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Kathe Sheehan: “Scholastic theater creates memories that last a lifetime!”

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“Give a girl the right pair of shoes and she’ll conquer the world,” purred the fabulously embellished Marilyn Monroe. In the case of Kathe Sheehan, owner of The Costumer, give a girl or boy the right gloves, hat, vest, jacket or cape and they’ll conquer the stage, the runway or even Buckingham Palace! In 2017, The Costumer will celebrate its 100th birthday.

Kathe has a deep admiration for the stage, as both she and her late husband, Jack, taught high school theater. “Jack and I were both teachers and ran theater programs in our schools. Normally we rented our costumes in New York City. One day, he needed to rent a policeman uniform for a one-act Tennessee Williams play, The Case of the Lost Petunia. One of the teachers at school said there was a costume shop in Schenectady. He went there after work and got the costume and said to the guy when leaving, ‘If this place is ever for sale, give me a ring,’” she recalled. “That night at dinner I told him some crazy guy called and said it was for sale. So, in 1974, we bought it with U.S. savings bonds we had been saving in our school retirement fund.”

Be Queen for a Day
Last year, this community icon and her hard-working staff provided more than 30,000 costumes to over 1,000 schools. She is truly committed to providing affordable costumes for Halloween as well, emphasizing that she enjoys helping people of all ages become who they want to be, even for a day. “A few years ago we provided costumes for the Time Magazine Person of the Year cover in January 2011. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is on the cover as the number one person. We did the centerfold costumes on two pages for the number two choice, the Tea Party,” she expressed. “We did all the costumes for the colonists on the ship throwing the tea overboard. We also made the Prince’s outfit for the royal wedding depiction in Brides Magazine in May 2011. They guessed what they thought Prince William would wear and we made the outfit; then they drew up what they thought Catherine would wear and depicted the royal couple on the cover.”

The company’s costumes have not only been used in theatrical performances and magazines, but in television commercials, parades, parties, weddings, sales promotions and meetings, grand openings, church and school programs, historical reenactments, balls and teas. The Costumer has a costume for any holiday, from the Easter Rabbit to Santa Claus, and also specializes in mascots for teams, schools and companies to use for parades, parties and promotions. They even designed costumes for Kuwait’s national football team. The company ships around the world.

Kathe met Jack while acting in one of his Opera House productions, and during a lunch break that summer he popped the question. The couple has two children; John works at Pine Ridge Industries thru ARC, and Amanda is a senior high school special education teacher at Wildwood School, Schenectady. Amanda’s three daughters, Kathe’s granddaughters, Ellie, Jordan and Jacklyn, often appear in costume on the covers of The Costumer’s catalog.

Making Theater Easier
In Kathe’s work at The Costumer, each day is a new and different experience. Jack once dressed an employee in a gorilla costume to attract attention to the store, and the Friday the 13th sale, started in August 1982, now makes every Friday the 13th a lucky day. The 1965 hot pink Cadillac hearse Jack bought in 1991 turned heads, to say the least, as it made deliveries.

Kathe and Jack moved the satellite store in 2004 to its present location at 1995 Central Avenue, Colonie, New York. This site has an extensive retail and costume rental area, a large catalog sales warehouse, shipping and receiving areas, a purchasing and promotional office and an office for an in-house web designer. The Costumer has enough space to house its own inventory, which has grown from some 10,000 costumes that were acquired in 1974 to more than 150,000 costumes today.

The warehouse in Schenectady, New York, is located at 1020 Barrett Street and is their rental storage facility, with more than 150,000 costumes. “Too many to count!” Kathe laughed. “We also make the costumes here. They are designed, cut and sewn from scratch. Once the costumes are selected for a performance, they have to be altered to fit the actors and then shipped by UPS to the school. This is also where the costumes are washed and cleaned for the next performance. We also have a small store here, but mostly rentals. 1995 Central Avenue has most of the sales items and is also where we ship the catalog and online sales items.”

Importance of the Performing Arts
Kathe received her BS degree from State University of New York at Geneseo and her MA degree in theater from State University of New York at Albany. She was a member of the Alpha Psi Omega dramatic fraternity. “Our mission at The Costumer is to support scholastic theater. We want to provide costumes to other teachers that were in the same situations we had been in. Personally, I would like to see every kid in America have the opportunity to be in a school play. It’s not just about the talent; it’s about the process. The experience of being in a school play is transformational, it is educational, and it is also a whole lot of fun. Anyone who was ever in a school show can tell you the part they played, remember a line or a song, and in most cases describe their costume,” she asserted. “It creates a memory for a lifetime. Music and the visual arts play a big part in the education of students in New York State, and I would like to see theater included with them. Perhaps with the popularity of all the talent shows on TV more people will see the value of the performing arts.”

Mrs. Anna White started The Costumer in 1917, and Kathe always likes to remind people that was three years before she had the right to vote! The work she and her staff do today is very much the same work Mrs. White did then. “The other day I mentioned to a young adult that The Costumer was 100 years old. They said back to me, ‘Did you start it?’ I am thinking, ‘Gee, I just got my hair dyed; how bad do I look?’ I wanted to say, ‘How would that be possible?’ But I decided to let it pass and just said ‘No.’ Then a couple days later the same thing happened and another young person said ‘Did you start it?’ Now it really had me thinking and I decided to blame it on the new math! I don’t see any reason we can’t keep it going another 100 years!” she smiled.

Community Engagement
Kathe is passionate and dedicated to her community. She has served as a volunteer for the New York State Special Olympics, Wildwood Programs and is a founder of SEPTA, Scotia Glenville Special Education PTA, one of the very first groups in New York State to be affiliated with the national PTA organization, and she received the PTA Lifetime Achievement Award. She is a member of the National Costumers Association, Women’s Presidents Organization, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Board of Visitors for OPWDD, or Office of People With Developmental Disabilities, for New York State, through an appointment by Governor Cuomo.

Kathe received the 2016 Key4Women Achieve Award, which honors a woman business leader who has achieved a high level of success in her career while making contributions to the community. In 2014, Kathe and The Costumer served as Grand Marshal of the Schenectady Downtown Christmas Parade. In 2013, she and her company were inducted into Proctor’s Capital Region Entertainment Hall of Fame. Her fond memories of being a member of the National Thespian Society as a high school student led her to partner with the Education Theatre Association. The company will offer an internship at The Costumer in 2017 for a member of the International Thespian Society, an honorary drama organization for high school theater students. The internship celebrates The Costumer’s 100th anniversary.

Opening Her World View
Kathe’s early years provide a glimpse into what has made her such a joyous and positive spirit. At 18, fate gave her the opportunity of her young lifetime to travel Europe and Africa for an amazing four months as a nanny to four children, ages 12, 11, 5 and 4. “My mother was a legal secretary and I would go to her office on occasion to help clean. I must have looked responsible, because her boss asked if I could go along on this trip. I wasn’t paid, but I would have the chance to see the world. I had never been anywhere beyond the borders of my little town in upstate New York!” she explained. “We began our voyage in May and returned in September, so I didn’t participate in the high school graduation ceremony and started college in Geneseo late, but it was an incredible experience. We traveled through 16 countries in a Volkswagen bus. I went with $100 and came home with $10. I bought gifts for all my family and friends.”

As a nanny, Kathe saw the countries from a different perspective; while the parents were sampling wine and local cuisine, she was looking for non-exotic food to feed the four children. “We stayed in palaces in walled cities, in Red Cross tents in Scopie, Yugoslavia, when an earthquake hit and destroyed the hotels. We stayed in yachts in the Aegean Sea, and on the decks of ferry boats. We met wonderful people wherever we went, and I learned to communicate without language beyond a Berlitz dictionary and local guide book. I did learn then, as I know now, that people are all pretty much the same. We love to laugh and dance when possible, but usually a day is long and there is much work for each of us to do.”

As she traveled to each of these locales, she began a unique collection that is now one of her prized possessions. “I collected pieces of toilet paper from all the places we visited! Each is properly labeled and you would not believe the colors and variety and types! It is so cool, and no one could make such a collection today, as the paper there now is very routine, so it is hard to add to my collection,” she explained.

What advice does Kathe share with other women desiring to go into business for themselves? “Follow your heart and do something that you find interesting and worthwhile. Money is important, but it is not a reason to go into business. I believe in the old adage, ‘You don’t know what you like; you like what you know.’ It is worthwhile to get to know more because a lot of it you are really going to like! Opportunity does knock, but you need to be listening.”

It is true, as Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage.” And what a stage it is for Kathe. HLM

For more information, call 518-374-7442 or visit