The costume shop at the Sarasota Opera House is bustling as it prepares for the upcoming season, which begins Oct. 26 with “Rigoletto.” There are people sewing buttons and clasps, putting seams into leather, and, every so often, someone will interrupt the droning click of sewing machines to chat.
“Oh, give Ruthie something with beading,” one of the women seated at a sewing machine says.
Head Dresser Ruthie Engford Clark takes an iridescent mint-green gown from a nearby rack. She carefully runs her fingers over the large colorful gems she has attached to the garment to be used in Sarasota Youth Opera’s production of “Little Nemo in Slumberland.”
Clark is notorious for her beadwork.
Sure, she’s responsible for the team that maintains, repairs, cleans and presses hundreds of costumes and makes sure every room in the three floors of dressing rooms has the right costume — including every sock, shoe, hat and belt. But her favorite part of the job is the beadwork.
“Whenever there’s beading to do, I say, ‘Howard, save that job for me,’” she says peering over the top of her glasses with a slight furrow in her brow. She gives the impression that resident costume designer Howard Tsvi Kaplan would be in trouble if he gave the job to someone else — but she’s kidding. Clark and Kaplan have become quite the team, working together for the past 15 years.
One of Clark’s favorite memories from the past 19 years she’s been with the opera was the day of dress rehearsal for Verdi’s “Oberto.”
“It was this huge gold dress for some queen-like principal part, and it was all full of pearls, beads, jewels and it wasn’t finished yet,” she says. “There were six of us all sewing on pearls and beads. Every time I see it, I still remember that.”
Sewing on beads takes Clark back to the days she beaded her own costumes on the road between performances with her family’s traveling circus — first for her grandfather’s circus, Engford Family Shows, then her father’s circus, Forges Bros. Show. Her family did everything from acrobatics, wire walking and juggling — they were all musicians, too.
“My love was trapeze,” she says. Her costumes were full of rhinestones, beads and feathers. And she made them all by hand.
“You couldn’t buy costumes at Walmart or any store like that. It was all custom made for the work you were doing,” she says.
She met her husband, Frank, while they were performing together. And they got married in 1966 while hanging upside down from a helicopter with 75,000 people watching below. Frank Clark was the property master at the Sarasota Opera for almost 10 years. The high-flying duo’s home is a museum of costumes and nostalgia from the 35 years they spent performing together.
Clark says she hasn’t shared her story with too many people with whom she works, although word does get around about her performance background — especially because the circus community is so close-knit.
“It’s not like I wear a shirt that says, ‘I hang from my neck in the air’ or anything,” she laughs.
As a woman who spent her life performing, she can relate to the discipline of the opera performer’s craft. And, if she still could, she’d be gung-ho for performing a trapeze performance in a magnificently beaded costume.
“Sure! I’m ready!” she says enthusiastically. “Where’s the car? Let’s go!”
IF YOU GO
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26. Runs through Nov. 12.
Where: Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave.
Cost: Tickets $20 to $130.
Info: Call the box office at 366-8450, Ext. 1 or visit sarasotaopera.org