The rhythmic jackhammer-like sound of a serger sewing machine finishing a garment cuts through the air of the cavernous work room. The repeated yelping of "guard dog" Tazwell, a Chihuahua-terrier rescue, almost fades into the twangy country music blaring on the radio.
A floor below, an industrial style iron creates billowing white steam and a loud hiss as another garment is prepared for the next day's inspection. Heaps of boxes, containing either returned costumes or pieces ready to be sent out for future productions, line the walls for an entire city block.
The staff of seven at A.T. Jones & Sons, a Mount Vernon-based costume shop open since 1868, has been hard at work perfecting the 150 mystery garments for an upcoming job — the Gridiron Club and Foundation’s Gridiron Show of 2019.
This week, the shop has been abuzz with all hands on deck as employees finish costumes for the annual event held in Washington, D.C., a white-tie dinner with satire and songs focused on political figures and journalists. Presidents — Donald Trump came to last year’s dinner — have typically attended the event. And this year's attendees could include anyone from Judy Woodruff of PBS to Andrea Mitchell and Chuck Todd of NBC.
Details of the event — there is the dinner and performance on Saturday night and a repeat performance during a matinee on Sunday — are closely guarded. In fact, the shop is under strict orders by the Gridiron Club and Foundation not to reveal certain details that would ruin the surprise. And because the show is usually very timely — skits and themes are typically inspired by current events — the Baltimore-based company essentially had two weeks to provide 150 looks for the event. Past costumes have ranged from human-sized soda cans to sports uniforms.
"It's a whirlwind," according to Ehrich Goebel, vice president of A.T. Jones & Sons, which his now-86-year-old father George bought in 1972 after joining the company in 1950. His father — who is also an accomplished magician — expanded the company's offerings of costumes created in-house. The Jones family, which started out making banners for Confederate soldiers, eventually shifted to working with the Booth family (of John Wilkes Booth fame) for theater productions. Now the company provides costumes for regional theaters and events throughout the country.
"I don't know what I'd do without them. They have the most extraordinary collection of animal costumes and the most creative approach to costumes," said Robin Sproul, this year's music chair for the Gridiron Show and former head of the Washington, D.C. Bureau for ABC News. "It's just riches around the room. They can make a costume to suit any lyric you can come up with. It's great."
Sproul said that a number of themes circle back year after year. And while she describes the performance as a "always a surprise," she divulged that this year would include a number of animal costumes — including a pig, a shark, an alligator and several parrots — as well as border patrol agents and a nod to Oscar winner “Bohemian Rhapsody” with a "Freddie Mercury crew."
The Gridiron performance is one of the only ones that Goebel and his staff get to witness. They're at the event from dress rehearsal on Friday to packing up all the costumes on Sunday — all whilst making sure that the garments work for the show's participants.
This week, employees at the company were hard at work on four productions — including the Gridiron performance.
On the second floor of the building, where the seamstresses and costume designers work, three employees were busily completing various tasks.
One seamstress, 97-year-old Helen Dengler, was hemming a pair of pants for a Gridiron costume.
"This morning I did sleeves and now I'm doing pants," said Dengler, who is affectionately called "Aunt Helen" by her co-workers.
It's unusual for one employee to build an entire garment from beginning to end, according to Mary Bova, a do-it-all employee who is also tasked with overseeing the logistical details of the Gridiron account.
"We usually work on bits and pieces," Bova explained. "It can seem like piecework."
The third floor of the building houses the bulk of the company's "stock," or costumes. When the company moved into its current location — a block away from its original digs — in the late 1970s the building was "nothing but a row of swinging lightbulbs," according to Bova. Today, costumes from productions of everything from “The Wizard of Oz” to “Hairspray” and any Shakespeare play that you could imagine line the 20-foot-high walls. Any of these productions could be fair game for the Gridiron event.
"They can request anything they want," Bova said. "It's our job to make sure everything is amazing."