Keith Coultas, assistant wardrobe supervisor for the national tour of "The Lion King," remembers scoffing when a friend offered an extra ticket to the award-winning musical on Broadway. It was 1999 and he was working on getting "Showboat" ready for a tour.
"I said, 'I don't want to go see some stupid Disney puppet show,'" he recalled during a phone interview.
Coultas soon had to eat his words: The moment "The Lion King" started, with its awe-inducing opening procession, he was enthralled with the anthropomorphic characters of the African Pridelands.
Three years later, he was in the right place at the right time, and was hired as an on-call swing dresser for the show. In 2003, he joined the first national tour as the wardrobe supervisor, and spent six years in that capacity.
Today, Coultas is an assistant wardrobe supervisor on the U.S. tour, which means he maintains and repairs costumes, does alterations, oversees dressers and keeps tabs on a huge inventory of 400 costumes and 230 puppets. There are life-size costumes, shadow puppets, Japanese masks with motors, wires and pulleys, corsets and feathers -- lots of feathers. It's not your typical touring ensemble: Characters like horn-billed bird Zazu, warthog Pumbaa, meerkat Timons and mandrill Rafiki. Plus, giraffes on stilts, baboons, hyenas, lions with mechanical headpieces, hippos, zebras, ornate birds, gazelles and an elephant. Yes, an elephant comes down an aisle.
The sixth-longest running show on Broadway, "The Lion King" has returned to the Fox Theatre in St. Louis for its third go-round, an engagement that runs through Sept. 2. The show drew dazzled crowds here in 2003 and 2007. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m.; Sunday evenings at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 19 and 26; Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 1 p.m. There will also be 1 p.m. matinees on Thursday, Aug. 16, and Friday, Aug. 31.
On a typical performance day, the staff arrives late morning to prepare the costumes.
"We put in an entire work day before the performers take the stage," Coultas said. Disney Theatricals maintains strict standards on how the costumes appear, he said, and they are evaluated periodically. Because of natural wear and tear, the costumes need a lot of tender loving care. "Some members of the ensemble have 11 costume changes," he said. That's why after the show, there are anywhere from 14 to 18 loads of laundry that must be done.
The costumes were designed by Julie Taymor, the Tony-Award winning director of the show, who painstakingly researched the way animals moved at the zoo. Her mastery of puppetry and fertile imagination created the designs, along with Michael Curry.
Putting an actor in a costume takes time and effort on the part of the crew. Scar, the evil brother of lion king Mufasa, requires the most work. But the actor who plays Mufasa goes through an arduous dressing period that takes hours before he can be fitted with a mechanical headpiece that is battery-powered. Hair, makeup and costume personnel work in tandem.
While it's hard, complicated work, it is also rewarding, Coultas said. "It's something different every day," he said.
Still on the road
It's been 15 years since "The Lion King" debuted, and it hasn't stopped touring yet, entertaining 65 million people worldwide. The show's been seen on five continents and in 15 countries. Now the highest-grossing show of all-time on Broadway, "The Lion King" endures because people relate to the music -- a fusion of Western popular music and the distinctive rhythms of Africa, and the story, which has elements of the Bible and Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and "Macbeth." Plus, they are wowed by the costumes, Coultas said.
"It's a classic, timeless story, and is well-told. It's done in an interesting format," he said.
An Indiana native, Coultas' degree is in set design, but he was always fascinated by costumes. His mother taught him to sew at an early age, and he was able to combine that skill with his love of theater. He earned a bachelor degree in drama, with an emphasis on tech and design, from University of Evansville, as well as associate degrees in fiber arts and interior design. After costuming the college's dance theatre, he was soon on his way, helping with touring shows and off-Broadway.
Coultas lived in St. Louis from 1985 to 1995, first working at Goldie's department store as a custom draper. He was involved in the local theater scene, having worked as the wardrobe supervisor for Stages St. Louis in 1994 and 1995. He was the men's tailor and dressed Bobby Child in Gershwin's 'Crazy for You" that last summer. He stitched at the Opera Theater of St. Louis for three years, and also at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.
He designed costumes for several professional non-equity theaters and colleges in the area. He was an on-staff designer at Robert Schmidt Costumes' St. Louis location, which is now defunct, costuming high schools and colleges in the greater St. Louis area.
Coultas said he looks forward to returning to St. Louis, especially treating himself to some Ted Drewes' frozen custard. He now lives in Cincinnati when he isn't on the road. The opportunity to travel and work at what he loves has driven him, and the enormously talented people involved in the show keep him motivated.
"The Lion King" staff has become a family on the road, and Coultas said he considers himself "part-Mom, butler and therapist."