Painting The Pride Backstage at “The Lion King”
December 14, 2023
If you imagine working as a makeup artist on “The Lion King” for its 26-year run—8 shows a week—with (thankfully) no closing in sight, might be a “punishing” schedule you’d be right. In fact, that’s the word head makeup artist Elizabeth Cohen used to describe her tenure on the show since the day it opened. But she also said: “I’m lucky I get to do what I love; paint faces every day and have healthcare, pension and annuity as an IASTE union member.”
Each show Elizabeth paints the characters of the adult lioness Nala, Timon (the meerkat) and Scar the villain, uncle threatening to take over the kingdom. But it’s more than painting—it’s the start of the performers’ transformation into the beings that will step on stage.
There are better and more products available than when the show started over two decades ago. “There are improvements and a larger selection of makeup for people of color, which has made my job easier,” Elizabeth said. But there is still a lot to juggle. For example, to accentuate Scar’s wickedness he has one brow that is arched and raised. Early in the run of the show the brow would fade, get wiped off or completely disappear during the performance. However, for many years now Elizabeth has used Skin Illustrator an alcohol-based product, which is utilized by mixing it with Skin Illustrator activator or 99% alcohol. This holds up more successfully than a cream-based makeup since the design feature of the brow is subjected to sweat and rubbing conditions. Even with this durable product, Elizabeth’s final touch is to paint a second coat of Skin Illustrator over the first one for optimal definition, visibility, and resilience.
Even though this well-choreographed routine takes place every show there can be daily challenges. “If an actor is even five minutes late, or someone is out and an understudy needs to go on the routine and timing can be compromised,” Elizabeth told me.
All the principal performers like Simba, Mufasa, and Rafiki, the shaman spiritual guide (whose face is a vivid display of primary colors) have their makeup professionally done by one of the two other makeup artists who are part of Elizabeth’s team.
The ensemble performers do their own makeup (as trained by Elizabeth.) But if any quick changes are needed during the show those are handled by the makeup department. The principal performers who play the hyenas Banzai, Shenzi and Ed do their own makeup, as well. They sponge on a pale basecoat and then their eyes are outlined from the tops of their brows and onto their cheekbones with prominent strokes of black. But even with the participation of the performers and her crew helping, Elizabeth’s responsibilities do not end with makeup.
The show is dark on Monday and often she tries to stay home on Tuesdays, so she has two days off in a row. “But even then, I’m answering emails and often dealing with sudden scheduling changes. I also must regularly schedule time to sit in the audience to assess how it looks from the theater rather than just backstage.”
While all of Broadway and most of movie and television production was halted during the pandemic, Elizabeth too was sequestered at home. “My husband and I were able to take advantage of Prospect Park and the Botanical Gardens which is close to where we live in Brooklyn, and unlike a lot of other shows I knew “The Lion King” would reopen.”
What Elizabeth did not know (over two decades ago) is that she’d end up being a theatrical makeup artist. The Vassar graduate majored in studio art (with a practical, if unofficial minor in theater) however, she was not interested in being on stage. “I was taking all of the advanced courses in theatrical design that Vassar offered, but the majority of the drama students at the time were primarily interested in acting and directing courses, so I had a lot of the professors all to myself.”
When she graduated, she was working as a crew member on off-Broadway productions. “But to live in New York,” she said, “I needed two jobs, which caused me to take a break from running shows. Then I took a job in a theatrical office. After 3 years being creatively stifled by office work, I considered returning home to Austin, Texas, but then I was offered a job at “The Lion King.” Perhaps there is something in her DNA which landed her in the theater.
Elizabeth grew up with parents who were no strangers to theater, art, and New York City. Her father, a Bronx native moved to Texas to teach law at the University of Texas. The Cohen family spent the summers of 1973 and 1980 living in New York City, soaking up all the art world had to offer, and catching what was playing on and off Broadway. Her mother is a dedicated visual artist. In fact, Elizabeth recalls asking her mother for a coloring book like the ones her friends had. “My mother told me:” ‘You make your own drawings and then color inside those.’ When Elizabeth was in preschool, she brought home a drawing which she planned on finishing later. “Before I could do that, my mother confiscated it, and when I asked to take it back to school to finish it the next day, my mom lied to me and told me she couldn’t find it. As it turns out, she thought it was perfect just the way it was, and when enough time had passed that she figured the coast was clear, she framed it.” That drawing still hangs on a wall in the home in Austin where her parents live.
Despite the arduous schedule and the responsibilities that come with being in charge Elizabeth loves her job. “I laugh out loud everyday” she says. “I love theater people, they’re quirky, funny and a little bit weird. The real show is always backstage.”
In November of 2022 New York One went backstage to visit with some of those who have been there since the start of the show, including Elizabeth. You can watch that here: https://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/on-stage-episodes/2022/11/19/-the-lion-king–celebrates-25-years-on-broadway
She Made-up Tallulah Bankhead, Paul McCartney and Many In Between
December 14, 2023
Cheers for Seventy-three Years
It was 1949 when Florence Ricobbono Johnson was hired by NBC as a staff makeup-artist. She trained to be an actor and had recently completed a graduate degree in theater at The Pasadena Playhouse (University of Southern California) where she got the nickname Riccie.
On her first day she was greeted by Dick Smith* who was the head of the makeup department. Riccie said, “One of the first things he did was take me into the control room and discussed the effects of overhead lighting and how it cast shadows on the faces of the performer. He was kind and welcoming.”
No one knew Dick Smith would become legendary and Riccie didn’t know that she was beginning a career that would span seven decades.
After year at NBC, she took a lengthy vacation in Europe with a friend which ended her employment. Before leaving she had joined Make-up Artists & Hairstylists Local 798 I.A.T.S.E. When she returned to New York she went to a union meeting and was introduced to members working at CBS.
“The TV business was booming” she said. “I began to work on entertainment shows, game shows and soap operas throughout CBS, and I embraced the business and my craft.” Riccie was one of the makeup artists working on The Ed Sullivan Show. “There was a commotion about this group from London,” she recalled. That group was The Beatles in their first USA appearance in 1964. Riccie made up all four. Years later, on another television show Riccie met McCartney, who remembered she put eyeliner and pancake makeup on him.
It was also at CBS she met her husband Jay Johnson, a cameraman. They married, set up home in Manhattan and had seven children.
Besides working on those burgeoning shows, she was given momentous assignments on location. Riccie said, “I was sent to The Waldorf Astoria Hotel to makeup President Lydon Johnson. When I got there Lady Bird answered the door. She showed me the bathroom because of the good light. I thought I can’t make up The President of the United States in a bathroom. I set up in the living room of the suite. He was a big man, and I was relieved we weren’t cramped in a small space.” Throughout her career Riccie also made up Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Clinton.
While most makeup artists and hairstylists (apart from those working in theater) occasionally work on live performances like Saturday Night Live or awards shows, Riccie worked almost exclusively on live television productions. There was little opportunity for last looks. She told me, “You had to get it right the first time and part of getting it right was being prepared.” That preparation began with her makeup kit. She did not use a rolling suitcase or makeup cart. “I didn’t overpack; and carried the equivalent of a briefcase. I would mix and blend colors and always had what I needed.” If she was not familiar with someone, she would be doing on assignment she’d do research, which for most of her career was more difficult than a Google search.
On occasion performers supplied some of their own makeup, which was the case when Riccie went to do Nichols and May, the comedy duo of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, most popular between 1959-1962.
“When I arrived, there was some makeup laid out including a pair of false eyelashes. I did Elaine’s makeup first and I assumed the lashes were for her and applied them. She seemed pleased to have them. But when Mike sat down, he asked’ Weren’t there lashes here?” Elaine had gone into another room; I removed them from her and put them on him. She didn’t seem fazed, and I don’t think he knew I had made the mistake.” Of course, Mike Nichols went on to become an esteemed film and theater director.
On several occasions, Riccie filled in for a colleague and went to the home of Tallulah Bankhead. Riccie said, “I had never seen her without makeup, and I was surprised how dramatic the transformation was once I applied her makeup!”
Riccie stopped working in 2020 when the world paused. These days she is catching up with all seven children, seventeen grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, and attending this year’s Labor Day Parade where she was honored with a sign commemorating her decades of service.
And The Awards go to… Mia Neal Celebrity Hairstylist
December 14, 2023
Mia Neal redefines the idea of celebrity hairstylist. She won the 2020 Oscar as head of the hair and wig department for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; and made history as one of two black women along with Jamika Wilson (personal hairstylist to Viola Davis) to win the category. And most recently she won an Emmy for outstanding hairstyling for the NBC production of Annie Live.
Ironically, Neal the forty-three-year-old Gary, Indiana native wanted to avoid hairdressing. Neal said, “I had two aunts working as stylists in salons. They didn’t have any benefits and never got to own anything.” But Neal still wanted to make sure she could earn a living so despite her feelings enrolled in Merrillville Beauty College and learned the trade. Still determined to find an alternate career she attended Columbia College in Chicago. She said, “In the past I didn’t do well academically, but there I was a straight A student. It’s a school that specializes in the arts and because of its smaller size I was able to have a dialogue with the professors.”
That dialogue seems to be the start of Neal’s ability to listen and gain the expertise that led her to these celebrated moments.
After being accepted into the nine-month Julliard Professional Apprentice Program in wig and makeup design she conquered any obstacle and pursued every opportunity. Neal said, “We received an $800.00 monthly stipend and had to live on that in Manhattan, so I shared a place with four other Julliard Students. I slept in a closet with my clothes hanging over my head and paid $400.00 in rent.”
During the end of her internship, she was working on the Broadway production of 42nd Street. There she worked under the supervision of Renee Kelly another venerable hairstylist.
Kelly told me, “Mia Neal had a great willingness to learn. In several of the musical numbers each wig needed to be identical on each character, and that required a precise roller set. Mia understood that it mattered.”
Understanding what matters and recognizing experts in the industry is what keeps propelling Neal further. When she left Julliard, she knew how to ventilate a wig, but it takes more than that to make a wig. For that she went to work with the master Tom Watson and worked with his team for seven years. She said, “It takes years to know how to build and blend a wig and if there was a mistake to make; I made it.” It’s probably knowing what to avoid, which kept Neal sprinting along Broadway, from A Raisin in the Sun in 2014, to her Drama Desk Award for wig and hair design for Shuffle Along.
With all her experience and guidance, it wasn’t until she worked with costume designer Ann Roth that in Neal’s words: “Changed me from a hairstylist and wigmaker to a hair designer.” The two first met on the Chris Rock film First Five. Ann Roth has won two Oscars (one for Ma Rainy) a 2013 Tony Award and been nominated for three Emmy Awards for her work which began in the ‘60s. Neal said, “Ann taught me how to breakdown a character. I needed to understand how much time this person had to do their own hair, and what kinds of brushes and combs they used. Often there can be a lot of imperfect hair, grease and even dirt under fingernails.”
Mia Neal has not just learned how to breakdown a character, but all kinds of barriers and it seems this is just the beginning.
The Sometimes-Soothing Power Of “A Touch A Makeup”
December 14, 2023
The pretty, petite, thirty-year-old woman needed no introduction when she came into the makeup room at Court TV. Pinned to her chest, like a poster on a milk carton, were photos and information about her father, who was last seen on the ninety-fourth floor of the north tower in The World Trade Center on Tuesday, September 11th 2001. It was now Friday. She and her brother and sister had come to talk about their search and to show pictures of their dad on TV.
I have been standing in one makeup room or another for the past 20 years. I have stood in this particular makeup room at Court TV, in midtown Manhattan, for the past four years.
I’ve worked on soap operas and feature films. I’m skilled at making others look the part. Sometimes it means adding blood, or removing perspiration. Sometimes it means making people look glamorous, better—or sometimes just feel better.
But I didn’t know if could do either for this young woman or if she wanted me to try.
The intimate act I perform includes not only the face—but some place deeper. Seeing the reporter, or the anchor before they go on camera, is not very different from what the world sees. Even though I may smooth out the complexion, define a brow, or exaggerate a lip; the real transformation is in the ritual itself.
It involves close proximity, touch and trust. Part of that trust is often immediate, simply because I am recognized as the hired professional with a long list of credentials. But it is in the daily repetition of the process—like a well-rehearsed routine between dance partners—that establishes confidence and comfort that goes beyond makeup.
We were in the mist of that process when the first plane hit, just before 9am. Our regular programming was cancelled. I wanted to go home. But our anchors and reporters had to go on the air to report the details of the attack. And they still needed, if not to feel their best —to look like themselves—the people our viewers depended on for analysis and facts.
I didn’t know yet how many people would be declared dead or missing. I didn’t know yet that some of the families of the missing would pass through our studio. I didn’t know yet that not only the city I was born and raised in had changed forever, but all its people and the world as well.
But, when I left the building at noon to get something to eat, and saw the migration of men and women walking north up Third Avenue, smeared with gray ash, I knew that this powdery substance might wash off—but would still leave a permanent residue on their skin.
Returning to the makeup room I took some powder and rouge and went into the studio to touch up the anchors who were on a short break. They didn’t really need more makeup, but it wasn’t really powder or color I wanted to add—it was simply all I had.
In the days following the attack we continued to report on the crisis, rather than returning to our usual programming that had been interrupted. But none of our lives had been as interrupted as the young woman who sat down in my makeup chair to get ready for her appearance on TV.
We looked at each others’ reflections in the mirror. Her pecan-colored, chin-length hair framed large green eyes.
Running her index finger over two pimples on her chin, she said, “My skin has not broken out like this since I was a teenager.”
“I can fix that,” I said, relieved to be of some use.
I started to fasten the makeup cape around her neck but stopped when I realized I would be covering the photos of her father with the black fabric of the cape. After applying some liquid foundation, I busied myself brushing concealer and powder over the blemishes that were pebbly and pink on her otherwise smooth olive skin. We both looked at the result in the mirror.
She nodded her head up and down approvingly and said, “You made them disappear.”
I nodded too. The ritual was in motion, but I still felt tentative, unsure about continuing.
Over the years at Court TV many people have passed through the makeup room not because of any celebrity or expertise. They too had come to talk about an agonizing ordeal. There was the father of Amadou Diallo. And the parents of the teenagers killed when a drunk driver slammed her car into the car full of teens on spring break. But that was different. Time had passed, a year or more. They were used to masking their pain, and my presence seemed welcomed. The mother of one of the teenagers chatted with me, commenting on the view of the urban skyline from our studio on the nineteenth floor. She said, “I wish I could see you every morning. I love the way you made me look.”
But I wasn’t sure how to make this young woman look.
So I asked. “Do you think we should do some eye makeup?”
She ran her hand over her chest as if straightening a fine garment, and said, “You know, my dad would want me to look nice on TV.”
Bending at the waist, so I could be eye-level with the photos held on her tee shirt with safety pins, I examined the pictures of her father. She had his green eyes and olive skin. His hair was fashionably cropped short and beginning to gray. There was a photo of her mother and father together, and another with his children, and one of him alone smiling for the camera. He was 52 years old.
“He is so handsome,” I said. “You look like him. Let’s make sure you look nice.”
“What is your name?” I asked?
“Alfie,” she said.
“It’s short for Alfia. That was my grandmother’s name.”
I nodded. And she smiled at me. This was the first time we were looking at each other rather than our reflections in the mirror.
I put a thin line of brown pencil on her upper lids and some waterproof mascara on the outer lashes. Finally I brushed a berry-colored lip stain on her mouth.
Her brother and sister came in as I was straightening the ends of her hair with the blow dryer.
“Where are you going to the prom?” Her brother said. We almost laughed. I asked her sister if she would like some makeup. She looked at me then at Alfie.
Alfie said. “Do it. It feels good.”
Her sister sat down in the chair.
Setting the Stage
December 14, 2023
“You gotta make it fun,” Joe Rielly head carpenter on Saturday Night Live, said when asked how he approached each show after working there for twenty years.
You might think working on a show in its 48th season, which premiered in 1975 and has made millions laugh would be fun for anyone in the vicinity. But working behind the scenes comes with responsibilities requiring unique skills.
Consider if you will one of the shows longest running skits “Weekend Update.” It takes twelve of Reilly’s crew to get the set on and off the stage. The set consists of the desk, chairs and three walls. It usually has to be assembled and dismantled in a minute or less. And that’s one of the least complicated sets. There are eight skits for each live show and two performances by the musical guest. Joe never has less than a crew of twelve, and it averages about twenty for most shows.
Joe’s week begins with the read through on Wednesday, where forty or more skits are presented. The chosen eight helps Joe decide how many will be in his crew. On Thursday and Friday, he arrives at 6:30 in the morning and along with his team they start preparing and putting various sets together. “Those days end whenever and we usually go late into the night,” Joe told me.
Studio 8H in NBC at 30 Rockefeller Center may appear larger on TV than it actually is. Broadway theaters like the Minskoff, for example have over 1500 seats. And the smallest theater on Broadway The Helen Hays has 597 seats. The studio of SNL seats a maximum of 300 people. The stage is just over 6,000 square feet about the same as an average stage of an auditorium.
During commercial breaks besides Joe’s crew changing sets, cameras need to move, props need to be placed, lights need adjustment and the cast needs to get in place. Every cast member is assigned their own makeup artist, hairstylist and dresser, all these activities give new meaning to the phrase lights camera action.
During rehearsal and production celebrities are on and off the stage in and out of dressing rooms and roaming the hallways. Of course, Joe has mingled with more than a few, and sometimes a friendship blossoms like that with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. “We exchanged numbers and stay in touch,” Joe said. The group has made four appearances during Joe’s twenty years.
Joe Reilly began learning his craft back when SNL was premiering in 1975. He worked building sets on night crews freelancing at different networks, before becoming staff at NBC. He said, “I spent a lot of time learning, practicing and tying knots in rope.” He had to become an expert when it came to making a clove hitch knot, or bowline knot both used to anchor things in place that might be hung from the ceiling in a studio.
Joe Reilly mastered those knots and lots more. Live performances are not unique to SNL. All the morning shows are live, but there is usually one desk that’s stationary and perhaps a couch or club chairs that are close by. Most of the daytime and nighttime talk shows are live too, but many are live on tape meaning they shoot earlier in the day (usually with an audience) then aired later that night or even on another date. But the synchronicity required of cast and crew at SNL is a bit like a high-wire act.
Even with all the planning and preparation sometimes things don’t go as expected. There was the time Reilly and a few of his team dropped a glass table, which broke on the stage during a live sketch. Just before the ruckus that startled everyone in the studio a cast member had just said his line: “I’ll take care of that” then after the crash said, “And I’ll take care of that too.”
It’s the spontaneity the energy and the unexpected that has made the show fun not only for Joe and his crew but all of us watching.
What I learned about writing and life as a Makeup Artist for TV and Film
December 14, 2023
When I did makeup for television I always stood on the right side of the chair, it had to do with being right-handed, but sometimes I discovered there was no right side—there was no right side for difficult personalities, but I had to pretend I was okay with bad behavior a skill that became as essential as my steady hand. But the truly difficult—even abusive were the exception and were often not famous at all or their fame faded like something no longer visible in the rearview mirror.
Whenever I told someone, I was a makeup artist for TV and film mostly they wanted to know more. Who was the nicest, was some newscaster as friendly as they seemed on camera, or as attractive? I learned to be evasive, which was part of my code of conduct and for most working in the industry.
I am writing this newsletter about the craft, what it has taught me and how it informs my work as a writer. For many years it supported my write side. I was able to afford and graduate with an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Some who sat in my chair informed my fiction. Others gave me a reason to write not because of their celebrity but because they deserved to be celebrated— ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Some posts will introduce you to those who stand behind the camera and make a celebrity look the part, or give them a cue, or hold the camera, build a set, hand them a prop, or drive them to location.
This is what it looks like
April 11, 2022
This is the physical manifestation…
I finished the second draft and I’m working on the third
April 11, 2022
This is what it looks like. I love seeing the amount of pages, it’s a physical manifestation of my hard work.
I think now about all the words that go into each draft…the R words…revise, re-visit, re-imagine, refine.
More to come.
I finished my first draft
March 10, 2021
I have not blogged in a long time. That changes now. I wrote a book, a novel. While every writer wants to be published, I’m no exception. But I am enjoying this moment of completion. I am halfway through the second draft.
March 22, 2018
The more I work on my story, the better I know my characters. I can actually see them as I write. It is as if I have entered thier lives, thier world.