Ellen Marie Wonder, also known as “Grandma Wonder,” began making floats and costumes for the Rose Parade in the 1890s. The business she built, now known as Helen’s Pacific Costumers, was still whipping up homemade costumes and custom-built mascots until last week when after 127 years, they closed their doors, permanently.
Their final day of business in northeast Portland looked and felt much like any other. The phone rang throughout the afternoon with general costume inquiries, and customers from as far as Seattle stopped in to drop off rentals. Others came in search of a killer costume for Rose City Comic Con or another special event.
Manager Sally Newman took it all in stride.
“Tell me more about your wizard needs,” she prompted customer Katie Benson. Benson hoped to find a last-minute blue wizard costume for her husband. They were headed to a cosplay wedding.
“Let’s mosey back there and I’ll pull out some stuff. Then I’ll also just let you dig around. Channel your inner 8-year-old, like you’re playing dress up,” Newman said encouragingly.
“Sounds great!” said Benson, following Newman deep into the costume aisles.
Helen’s full collection spills over 2,000 square feet, packed floor-to-ceiling with renaissance, medieval, witches and wizards, Greeks, Romans, Vikings, cavemen, a whole hive of bees, Santa’s reindeer — and that’s just Aisle One.
After sussing out Benson’s wizard costume needs (more “Lord of the Rings” than Disney) Newman began unearthing boxes tucked below the racks, while Benson sifted through cloaks and capes hanging on them.
Newman mused, “In terms of blue stuff, everything may be a little too cartoony for you. You need dark and somber. Because it’s Tolkien.”
Meanwhile, a few aisles over are people putting together looks for the upcoming Tortuga Pirate Festival in Lebanon, Oregon. They weren’t aware that the store was closing; it was their first time at Helen’s.
Other customers knew.
Neighbor Mark Middleton lamented, “We don’t have a ‘Plan B’ yet. [Helen’s has] been here for more than 120 years, and we live right down the street. So it’s going to be a huge vacuum in the neighborhood.”
Costumer Lamontario Kent drove to Portland to return rental costumes. King works for the Langston Hughes Center for Performing Arts in Seattle Washington and has counted on Helen’s every summer, to help him outfit one of the biggest productions on the West Coast.
As for Newman, she thinks she’ll miss the aha! moments the most: when a customer describes what they need and she figures out a way to make it happen. Like just recently when she was accessorizing a Jafar look — he’s the villain from Disney’s “Aladdin.”
“I have a pole, I have some scraps of Styrofoam. If I use the pole as a skeleton and can build a Papier-mâché cobra on top, spray paint it gold, use black paint to define all of the components, put in some red jewels for eyes; I can do this. Yeah, yeah, I can build you a staff,” she said.
Newman’s biggest worry now is what will happen to the massive, prize-winning costume collection; a four-time winner of the National Costumers Association Grand International Award. These costumes have graced stages and stadiums from Eugene to Portland to Seattle over the years.
With support from other staff and local theater directors, Newman is searching for a single buyer or nonprofit to purchase the entire collection.
“We just know that in a perfect world we want to keep the collection together, we want it to still be available to the community and we especially want it to be a resource for schools and community theaters,” Newman said.
Owner Pam Monette doesn’t want to see the collection split up either. She inherited the business in 1991 when then-owner Helen Learman, her close friend, died. But between Monette’s own health issues and the shop’s more recent struggle to support itself, she felt it was time to let go.
“I didn’t think I’d ever retire, you know. I thought I’d probably die in this shop,” Monette said. “When I first made the decision I felt kind of like a failure because I feel like I was designated to carry on this business, you know, caretake it. And it has changed; the whole costuming world has changed. You can buy a costume at the local service station now.”
The endless online retailers, party stores and pop-up shops have slowly chipped away at her margin too.
Gina Powell, the shop’s resident mascot builder, started working here at age 14. She’s had a hand in creating countless mascots over the years. But her favorite? “Super Slice,” a mascot created for Franz Bakery.
“He’s a slice of bread,” Powell explained, “and he’s wearing these little shorts, and he has this superhero cape on and a blue shirt. But he was a lot of fun to make.”
Powell’s final mascot made at Helen’s Pacific Costumers sat wrapped in plastic, waiting for pickup. It’s a beaver for the Oregon State Parks. She described him while gently unwrapping the plastic, “This is JR Beaver. He entails a head, a tail, feet, big feet, and a ball, and a suit, and a vest. I made his hat and his head. And then Pam helped me cover him. Then I made his nose and his teeth and his eyes.” Powell concluded with laughter, “It’s a secret material.”
Working at Helen’s has been a critical creative and social outlet for Powell; and has seen her through tough times. She was emotional describing the experience: “This just is a great place. There’s been a lot of teamwork, and for me it’s been a life change.”
A few minutes after 6 p.m., manager Sally Newman closed the shop windows, turned off the open sign, pulled in the sidewalk sign, and locked the front door.
“All right, we’re closed for business,” she announced with a quiet resignation.
While the future of the costume collection may be uncertain, there is no question that Helen’s Pacific Costumers has left a lasting impact in the arts community — from schools to theaters to professional costumers to party goers that just love to dress up.
The building and the costume collection are each up for sale. Stay tuned to their Facebook page for updates on the fate of their beloved costumes.