The Many Hats of Joan Markert

From her chair in Point Park University’s new Pittsburgh Playhouse (in the former president’s office of the Pittsburgh Stock Exchange building that opened its doors on Fourth Avenue in 1903), Joan Markert sketches her designs. She can also be found at the sewing machine constructing her concepts into creation. Or you can find her in the warehouse in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, perusing, cataloguing and checking the university’s voluminous inventory of costumes. She is an artist, a seamstress and warehouse manager.

Markert said, “In the costume department, you have to wear many hats.”

Literally and figuratively.

Markert has been with Point Park University since 1981 (back when it was Point Park College). She spent thirty-nine years designing and creating costumes and dressing actors for the playhouse and many other theaters. She’s fabricated costumes for many local production companies such as PICT, Prime Stage, the South Park Conservatory Theatre and the Pittsburgh Opera Theatre.

Her last show, PICT’s “The Heiress” was hailed for its sumptuous costumes, big satiny dresses that looked like they were plucked from Washington Square in the 1850s.

Her costumes pop with bright colors.   

Ironically, Markert wears a lot of black. The tall, thin woman dresses in skinny black jeans, a black shirt and a long, black sweater that ends below her hip. The sweater’s length is similar to the kind you could find on Bea Arthur on the television show, “Maude.” Markert looked down at her outfit, and said, “You have to wear a lot of black backstage.”

After graduating from Grinnell College in Iowa for a degree in Speech and Theatre, Markert went to study costume design at Carnegie Mellon University. Attending CMU was her first time in Pittsburgh. 

“When I arrived here, I realized my whole hometown of Streator, Illinois could have fit inside Pitt Stadium.”

Note: Pitt Stadium in Oakland had 56,500 seats. It was torn down in 1999. Even today, Streator’s population is only a fraction of the stadium’s capacity at 13,710.

Once she left CMU, Markert began doing gig work for small theaters around the country, until Bill Putch called her up to the big leagues. She moved on up to the West Coast, to a deluxe gig working for Rita Riggs, the costume designer for the Norman Lear shows, in Los Angeles. The shows were “All in the Family,” “The Jefferson’s,” “One Day at a Time” and, of course, the aforementioned, “Maude.”

Markert reminisced about working in Hollywood.

She said, “Carroll O’Connor [Archie Bunker] always strived for authenticity on the set.” In the episode, “The Draft Dodger” Archie confronts David Brewster (Renny Temple) a draft dodger who comes back to America after living in Canada.

“He argued that his character, Archie, would be really angry at the situation.” She added, “There’s a scene where Archie is yelling at the Mike [Rob Reiner’s character Mike “Meathead” Stivic] for bringing the draft dodger into his home, and Archie swears at him. The audience gasped when Carroll said, ‘God damn.’  They ran the scene again without the curse word. But if you watch the episode, they used that take with the audience reaction. Carroll had to dub over the line later that week.”

Markert prefers working in theatre to television. “Theatre is more interesting. More diverse in its subject matter.”

The costume designer is very forthright. She believes in truth and humanity (her Grinnell College motto).

In her long, illustrious career, Markert noted, “I’d love to do ‘My Fair Lady.’ It’s the one show I’ve never done the costumes for. It’s the first show I fell in love with.”

She added, “I remember I was very young when my mother took me, kicking and screaming, on the train to Chicago to see ‘My Fair Lady.’” Markert said. “I didn’t want to go. I was afraid it would be like the movies – at the time – I was afraid of the movies. They seemed so big and scary. But, by the end, I fell in love with theater.”

She even performed on stage in high school and went to college pursuing her dream of working in theater. Markert enjoys designing costumes from almost any period, especially clothes from the Renaissance all the way up to the 1930s.

After decades in costume design, Markert has clothed an astounding number of actors. When asked who she’d like to design costumes for, Markert responded, “I’d love to put costumes on my cats. But they would never go for it.”

Mike Buzzelli