Tony award-winning costume designer William Ivey Long on growing up at Raleigh Little Theatre
A boy sits in front of taxidermy animals in a York County museum, using charcoal to recreate them on paper. His teacher, an artist and museum director, helps mold his craft.
That scene is now a fond memory for Tony Award-winning costume designer William Ivey Long.
Long, 71, was born in Raleigh, N.C., in 1947. The family moved to Rock Hill when Long was young.
As a child, Long participated in art courses at what now is the Museum of York County.
“It was mostly little old ladies drawing flowers, then there was me,” he said during a phone interview this month.
Long’s teacher was former museum director and artist J. Lee Settlemyre Jr., who worked at the museum from 1951 to 1974, according to Culture and Heritage Museums. The Settlemyre Planetarium is named in his honor.
Under Settlemyre’s direction, Long progressed to watercolors and oils. Long’s art skills have led to a career where his creativity and vision are seen on stages worldwide.
Long’s name is associated with more than 70 Broadway productions, television shows, operas and films. His resume includes “Grease: Live!” on Fox, “Chicago,” “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” “Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway” and “A Bronx Tale: the Musical.” His studio is in New York City.
Long has won six Tony Awards and has been nominated for 17, two of which were selected June 9. Long was nominated for Best Costume Design of a Musical for both “Beetlejuice: The Musical” and “Tootsie: The Musical.”
Bob Mackie with “The Cher Show” took the Tony for Best Costume Design of a Musical.
Long has been nominated for two Tony Awards at once before, but this was his first time competing against himself in the same category.
“It’s all very exciting,” Long said. “I’m very proud of both of (the shows).”
“Tootsie” was nominated for 11 Tony Awards this year, including Best Musical, according to Broadway.com. “Beetlejuice,” Long’s 75th Broadway show, grabbed eight nominations and was in the running for Best Musical.
“We call it my diamond jubilee,” Long said of the musical based on Tim Burton’s film.
“Hadestown” won the Tony for Best Musical, according to Broadway.com.
A childhood in Rock Hill theater
Long’s childhood was immersed in the arts, something he said has contributed to his long-standing career.
In 1965, Long graduated from Winthrop Training High School in Rock Hill. The high school closed soon after, according to Winthrop. Long said he remembers seeing dance and performance companies come through Winthrop’s Byrnes Auditorium.
“Growing up in Rock Hill, it was all sort of this big theater year, year after year,” he said. “Winthrop College was a big part of my childhood.”
Long’s father, William Ivey Long Sr., founded the theater department at Winthrop College, now Winthrop University.
“After school, I would go and play in the scene shop and the costume shop,” Long said. “You learn a lot by just being around the making of theater and the family business was making theater.”
Long Sr. taught drama at Winthrop from 1954 to 1976, said Gina White, director of Archives and Special Collections at the college.
“He’s basically the one that started the drama department back then,” White said.
The Longs “really have left a legacy here as far as theater goes. There probably wouldn’t be much of a theater program around all of Rock Hill if they hadn’t brought the interest in.”
Long’s mother Mary was a drama teacher at Rock Hill High School. Mary also worked at Winthrop Training School, a K-12 school, part time from 1962-’64 and helped with the drama department, White said. Mary and her husband used to do Halloween makeup for local children.
Long shares his father’s name, now without the Jr.
“(My father) was rather tickled to see all the playbills with his name on it,” Long said. “The apple fell directly below the tree. I sort of followed in their footsteps.”
After his parents died in 1998 and his sister moved from Rock Hill to Manteo, N.C., Long said Manteo became home.
One show Long always comes home for is “The Lost Colony,” an outdoor drama in Manteo’s Waterside Theatre that dates back to 1937. Roanoke Island Historical Association produces the show.
Long’s parents met at “The Lost Colony” and his family spent time together working on the show. Long acted in the show as a child and designed sets and costumes. He eventually worked as the technical director, a role his father also held.
This season is Long’s 49th with the production.
Long has spent more than two years simultaneously planning and designing for “Beetlejuice” and “Tootsie.” Working on two shows at once can be a challenge, he said.
The shows couldn’t be more different, Long said describing a scene of pinned sketches still in his studio depicting black, white and green patterns on one side, and another a mix of colors with the famous red sequin dress for “Tootsie.”
“The stories have nothing in common, it was very easy to keep them separate,” Long said.
Long’s studio is filled with fabric samples, drawings and paintings, models and mockups, and an assortment of pencils used to varying degrees, pictures show.
“It’s sort of like Santa’s workshop,” Long said, quoting a term others have used to describe his workspace.
A freelance designer can’t plan long-term, Long said. The production schedules for “Beetlejuice” and “Tootsie” meant back-to-back trips from Chicago to Washington, D.C.
“It’s just enough to make you really hysterical trying to be in two places at once,” Long said. “It’s been a nonstop year. I love the fact that I am busy.”
Long said he didn’t always want to be a designer.
He earned a history degree from the College of William and Mary. His graduate studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill focused on Renaissance art history, according to a biography posted by Charlotte’s Mint Museum.
“Somehow the family gene started functioning and I applied to Yale drama school,” Long said. “If you want to do movies, you move to L.A.; if you want to do live theater, you move to New York, so that’s what I did. When I moved to New York, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.”
Long earned a master’s degree in set design in 1975 from Yale University’s drama school, according to the biography. He moved to New York, where he served as an apprentice under fashion designer Charles James.
Despite working on shows around the globe, Long maintains his Charlotte ties.
From September 2017-June 2018, the Mint Museum featured Long’s work including costumes from “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” “Grease Live!” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again.” The display showed Long’s work spanning the period from 2007 to 2016.
Long is looking forward to future projects, tours and more colorful costumes, a dream that started in York County.
“I can’t think what might have happened if I hadn’t gone every Saturday and painted and drawn,” Long said. “It all started at a children’s nature museum.”