Thirty Years a Dresser: Backstage Stories Come to the Spotlight

Thirty Years a Dresser ($17.95, 216 pages, 9×6 Trade Paperback, ISBN:  978-1-60381-751-6) is a new memoir by Dennis Milam Bensie, sharing essays, anecdotes, and backstage antics from his years as a theatrical dresser.

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Thirty Years A Dresser is more than a memoir of behind the scenes. It is an insightful glance of what happens back stage during the run of some of the greatest shows of the theatre. With more than (the proclaimed) thirty years of experience of being a dresser, Mr. Dennis Milam Bensie’s account is an enjoyable tour-de-force that will educate as well as entertain the reader.” Read more…
—Eric Andrews-Katz for Equality365

“Bensie’s memoir covers his career backstage with humor, heart, and hope, spotlighting the famed and the wanna-be with equal admiration and/or scorn. Full of juicy anecdotes and keen insight into both stagecraft and bitchcraft, this peek behind the curtains is sure to delight the seasoned theatre-goer as well as the dilettante.”
—Jerry Wheeler, author of the Lammy-nominated Strawberries and Other Erotic Fruit

“A fun romp behind the scenes of long theatrical career. Dennis Bensie has fresh new insight into the second oldest profession–the theatre.”
—Eric Andrews-Katz, author of Tartarus

“The best seat in the house isn’t Orchestra Center, it’s backstage with Dennis Milam Bensie. Thirty Years a Dresser shares many unique behind the scenes moments and fun perspectives and even the most ardent theatre goer will be envious. Whether watching the evolution of a hit (The Light at the Piazza) or imagining an androgynous casting while dressing nuns for the umpteenth time (The Sound of Music), Bensie lets the reader peek behind the curtain. What a fun read!”
—Rebecca Redshaw, Author/Playwright

Thirty Years a Dresser provides plenty of laughs from the spurting blood vest in “Agnes of God” to the two hundred costumes required for “The Grapes of Wrath,” and Bensie writes about it all with equal parts love and loathing. Most memoirs I’ve read are at least partially self-serving, but Bensie’s stands out as self-deprecating instead.… He never takes himself too seriously–his craft and his subject, yes, but never himself.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book and if you have even a passing interest in the theatre, either on or off stage, you owe it to yourself to pick this up and devour it in one or two sittings, as I did. Highly recommended.” Read more…
—Jerry L. Wheeler for Out in Print: Queer Book Reviews

Dennis Milam Bensie sees himself as way more Thelma Ritter in Mankiewicz’s All About Eve than Tom Courtney in Ronald Harwood’s harrowing play and movie, The Dresser. Watching The Tony Awards as a teenager in the early 1980s, Bensie knew he wanted to be in theater. He was his own dresser for plays in high school when he learned a career as an actor wasn’t for him. Costumes became his calling, at first in summer stock and gradually with union houses, wherever he could find work. A theatrical dresser is expected to be a nurse, psychologist, tailor, personal shopper, magician, bodyguard, maid, scout, and confidant.

Thirty Years a Dresser is Bensie’s third memoir, after Shorn: Toys to Men and One Gay American. His stories involve behind-the-scenes dish and drama during a wide range of productions: from MetamorphosesThe Light in the PiazzaRomy and Michele’s High School Reunion–The Musical to The Sound of Music (three times). The author’s backstage stories feature such stars as Lynn Redgrave, Rosie O’Donnell, Freddy Kruger’s mother, and a Tony Award winner who shall remain nameless.

Dennis Milam Bensie grew up in Robinson, Illinois where his interest in the arts began in high school participating in various community theatre productions. He has costumed and wigged shows all over the country, including Oregon Shakespeare Festival, PlayMakers Repertory Theatre in Chapel Hill, NC, Alliance Theatre of Atlanta, Arizona Theatre Company, Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, and the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. His costume and wig design for Valley of the Dolls at Empty Space Theatre in Seattle garnered him a feature article in Entertainment Design Magazine and a Seattle Times Footlight Award for Best Design. He has been on staff at Intiman Theatre in Seattle since 1992 and is proud to have been involved with such productions as Angels in America, Nickel and Dimed and the world premier of the Tony Award winning musical Light in the Piazza. Shorn: Toys to Men is his first book. Dennis lives in Seattle with his three dogs. For more information, click here.

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We were rapidly whipping though the summer season. George M closed and we quickly moved on to Carousel, which would give me my very first backstage-mishap story.

One of the clam diggers doubled as a dancing bear during the dream ballet of Carousel. The big bear head would rest on his shoulders and tie under his armpits. The actor couldn’t get the head on or off by himself and his vision with the bear head on was poor. The suit was heavy fur, so only a dance belt  was worn under his bear costume. I would have to catch the bear as he exited stage right, unzip his bear bodysuit, and untie the laces under his arms to lift the bear head off. He had to change back into a clam digger pretty quickly.

A stage manager whispered in my ear during the dream ballet, “There’s an emergency stage left. Celia’s dress zipper is broken. You need to go help her.”

I was still sewing Celia into her dress stage left when the bear came off, stage right, looking for me. By the time I got to him, Mr. Bear/clam-digger had managed to get his bear body off by himself. But I found the sweaty actor in a complete panic. He was maniacally spinning, trying to untie the strings under his arms. I could hear his muffled yelps through the bear head. The bear (wearing only his head and his dance belt) almost made his way onstage in view of the audience. I guided him back into the wings and removed his head.

The bear/clam-digger thanked me, changed clothes, and went on with his show. The company and I laughed our asses off later that night, drinking at the pub.

Yes, drinking. I celebrated my twenty-first birthday that summer. My professional life was just beginning—and I could finally legally drink.

Perfection.

What I hadn’t fully learned that summer was that being a dresser is way more than getting the actors dressed. Being a theatrical dresser means being a nurse, a psychologist, a tailor, a personal shopper, a magician, a bodyguard, a maid, a scout, and a confidant.

Now, so many years later, I make my living as a theatrical dresser.

I’ve never … not done theater.

I’ve kept a list of every show I’ve ever worked on.

I saved all the programs.

I will be a theatrical dresser until I retire.

To quote Rizzo in Grease, “There are worse things I could do.”

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