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Costume designer draws ideas from Yiddish roots


There is no theatrical set in "Those Were the Days," the Yiddish musical revue which opened at Center Stage last night. That's why the costumes by designer Gail Cooper Hecht, a former Baltimorean, occupy a starring role.

"The best thing an actor says [about a costume] is,'That's the other half of my character. Thanks so much,'" says Hecht, who designed approximately 30 costumes for the 5-actor play.

"When designing costumes, you have to know who the people were, where they lived and what status they had," says the designer, who also has to jazz up reality to catch the viewer's eye.

"Those Were the Days" traces the history of Jewish theater, beginning with an elegantly dressed, contemporary group wearing tuxedos and beaded cocktail dresses and traveling back in time to an 1890s Polish shtetl where two little girls, dressed as boys, perform.

"I'm sure the clothes they wore were drab because they were poor. But because this is a show, there is no reality. The colors we use are greens, lavender and purples -- it's refreshing, exciting and theatrical," says Hecht.

At the same time, the styling of costumes is firmly rooted in history. Instead of the round yarmulkes worn by Jewish men today, the religious hats worn by European Jews are in more of a pillbox shape.

Hecht has become an authority of historical Jewish and Russian costume, having designed costumes for numerous plays including "Spinoza," "Bar Mitzvah Boy," "A Family Affair," "How it was Done in Odessa" and most recently, "Encore." She uses art and history books, Jewish museums, and immigrants as sources of information. Then too, she has the treasure of photos from her own family album.

"There is a wonderful photo of my dad as child on ship from Russia with all the people in blankets," says Hecht. Her father, Henry Cooper, is a portrait painter who was also the former cantor at Har Sinai congregation. There's also a photo from a year later, when the whole family was in Philadelphia. They looked quite proper then, and were wearing quite same kind of thing people wore everywhere," says Hecht about the World War I-era picture.

Hecht's forebears also influenced her career as a costumer. She became interested in sewing during high school, when she studied at Western High School.

"Both my grandmothers were seamstresses, and my mother's family ran a shop in Philadelphia that knocked off Paris couture," says Hecht. "My mother couldn't sew a stitch, but when she saw I could she ran out and bought me an old machine."

She credits a friend's mother, who was a saleswoman in the couture salon at Hutzlers, with educating her about fashion. The next step in her education was Filene's Basement, jokes Hecht, where she loved to shop while studying theater and minoring in design at Boston University.

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