A Little Bit of Magic Behind the Scenes

By Joan Hill Yost

re-enactment of explosion at the stuenenberg home

From the beginning it was clear that this production would not be complete without reenactments of the critical moments of the story. Reenactments require people and costumes, and I volunteered eagerly. Little did I know what a magical ride lay ahead for me!

The first reenactment was the assassination scene. It took place in the cold of January at a beautiful old home in Parma, Idaho. The home looked a great deal like the Caldwell home of Governor Steunenberg, but Pat Cosgrove had built the fatal gate in front of the house.

We arrived with the Governor's costume at 4:00 p.m. and were surprised to see a vast amount of technical equipment already assembled in the driveway. The crew had been lighting the scene since noon. My husband, who like me, was seeing his first field shoot, was quickly recruited to play Harry Orchard setting the bomb by the gate — just in case it would be useful in telling the story later on. Even if that piece ends up on the cutting room floor, it started what would be an incredible six month journey for me. Everyone watched in awe as the explosion took place around midnight. We all agreed that the magic of that shoot foretold the power of the docudrama to come.

The courtroom scene was the biggest of the several reenactments. It meant many people in costumes. Well, what could be easier? Just go to the library and research clothing for the period. Study all the wonderful photographs of the people who were involved in the story and, on a slim public television budget, go to the thrift store! Oh, wait! What about the people? While the actors with speaking parts had been commissioned, the others were but a dream. It is pretty hard to dress a dream, so the fun began.

Selecting the jury was a priority. We needed beards, beards, beards! Many men have great beards, so we invited only those who were recruited by the Producer, Bruce Reichert and his principle historians, Byron Johnson and Judy Austin.

Easy again. The jury foreman would be George Dilley whose home was used for the shoot of the assassination. Other potential jurors were contacted. Oh, wait! The Director should be consulted. The trial was to run over four days. A fundamental question remained unanswered. What days would the jurors be needed? After a visit to the old courthouse with Director Pat Metzler, it was decided that, given the camera angles, the jury would be in almost every scene and all jurors would need to be there for eight plus hours every day!

Now this may sound like a time to tear your hair out, but this is when the "magic" that surrounded this show really started to happen for me. Just listen to what the jurors said. "Four days? I'd have to take vacation from my job. But, yes, I'll do that." "Well, yes, I can run my business on my cell phone in between scenes." "Yes, yes. I once met Senator Borah and I want to be a part of this great story, whatever it takes." And the magic continued when, during dress rehearsal, all these men, their thrift store costumes, and their professional hair and makeup finally came together. Behold! We had the stunning "Gentlemen of the Jury."

I flinched when I was asked to oversee the costumes for the professional actors. I knew they needed professionals to dress them. So I joined forces with the very fun and talented wardrobe staff at the Costume Shop in Boise. I knew that each actor's career was about creating his own magic when in character. What I didn't know was how down to earth and helpful they would be out of character! I'll remain forever amazed at the transformation of the men we costumed to the men playing the emotional roles in this story. To this day, their courtroom scenes bring tears to my eyes.

They are all very busy professionals, so we pieced together many of their costumes in the last week before the shoot. We had cravats and stick pins and walking sticks and high laced shoes. We had vests and jackets and ties and boots. We tried toupees and moustaches. Haywood even had to wear a "fat suit" — that is, stuffing to make him look rotund. And he had fantastic makeup. His eyeball was actually covered with an opaque contact lens, and he never once complained!

We needed an audience. It never quite became clear when we needed the audience. I just knew that we wanted to pack the courtroom the day Harry Orchard entered! Oh, yes. These people would have to be volunteers too. And they needed to be in period costume! We started passing the word that we needed men for the audience. A few volunteered. Still, it was slow going.

Costuming was going slow, too. I had made several contacts at theatre departments asking to "borrow" costumes. It wasn't a popular idea. Then I heard from Judy Kreuger, a relative of Steunenberg. She was mailing old family shirts, detachable collars and studs to me. And her brother, Bill Crookham, would be delivering boxes of hats! My first break? Or was it more of the magic?

I contacted Linda Snodgrass, a veteran costumer at Boise Little Theatre. She knew immediately what I was looking for and poured through racks of clothes. I came home with a car full and felt like I had the world by the tail. Jody Ochoa, administrator of the Idaho Historical Museum, connected me with Judy Stuppy and "Style N Time," a group of women who dress for special occasions in period costume. Judy was thrilled to be asked to be in the docudrama. When I told her the dates of the shoot, however, she paled. She was going to be on vacation. But, true to the special karma around this show, she postponed that vacation just to be at the trial. She came with beautiful ladies and two absolutely charming teenage girls who played Haywood's daughters.

The dress rehearsal finally arrived on a hot May day. We needed a place for everyone to dress — and our space had disappeared! What happened to the magic? When the old courthouse was secured for the reenactment of the trial, the building was partially vacant. There would be so much room we could sleep there! Then the remodeling of the State of Idaho capital building became a reality and, the week of our shoot, state officeholders moved into the vacant parts of the building. In fact, the only bit of space left to us was Treasurer Ron Crane's office (thank you, Ron), the courtroom, and the hallway.

When I arrived with carloads of costumes and a portable dressing room, the hallway was filled with technical equipment. Our professional hairdresser, Johnni Whitby, was cutting one actor's hair and the pieces were falling on the rich blue carpet of the Treasurer's office! Luckily his Executive Assistant, LeeAnn Sullivan, found an empty conference room for us. Hair, Makeup and Costume moved in with sighs of relief all around! Often we had over 50 people getting ready in that room at one time. Can't you just see us in the Treasurer's office?

My behind the scenes volunteers were the star dust on the courtroom reenactment. Kay Hummel managed all the database work and release forms during the courthouse shoot. Lynn Allen, Gens Johnson, and Judy Austin juggled collars and costumes and people every day. Sixteen year old Maeryn Johnston became a star in the audience plus a makeup assistant. And the crown jewel of the Hair/Makeup/Costume world was Kirsten Strough, a high school senior who just volunteered because she wanted to know what was involved in producing a show. She got a chance to work in every aspect of this show, and we may have started her on her career path.

joan yost in period clothing adjusting charles gills' costume

For me, my life changed forever! I will never again watch a movie or television or stage production in the same way I did before the "Trial of the Century." Costumes, hair, makeup, set, lights, actors . . . they all capture most of my attention now.

And I will always remember — and count as friends — the great people who worked so hard to bring this show to life — with the help of a little bit of magic!