of M alumni Anne Ippolito in front of the poster for
Thoroughly Modern Millie.
It's 6:30 p.m. - an hour and a half before show time - on
a wintry Friday evening at Manhattan's Marquis Theatre on
46th Street and Broadway. Amid sequined dresses, tailored
suits and retro props, Anne Tate Wilkerson Ippolito (BFA '73)
buzzes about backstage at the Broadway production of Thoroughly
Modern Millie, the winner of six 2002 Tony awards, including
"Best Musical." In the theatre's narrow offstage
hallways a powder-faced Delta Burke, prepares for her role
as the geisha-clad schemer Mrs. Meers. (Shortly after this
evening, Burke was replaced by her former TV co-star on the
hit show Designing Women, Dixie Carter, who is also
a U of M alumna.)
Based on the 1967 Oscar-winning film of the same title, Thoroughly
Modern Millie is the tale of a 20-something who travels
from Kansas to Manhattan in the Roaring '20s in search of
flashy personalities and foreign cityscapes. In a like-minded
pursuit, Ippolito has forged a career path from Memphis that
has spanned the globe, landing her back in the Big Apple as
a dresser for the play.
dressing room fixture
As one of the show's 13 dressers, Ippolito maintains the
elaborate outfits and facilitates wardrobe changes of three
principal actors and six ensemble cast members. In Millie's
case, that entails overseeing the Tony-award winning costumes
designed by Martin Pakledinaz.
Ippolito's job is more choreographed than one might imagine.
She presses her assigned characters' shirts and pants, polishes
their shoes and hangs their costumes in show order with cufflinks
and tie clips in place. And just as an overprotective mother
might, she transports her assigned actors' "discards"
- a theatre euphemism for dirty laundry - to and from the
laundry station, doling out a clean pair of underwear for
each show. When one of her ensemble cast members is ready
for a costume change, Ippolito is waiting in the wings with
a laundry basket, a drop cloth and a kneeling pad - poised
to unzip and undo. During the second and final acts of the
play, Ippolito presets her actors' personal clothes and tidies
up their dressing rooms, enabling their swift escape from
A regular presence in private dressing rooms, a dresser must
learn to adapt to the unique identities and preferences of
her assigned performers. "It's like an archaeological
dig," says Ippolito. "I take a look at their dressing
room and see how they like their things set out. There's no
discussion, I just watch."
When an actor left the role of Mr. Trevor Graydon and a new
one filled the part, Ippolito had to re-tailor her approach.
The character, who is the show's big-dealing businessman and
one of Ippolito's assigned principal actors, was formerly
played by Ben Davis, who took a role in La Boheme in
Los Angeles. Kevin Earley subsequently slid into the role
of Graydon. "Ben was an opera singer," Ippolito
recalls. "He used to say 'I don't want to be seen in
my skivvies.'" On the other hand, the less bashful Earley
assured Ippolito that he was "'an open door type of guy.'"
sprouts a career
Often guided by her instincts, Ippolito has been on quite
a journey since her college days at the University of Memphis
where her acting adventures began. Under the direction of
Keith Kennedy, then chair of the U of M Theatre Department,
Ippolito was an ensemble actor in the 1970 campus production
of Hair - one of the experiences she credits for her
long-lived career. "It was very controversial at that
time to do that show in Memphis with that kind of language,
but now it's what you'd hear on television," recounts
Upon graduating magna cum laude with a BFA in acting, Ippolito
won a scholarship to the University of New Orleans where she
received her MFA in acting and directing. In 1976 she accepted
a teaching post at the University of Florida where she met
her husband, Joseph, a fellow assistant professor of theatre,
who is currently the head carpenter for Billy Joel's Broadway
hit, Movin' Out.
Ippolito and her husband formed a small company on the Florida
campus with student actors. Anne and Joseph, who also designed
the productions, took turns directing. In 1982 the company
performed El Grande de Coca Cola, which had made its
Manhattan debut off-Broadway in 1973. Eager to travel, Ippolito's
husband suggested she call the United Service Organization,
a nonprofit group that provides recreational services to uniformed
military personnel, to inquire if it would sponsor an overseas
tour for the company. "Well, I called," Ippolito
says, "and I got Col. Frank on the phone. He had to pick
one show. He said, 'You're in Florida? You got pretty girls?'"
Col. Frank ultimately chose Ippolito's production to tour
Germany, Iceland and Italy on behalf of the USO. "I decided
I liked it," Anne says of the itinerant life.
has a real nurturing quality," says Millie
cast member Francis Jue, pictured here shortly before
a show on a Sunday in April. "She's extrememly
intuitive, and her acting training has given her insight
into what it's like to have had a god or bad day (as
And so began Ippolito's on-the-road acting adventures, which
would land her in such international locations as Martinique
and Paris. "I've switched off between titles, but the
role of dresser kind of chose me," says Ippolito, whose
resumealso features several stints as a wardrobe supervisor
and assistant wardrobe supervisor. Her first experience as
a dresser was in 1983. Joseph landed a job with Mame,
starring Angela Landsbury, and Ippolito worked as an assistant
to Landsbury's dresser.
In the fall of 2001, after traveling to Tokyo and nearly
every American state with the Benny Company tour of Rent,
Ippolito moved to New York City, where Joseph was offered
a job as head carpenter for the Broadway show, Noises Off.
Ippolito was working for The Full Monty on Broadway
as a dresser when she approached Millie's wardrobe
supervisor, Deborah Cheretun, whom she had worked with on
the Broadway production of Showboat in 1995-96. "I
knew that Full Monty didn't have much time left (the
production closed the summer after Ippolito left), and I just
had an instinct about Millie," Ippolito recalls.
As part of her duties of maintaining the actors' costumes,
Ippolito sends tattered shoes to the shoe repair station,
which comes equipped with every imaginable polish and accouterment
from bone-tipping to patent leather. One of Ippolito's assigned
actors, Francis Jue, who played Bun Foo through last spring,
had an emotional attachment to a particularly beat-up pair
of canvas shoes. An identical, brand new pair sat on Jue's
dressing room shelf, but Ippolito maintained his original
pair, sending them to the shoe repair station for multiple
repatchings. Jue also routinely ripped his costumes. Woven
in silk, they were particularly vulnerable to the hazards
of performing, but Ippolito believes that a performer's unique
body chemistry - which includes everything from an actor's
on-stage antics to the amount of makeup they use - is a contributing
factor as well.
These subtle observations underscore Ippolito's ability to
hone in on the frequency of an actor's performance each night,
maintains Jue, who left Millie for a role in another
production last spring. "As little as two weeks ago,
I had a panic attack in the middle of the night," Jue
says. "All sorts of worries that I've suppressed about
my family all being in California and about what I was doing
here came to the surface. I arrived at the theatre, and I
was scared about going on stage. Anne immediately picked up
on the fact that I wasn't myself. Among everyone in the company
- and some of these people I've worked with for years - Anne
was the one who really took the time to take care of me. She
asked me, 'Are you OK?' And I said, 'Yes, I'm fine.' But she
said, 'No I don't think that you are.' I just had terrible
stage fright that night, and Anne's confidence in me and her
observations about my performance were so perceptive. She
really helped me through this crisis of confidence. She's
a remarkable person."
While the fate of a play is precariously balanced on ticket
sales, Ippolito has never worried about finding work, even
given the current downturn on Broadway. "If you've been
in the business a long time, people know who you are,"
reflects Ippolito. As a member of a union for theatre professionals,
which requires a yearly payment of $180 along with a one-time
payment of $1,000 and an initiation fee of $25, Anne receives
health insurance and is ensured certain workers' rights.
At presstime, Millie was scheduled to close at the
end of June, and Ippolito planned to look for work on one
of the new shows on Broadway this fall. "It is just the
nature of this business - go to another show!" she says.
Still, Ippolito has begun to take union classes in film studies
to learn the ins-and-outs of wardrobe work in film. She has
one movie credential already under her belt, having worked
as a wardrobe staff member on the 1995 film Basquiat.
"I'd love to become involved with film productions,"
Ippolito says. "The money's a lot better, too."
Backstage at the Marquis Theatre, this journalist is ill-equipped
to venture into the downpour outside. Ippolito insists on
giving me one of her spare umbrellas. "My husband tells
me to stop buying them - I have too many around the house,"
Apparently such excessive preparedness is a work-related