How much time and money would you spend on Halloween?
For ardent enthusiasts of the holiday — and we’re talking adults here — the answer to that question is often “as much as it takes.” They will also, as it turns out, put up with quite a bit of discomfort.
The National Retail Federation estimates that a record 179 million Americans will partake in some sort of Halloween festivities this year, up from 171 million last year. What’s more, they’ll spend a record $9.1 billion on the holiday, with $3.4 billion going toward costumes. Kansas City is no exception when it comes to this trend.
Until two years ago, Ron and Barbie Hill spent the better part of a day and several hundred dollars getting transformed into other worldly creatures and movie characters for “Hilloween,” the annual fundraising bash they held for many years, most recently at Starlight Theatre.
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They were the Mad Hatter and The White Queen from Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” one year and Medusa and an anaconda snake another year.
“That involved a lot of body paint (by a special effects artist) and special contact lenses to make snake eyes,” recalls Ron Hill.
Another year, Hill dressed as Lord Voldemort from “Harry Potter,” which included a facial prosthetic that put a bit of damper on his night. The glue and latex, he says, smelled horrible.
The couple would commission a seamstress who worked for the Kansas City Repertory Theater to sew their costumes and hired a body painter and team of make-up artists to take care of the rest.
Dressing up, Hill surmises, gives people an opportunity to see what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.
“And it allows you to be a voyeur when people don’t know who you are. It’s a fun social experiment,” he says. “Hilloween was a place for people to come who wanted to put a lot of effort into the costume. We’d have a contest and the top three were always amazing. People would sometimes be very upset if they didn’t win.”
Chan Ulledahl, a special effects make-up artist at Worlds of Fun, says Halloween is the last chance of the year to cut loose before the stressful holidays come around.
“Christmas is beautiful, Thanksgiving is all about food, and Halloween you get to turn into something you otherwise can’t be,” she says. “We say, ‘Halloween is for kids and they’re so cute, blah blah blah. …’ But really this is an adult holiday.
“You get to be improper before you have to be proper. You can be risque or whatever you want. You can go out in a bustier, and everyone thinks you’re beautiful. On Nov. 1, forget it. You can’t do that anymore.”
Ulledahl expects to turn down a lot of last-minute requests for her services this week.
“People don’t want masks anymore,” she says. “They’re cumbersome, you can’t breathe, you have to take them off, then there’s nothing.”
Then again, that can happen even without a mask.
One year, the Hills spent six hours having makeup artists apply facial prosthetics, cosmetics and wigs to transform them into Hollywood-quality versions of apes from “Planet of the Apes.” They realized only later that they couldn’t hear, talk, eat or drink during Hilloween. Not that anyone wanted to talk to them anyway.
“I kept telling people who I was, and they would say ‘I know who you are, but you’re freaking me out,’ ” recalls Ron Hill. My wife didn’t like that at all. I think we learned a good lesson that year.”
Hill estimates they spent about $800 in those two ape costumes.
Robbie McGowan, catering manager at Pierpont’s at Union Station, used to throw themed Halloween parties in his downtown loft. He’d hire movers to put all of his furniture into a moving van in his parking lot to make room for the hundreds of guests who would show up, and he’d decorate the place with elaborate props to match the theme.
He and two buddies always wore coordinating costumes. When the theme was travel, they had a seamstress sew airline stewardess uniforms from a vintage Chanel pattern, to which they added wigs, false eyelashes and ladylike makeup.
That same seamstress replicated the clothes that Barbie and her friends were wearing on the side of a Barbie doll box another year. His guests, he says, went all out, too.
“When you give them a theme, they go for it,” says McGowan. “They love it. It gives them a guide. People started planning the next day for their costume for the next year.”
Busy time of year
Ulledahl is already getting a lot of requests for her services. Pennywise, the clown from the horror flick ‘It,’ is very popular this year. People also want to know if she can ‘do gore.’
“That’s not a problem,” she says. “I have three or four bottles of blood medium. People ask how gory can you go? Well how gory do you want to be? I can make you look like your guts are falling out.”
She charges $25 on up for her services, and an additional $40 if she travels to your house.
Local freelance special effects makeup artist Rod Zirkle’s services are also in big demand this time of year. He gets requests for everything — from temporary tattoos to turn a banker into a biker to full-body paint jobs that make human skin look like the hide of a jungle cat.
“Last year, I had a couple ask me to paint them like “Day of the Dead,” and I will do it again this year,” Zirkle says. “They’re going to a private party where the foyer is as big as my whole house.”
He can charge up to $100 an hour depending on what the clients want.
“I’m using real makeup and it costs money, about $20 an ounce,” he says. “I’m also insured, in case someone has an allergic reaction.”
Zirkle had another couple hire him to set up appointments with their friends and turn them each into zombies for the couple’s “Walking Dead” party.
This is the busiest time of year for Jenny O’Leary, a rental consultant at Kansas City Costume. People start planning for their costumes months ahead.
“I had someone ‘call ahead’ the other day,” she said, making air quotes while giving a tour of the warehouse a couple of weeks ago. “I laughed.”
Customers can choose from a variety of packaged costumes and paraphernalia in the front of the 70,000-square-foot warehouse near Truman Sports Complex. Or they can tell O’Leary what they want, and she’ll pull together something more elaborate for them from her huge treasure trove of costumes in the back — at a higher cost, of course.
Kansas City Costume has two types of custom costumes: professional stock for actors in large theater productions and public stock for school theater productions and everyone else, including people dressing up for Halloween.
But, O’Leary points out, there’s little difference in the quality between the two types of costumes.
“Ours are theater-quality, heavy fabrics with real zippers, and there’s very little you can do to ruin them or even split a seam,” she says. “We don’t skimp on fabric whether it’s professional or public.”
O’Leary estimates that 90 percent of their public costumes are hand-crafted in-house by designers and seamstresses who have college degrees in costume design.
Flapper gowns, men’s gangster suits and Bonnie & Clyde apparel from the 1920s are the most popular this year.
“Wizard of Oz” costumes are also wildly popular, including Glinda the good witch, though Kansas City Costume generally provides a narrower skirt hoop for the public than for professionals.
“It’s really not possible to move around a party in a full pannier,” O’Leary says. “But if they are willing to pay (for a pannier) — they are willing to pay. I just say, ‘Here are the risks.’ ”
Some of her most expensive costumes are authentic showgirl outfits that were purchased in Las Vegas after they were retired from the stage. Jenny estimates that if the shop made them in-house, they’d cost more than $7,000. You can rent them for about $400.
“It takes two or three hours just to get them ready to rent,” she says. “By the way, one of my pet-peeves is when people ask ‘Are you going to clean it before I rent it?’ We clean it before we put it away. Can you imagine the smell in this place if we didn’t?’ ”
O’Leary has had customers walk in and say ‘I want to be this. Money is no object, show me everything you have.’ She recalls the time a strapping auctioneer who was at least 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds came in wearing cowboy boots and a Texas belt buckle as big as a soap dish.
“He walked out of here in an evening gown, and he looked amazing,” she says.