9:34am PT by Scott Feinberg
'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Bob Mackie ('The Cher Show')
"They just always thought that it was too theatrical," the legendary fashion designer and costume designer Bob Mackie says of the way his work was regarded by the fashion world establishment, as we sit down at the offices of Rubenstein Communications in New York to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's Awards Chatter podcast. But now, at the age of 80, the man known as "The Sultan of Sequins" and "The Rajah of Rhinestones" — who, over the course of some 60 years in the business, dressed Judy Garland, Mitzi Gaynor, Carol Burnett, Cher, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Tina Turner, Ann-Margret, Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, Elton John and so many others, but is perhaps best known for his work on 11 seasons of The Carol Burnett Show and multiple variety shows featuring Sonny Bono and Cher — is finally getting the respect he deserves. "It's kind of changed now," he confirms with a smile. "All of a sudden, now they're saying, 'You were such a huge influence on fashion' and 'You changed the whole look of the red carpet' and 'You did this' and 'You did this' and 'You did this.'"
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 38:35], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and David Rooney, THR's chief theater critic, previewing Sunday night's 73rd Tony Awards.
Check out our past episodes featuring the likes of Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, Justin Timberlake, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen & Carol Burnett.
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Mackie was born in the Los Angeles area and raised without much oversight from his parents. A self-described "weird kid," his great escape was going to the movies; "the flashiest ones" made the biggest impression on him, and he soon began sketching them, deciding, at the age of 10, that he wanted to spend his life designing clothes. Mackie received a scholarship to attend the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts), and quickly proved a standout in costume design, so much so that he realized, ahead of his final year, that his time would be better spent at a job. So he took his portfolio and began pitching his services to the Hollywood studios.
Mackie's earliest gigs involved sketching under the oversight of costume design legends Jean Louis (he sketched, per Louis' specifications, the dress that Marilyn Monroe wore when she sang "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" to John F. Kennedy) and Edith Head. His first steady job as a costume designer himself was at CBS' The Judy Garland Show, a weekly black-and-white variety program, where he worked under Ray Aghayan, who became his professional and life partner. It was there that he learned to work quickly and on the fly, skills that would serve him well in the years to come.
In terms of commissions to dress individuals, his "first-star lady," as he puts it, was Gaynor, the film star who was in need of outfits for a 1966 revue in Las Vegas. And it was on the basis of his work for Gaynor, and the fact that he and Aghayan shared the first-ever costume design Emmy for the 1966 TV movie Alice Through the Looking Glass, that Burnett asked him to design the costumes for The Carol Burnett Show, her weekly variety program that ran for 11 seasons on CBS, requiring some 50 to 70 original costumes per episode. "I didn’t know what I’d do with a character until he did the outfit," Burnett has said. Mackie's most famous contribution to the show, which evoked perhaps the loudest and longest laugh in its entire run: the curtain-rod dress for its Gone With the Wind parody.
Sonny and Cher were guests early in the run of The Carol Burnett Show, and Cher immediately expressed an interest in one day working with Mackie. She couldn't afford to commission dresses from him at the time, but she was soon appearing on other variety shows that he costumed, eventually, in 1971, including her own, The Sonny and Cher Show, which shot right next door to Burnett's. "They had the same measurements," Mackie says of his two leading ladies, and they often traded costumes. Cher, however, gravitated more towards the risque, as demonstrated by the outfits she had Mackie design for her to wear to the 1974 Met Gala (which Vogue has called "one of the most famous naked dresses of all time"), to the 1986 Oscars (at which she, a presenter, snared the spotlight from the nominees and winners) and to the 1988 Oscars (at which she herself walked away with the best actress Oscar).
For the past 20 years, producers have been trying to put together a Broadway show centered on Cher. At various times they sought to have others oversee the costumes, but, Mackie says, "Cher insisted that I do it, and that was it." The Cher Show opened on Broadway on Dec. 3 and is still going strong, with every performance featuring the actor Michael Berresse as Mackie — who says, "That's weird when you've never had that before, you know? You're not Edison or Roosevelt or somebody like that!'" — and Mackie's outfits, quite apart from the performers wearing them, garnering massive applause.
On April 30, Mackie's work brought him the first Tony nomination of his career, in the category of best costume design of a musical, and on Sunday night he is the favorite to take home the statuette, which would go nicely with his nine Emmys (of 32 nominations) and three Oscar nominations (for 1972's Lady Sings the Blues, 1975's Funny Lady and 1981's Pennies From Heaven). Whatever happens, says the 2002 inductee into the Television Hall of Fame, he plans to continue enjoying the ride. "It's been crazy," Mackie says. "I didn't expect it, really."