Part of life: Man follows stage from Broadway to CMU
Man follows stage from Broadway to CMU
Mark Mathews grabbed a crisp shirt, freshly pressed tuxedo pants and bow tie. He was one black tuxedo jacket away from a fun night out.
The formal attire was for a student actor to wear during a recent photo shoot to promote Colorado Mesa University theatre arts department’s upcoming show “Crazy For You.”
As head of wardrobe for the show, Mathews will coordinate and organize nearly 60 costume changes, including the tuxedo look, for the nine performances. Although the backstage of a Grand Junction university seems an unlikely place for a 68-year-old man who had a career on Broadway, Mathews has learned that the stage — any stage — is the greatest place of all.
Not originally from Colorado, Mathews and his longtime friend Bruce Catt, 76, who also volunteers with the university’s theater costume shop, followed a winding path to Grand Junction. And to understand how Mathews got here, it helps to retrace his steps from 2012 Grand Junction to the 1940s in San Fernando Valley in Southern California, where Mathews spent his childhood.
“According to my parents, when there were dancers on TV, I turned around and said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ ” Mathews said. He was 5 years old at the time.
His parents listened and enrolled Mathews in ballet lessons. He studied with David Lichine and Tatiana Riabouchinska, who enjoyed illustrious careers in Europe during the 1930s and ‘40s before moving to Southern California and opening a studio.
“I had no idea who they were,” Mathews said.
Mathews took dance lessons and performed through the 1940s and into the 1950s, until as a teenager he discovered a recording of “West Side Story,” which debuted on Broadway in 1957. He played the record so often, Mathews is sure it drove his mother crazy.
“It was basically all singing and dancing,” Mathews said. He was bitten by the Broadway bug.
In the late 1960s, Mathews’ road to Broadway began with an audition for “The Happy Time,” which starred Robert Goulet and opened in Los Angeles. Mathews was cast in the chorus of children, playing a teenager even though he was then in his mid-20s.
When the show left Los Angeles to open on Broadway in 1968, Mathews followed.
Once on Broadway, he was exposed to the fast-paced life of stage performance. His day typically consisted of dance classes, auditions to book future jobs and vocal lessons in an ongoing effort to become a stronger singer.
“It was fun,” Mathews said.
However, his time on stage ended in 1975. He met Catt, who worked for Brooks-Van Horn Costume Co., and started the transition into life backstage. It was time.
“Backstage is where most dancers end up going,” Mathews said. “What? Leave show business?” No way.
In 1980, Mathews landed his first job dressing a Broadway star with Richard Gere in “Bent,” and he started to see Broadway from a different point of view.
“Watching those kids dance eight shows a week on Broadway? They were killing themselves,” Mathews said.
From 1980 until his final show in the mid-2000s, Mathews spent time dressing characters from shows including “Barnum,” “Nine,” “Song & Dance” and “Cats,” where he worked for 13 years until 2000.
Mathews was on the crew of the revival of “Kiss Me, Kate” when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11.
“It stopped the world, basically,” Mathews said. “Broadway went down.”
However, much like New York itself, Broadway bounced back. Mathews laughs when people suggest Broadway will die.
Several years following 9/11, Mathews came to Mesa County after the death of his father, who had moved with Mathews’ mother to Grand Junction in 1998 to escape the urban life of Los Angeles. Mathews and Catt talked with Mathews’ mother about what she was going to do with their house. His mother didn’t know.
“We had done everything there was in New York,” Mathews said. “This place in Grand Junction was great, and then, we went back to New York and realized we could fit three of our apartments in that Grand Junction house. We took early retirement and moved.”
Mathews and Catt found themselves in an unfamiliar town away from the familiar stage.
However, Mathews said he and Catt didn’t waste much time finding their way to then-Mesa State College. They supported the theater department by going to shows. Mathews got involved with the dance department, and Catt offered to help the costume shop.
Catt even took a costume class with professor Heather Waggoner, who has a master’s degree in costume design technology and heads up the university’s costume shop.
Catt, who works mostly from home, is well-versed in making hats, and his pieces will be featured on the heads of the “Crazy For You” show girls. He’s also knowledgeable in historical pieces, matching the right costume with the time period.
Mathews works extensively with the dance department, particularly on its costuming.
He brings the chocolate. Waggoner brings the soup.
But Mathews also offers something else to theater and dance students dreaming of Broadway’s stage or backstage: real-world anecdotes and advice.
The students watch how Mathews works and listen to his direction, and Mathews considers it a privilege to share his experiences with performers of any role.
“I feel like it’s passing it on,” Mathews said.
The university students represent the next generation of potential stars, so Mathews is happy to fetch a tuxedo coat here or bow tie there. The show must go on, no matter where the show is.
Besides, he added, “I’ve done everything.”