For those of you new to this column, I’m revisiting important events in my life that made me what I am today: A Special Effects Make Up Artist looking for relevance in the 21st Century. By this time in the story, I have been at home, experimenting with foam latex, trying to make prosthetics and failing. I am seventeen years old.
I had a job at a grocery store. This supplied me with money, but did nothing to fire my ambition or imagination. With the failure of my foam latex attempts, I decided that I needed to take a positive step toward my goals. I took a bunch of my pencil color renderings (I had gotten adept at copying TV Guide covers with pencil colors on colored paper) and went to see Herb Saussaye at the Vieux Carre Hair Store in the French Quarter (see: The Latex Genie in the Bottle). I showed him my sketches, and he hired me to help out in the shop on a part-time basis. I was elated.
Working in Mr. Saussaye’s shop was the closest thing I had experienced to working in a magic shop. When you walked into the shop there were three glass cases that formed an upside down “U” the center of which formed a sales floor in the main room. Beyond the cases, was another room that was the workshop for the hair-tiers (that is tie-ers not tiers), who made custom wigs and hairpieces for theater, the Opera, and for Mardi Gras balls.
In the cases were lace mustaches, beards, rubber noses, grease paint kits, spirit gum and small make-up guides. There were tall cabinets that held “stick” make-ups by Mehron, Ben Nye, and Bob Kelly that were used by people in broadcasting. And then, on the shelves, were the masks! As I said before, some of the best Don Post masks were on display including the then famous Star Wars masks! However, a few weeks into my employment we received a series of masks from a new company called Savage Eye.
Their slick catalogue showed masks that were different from Mr. Post’s masks in two significant ways: One, they went down to the mid-chest, instead of stopping at the collar-bone and two, some of them were flocked. It sounds silly, but trust me, it was impressive. Savage Eye carried one of the best “Conehead” masks I had ever seen. The sculpture was excellent and it wasn’t slit up the back for ease of wearing like most commercially available masks. This meant that you had to powder the inside and pull it over your head by brute force. To this day, I’m convinced that I lost hair on top of my head from that mask ripping it out when I demonstrated it to customers.
Savage Eye went out of business. Why? Who knows. Perhaps they were ahead of the curve and selling high-priced, production latex masks was not a viable business. As a rule, collector’s masks are generally produced by smaller studios that produce limited mask runs in order to keep the cost down.
(Note: Don Post Studios still exists, still producing quality latex Halloween masks. The company is run by Don Post, Jr., a genial man who has been nice enough to hire me on occasion to sculpt masks.)
Aside from selling masks, breaking down latex and grease paint into smaller containers for retail sale, Herb asked me to put together a “Werewolf Kit” for him. This meant that I designed and drew a label featuring a man turning into a Werewolf, which the store had printed onto cardboard, folded labels. Then I would assemble appropriate grease paints, crepe wool (hair), plastic fangs, a rubber wolf nose, and a bottle of spirit gum and put them into a plastic bag and then staple the label across the top and put it into the stock. These, believe it or not, were good sellers and soon became a regular product at the store for years.
It was a family business, and I soon met Herb’s wife, their daughter, Lynn, and their other son, Barry. They truly were a talented family of make up artists and wig makers and they were their busiest during Mardi Gras.
For those of you unfamiliar with how Mardi Gras worked in the 70s (or at all) it went something like this: During the Mardi Gras Season, which began shortly after Christmas, different organizations (“Krewes”) would begin having their Mardi Gras balls. These masked events meant a few things. First, there would be cases of masks (harlequin – style) to be sold to the attendees, but there was more. A “Court” existing of wealthy local businessmen and debutantes would be elected and they would “reign” over the ball as well as ride in the subsequent parade as “royalty.”
There were easily a dozen or more Mardi Gras Krewes that the Saussayes provided wigs, masks and hairpieces to, with names like: Comus, Bacchus, Rex, and Endymion. Eventually, I was asked to go with them to help get revelers prepared for their big night. I was nervous. I had never done anything like this before in my life. Herb assured me not to worry as he instructed me in the proper procedure to make and apply a crepe wool beard and mustache. I was warned that I would be repeating this many times throughout the evening, so I should practice. And practice I did, at work and at home in preparation for the big event.
That night, at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans, I stood at a folding table with my meager make-up supplies; next to it, was a tall make-up chair. My job was to help primarily with the men’s make-up. After they had their wigs put on, they would sit in my chair, I would base them out with a foundation color, pencil in their eyebrows, line their eyes, apply a bit of lip rouge, and then glue their beards and mustaches on. This is all well and good, but no one told me that most of my subjects would be drunk.
After the first or second guy, I got into a groove, and things were running like clockwork. Base, eyeliner, eyebrows, lip rouge, mustache, beard, base, eyeliner, eyebrows, lip rouge, mustache, beard, ad nausem. And then, he walked, or should I saw, stumbled in.
I never knew this guy’s name but he wasn’t just drunk, his face was crawfish red from having the time of his life and enough booze for a lifetime. He climbed into my chair and started to sway like he was on a ship in a storm. It was a fight just to get his base on. I, wisely, made the decision to avoid using anything like a brush or pencil next to his bleary eyes, and when I held up the lip rouge, he just batted it out of my hand. “Sir,” I said, “I have to put your beard on.” “Sure, sure!” he roared, “Gotta have my beard, right?”
So, I did my best to line his mustache on straight and then I glued his beard on. He was moving so much that my brush stuck in the hair on the side of his face and brought up a little peak of crepe wool, which looked horrible! Thinking quickly, I grabbed my hair cutting scissors to just trim the protruding beard hair when, SNIP! I cut his face.
OH GOD, I JUST CUT HIS FACE!
I saw a little trickle of blood run into his beard and I grabbed a tissue to stop it.
“Am I done?” he asked me, oblivious to what had just happened. I nodded and watched the crappiest looking duke, or prince, or (who knows?) king, walk out of the room. I apologized to Herb who told me not to worry about it.
At the end of the night, it was time to clean up all of the revelers before they went home. To take the beards off, we used…wait for it….Rubbing Alcohol. When my drunken buddy sat in my chair, I took a make up puff saturated in alcohol and began removing his beard.
When I hit the cut, he felt it then, alright! “Oh my GOD! I cut my face!” he yelled. I said nothing. Herb just shook his head and went back to work. “What the hell did I do out there?” the guy wondered. I remained silent and continued to take off his foundation. Soon, clean and sober, literally, he left and I collapsed feeling like I had just run a marathon. I think that night I learned something important about myself. I was NOT cut out to be a studio make up artist.
Excuse the pun.
NEXT WEEK: “Bluffing My Way Into College”
…And last time on Blood, Sweat and Latex: Home Schooling
Shannon Shea, a native New Orleanian educated at The California Institute of the Arts, has enjoyed a 27-year tenure designing, constructing, and performing animatronic creatures and characters for Motion Pictures and Television. He has had the pleasure of contributing to such diverse films as Predator, Dances With Wolves, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Spy Kids, The Chronicles of Narnia, Drag Me To Hell and 2012’s Men In Black 3.
Not limited to the confines of Motion Pictures, he paints (having been shown in New York, North Carolina, and Los Angeles), sculpts, writes and authors a new blog about his motion picture experiences called Monster History 101. Recently, he was tapped by the Stan Winston School of Character Design to be one of their instructors for a lecture series entitled Garage Monsters. When not participating on Hollywood projects, he enjoys producing, writing, and directing his own short films including Hotel Superman, Blind Passion, and his current Internet project Phantom Harbor. Shannon lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tracy, an Operatic Soprano and their daughter, Molly, who attends the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago.