By the time we reach the second story of Theatrics Unlimited costume shop, the un-climate controlled air is a thick soup flavored with the fragrance of aging linen, broadcloth, lace, and organza. It's an olfactory performance featuring a cast of 36,000 costumes collected over 36 years in business. And all for sale on a hot July day at rock-bottom prices.
"This is like attending my own funeral, only this time I get to see who shows up," says Dr. Sharon Willis, the owner of the store which will officially close on August 12. Maudlin as her words may be, they come with a smile. She adds, "I've had wonderful stories and experiences. Theatrics has been quite a vessel of opportunity for me."
The costume maven and humanities professor at Trident Tech got bit by the theater bug as a child. Growing up on James Island, she'd often visit her grandparents in North Charleston. "My grandmother had been a vaudeville dancer," Willis says. "And even though she was a respectable Navy wife by then, she kept her costumes. I'd wear her coat, her jewels, her scarves. It was a very theatrical environment."
While in college in Atlanta, Willis got a job in a costume shop. "When I came back to Charleston, I said, 'I wish Charleston had a costume shop with as much diversity as a chain, but with intimate attention.' That's what we've tried to do here," she says.
Her first shop opened on Society Street in 1979 as part of new Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr.'s Charleston Revitalization plan. From there Willis took Theatrics to Avondale, then back downtown to the space now occupied by Mellow Mushroom, before settling at 981 King where it quietly became the premier place for everything from powdered wigs to flapper dresses — not to mention a resource for the numerous movies and TV shows that have filmed here in the Lowcountry. "We've dealt with Reckless, Army Wives, Bagger Vance," she says.
But for Willis, Theatrics has been less about building a Hollywood resume and more about sharing the magic of theater.
"All of the costumes have personal relationships," she notes. "There's a spiritual element in theater that everyone in it understands. And costumes are a tool we use and a reward for actors for doing their job."
Of course, over the years she's seen people who haven't respected her inventory.
"One Halloween a guy rented a Santa suit and he went to a party," she recalls. "When he returned the suit late, I discovered he'd gotten into a situation. By happenstance he got beat up and was arrested. Well, there was quite a lot of damage to the suit, blood and, well, I didn't even want to know. But I asked him, 'Did you have a good time?' He said, 'Absolutely.'"
For others, the joy of rummaging around her hangers of clothing has been therapeutic. "One day I had a young man and woman come in and say their best friend had just passed away," Willis says. "All his life he had wanted a cowboy shirt. I took them to the cowboy/Oklahoma department. It was so wonderful to listen from the next room and hear them pick out their shirt, and they left with such joy in their hearts. That helped them with the closure of their lost one. That's the range of what costumes can do."
And though this may be the final act for Theatrics Unlimited (Artist & Craftsman Supply will expand into the space this fall), for the costumes the show will go on. Liquidation prices mean locals can snag a 1930s house dress or a vintage tuxedo for 40 percent off. As for the remaining outfits, those will go to good homes too. Willis says her alma mater Drew University is going to get a good many. "And Jenkins Orphanage [Jenkins Institute for Children] will get some because I believe theater is a healing art," she adds. "I thought for the orphans that might be a vehicle for the kids to tell stories, when you can dress up you can become someone else."