Philly department store inspires stage production

Philly department store inspires stage production

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A really, really long time ago, before there were shopping malls, strip malls, open-air malls, eBay, Wal-mart, Target, Kmart and the internet, if you wanted to buy a bunch of different things without visiting a ton of different shops, you had to go to a department store.

Most of us have been to a department store or two in our day, such as Macy’s or J.C. Penney, because they anchor the modern-day shopping malls. But these aren’t the department stores of days past.

In their heyday, department stores were opulent monoliths dedicated to consumerism. They were half a dozen stories tall and adorned in gold, marble and porcelain. They allowed housewives in ankle-length skirts, pillbox hats and white gloves to spend the time between sending the kids off to school and rushing home to make dinner to while away hours in a consumerist wonderland that catered to their every whim. Pesky minorities weren’t allowed to shop, eat or use the bathroom at these establishments but they were definitely on hand to open doors and carry purchases to a waiting car.

Back in the day, Philadelphia had its own world-famous department store, Wanamaker’s, the first department store to open its doors in the city. Conceived by John Wanamaker, the department store opened in 1902 and was subsequently absorbed by Macy’s in 1995.

The legendary department store’s history is being used as the backbone for a new theatrical production, “Wanamaker’s Pursuit,” running through May 22 at Arden Theatre Company.

The fictional play uses the history of Wanamaker’s as backdrop for the story of the equally fictional Nathan Wanamaker.

“It’s like the book ‘Ragtime’ in how the author combined made-up characters with famous people from that era,” said Richard St. Clair, the show’s out costume designer. “So it’s almost like a play takes on that feeling. The lead character is Nathan Wanamaker, who is the fictitious son of the Wanamaker family. But he goes to Paris, where he meets both fictitious and real historical people from that period.”

While St. Clair’s contributions to the production leaned more toward the aesthetics of the play, he did play an unwitting role in the development of the plot.

“They started to develop this story and the director [Terrence J. Nolen] called me and said, ‘We’re developing this story about a son. You’re smart. If you were going to Paris in 1911 as a buyer, what would you want to bring back?’ I spent a day going through books and searching and I found this website that was about what was happening in Paris in 1911. One of the fascinating things was the Rowenta Company, which we still have today, had developed its first electric iron. Paul Poiret was doing harem pants based on designs from the Ballets Russe that inspired his fashion collection. So I emailed Terry and I said if I were from the Wanamaker family in 1911 in Paris, I would want to bring back an electric iron or harem pants. So they took that idea and ran with it.”

Nathan goes to Paris in search of fashions for the family department store in hopes of proving himself as a buyer for the company. Instead, he finds Poiret, the father of modern fashion, and subsequently is drawn into the vibrant culture of Paris in the early 1900s, which also included artist Pablo Picasso and out writer and poet Gertrude Stein.

Catharine Slusar, who plays Stein in the play, said her character plays an instrumental role in helping Nathan attain his goals.

“He’s trying to have a formal introduction with Paul Poiret, who’s a very famous and incredible fashion designer at the time,” Slusar said. “He happens upon Stein during one of their salons. Every Saturday, they would have an open house where people would be invited to come and talk about art and have dinner and wine. Gertrude Stein takes an interest in people she thinks have potential to be something. She’s almost in the business of helping people become what they will be. She takes Nathan under her wing. That’s how the connection works in the play.”

Slusar said that even though the story is fictional, it was tough for her to figure out how to play Stein in the story.

“Any time you play someone who is known and famous, it’s tricky,” she said. “Do you try to imitate this person or find the essence of this person? This was more about finding the essence of Gertrude Stein rather than copy her. She’s also at an interesting time in her life. She’s been frustrated in her work. She hasn’t published anything yet. She’s determined and she’s not giving up.”

“Wanamaker’s Pursuit,” like the characters’ portrayals in it, ends up being a lighthearted affair, which Slusar describes as “like being invited to a fascinating party.”

“It’s engaging, it’s funny and it’s interesting,” she said. “For Nathan Wanamaker, who comes there from Philadelphia, it’s like falling into Wonderland. It’s like he’s Alice and we’re all these fantastical creatures he encounters while there, and there’s all these things that he’s exposed to that he’s never seen before. There’s a scene when Gertrude has been married to Alice Toklas and this is completely something he has never experienced before. So how she talks about art, the mind, becoming an artist, women being equal to men and being a lesbian is all very matter-of-fact. It is what it is.”

The production also ended up being a wonderland for St. Clair, who said that researching the fashions of the era was the most fun part for him.

“The research was absolutely the most delicious part of the show,” he said. “I would wake up with a grin on my face every day I would do research. There was an amazing day that the cast and I were invited to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and we saw the [Marc] Chagall 1991 exhibit. We wandered through the in-house collection and the last part of the day we had an appointment with the costume part of the art museum — and the fashion people had a real Poiret dress from the 1920s, a dress from the period of the play that I believe was from Bonwit Teller, and then a Poiret dress that was literally from 1911. That was the most fascinating part of it all. This dress has never been on display because a lot of the silk has become delicate on it. They were able to spread it out on a table for us to see and we took photographs of it. It was very inspirational seeing this dress from the exact year of the play that we were doing. We got very excited because he used his wife as a fit model so we wondered if this dress was actually fit on Denise Poiret at some point. It was one of the coolest days of my life to see these things spread out on a table right in front of us. Being able to touch them and see them was fantastic.”

St. Clair added he didn’t have to be truly faithful to the fashions of the era and was allowed to add his own touches to the classic designs.

“We did a lot of looking at real pictures of the real people, like the fashion designer Paul Poiret and his wife, who are main characters in the show,” he said. “We kind of did our take on the clothes of that period in order to serve the actual play. Then we also selected things from certain collections that weren’t necessarily around at that time because the show is set in 1911. There’s a dress that’s the centerpiece in the show that we see being draped on Denise, and then we see the dress on a mannequin and, finally, we see this dress on Denise at the end. For dramatic purposes, we chose something from an earlier collection from 1908 rather than 1911 because it told the story better than the 1911 stuff. There was a lot of judicious choosing of what to use in order to portray the story of the show. The whole learning curve on this piece, as far as being a costume designer, has been absolutely fascinating. Some of the Poiret dresses that we tried to re-create allowed us to learn a lot about how he must have made them and draped them in 1911. The costumes in the show aren’t made like traditional theater costumes that zip up the back and are quickly applied. They actually wrap and tuck and do things very much like the way Poiret was designing dresses in 1911.”

For all their research into the subject matter, it seems the one subject Slusar and St. Clair weren’t too familiar with was the store that inspired the show.

“I’ve been there before it became Macy’s,” Slusar said about the Wanamaker’s department store. “I didn’t know anything about it except that it had been a Philadelphia fixture.”

“I came to Philadelphia in 1982 and I remember that there used to be a room on the third or fourth floor where there would be a display of photographs of historical Wanamaker’s,” St. Clair said. “I recently read a book, ‘American Eve,’ about Evelyn Nesbit, who’s actually a character in the book ‘Ragtime.’ She was a figure-drawing model for Violet Oakley, a Philadelphia-based muralist in 1905. She and her mother worked the first floor of Wanamaker’s as shop girls before she moved to New York and was involved in the Harry K. Thaw murder. I just read this book a year ago and it just dovetailed into this story of the Wanamaker’s store. So I know a little bit about Wanamaker’s historically.”

PIFA presents “Wanamaker’s Pursuit” through May 22 at Arden Theatre Company’s Arcadia Stage, 40 N. Second St. For more information, call 215-922-1122 or visit

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