Q&A with Cindy Brown, Entertainment Supervisor of Costuming & Crafts at Busch Gardens Williamsburg
When many people think of theme parks, costumes are often an afterthought, if not something people completely take for granted. While I was at Busch Gardens Williamsburg this week, I had the opportunity to talk with Cindy Brown, Entertainment Supervisor of Costuming & Crafts at Busch Gardens Williamsburg about how she got her start in the theme park industry and the costuming department at the park. Cindy was even kind enough to give us a behind the scenes glance at some of the costumes involved for Monster Stomp on Ripper Row, entering its second year at Howl-O-Scream.
Cindy Brown shows off some costumes for “Monster Stomp on Ripper Row.”
C101: How did you get your start in the theme park industry?
CB: My start was actually in costumes. When I was in high school, I was very involved in the theater department there. I started doing their costumes, and that’s what I really wanted to do from the time I was 16. I made this really cool caterpillar costume for Alice in Wonderland out of children’s tubes that I had at my house – and it was really successful, and I made some fried pie costumes and they were also really successful. I had a really great mentor at the time who encouraged me to go into costumes. When I looked for colleges, that’s what I looked for. I went to UNC-Greensboro and went through their costume program there for design and technology.
When I was out of school, I did some freelance work – sewing curtains for people and alteration work. I was looking for a way to get back into theater. But one thing about the theater that I don’t appreciate is the freelance lifestyle – I didn’t want to move around from place to place much. When I was looking for a steady job, I had a friend who worked up here at the time send me the job description for the Costume Production Captain position – which sounded great. I was 9 months out of school, and I came up here for the position. It has a led to a really great opportunity – I’ve been here for almost four years. It’s been great. I moved from Costume Production Captain to Costume Shop Supervisor – into a full time role here, and its been fun. I like that we get such a variety of costumes to deal with. I think this job also suits my strengths.
Celtic Fyre at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Photo ©Busch Gardens Williamsburg/SeaWorld Entertainment
C101: What’s an average day like for you at Busch Gardens?
CB: I come in at 7:30 usually and I check all of the show reports – we get show reports every night from every venue. I compile the show reports – this is what we need to do, this shoe is falling apart, these costumes need repair, this button fell off, he needs new shoelaces, and so on and so forth. I compile all of them into one email which goes to my full time staff, and I print it. By that time, our laundry staff has usually pulled the item out of the laundry or put the repairs on the table, and then we assigning it out to the stitchers or whoever has the skill set to fix those issues. It depends on the day, really. I also write the schedule, we write lists for what we’re building that day, I talk to my cutter/draper who will be in in a little bit to make sure she knows what she’s doing, and that everyone has assignments when they come in. I also take care of all the fittings when they come in. We do random fittings each day – later today I have three little fittings just for some odd costumes. When we’re in production we have tons of fittings – fittings from 9:00am-10:00pm nonstop all day. Depends on the day, but some of the days are long – fitting after fitting straight through.
The USO Bar at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Cindy’s team is in charge of the costuming for this venue.
C101: Do you focus mainly on costuming for live entertainment, special events, general costuming, or some of everything?
CB: We do all of the shows and all of the events. By that I mean the 40th Anniversary is an event. Howl-O-Scream is an event. So we do all of the “Scare Squad”costumes for all of our mazes and all of our territories. For the 40th anniversary, we did all of those costumes. When they had the 40th anniversary VIP Event, we worked on the uniform costumes for the servers that day. We dabble in some of those – we call it culin-tainment. A mix of culinary staff and entertainment staff – they staff the bars, and we costume them. When you go to the USO Bar right now, those are our costumes.
C101: Does the wide variety of shows at Busch Gardens Williamsburg ever present any challenges with costuming?
CB: Definitely, yes. Some shows, when they’ve gone so long like Celtic Fyre, you get into a rhythm when you’ve worked out all of your kinks and all of your issues during the 5 or 6 years it’s been running. There are very few issues – they come up every once in a while – with some of the costumes, they are made of wool, and with the heat and humidity, they begin to shrink. Sometimes we have to rebuild a pair of pants or resource a different fabric to make it work.
Roll Out The Barrel at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Photo ©Busch Gardens Williamsburg/SeaWorld Entertainment
CB: “Roll Out the Barrel,” being new, and the choreography being new, sometimes there are issues with the choreography in the costumes not working out. We have to take them in, let them out, tweak this, fit that. We deal with shoe issues as they come up – if it’s not comfortable, what can they dance in that also gives us that same look. Depends on how long the show has been running and how many pieces each costume has. For Celtic Fyre, each costume has between three to five pieces, but Roll Out the Barrel — each costume has 10-12 pieces, so due to overall quantity of costume pieces, there will be more issues, even if they’re small.
C101: What do you feel is the most rewarding part of your job?
CB: Seeing a truly spectacular costume moment, and I’ll give you this example: For Monster Stomp on Ripper Row – we worked day and night on some bones. There’s a moment where Skeleton costumes come out – and they’re backlit skeleton costumes. The problem with a costume like that is that you can’t just buy it off the rack – it won’t last. We have to launder them, because they sweat and stink and you have to wash them. So we had to come up with a solution on how we could make the bones cheaply but also to make them last forever.
We ended up buying off the rack costumes and we took great stuff- that foam insulator, and put a fake backing on it, we stuff them full of great stuff, and let them dry, then we take backing off and shave them down, and then we put new backing on, which we’ve painted black, then we sharpie the edges, and then we put Velcro and elastic on them to make them stick to the body in the ways that we needed to – we built unitards to do that. We then take the bones and touch up their paint where they’re a little off, and then we black light paint them. It’s about a ten step process for 12 bones on each body, for 12 costumes. There were hundreds of steps in this process. During the opening performance, the skeletons jumped out, the audience went wild, and it was awesome – and the show was amazing.
Cindy displays the Skeleton Bones from Monster Stomp on Ripper Row.
Mix It Up at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Photo ©Busch Gardens Williamsburg/SeaWorld Entertainment
C101: What do you feel is the most underrated attraction or show at Busch Gardens?
CB: Mix It Up. I think Mix It Up is one of my favorite shows. People love Mix It Up, but no one comes here just to go see Mix It Up – but I think they could, and they should. It’s a really entertaining show.
A Distressed Jacket from Monster Stomp on Ripper Row
C101: Do you have a favorite costume or craft that you have created during your time at Busch Gardens?
CB: So much of what I do isn’t creating – my staff does the creating. My actual physical touch is more crafts. I get to dye all the costumes, as well as destroy and distress the costumes. Lois on my staff built this beautiful silk threaded jacket for Monster Stomp, and then I just went to town with dye and some tools – cheese graters and stuff like that to destroy it. I don’t have a favorite really, because it’s really my staff that turns it out.
C101: As we head to the fall season, Howl-O-Scream is fast approaching, what are you most excited for in regards to that event?
CB: I’m most excited for Monster Stomp. I love that show. It went up very well. The costumes look great in it. It’s sexy and dirty and it’s a great Halloween show. Plus, last year with the costumes we had no issues, so it should be straight away this year.
C101: What is your favorite part about the Williamsburg area?
CB: I’m so close to everything. It’s something that I’ve discovered living on the peninsula. When my family comes up, it’s awesome, because there’s so much to do. You can go to Go Ape, you can go to Colonial Williamsburg. Sometimes you just go to lunch at Colonial Williamsburg, and think “this is so crazy, people pay to come here all the time, and I’m just here eating lunch.” And I love that we’re close to the beach and Yorktown is so beautiful. We have a lot of great parks, and I like to be outside. I like the parks in the summer, the beach in the summer. And Busch Gardens, working here is great as well. After you work here and family comes up so many times, you think to yourself “I’ve ridden Verbolten 700 times” but it’s still fun. I can meet them right after work and hang out with them and play. It’s a good time.
C101: What is your favorite season at Busch Gardens?
CB: Christmastown. It’s magical. So magical. I was actually hoping that you’d ask that because I love Christmastown. The music in the park, the Santas…I get to fit Santa! And that’s really cool. It’s a good time of year. I like Santa and Mrs. Claus fitting. The food is incredible – you can go to Grogan’s and get a turkey stuffed panini sandwich that’s really good.
Inside the Busch Gardens Williamsburg Costume Shop
C101: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
CB: We have a big staff that are extremely talented. Some of our staff have been here almost 30 years. They know everything– the park is 40 years old, and they’ve been here 30 years. They know so much, and the talent in here is so great. You can ask them for anything, and they can produce it. We just go and go and go and go, and there’s never really a down time. We’re working on Christmas and we’re working on Halloween, and we’re just always going.
After the interview, Cindy was kind enough to give me some behind-the-scenes looks at the Costuming Process for “Monster Stomp on Ripper Row.”
Each costume in “Monster Stomp on Ripper Row” (and all of Busch Gardens’ shows) begins with a concept drawing. These drawings are all located in what Cindy referred to as the “Costuming Bible.” From these concepts, it is Cindy and her team’s job to turn these drawings into reality.
The Concept for Jack the Ripper (Top) and Jack’s Finished Cape (Bottom)
Each costume piece is labeled and organized. The costumes are handed out two at a time, so that a constant stream of laundry can be completed.
Costumes for Monster Stomp on Ripper Row that have already been fitted, waiting for showtime in the Busch Gardens Costume Shop.
Concept art hangs around the shop. Cindy told me they used to tape these images up, but recently developed a better hanging system that allows the images to be pulled down and put back up easier.
Thanks to Cindy for her time, and Kevin Crossett, Marketing Manager for Busch Gardens Williamsburg for helping facilitate this interview, as well as for the video of Howl-O-Scream and Christmas Town.
(And because I know he might read this, thanks to Russell VanZomeren, Cindy’s brother, for helping me set up this interview, even though he waited several years into our friendship to tell me that his sister worked at Busch Gardens. Thanks Russ.)
Are you excited for Howl-O-Scream? Want to visit Busch Gardens and see their amazing shows (and their amazing costumes!) first-hand? Let us know in the comments below.