Cave Dwellers

In the space underneath the theater an army of milliners, costume designers, and sewers work around the clock ten months out of the year, ceaselessly creating, reworking, repairing, modifying all the panoply that dazzles up above. They get their instructions on a little piece of paper delivered by a mute mannikin named Simon.

“Thirteen ladies hats in the fashion of the middle-class thirties in New York taking as examples cloche hats and berets,” rattles off Mr. Tonnitia, the head designer. “Dresses to match, clean lines, low waisted. Wigs, wigs, wigs!”

The buyers fan out from the space through the city combing antique stores, junk sales, wholesale clothiers, vintage shops in back alleys, looking for anything that works or could be made to work. Sorting the receipts is a mammoth undertaking, and one of many that aggravates Mr. Tonnitia.

“Three pairs of loafers trimmed in chrome, $54.50. Six pairs galoshes, for the rain in the fall production, $102.30. Seven red Chinese-print dresses, fringed, $203.17.”

“Dinner!” yells the runner and everyone drops what they’re doing long enough to grab something from the pile of sandwiches, take out boxes, cups of coffee, donuts.

Simon waits in the door for twenty minutes before someone notices him, too polite to interrupt the meal, and when Mr. Tonnitia, chow mein hanging from his mouth, finally notices him, there’s a terrible instant where he thinks about throwing something across the room.