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Duluth Playhouse receives donation of historic Angela Lansbury costume

A cloak and hat worn by the legendary star during a Tony-winning Broadway performance in 1969 will soon go on public display at the NorShor Theatre.

Peg Ferguson, the costume shop manager for the Duluth Playhouse, talks about a hat worn by Angela Lansbury on Broadway
Peg Ferguson, the costume shop manager for the Duluth Playhouse, talks about a hat worn by Angela Lansbury on Broadway in "Dear World" (1969), in the basement of the NorShor Theatre on Tuesday.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — With Angela Lansbury set to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Tonys on Sunday, the Duluth Playhouse is preparing to display a piece of the star's Tony history that now resides permanently at the NorShor Theatre.

A rich cloak and elaborate feathered hat, worn onstage by the legendary actor for her Tony-winning role as Countess Aurelia in the Broadway production of "Dear World" (1969), have entered the Playhouse's permanent collection as a donation from Duluth's Jean Olson. A longtime Playhouse volunteer, Olson has worked for the company as a costume designer and in other capacities.

"I just thought it belonged at the Playhouse," Olson said about the costume, which she and her husband Clyde owned for decades after receiving it as a gift from Clyde's brother Ron and Ron's partner Gene Kelton. Both of the latter, who have since died, worked in theater: Ron Olson as a lighting designer and Kelton as a performer whose credits included dancing in "Dear World."

"The story we were told," said Jean Olson, "was that the cast in the show somehow were given these items because the show closed early."

"Dear World" lasted only four months on Broadway, playing to withering reviews that nonetheless praised Lansbury's work as a Parisian countess driven mad by lost love. The plot concerns a dastardly scheme to drill for oil in Paris, a premise that did not come across any better on stage than it sounds in print.

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"No connoisseur of musical comedy can afford to miss Miss Lansbury's performance. It is lovely," wrote New York Times critic Clive Barnes, who also praised the work of costume designer Freddie Wittop — a legend in his own right, winner of a Tony for "Hello Dolly!" in 1964.

The name "Miss Lansbury" appears on a tag inside the "Dear World" cloak, which was originally designed to have a worn appearance and has since suffered the genuine wear of over half a century. Peg Ferguson, Duluth Playhouse costume shop manager, is working to clean the cloak and hat for display in the NorShor lobby.

A tag on the inside of a coat reads Miss Lansbury on the costume worn by Angela Lansbury from the play Dear World
A tag on the inside of a cloak reads "Miss Lansbury" on the costume worn by Angela Lansbury from the play "Dear World," performed on Broadway in 1969. The cloak is currently in the Duluth Playhouse costume shop at the NorShor Theatre.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

The Playhouse often receives donations of clothing that could potentially be worn as costumes or incorporated into costume material, said Ferguson, but the Olson donation is unique in the company's collection for its historic significance as a costume.

Aside from the costume's association with an iconic performer, said Ferguson, the quality of its material and construction testify to the level of care and craftsmanship lavished on Broadway productions of its era.

"You can't buy a pattern like this nowadays," she said of the cloak, with its cream exterior and colorful lining. "There's no way."

Director Ron Peluso’s production arrived in Duluth, and opened Friday at the NorShor Theatre, with most of the original cast intact.

"As a costume designer, you want something that really helps an audience visually get to know a character," said Jean Olson. "This costume would say to me that this character has a kind of destitute elegance. It's distressed and looks like it's well-loved and well-worn, but at one time would have been very elegant."

Sara Strom-Sarvela, of Duluth's Frame Corner Gallery, is designing a suitable display case for the costume. Playhouse communications director Lisa Blade said the company hopes to have it ready for display before, or shortly after, Sunday's Tony Awards.

The nominees for this year's Tonys include "Girl From the North Country," the Bob Dylan musical set in Duluth. The Broadway production of that show, which will launch a national tour next fall in Minneapolis, is up for seven awards including Best Musical.

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"Macbeth," the Broadway production featuring original music by Duluth's Gaelynn Lea, is up for three Tonys including Best Sound Design for Mikaal Sulaiman. Lea said she collaborated closely with Sulaiman to incorporate precise musical cues into the show's soundtrack.

Lansbury, 96, is a five-time Tony winner, including her Best Actress award for what the New York Times described as "a short-lived musical called 'Dear World'" in an article about the performer's slated lifetime achievement award. This year's Tony Awards will be held at Radio City Music Hall, with Sunday's 7 p.m. CDT ceremony broadcast live on CBS affiliates including CBS 3 Duluth.

A costume worn by Angela Lansbury from the play Dear World performed on Broadway in 1969
A costume worn by Angela Lansbury from the play "Dear World," performed on Broadway in 1969, rests on a mannequin.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Peg Ferguson, the costume shop manager for the Duluth Playhouse, points out some damage in a costume donated to the playhouse
Peg Ferguson, the costume shop manager for the Duluth Playhouse, points out some damage in a costume donated to the Playhouse that was worn on Broadway in 1969 by Angela Lansbury in "Dear World."
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Lisa Blade holds a sketch of the costume worn by Angela Lansbury on Broadway
Lisa Blade holds a sketch of the costume worn by Angela Lansbury on Broadway in 1969 that was recently donated to the Duluth Playhouse.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Lisa Blade, left, and Peg Ferguson open the jacket to show the inner lining of the costume worn on Broadway by Angela Lansbury
Lisa Blade, left, and Peg Ferguson show the inner lining of the costume.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Peg Ferguson, the costume shop manager for the Duluth Playhouse, unbuttons the jacket worn on stage by Angela Lansbury in Dear World
Peg Ferguson, the costume shop manager for the Duluth Playhouse, unbuttons the cloak.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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