At first it seems a little sketchy. The Stone Age website. The nowhere-zone location, a blank storefront hunched near an entrance ramp to Highway 394. The utterly nondescript merchandise area, scant in its offerings of cheap rubber masks, fake teeth and make-up kits.
But like any underground business, the real goods are kept behind the counter. And if you’ve been to Downtown’s Theatrical Costume Company before, you know to ask to see the warehouse. That’s where owner Brian Berberich houses the archive.
Berberich has spent the last 21 years building costumes for amateur theater productions, commercial shoots, fan conventions, indie films, goth proms and any other event that might call for a World War I uniform, a ruffled Shakespeare collar or an Amy Winehouse beehive. He’s outfitted everything from high school productions of “My Fair Lady” to a 2008 Super Bowl commercial that featured a tiny Napoleon navigating the streets of Paris with a GPS system. He’s supplied mariachi band costumes for a Culver’s commercial (“They were selling jalapeno burgers or something”). And a few years ago, for reasons unknown, Ty Pennington of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” stopped in to rent a chicken suit.
Since Berberich mostly rents these costumes, he keeps them afterward. His warehouse, then, is a historical record of every get-up he’s ever crafted — a mammoth closet crammed floor-to-ceiling with dress-up fantasies. And it’s open to Halloween costume hunters.
“A lot of people want to come back and look around,” said Berberich. “And we say, that’s OK, as long as you don’t take anything off the rack. It’s like a library. We have to know where everything is.”
Berberich’s library is organized by time period. Because staged dramas often rely on historical context, Berberich keeps detailed approximations of what someone may have worn in 1840s London or in the American happy days of the 1950s. We tried on a black cut-away jacket and top hat, both from the Victorian era, for a Jack the Ripper costume we’re considering.
Berberich, who studied scenic and costume design at Minnesota State University Moorehead, began his career in education, teaching theater at St. Cloud State for 10 years. In 1989, he moved to Minneapolis to start his costume rental business, opening a store in the Sexton Building at 521 S. 7th St. The shop settled into its current location, at 1226 Linden Ave., in 2004.
“A couple of years into it, we saw that Halloween would be a big thing for us,” Berberich said. “Those costumes are a little different. We realized we had to have a Marilyn Monroe costume. We had to have an Elvis costume. And we had to make those.”
Berberich’s wife helps with the sewing, and the couple employs one additional seamstress, a woman named Valerie who used to organize props for Theater in the Round. If a costume can be purchased, like a military uniform, the Berberichs will buy it. But Brian says two thirds of his stock is homemade.
And that makes for difficult decisions regarding contemporary pop culture costumes.
“We are real careful about, if we make something, we have to know that it’s something that will be popular,” Berberich said. “For example, “Avatar” came out. And everyone was saying, ‘Oh, do you have an Avatar costume?’”
So the team did a dry run. They hosted a few people to come in and try on some skin-tight body suits.
“Unless you have a perfect body, people don’t want to wear it,” Berberich said. “That was where we learned it wasn’t worth having it because too many people put it on and said, I don’t want to look like that.”
Berberich also got burned by Dick Tracy. When the 1990 movie came out, everyone wanted the yellow trench coat and fedora. But the enthusiasm didn’t last, and about five years ago Berberich had to dump all the excess costumes.
Asked what seems to be the hot costume this year, Valerie said it’s “Alice in Wonderland,” the 2010 Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp.
“Men and women are coming in wanting to be the Mad Hatter,” she said. “We got three of those already. But we still get a lot of nuns and priests and gorillas. Some things never change. Gangsters and flappers and pirates. Zoot suits are always big.”
She walked past a hotdog suit, draped limply over a box, to the mascot area.
“Although last year, we had a bunch of ‘furries’ in,” she said, referencing a role-playing phenomenon in which fans take on the identities of anthropomorphic characters. “And I’m not kidding, this whole animal rack was depleted. If you came back here, you’d think a bomb had gone off. They were even pairing tiger bodies with bunny heads.”
Valerie also pointed out a tight bondage suit, reminiscent of the Pinhead character from “Hellraiser.”
“Usually Brian, if no one rents it, will put that on for Halloween,” she said.
Loren Daniels, production director for Mannequins in Motion, a local company that supplies themed décor and living mannequins for parties and events, popped into the store.
“Right now we’re working on a Venetian carnival theme for an event at the Women’s Club,” she said, sniffing around for headpieces and masks. Daniels considers Theatrical Costume Company a go-to resource for stylists.
“They’re so detailed, right to the last item that you need. If you’re going back to the 1800s, they know what that looks like. The shoes, the wigs,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned, this is mannequin heaven.”
In the run-up to Halloween, Theatrical Costume Company, 1226 Linden Ave., Suite 122, is open from 10 a.m.–8 p.m. Monday through Friday. The Saturday before the holiday, hours are 10 a.m.–6 p.m. and noon–4 p.m. on Halloween day.