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What It’s Really Like To Be An Extra For ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’

While the Concord may have closed twenty years ago, I recently chanced on a glimpse of what it once was to be a resort guest at the grandest of Catskills resorts, circa 1959.

It all started with the flyer. I’m sure it circulated around the Upper West Side faster than word of Loehmann’s demise.  

“Seeking men and women to portray Jewish resort guests ages 18 – 99.” 

Here was the part I was born for! I’d be a natural! My fond, even if faint, memories of visits to the Catskills came rushing back (although my family headed to the Poconos more often – I’d keep that tidbit off my submission).   I promptly pulled a photo off my iPhone from a recent bar mitzvah I attended, carefully cropped my husband out of the shot, and sent it in with my stats – medium brown hair, short, graceful but prominent nose, and Jewish for 40-some odd years plus a millennia of generations.  While I voiced doubts that I’d be chosen – secretly I was sure they wouldn’t pass me up. There was even a chance I thought they would see my resemblance to Midge and cast me as her devoted and fashionable aunt.

And the fashion! Those clothes! The bright nails, pink lips, glamorous hairdos and ladylike dresses the likes of which haven’t been seen since the era. No self respecting Upper West Side girl would pass up the chance to transform and transport herself to that time of glamour and innocence.    The email arrived the next morning. I feigned surprise, calling my husband first.

“I’m going to be a TV star!” I purred.

“Sure, sounds fine.” he replied. “Wait why are you doing this – don’t you need to be at work?” 

“Well, they say that extra work can be slow with lots of waiting time so I’ll keep up with work remotely.” I considered to myself.    A couple of emails later, and I was scheduled for my wardrobe fitting at Steiner Studios at the Brooklyn Navy Yards. Jumping into an Uber with a curious friend (what UWS girl knows anything about getting around Brooklyn?), I was soon filling out my employment forms. $13 an hour was the non-union rate, I learned. With my Uber fare there and back, I was in the negative already.

While I wasn’t treated to a view of the studio sets, I was treated to a peak at the vast warehouse of period clothing and accessories used by the show. I passed racks of outfits already selected by extras who had visited earlier than I. Each finished wardrobe rack included a clear hanging garment bag, a complete outfit with accessories such as gloves, shoes, and bags. Hanging from each was a photo marked with the name of each actor and a full body shot of their chosen costume. As I peered around the corner waiting to be called I wondered if I would have the chance to browse the racks or would my costume be selected for me? Glittering heels? A satin evening gown in royal purple? Long gloves reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot?

Nearby a few men were waiting for mandatory haircuts – short and clean at the back and sides, the hairdresser explained to the men, reminding them to be clean shaven for filming day. Apparently, hipster beards weren’t yet popular in the 50s. I was called in about 20 minutes after my scheduled appointment time, asked to drop my cell phone in a shoe box at the entrance, and leave my friend behind. Sorry, the changing room is small, no space for you, they assured her. With an apologetic smile I scurried after the wardrobe team.

We pulled back a curtain to a small dressing room with a desk, several chairs, a full length mirror, a rolling rack, and tear sheets of period clothes and accessories taped on the walls. On the rack were two dresses, one royal blue satin with a portrait collar and slim skirt, and the other, a light blue dress with beaded neckline, slim belt, matching jacket and full, round skirt.

Let’s try this one first, one wardrobe assistant suggested. Yes! I thought, that’s the satin dress I imagined. As the women helped me slip it on and pulled the zipper up it became apparent that this one wasn’t for me.

“The zipper isn’t closing – you really can’t have any ribs for this one, let’s try the other” she said.

“But, wait, I can wear a girdle, tighter Spanx, let’s try again!” I pleaded as she quickly pulled it off me and grabbed the second dress.

As they selected my shoes (navy leather with a pad to help fit), helped me into the crinoline slip, and stuffed my vintage style bra with pointed pads, the costume came to life. With the approval of the wardrobe ladies, I added my grandmother’s beaded bag (more likely from the late 60s, but again, something I didn’t mention). I twirled my skirt and considered it thoughtfully. Was this something my mother or grandmother may have worn, had either of them been lucky enough to visit the Concord in 1959 instead of living behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia? Would my grandfather — a veteran of the shmatteh trade — be satisfied with the weave of the fabric, the delicate beading along the neckline?

“Stand against the curtain, one foot in front and pointed out, chin up and eyes up and to the right,” instructed the wardrobe lady. This would be my costume photo — there was no turning back now!

Over the next days I waited eagerly for a message from the casting company about when and where I’d be filming.

Finally, several days later, I received notice: We were to arrive at 1pm to Astoria World Manor.

When I arrived I followed signs to “HOLDING” and passed other signs to “WARDROBE” and “HMU.” I’d later learn “HMU” was hair and makeup. First, we’d need to complete the employment forms again. Time in and out, sign here. Wait to be called. Head to wardrobe and then HMU, where we were instructed by a production assistant who spoke to us as if we high school students in detention.

After reacquainting myself with my costume, my first stop was the hairdresser CiCi, who specialized in setting short hair. We chatted about our families and clothes for more than an hour as she carefully curled my hair with a hot iron.

CiCi guided me to makeup while the curls would set and then she would see me again to tease them out and set them in place with numerous pins. Linda, my makeup artist, gave me a flawless foundation alongside black liner, blue shadow and pink lips to complete my period look.

We were finally called to the main ballroom about six hours later.

While I can’t divulge details of the storyline, I can say that outside of on-camera moments the extras found their own storyline to keep occupied. Men and women who were paired to sit together arranged their lives – “You’ll be my fiancé,” “I’ll be the mother-in-law.” Some coupled extra’s decided they were on a first date, while groups of friends became cousins on the town for the evening. Another couple invented an elaborate affair. When we were sent back to holding the conversations turned to Jewish geography, both contemporary (Camp Ramah? Camp Stone? University of Michigan?) and historic (Poland? Georgia? Israel?).

There were other moms from my neighborhood, professionals playing hooky from work for the day, Yeshiva students, even a guest from my Shabbat table earlier that year. We shared our personal stories with new found friends, took on the personas of our costumed characters, stole glances in the mirror and selfies on our cell phones. We marveled at the hours it took to transform ourselves and considered how women would have done the same regularly in the past – the curlers, girdles and heels.  Was it a simpler time when roles were more defined, expectations set? Possibly. But for Mrs. Maisel, it was a time of awakening as she discovered her independence from society’s expectations.

Day two began with a curt text at 7:31am from the casting company asking for my ETA due to an Uber driver who couldn’t find his way on the Upper West Side. “I am in now,” I quickly replied at 7:33am. The 7:30 group had already headed to wardrobe and I would need to wait until called next. A 7:30am arrival led to a 12:30 rehearsal time, a few takes and lunch hour at 5:30pm.

Take after take came and went. The production assistant gave us direction, some individually and some as a group – stand here, mime the words, louder, softer, try again, he went on. At the end of the day we were treated to direction from the director herself, who appeared pleased with us as a group.

As the day wore on, so did the novelty of the job.

Our new friends began kvetching. “How much longer?” they whispered to one another. “I need to be up early tomorrow,” worried another extra waiting in holding. Those glamorous clothes began to itch after 12 hours. The curls that hadn’t budged for over 24 hours, the 43 pins scraping my scalp, the bra pads, hose and spanx, oy vey! 

As soon as the production assistant exclaimed “That’s a wrap!” late in the evening, 150 extras ran to the too small dressing area to change back to their 2018 selves.

Waiting for my turn, I shimmied out of my bra, crinoline and slip while still wearing my dress. Some twenty minutes later, I was in my sweats and sneakers waiting to share a return Uber with my newfound UWS friends – each shedding their glamorous 50’s clothes while their faces, still in full makeup, told a different story.

It was a beautifully bizarre moment. Despite the long hours and bad candy, whether intentional or by chance — by isolating a room of over what was likely 100 Jewish individuals with an affinity for the 1950s, the casting company succeeded in recreating a moment in time I like to think was perhaps not so dissimilar to the moments of camaraderie experienced by guests at the Concord in its heyday.

Deborah is an attorney and mom to three boys and lives on the Upper West Side.

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