By Kathy Eaton
Photos by John Butenshoen
Wonder Costumes, one of Portland’s oldest retail businesses founded in 1890 and later renamed Helen’s Pacific Costumers, will close on August 31 unless the company finds a buyer for the costume inventory and space to house it.
On a busy Friday afternoon in the Montavilla neighborhood, Frank Dyess and Mercedes Estevez search Helen’s Pacific Costumers for an authentic nobleman and lady costume to wear to the Canterbury Renaissance Faire near Silverton, Oregon. While he searches for Elizabethan-era pieces, Mercedes dons various period gowns that need to be nipped and tucked to fit her. They express delight as the staff works synchronistically, pulling out belts, sashes, and hats to complete their outfits.
In another corner of the shop, author Dawn DeRamon seeks advice from the staff to outfit a model for the book cover of “Healing Bird,” a historical romance set in medieval times. DeRamon is seeking an authentic, quality costume to depict the main character named Isabella, to grace the cover of her book.
The Wonders initially built floats and costumes for the city’s Rose Parade. They costumed performers to entertain WWI soldiers’ families and continued to make costumes during WWII, using burlap as they couldn’t get regular fabric materials. Their daughter Lillian married a local papier mache artist and inherited the costume business.
Lillian later passed down the costume business to her son Al’s wife, Helen, who had good business skills. They renamed the business Helen’s Pacific Costumers and in 1957 leased space at a building on West Burnside and 11th Avenue, across the street from the auto dealership that two decades later housed Powell’s Bookstore. Helen’s business thrived in their downtown location for 35 years, with lines winding around the block during Halloween, according to current owner Pam Monette. “Helen hired a security guard to limit entry to the costume shop to manage the large crowds and hired a dozen temporary volunteers to help customers.”
We can build anything
In 1971, Monette moved to Portland to join her husband and his brother, who founded the Burlingame Market in Southwest Portland, located next door to Al and Helen’s house. When Helen passed away in 1991, she left the business to Monette and urged her to keep the business going. Monette inherited the entire stock and became the fourth woman in succession to own Helen’s Pacific Costumers. In addition to renting costumes, Monette started building mascots, recalling Helen’s advice that “We never say no—we can build anything.” Helen’s is well known for the mascots they create, including the Oregon beaver mascots (one for every Oregon state park), 30-40 bunny rabbits, 50 Santa Clauses, and their latest creation, “Hopster,” who debuted in this year’s Rose Festival Starlight parade to market TriMet’s new hop-on pass.
When the West Burnside building sold in 1992, Monette leased space for the next 10 years at 1909 Northeast Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. In 2002, Monette purchased the blue and purple striped building in Montavilla at 7501 Northeast Glisan, which has housed the costume business for the past 15 years. The 2,000-square-foot building is chock-full of costumes and accessories to inspire customers of all ages.
Save the costumes campaign
On August 31, Monette will retire and sell the business as well as the buildings she owns.
The volunteers who work at Helen’s are equally passionate about preserving these costumes, and they are working hard to form a nonprofit group and qualify for an IndiegogoGenerosity crowdfunding platform. Their goal is to raise $300,000 needed to buy the costumes and either store the inventory or lease space in a climate-controlled, fireproof building, free of vermin and protected from sunlight, which can damage costumes.
A thespian who relocated from Georgia four years ago, Sally Newman loved to play dress-up and had a passion for theater productions, but said she got the store manager job at Helen’s because she was unafraid to climb really tall ladders. Newman continued the company’s tradition of working with local school productions and community theaters and supplied costumes to stage about 25 plays last spring.
Newman and Jay Lieber, who’s worked as an actor, musician and cabaret performer for 15 years, are spearheading the fundraising campaign to save the costumes. He started at Helen’s 18 months ago as an apprentice fabricator. “I love this business and will work 24/7 to save it,” he said. Using social media sites to publicize the campaign, Lieber is working diligently to preserve this local resource. According to Monette, the staff possesses all the skills needed to run the business and they know the stock better than anyone else. “The business needs these assets.”
Gina Powell has worked for the company for 25 years, primarily making lightweight mascots that are padded with dense foam to carry weight on their shoulders. A bike helmet is built-in to cushion the head to prevent sliding. Working in three dimensions, she has a keen eye for measurement and symmetry. “But it’s good to be asymmetrical if you want the mascot to be comedic,” she said. “I love this work that allows me to be creative.”
Judy, an alterations and repair specialist from Arizona, grew up making costumes and joined Helen’s about eight years ago. In a back room, hidden from the bustle of customers, she restores costumes by hand to keep them in optimum condition.
“We’re the last game in town, and I’d like to see these costumes continue to be available for school productions and our many customers.” said Monette. You can follow their campaign to save the costumes at www.helenspacificcostumers.com or call 503-254-2005. Helen’s Costumes Benefit is scheduled August 26 at Dante’s, 350 West Burnside.