy for him because he had been worshipping them all his life. Growing up in Southern California in the ‘50s, where he once worked as the Easter Bunny at Bullock’s department store, Mackie, the only son of a frequently absent military man and a homemaker of fragile health, found relief and escape at the movies.

He learned his craft at the Chouinard Art Institute, now part of the California Institute of the Arts, and, after graduating, found work with the legendary Hollywood costume designers Jean Louis and Edith Head. In 1963, Mackie became the assistant to Ray Aghayan, the costume designer of “The Judy Garland Show.” The two men were inseparable in work and life until Aghayan’s death in 2011.

Known for exquisite sketches, Mackie has always been equally adept at creating both navel-baring showgirl glamour and belly laughs. “In one moment, he can make me feel more glamorous than I’ve ever felt in my life, and in the next, he’ll make me a Hungarian Gypsy with a rubber chicken,” Gaynor said.

Mackie’s comic chops are clear. It was he who suggested that “The Carol Burnett Show” regular Vicki Lawrence, just shy of her 25th birthday in 1974, play the blue-haired harridan Mama Thelma Harper; she later became the centerpiece of a spinoff series.

He was instrumental, too, in creating the knock-kneed gait of Burnett’s bubbleheaded secretary character, Mrs. Wiggins. If her skirt hadn’t been so tight, she never would have walked that way.

“Many times, I didn’t know how I was going to do a character until I saw what Bob was going to put me in,” Burnett said on a TV special last year.

Mackie is also responsible for what may be the greatest sight gag ever on television. When the show parodied “Gone With the Wind” in 1976, the sketch called for Burnett, playing Starlett O’Hara, to appear in antebellum garb made from curtains, per the book’s plot. Keeping the brass curtain rod attached was pure Mackie mischief.

Today, the green velvet, bullion-fringed “Went With the Wind” dress is in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington. Mackie never won an Emmy for “The Carol Burnett Show,” though he was nominated once. But he did pick up nine awards between 1967 and 2003, for various TV projects, most involving Burnett, Gaynor or Cher.

He has three Oscar nominations, too. For the movies, he has most notably collaborated with Aghayan on 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues” starring Diana Ross, took Barbra Streisand from funny girl to “Funny Lady” in 1975, and swathed a buff John Travolta in little more than a loin cloth and leggings for the 1983 curiosity “Staying Alive.”

On the stage, his work was featured in “Platinum” starring Alexis Smith in 1978, the musical sequel “The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public” in 1994 and “Moon Over Buffalo” starring Burnett in 1995. None of those shows ran very long.

Funding for an off-Broadway revival of “Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly” fell through last year after some of Mackie’s elaborately campy costumes had already been constructed for it, and the show never opened.

Partners in Rhyme

Regardless of how it is received in New York, “The Cher Show” will serve as a lifetime achievement award of sorts for the designer. And yet there was a moment during the musical’s very long gestation (17 years by some counts) when Mackie was going to be only tangentially involved.

“Initially, they asked me to do a couple dozen iconic looks.” he said. “But Cher was not happy with that.”

Flody Suarez, a producer and the man who came up with the idea for the showafter listening to a greatest hits CD on repeat play during a car trip through Spain in the early 2000s, scheduled his first meeting with Mackie after securing the star. “To my mind, there isn’t the Cher we know without Bob and I don’t think she’d have done it with anyone else,” Suarez said.

While showcasing instantly recognizable Cher looks and spotlighting plenty of new ones, the show serves not only as a tribute to the singer’s life, but also as a reminder of how much of an impact Mackie has had on the notion of glamour over the last half-century.

In the ‘70s, he was a sequin tsunami. His clothes influenced such heavy-hitting designers as Tom Ford, who memorably created a Mackie-esque collection in the late ‘90s, and Alessandro Michele of Gucci, who this past spring created looks inspired by the clothes Mackie created for Elton John during the singer’s biggest hit-making days.

In 1975, Mackie slipped a svelte John into a sequined Dodgers uniform. “I dressed him like sort of a male showgirl,” the designer told Vogue recently. Today, a re-creation of that shimmeringly sporty look appears in the opening shot of the teaser trailer for the 2019 biopic “Rocketman.”

Since tryouts of “The Cher Show” this past summer, Mackie’s flair has become an even bigger part of the onstage proceedings. “I thought after Chicago, ‘Oh, well, we’ll just tweak a few things’,” Mackie said. Instead, he has spent months designing more outfits, sometimes drawing patterns right on the actors’ bodies, and showing seamstresses exactly where to put mirror tiles for maximum effect.

At a dinner party thrown by Manhattan magazine in Mackie’s honor on Nov. 5 at the Lambs Club, Diamond, the 19-year-old actress who plays the youngest version of Cher in the show, gave a toast during which she elaborated on the power of those strategically placed reflectors.

She recounted the day she got to try on a glimmering miniskirt once worn by Cher: a minuscule mirrored garment held in place by only a G-string. She thanked Mackie for, as she said, introducing their vaginas.

“In all my years in TV and film, I’ve never seen a designer who works this intimately with body types,” said Suarez, who has worked in publishing, advertising and as a television producer. “One of my favorite things to do is watch Bob sit in the empty auditorium and, as the girls move, sketch with his finger where he’ll put a strap. I’ve watched him stand over people and point to a place and add a sequin. He looks at every body and figures out how to showcase their best assets. We wouldn’t have a show that dazzles if Bob weren’t a perfectionist.” Of course Cher is no slouch either. As Mackie works toward opening night, he has been in contact with her more than usual. The two don’t really socialize when they’re not working together. “She’s out there in Malibu watching Turner Classic Movies,” he said. “But when there’s something to do, I get a call.”

When that something to do is a Broadway musical based on her life, Mackie gets a lot of calls. “We’re covering 65 years of her life, and she is really concerned about getting it right,” he said. “But it’s difficult calling Australia in the middle of the night.”

While he was designing the costumes, Cher was touring there in support of “Dancing Queen,” her album of ABBA covers, of which Mackie heartily approves. “It’s like they’re new songs,” he said.

While Cher needs no one’s approval on an album or a Broadway show, Suarez said of Mackie’s relationship with her: “He’s a voice of reason, a constant in her life. He’s a male figure whom she trusts and loves, and I think he plays a big part in her confidence.”

Mackie is happy that his fashion accomplice remains so successful. “Cher said, ‘I’m too old to be this famous,'” he said. “But she is so hot right now. People are more interested in her than ever.”

People are more interested in Mackie, too. In addition to “The Cher Show,” he has had a selection of his work displayed aboard the Queen Mary 2 during a trans-Atlantic crossing in August. Another recent exhibit, in Beverly Hills, California, accompanied a sale by Julien’s Auctions of some of his major pieces. When Mackie began downsizing in early 2016 and put his Los Angeles home on the market for $2.18 million, it was all over the press.

“At this point in my life, I’m getting attention for stuff,” he said.

And perhaps, also a kind of respect he has been previously denied.

“In many ways, Bob is a dean,” said Jeffrey Seller, one of the producers of “The Cher Show.” “He’s an inspiration to every costume designer who’s working today, from Paul Tazewell to William Ivey Long.” (Seller added that he had “never been surrounded by so many sequins in my life — it’s a lot different than ‘Rent.'”)

Mackie’s ventures into other areas of design, like ready-to-wear back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, were not particularly well received.

Although no less than Diana Vreeland once said Mackie’s “superb clothes are not equaled in even French workrooms,” New York snobs often dismissed him as merely a Los Angeles costumer, not a true Seventh Avenue designer.

His fashion sense was often chided as folly. Cher long ago called bunk on that. Discussing her most famous Oscar get-up, she said, “If John Galliano or Dolce & Gabbana presented that dress as a bridal gown in one of their fashion shows, people would stand up and cheer.”

That is what preview audiences are doing at “The Cher Show.”

“I stand on stage every night and I feel them wanting to say thank you to Bob. It’s a tidal wave,” Berresse said.

Moore, the director, said: “Everyone who knows who Bob is — and that’s a lot of our crowd — is overjoyed to see his designs, and those who don’t know him, know who he is now.”

Such attention can be daunting, even for a veteran like Mackie. Because he is shy by nature, content to stand one step outside the spotlight in which his leading ladies blaze, it has been hard for him to make peace with seeing a version of himself on a Broadway stage.

“All I said was, please don’t play me like a nelly, officious old queen who comes in with sketches under his arm,” he said. The designer’s dancing doppelgänger doesn’t do that.

“It’s important to me that I honor this person that I admire so much," Berresse said. A navy blazer man in real life, Mackie did let himself have some fun with his onstage counterpart’s clothes. The fictional Bob, at one point, enters wearing a very groovy python jacket. “Bob said, ‘You know, I would never wear anything I’m making for you,'” Berresse said.

Regardless, when Mackie attends a performance at the Neil Simon these days, he is often greeted by adoring fans. “I get to watch people mob him and want to get their pictures taken with him and get his autograph,” Suarez said. “To be a small part of him having a big moment makes me beyond happy.”

The toughest critic of “The Cher Show” — Cher — is also overjoyed with this aspect of it. “There is simply no one like Bob Mackie,” she wrote in her email. “I love him. Always have. Always will.”