Live from Lake Worth Beach, it's Saturday Night! Meet SNL's first costume designer, Franne Lee!
Updated: Sep 26, 2021
FRANNE LEE DOESN’T GET starstruck, which is an important attribute for someone who has worked behind the scenes with some of the biggest names in film, television, theater and music.
In fact, the award-winning costume designer has never been shy about asserting herself when warranted, no matter how big the ego.
Like the time she scolded Mick Jagger for destroying a T-shirt she made for him for a Rolling Stones television performance.
Or the time she yelled at legendary Broadway producer Harold Prince for not backing her after the producers rejected a wig she’d designed for the lead actor in “Sweeney Todd.’’
The iconic killer bee costume she created in the first season of “Saturday Night Live?” She had to cajole John Belushi into wearing it for the first time.
And she talked Christopher Walken into dying his hair for his Elvis Presley play “Him,” but only after striking an unusual bargain with the finicky actor.
We’ll get to all those stories and more, but first let’s get to what the Lake Worth Beach creative spirit is up to now.
In her 52nd year as a respected costume and set designer, she’s dressing the cast of “Looped,” a play about screen diva Tallulah Bankhead that will launch Oct. 8 at the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden.
After that, she’ll be working again with the Shakespeare Troupe of South Florida on an upcoming production of “The Tempest.” And next month she’ll teach a fashion design class at the Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach.
In her precious spare time, she applies paint to wood, creating portraits of people and animals, some on display now at the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County gallery in downtown Lake Worth Beach.
“I love being busy,’’ said Lee, an ageless force of creativity despite the outlandish claim on her driver's license that she’s 79. (As if.) “I know I can’t do as much as I used to do because I don't have the energy, but I love being busy.’’
She’s been busy for 50 years, having taken pencil to paper, needle to thread, scissors to fabric, to dress a who’s who of memorable characters and performers for stage, television and film.
And while hers might not be a household name outside of performing arts circles, chances are the general public is intimately familiar with Franne Lee’s work.
Janis Joplin at Woodstock. “Sweeney Todd” and “Candide” on Broadway. The Coneheads, The Blues Brothers, The Samurai, The Wild and Crazy Guys on the first five seasons of “Saturday Night Live.” Lee dressed all of them and more, earning Tonys, Emmys and an Obie.
Her credits include costume designer for the 1980 Paul Simon movie “One Trick Pony.” She dressed Christopher Reeves and Mandy Patinkin in “The Winter’s Tale.” She made the zoot suits worn by the Rolling Stones in their 1986 video “Harlem Shuffle.”
The stage sets on singer Suzanna Vega’s “Days of Open Hand” tour in 1990 were designed by Lee.
Her sketches, costumes and manuscripts from the first 28 years of her career are archived at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where an online bio praises “her innovative creativity and sense of irreverence.’’
“Franne Lee’s design style reflects her fertile imagination, incorporating vintage items with odds and ends, resulting in highly detailed sophisticated, witty pieces,’’ wrote an archivist for the library’s Billy Rose Theatre Division.
That’s all heady stuff, but you wouldn't know if you spent time with her. There’s not an ounce of ego on her 5-foot-3-inch frame.
Aside from a few theater posters framed on her wall and tiny killer bee and conehead statues hidden away on a corner bookshelf, she keeps most of her career mementoes tucked in a trunk under a bed in her cozy downtown Lake Worth Beach home.
But when she is not hula-hooping on the back patio at Rudy’s Pub or clubbing golf balls or riding her bicycle to the beach, she can be persuaded to open the trunk.
And out spill stories from a remarkable career.
Serendipity at a club called Cerebrum
A creative spirit has guided Lee since she was old enough to take her first steps.
Born Franne Newman in the Bronx the day before New Year’s Eve in 1941, she hung out at her father’s workshop off 47th Street in Manhattan. A tool and die maker who later worked at Grumman on NASA spacesuits, he’d toss scraps of wood and metal onto the floor where they wound up in Franne’s tiny hands to be resurrected with paint and glue on her doll house.
Intent on becoming a painter, she studied art at the University of California-Berkeley and at City College New York. Studying for her master’s at the University of Wisconsin, she was recruited to sketch sets for the theater department, where she found her passion in set and costume design.
A marriage in 1961 to a UW English professor ended in divorce six years later. She moved with her two children into her parents’ house on Long Island and ventured into the city during the week to find work sewing costumes at small theaters.
One day in 1968, she saw an ad in the Village Voice seeking volunteers to help artist Ruffin Cooper launch a new club in SoHo called Cerebrum.
It was open for less than a year before closing in 1969. But it struck a cultural chord, attracting artistic free-spirits, musicians and experimenting suburbanites.
A “cabaret for the mind’’ was how a Life magazine cover story described Cerebrum. Other reviews called it as “a psychedelic playpen” and “a nightly laboratory for mind bending excursions into film, sound, slides, mist, music, strobes and eroticism.’’
Guests were required to exchange their clothing for sheer white gowns and follow guides along a raised cat-walk where they became canvases for artists in projection booths perched high at either end of the studio.
Two Cerebrum guides were Franne Lee and her friend Betty Resch, who today is mayor of Lake Worth Beach.
“That’s sort of the beginning of all the craziness,” Lee, who made some of the white gowns, said with a laugh.
Resch said her time at Cerebrum was "an incredible experience for my 18-year-old self!" She said Lee hasn't changed much since those days.
"Franne has kept the high enthusiastic approach to life that she had when I met her back in NYC, fifty years ago,'' Resch said in an email. "Her creativity and vision was evident even then.''
Jimi Hendrix and designer John Storyk were among the new friends Lee made at Cerebrum. Storyk designed the club’s interior, which impressed Hendrix so much that the guitarist would hire Storyk to design Electric Lady Studios.
At the time, Lee sewed clothes for a West Village shop called “The Fur Balloon,’’ known for satin, silk and velvet tie dye. She said she used the fabric to make a shirt for Hendrix and an outfit that Joplin wore at Woodstock.
Lee saw both musicians perform at Woodstock, where she was hired by Baggy’s Studio to sew decorative banners that were displayed around the festival.
The banners, most of which would be stolen by concert goers, featured zodiac signs near the entrance and images of hungry open mouths at the food area.
From ''Candide'' to "The Coneheads"
Cerebrum was also where she met a future boyfriend. Their relationship wouldn’t last long, but it would have a lasting impact on her future.
She said she lived with the boyfriend at “this cute little apartment building on Greenwich Avenue in the West Village.’’A neighbor in the building was a theater director named Tom Bissenger.
One day in 1969, as he was about to move to Philadelphia to take a job as artistic director at the Theater of Living Arts, Bissinger suggested that Lee go there, too. Maybe she could make a few contacts.
Lee went and wound up working as the costume designer’s assistant. Before long, she took over as lead designer and made costumes for up-and-coming actors Judd Hirsch, Morgan Freeman and Danny DeVito in “Harry Noon and Night.” (DeVito played a dog. “I remember the ears I made for him,’’ she said with a laugh.)
She also met set designer Eugene Lee. They began a 10-year partnership that would include a brief common-law marriage and an award-winning theater collaboration.
In 1974, Franne and Eugene collaborated with legendary Broadway director Harold Prince on Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.” Aside from Tony Awards for costume and production design, the show gave them another reward.
Sitting in the audience for one of the performances were a Canadian television producer named Lorne Michaels and Dick Ebersol, at the time the head of late night weekend programming for NBC.
Michaels loved the look of “Candide” and enlisted the Lees to help him launch a new late-night comedy variety show for NBC that would appeal to the post-Watergate generation.
The Lees had never been in a commercial television studio until they walked into Studio 8H at Rockefeller Plaza for the first time. They were among the first hires for a creative support team for a cast of mostly unknown comics with sharp improvisational skills called The Not Ready For Prime Time Players.
"She brought it to life"
NBC’s “Saturday Night” debuted on Oct. 11, 1975. The name would be changed two years later to “Saturday Night Live.” It would go on to become one of the most celebrated shows in TV history, now coming up on its 47th season.
But in the fall of ‘75, no one was sure it would last beyond the end of the year. Each team member was given a six-week contract, which served both as a deadline and incentive to be as successful as possible.
“We only had six weeks to prove ourselves,’’ she said.
And it wasn’t easy.
On a shoestring budget, she created the costumes and looks for wacky characters created by writers such as Michael O'Donoghue, Alan Zweibel and Anne Beatts and played by unknown actors such as Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner.
“Lorne said everything had to be cheap,’’ she recalled. “It’s not easy to do a live show and make it work. This was more like theater. Only every week it was a different play!’’
Lee remembers going on countless scavenging hunts in Manhattan for costume pieces. In that age before cell phones, she carried lots of dimes so she could use payphones to check in with the SNL team.
Once a character was established, Lee never messed with their original costumes. Radner’s dim-witted commentator Emily Litella (“Never mind”), for example, always wore the same red sweater over a polka-dot collared blouse and the eyeglasses with the chains.
At the time, just about all television variety programs, from the Carol Burnett, Flip Wilson and Rich Little shows to “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour,” featured guests dressed in tuxedos and Bob Mackie gowns on bright-looking stages.
“And Franne throws a tie dye shirt on Belushi,’’ said Zweibel, who won three Emmys for his work on those first five SNL seasons.
“All of the actors were dressed the way they do in real life, the way the audience that Lorne was targeting were dressed. Franne Lee, the way she outfitted it, the way she designed the look and wardrobe for the show, had not been seen on a variety television before,’’ he said.
Zweibel’s memorable SNL skits include Belushi’s Samurai and Radner’s Emily Litella and Roseanne Roseannadanna, the hair-challenged “Weekend Update” busy-body who often read letters from “a Mr. Richard Feder of Fort Lee, New Jersey.” (Feder is Zweibel’s real-life brother-in-law.)
The costumes Lee came up with “spoke volumes” for the characters, he said.
“Franne took the script that had maybe a couple of terms to describe what the character looked like. But she brought it to life. I remember often going into the studio when we'd be rehearsing and we'd see the wardrobe for the first time and go, ‘Oh, wow! Look what she did there!’’’ Zweibel said.
“As a writer it was easier for you to write that character because you knew who that character was by virtue of his or her look. You sort of knew, ‘ OK, a character who looks like this or looks like that would say this this way as opposed to that way.’’’
Dad made bee antennas dance
Some characters came to life by accident.
She dressed Belushi and Aykroyd in black suits for a skit about two detectives. They stayed in the costumes during a warmup and started improvising and goofing off with the band.
“The Blues Brothers came alive spontaneously,’’ she said. “The TV cameras weren’t even rolling.’’
During those SNL years, Franne and Eugene lived in a loft on Union Square. Their next-door neighbor was their landlord, John Storyk, her Cerebrum friend.
“I would visit them,’’ Storyk said. “I walk in one day and there’s The Coneheads on her kitchen table. She’s making them. I go, ‘What is that?’ ‘Oh, just something I’m working on for “Saturday Night Live.”’’’
The killer bee costumes were cutoff long johns painted with yellow and black stripes. The bee antennas were ping pong balls attached to headbands -- with wire that Lee’s father, the late Marty Newman, engineered so the antennas danced as the bees moved their heads.
Belushi “hated the bee costume,’’ Lee said.
“I remember him telling Lorne, ‘Do I have to do this stupid bee sketch?’ The other bees wore padding to fill out their bodies. But John was a heavy person, so he didn’t have to wear padding. ‘How come my outfit doesn’t have padding?’’’
SNL highlighted the “interesting dynamics” that often play out between actors and support staff such as costume designers, she said.
“You have to be cognizant that you're dealing with somebody with a huge ego to be able to do what they do,’’ she said. “You have to help them figure out a way to make it feel OK for them.’’
Jagger's shirt in tatters
Dressing Mick Jagger for a 1978 SNL performance by the Rolling Stones brought a few surprises.
“Mick said, ‘Franne, can you get me a T-shirt with a beast on it?’ He wanted to wear it for ‘Beast of Burden.’ I said, ‘That shouldn’t be a problem.’’’
Lee dispatched assistants to shop in Manhattan, but no Beast T-shirt could be found. She sought help from her friend, painter Edie Vonnegut (daughter of novelist Kurt Vonnegut).
“I bought a bottle of wine and three plain T-shirts and we stayed up all night hand-painting beasts on the shirts,’’ she said.
The next day, she left the shirts in Jagger's dressing room.
Watching the Stones rehearse later, she was horrified to see Jagger tear it off his chest at the end of the performance. He did the same thing during another rehearsal and after the live show, destroying all three shirts Franne had painted for him.
After the show, she gently approached Jagger.
“I said, ‘You know, Mick, you owe me big time. I worked all night on those shirts.’’’
A friendly bargain was struck: Lee was allowed to keep one of the giant “Some Girls” album covers that decorated the stage and the Stones autographed it for her.
This YouTube video shows the Stones doing "Beast of Burden" that night, but Lee and others said the audio is not from the show.
The video in this Facebook link shows Jagger tearing away at the shirt during "Shattered.''
Lee said her experience on the show was fun, rewarding and memorable. But in an era long before #metoo, there were some forgettable moments, too.
Belushi had a habit of not wearing underwear, which created some awkwardness for the wardrobe staff, Lee said.
Making sure not to single out Belushi, Lee posted a sign on the wardrobe room door: “ALL CAST MEMBERS MUST WEAR UNDERWEAR ON SATURDAY. THIS MEANS YOU!”
For a 1976 show hosted by Raquel Welch, Lee was assigned to design a pair of oversized breasts for a science fiction spoof called “Planet Of The Enormous Hooters.” Welch was to play an alien refugee from a distant world where she doesn’t fit in. (“Look! Her breasts are so small, they look like melons!”)
Welch objected and the skit was cut.
“There is a false glamorization of ‘Saturday Night Live,’’’ said Lee, who noted that some of the support staff were older than most of the actors. “We thought some of it was a little sophomoric.’’
Decades later, Lee loves looking back at her time on SNL and the lifelong friends she made and the talented artists she worked with. She said she took these photos of Laraine Newman, Jane Curtain and Belushi, who's relaxing in the hospital bed he somehow managed to wheel into his dressing room.
But she admits to having one or two regrets about her contributions to the show.
At the time, she was a member of the United Scenic Artists union. Unlike the writers, NBC’s contracts for members of the USA local left out any possibility of Lee and others collecting residuals or royalties from syndication and reruns.
And she said Michaels refused to give her permission to file a patent on the killer bee headband and antennas she developed.
By 1982, two years after she left SNL, a version of the antennas called “Deely Bobbers” were selling at stores and amusement parks across the United States after a Los Angeles inventor said he got the idea from the SNL skit.
“I wish I had the money. I should be living on an island somewhere,’’ Lee said with a laugh.
“I'm not happy about it. People are still making money from that show. And now that they are streaming those shows, the writers are making money off it.’’
An assistant to Michaels did not return a message.
"Everybody knows her work"
Even though viewers rarely watch the show’s credits, Lee’s visual contributions arguably were as important as the characters created by the writers and the performances of the actors.
“Not everybody understands who’s behind the scenes, not everybody sticks around after the show to read the credits, but she was hugely influential,’’ said Storyk, who considers Lee a lifelong friend.
“Everybody who has seen SNL knows her work. They just don’t know her name. There isn’t anybody at any age that doesn’t know the killer bees or landshark or (the) Gilda Radner (characters). Go ask a 30-year-old. They don’t know how they know it, but they know it. It’s when something becomes ingrained in our culture. It just gets passed down,’’ he said.
In a letter of recommendation written on Lee's behalf in 1998, Beatts said Lee worked "magic" when she created costumes.
"Not only did she get the joke and provide exactly the right outfit to support it, whether she was dressing Jane Curtain as Tom Snyder's mother or outfitting Lily Tomlin in a skating outfit, she created looks that became indelibly part of the characters,'' Beatts, who died in April, wrote.
"If no one can forget the Bees, the Coneheads, the Blues Brothers or Gilda as Lisa Loopner on her way to the prom, in large part it's because of Franne.''
During her time at SNL, Lee also worked on and off Broadway. In 1979, she won a Tony for "Sweeney Todd."
When she left SNL after the fifth season, there was no shortage of work for her in theater, television and film.
Her introductory meeting took place at Pacino’s upper east side apartment where Lee said the two actors performed the movie script for her.
It was the closest she would come to being starstruck.
“I sat at this high stool by the kitchen counter and watched them do the whole play,’’ she said. “I had to pinch myself. ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me, sitting by myself and watching Al Pacino perform for me.’’’
A year later, she had a memorable encounter with another famous actor. Christopher Walken enlisted Lee to design the costumes for “Him,’’ his Elvis Presley play at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1995.
Lee recalled a conversation with Walken, who had light brown hair and was fresh off a memorable performance in "Pulp Fiction," about what he’d look like on stage.
“I said, ‘What about your hair?’’’
“And he goes, ‘What about it?’’’
‘“Don’t you think it needs to be black? Shouldn’t you wear a wig?’’’
“I'm not wearing a wig and I’m not going to dye my hair.’’
“I said, ‘If you’re Elvis Presley, you have to dye your hair black.’’
“And he said, ‘I’ll dye my hair if you dye yours.’ And I said, ‘Fine. I’ll dye my hair.’ He was shocked when I said that.’’
The next day, Lee showed up at rehearsal with black hair.
“I said, ‘See?’ And I took him to a place in Central Park South to dye his hair.’’
Lee’s career would take her to Los Angeles and then Nashville, where she initially visited a friend, photographer Raeanne Rubenstein. Lee wound up staying 16 years, teaching in the Belmont University theater department and launching the Plowhaus Artist Co-op.
While visiting a cousin in Delray Beach, she remembers passing the Lake Worth water tower on Interstate 95.
“I said, ‘Why is it called Lake Worth when it’s next to the ocean?’ My cousin said, ‘Oh, that’s a cute little town. You’d like it.’’’
Lee moved to Lake Worth in fall 2017, a year and half before voters changed the name to Lake Worth Beach. She wrote letters to local theaters and quickly found work at the Lake Worth Playhouse, the Maltz Jupiter Theatre and Palm Beach Dramaworks, among others.
“Franne has always been an active member of whatever community she’s living in. Whether it’s the New York scene, the Nashville scene, Lake Worth, she embraces the people and she loves being part of the mix. She does not hold back,’’ said director J. Barry Lewis, who worked with Lee on “Equus” at Dramaworks in 2018.
Lewis remembers seeing “Sweeney Todd” on Broadway and being “awestruck” by the costumes Lee created.
“She sits in a very unique place in terms of the history of American theater. She has an arc of almost 50 years and has seen a progression of styles and ideas,’’ he said.
Since the pandemic, Lee has tried to avoid crowds, occasionally venturing out to the back patio at Rudy’s Pub in downtown Lake Worth Beach, where she'll hula-hoop dance with her friends.
As she prepares for the upcoming Orlando premier of “Looped,” she accomplished a first in her career: Zoom meetings with the creative staff at the Garden Theatre.
Earlier this year she mourned the death of her close friend Beatts.
She said she keeps in touch with friends from the past, including Zweibel and Storyk. And she attended SNL’s 40th and 45th anniversary celebrations.
Storyk said he is still amazed by the serendipitous paths their respective careers took in 1968 when they each separately answered a Village Voice ad about the experimental nightclub, Cerebrum.
Resch is happy to live just two blocks from Lee.
"She is always ready for adventure and continues to be a gifted artist,'' Resch said.
“I feel like I have been blessed with being in the right place at the right time,’’ Lee said. “Serendipity was always on my side.’’
And as she approaches her 80th birthday, retirement is not on the horizon.
“I can’t retire,’’ she said with a wave of a hand. “I would be bored to tears.’’
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