Saturday, October 23, 2004

A career in costumes

John Schenz and the staff at Schenz Theatrical Supplies can get pumped up about dressing people up

By Chuck Martin
Enquirer staff writer

John Schenz, owner of Schenz Theatrical Supply Inc. in Camp Washington, wears a Jafar costume from the movie Alladin.
Expect to see Spidermen, toothy vampires and a provocative bar wench or two at Halloween parties next week. You probably won't see anyone dressed as a trash dumpster - but that doesn't mean John Schenz isn't trying.

He owns Schenz Theatrical Supplies in Camp Washington - the loudly purple building with the gorilla crouched above the door - one of the oldest and largest costume rental shops in the Midwest. Schenz, his partner, Stephen Rausch, and staff don't just rent costumes for parties and theatrical productions - they create and design them. This year, Rumpke - the garbage collection company - hired Schenz to come up with a costume for "Binney"- a cheery corporate mascot with trash spilling out of his head.

"So should he be smooth plastic on the outside or fuzzy?" Schenz asks, allowing only a second or two for a response. "I think he should be smooth plastic, but the artist has a different idea."

He sits in a bare, concrete-floored office looking out over a browsing showroom filled with racks of colorful costumes - showgirls, Pocahontas and John Smith and at least one Ninja Turtle, among others. Thousands more - proper Elizabethan bodices, garish clown uniforms and fuzzy Pink Panther suits - hang in other storerooms next door and upstairs, where Schenz swears he and his sales associates can quickly find any outfit a customer desires.

"Every one has its home," he says, without revealing what must be a mind-boggling cataloging system.

Yes, a busy time of year

The phone is ringing and Schenz is interrupted often to answer questions from employees. His poodle-bichon frise mix, Phebe, is curled on the couch behind him, looking a little nervous from the commotion. This is Schenz's busiest - but not necessarily his favorite - time of year, when he works seven days a week, October through early November.

The costume rental shops will be busy the week before Halloween. John Schenz offers tips for finding the outfit that fits you best:

Look for a costume that's right for the party and other guests. A provocative costume that's a hit at the corner bar may not go over as well at the company party.

Find a costume that fits your physique and personality. Not everyone is comfortable dressed as haughty Marie Antoinette. Others are terrified of clowns. "The costume should put a smile on your face," Schenz says.

Don't worry about finding the perfect shoes for your costume. Just make sure they're comfortable to stand in.

Give as much information as possible to the sales associate about your preferences and the event you're attending. And don't forget to ask about prices and the return policy.

Chuck Martin

"I like Halloween if I'm working with a customer who has some imagination," he says. "Someone who wants to do something different."

And of course, this is the place to do something different.

Actually, Schenz loves Easter more than any season. That's because, for the last 24 years, he has provided bunny costumes for the White House Easter Egg Roll. It began in 1981, when he received a last-minute call from a Washington, D.C., costume supplier looking for an extra bunny suit. The Secret Service needed it to disguise an agent as a big rabbit to guard President Reagan.

"I never understood that," Schenz says. "What could he do in a bunny suit?"

The next year, Schenz was invited to the annual event as a guest.

"The (bunny) suit they were using was awful," he says. "So I said: You have no one in charge of that, do you? Next year, I'll be in charge."

Schenz speaks in staccato phrases with an occasional dramatic pause thrown in. He manages a commanding bluntness that's also disarming - even friendly. Obviously, his style works.

'I'm a good dancer'

The son of an osteopath, Schenz was born in Columbus and lived in Kansas City and New Mexico where he rode horses as a child before returning to Columbus to attend Ohio State as a pre-med student. He flunked out and moved to Cincinnati, where he then floundered in business school at the University of Cincinnati.

"I never really did that well in classroom situations," he says.

He next enrolled in the University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music, where he excelled in classical dance. Schenz later won a scholarship to the Canadian School of Ballet, but says ballroom dancing has always been his most valuable talent.

"I can go to a party and not sit on my butt," he says. "I can work the room. And, I'm a good dancer."

His background in dance and theater led him to open a wig shop in Walnut Hills in 1965. Two years later, he added costumes to his inventory, and Schenz Theatrical Supplies was born.

As hard as he works, Schenz is very social, a fixture on the Cincinnati party scene. (He expects to attend two affairs Halloween night.) He wears costumes, but rarely chooses - allowing someone at the store to select an outfit for him.

Schenz would much rather put someone else in costume.

"I've watched people who are very introverted," he says. "But once they get into a costume and feel comfortable, they cease to be themselves."

Ninety percent of the people who come into his store don't know what they want, Schenz says. But once he sizes them up and works his uncanny charm, they know when they leave. And for Schenz, that's a bigger thrill than any boo on Halloween.

"Damn, I've lived a good life," he says.


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