COMING UP COSTUMES
Home to the world’s largest collection of authentic Broadway musical costumes, Costume World attracts renowned designers to Pompano Beach. Marilynn Wick, the tireless entrepreneur behind Costume World, shares the story of how she grew her business from a children’s home craft project to a costume collection worth an estimated $30 million. With Halloween approaching, one may want to schedule a costuming appointment at Costume World’s recently expanded warehouse, which Wick swears is home to celebrity ghosts.
By Danielle Charbonneau
The day I visited CEO Marilynn Wick at Costume World’s newly expanded warehouse in Pompano Beach, she had received a message from three-time Tony award winning actress Glenn Close who was desperate to find the dress she wore in the 1980 Broadway production of “Barnum.” Close collects costumes and knew that Wick — the holder of the largest Broadway Costume collection in the world — just might have her beloved dress.
Wick is used to such celebrity phone calls. Costume World outfits costumes, props and sets for some of Broadway’s largest productions, provides the costumes for “Saturday Night Live,” created the wardrobe for the 2015 Tony Awards’ performance of “The King and I,” costumed the Ringling Brothers productions for 17 years and used to do work with “The Letterman Show.”
In 2005, when Wick won a bidding war and bought out the largest costume house in New York City (which had been operating since 1868), many of the shop’s high-profile, Broadway clients followed. Costume World has hosted the former Mrs. Trump, Marla Maples, Jenna Bush and Matt Lauer’s mother.
The shop has become a key destination for costume and set designers. Wick helps them pick out wardrobes, props, shoes, wigs — everything from head-to-toe. A team of professional seamstresses custom fit the costumes to measurement. Wick even houses the designers at one of her own properties while they visit South Florida.
If you’re anything like me, however, you didn’t know any of this. You may have driven by Costume World’s former retail shop off Federal Blvd. in the Dollar Tree plaza in Deerfield Beach and assumed it to be your run-of-the-mill costume shop filled with wigs and wardrobes for October’s trick-or-treating or your office’s next lame theme party. You may not have realized that the former retail shop contained only a minuscule fraction of Costume World’s insanely big collection, which is housed primarily in the warehouse district of Pompano Beach.
Wick recently opted to expand the warehouse space by 25,000 square-feet when she closed the retail shop in Deerfield Beach. Wick said her former landlord had increased her rent almost two-fold hoping to make room for a new Sprouts grocery store.
In the newly expanded Pompano Beach warehouse space, Wick has built rehearsal space for the Wick Theatre Company and recreated a retail space where customers can schedule private costuming experiences.
“This is my entire life’s work under this roof,” Wick said.
When I visited the new warehouse space in July, there was an air of chaos as workers unloaded moving vans, unpacked boxes and moved furniture, frantic to get everything in working order. Maneuvering around boxes, I followed Wick to the back warehouse where my jaw dropped wide open. The rows were seemingly endless, each stacked from floor-to-ceiling with multiple levels of hanging costumes. Some were bedazzled, colorful and sequined; others drab with earth tones, aged and antique. There were polka-dot 50s dresses, flappers, mobsters, showgirls, cowboys, geishas, civil war soldiers, round-table knights, paupers, hobos and everything in between. It was as if every character I have ever seen on stage or in film discarded their clothing in one gigantic, organized closet.
I imagine that for costume designers, the experience of stepping into the Costume World warehouse is akin to that of a candy-loving child stepping into Charlie’s Chocolate Factory — awe, wonder and an instantaneous desire to play. I imagined what it would be like if “Night at the Museum” were to happen in that warehouse, the costumes suddenly springing to life. Oh the stories they would tell!
In a certain regard, Wick said some of the costumes do have a voice — through the ghosts they brought with them. Wick and her daughter Kimberly swear the warehouse is home to several friendly ghosts, most likely of the actors and actresses who wore the costumes. Both Wick and Kimberly shared tales of paranormal phenomenon in the warehouse — taps on windows, multiple lights inexplicably turning on, strange cold breezes and distinct whispers in their ears.
“Spirits are definitely here. There’s no doubt about it,” ” said Kimberly. “One thousand percent — they are here, but they are happy.”
After swapping ghost stories, Wick shared the surprising tale of how Costume World grew from a craft project to an estimated $30 million collection.
IT STARTED WITH A SANTA SUIT
As a single mom of two young daughters, divorced at the young age of 22, Wick was required to be creative and resourceful. At Christmas, when the girls, Kelly and Kim, wanted to make some money to purchase a present for their indefatigable mom, Wick devised a plan to bake some holiday cookies the girls could sell at the Royal Palm Plaza.
Wick’s English housekeeper at the time shared fond memories of her own childhood, shopping in the holiday markets in England where people would sell their goods wearing Santa suits. While Wick liked the idea of costuming her girls to sell the cookies, she didn’t know where she could rent any Santa suits.
“I opened up the yellow pages and there were no costume shops,” Wick recalled. “My housekeeper suggested we make them, so we went out and bought all the materials. She got me a sewing machine and we made the suits. It started with five Santa suits at my dining room table — just a little home project for my girls.”
After creating them, Wick and her girls got the idea to rent the suits for $25 a piece. The Boca News came to take a picture and Wick published a one-line advertisement in the yellow pages. It was just the right time.
“The phone rang off the wall,” Wick said. “People were calling up and saying ‘I need Big Bird. I need this. I need that.’”
The Wick girls realized they had stumbled upon a great idea.
“The more we got involved and did research, the more we loved it,” Wick said. “So we decided we would go out to FAU and ask the costume department to come to lunch and I could host a little tea party for her. She came to the house. We told her what we wanted to do and she said, ‘Oh, that will never work!’”
Wick set out to prove her wrong.
“I said to the kids, we will go to New York and I’ll invest about $1,000 in you and we’ll have a little store, and for Halloween you girls can help me run it. We never knew we would be mobbed,” Wick remembered. “There was nothing around like that.”
The first year Wick rented a small garage storefront, coincidentally, right across the street from where her current warehouse stands. Now Wick can look across the street and remember Costume World’s humble beginnings. Things were rough in the beginning.
“I’d say ‘Kim, go sell a bunny nose so we can have lunch,’” Wick joked.
“‘We’re not proud of it,” Kimberly added, “but everybody starts somewhere.”
In the shop’s second year, The Wick girls moved to a larger space on Copans Road. Then Wick started buying up costume houses around the country.
“From the 80s to the 90s I bought out ten large costume houses,” said Wick, who would renovate the stores and re-brand them as Costume World shops. “We had a store in Buffalo, New York and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We had a store in Houston, and in Dallas, then Austin. We had a store in Boston. These were big costume facilities.”
In the 80s, not feeling educated enough in the field, Wick took it upon herself to get mentored in the art of costume and set design from a Cuban designer in Miami who owned a costume house and crafted specialty work.
“I went every day to Miami for a whole year,” Wick remembered. “Every day at 2 o’clock I’d drive down there. She trained me on everything — how to buy the fabric, what to do — hands-on training.”
Together, Wick and her mentor created the entire wardrobe and set for “The King and I” from scratch.
BIDDING ON BROADWAY
In 2005, Wick bought out the largest costume house in New York City, which was founded is 1868. She moved 15 semi-loads of original Broadway costumes to Pompano Beach, making her, as mentioned in the New York Times, the ‘largest authentic musical wardrobe collector in the country.’”
Wick had only ten frantic days to pack up the costumes in New York and bring them home to Pompano Beach, where she stashed them in the warehouse.
“A whole team of us packed it up and moved it. I’ve never been so dirty in my life. We had to scrub ourselves for days,” Wick said laughing.
While Wick was thrilled she had won the New York bidding war, in the frenzy she didn’t quite comprehend what she had purchased. As she and Kimberly began unpacking the boxes, they were astonished by the Broadway gems they had acquired — Richard Burton’s armor with his name in it from “Camelot,” Rob Hudson’s jacket, Jimmy Garland’s hat, all the original “42nd Street” clothes, costumes from “Once Upon a Mattress” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The collection was good enough to start a museum. So that’s exactly what Wick did. She transformed part of the warehouse space into a tourable museum with a dining area designed as an exact replica of Central Park’s iconic restaurant, Tavern on the Green. Guests would pay to see the costumes, have tea on the Green and perhaps see a live musical performance.
In 2011, when the City of Pompano Beach told Wick she was no longer allowed to host visitors in the warehouse district due to zoning regulations, she knew she needed a new venue.
At 69 years old, when most are dreaming of retirement and lazy afternoon naps escaping the Florida heat, Wick dreamed of costumes and theater. Her daughter Kelly, who in adulthood had established a career in real estate, suggested Wick explore the defunct Caldwell Theater in Boca Raton, which had gone bankrupt and was facing foreclosure.
While Wick had no formal background in musical theater, she embraced the challenge. In 2013, Costume World leased the Caldwell, finally buying it in April 2016 for $5.2 million. The Caldwell, now called the Wick Theatre, houses Wick’s costume museum and theatre company. The museum collection has been featured on “The Today Show,” in People magazine and was the subject of a photo essay in Vogue magazine by fashion photographer, Bruce Weber. The theatre company, now is in its sixth year of production, has become an important cultural institution in Boca Raton.
“To think,” she said, “It all started with a Santa suit.”
With Halloween on the horizon, it’s a good time to schedule a private costume fitting. While you’re there, be on the lookout for those celebrity ghosts. Costume World is located at 2313 NW 30th Place in Pompano Beach. Call (800) 423-7496 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for an appointment.