As a costume designer for the stars during Hollywood’s golden age, Pocatello native Edward Stevenson never heeded his movie studio’s directive to focus his talents on so-called A-list celebrities.
Trent Clegg, who created an ongoing Marshall Public Library exhibit in Stevenson’s honor, explained executives considered “off-the-rack” clothing good enough for B-movie actors, whose films were intended to make a quick buck.
“He would create costumes for them just like he would for the big, big stars,” said Clegg, a reference specialist at the library who wrote a master’s thesis on Stevenson’s life.
Clegg’s research shows the B-listers never forgot the respect Stevenson paid them — even after some of them joined the A list. Stevenson developed an especially meaningful relationship with Lucille Ball, who earned the sobriquet “Queen of the Bs” for her many roles in B films but went on to become a household name as the star of the hit television series “I Love Lucy.”
While with RKO Pictures, Stevenson was also involved in designing wardrobes for classic movies such as “Citizen Kane” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He received more than 200 film and television credits during his career.
“He had a huge impact on our culture,” Clegg said. “People invited his designs into their homes every day without them knowing it. If you’ve ever cried at ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ he’s touched your life, and for Pocatello citizens, he’s a native son.”
Stevenson’s life hit a low point in the late 1940s. Business magnate Howard Hughes purchased RKO and laid off a large percentage of the workforce, including Stevenson. Stevenson’s mother died in 1949.
And Clegg’s research shows Stevenson was gay at a time when it was dangerous for homosexuals to be open with their identities, especially in Hollywood. Stevenson was criminally charged with lewd behavior and disappeared from the public eye.
“My guess is he probably tried to hold someone’s hand in a public park,” Clegg said.
Stevenson owes his career’s resurgence to Ball, who went to great lengths to track him down when she needed a new costume designer. Stevenson’s first credits with “I Love Lucy” appear in the mid-1950s. He continued working for Ball until his death in 1968.
Clegg believes Stevenson helped shape popular culture with an outfit he designed for Ball from a burlap sack, for an episode entitled “Lucy gets a Paris Gown.” Within a year, a leading fashion designer unveiled a similar dress. An article in Vogue noted Stevenson’s influence.
Clegg believes one of Stevenson’s great strengths was designing wardrobes that helped to tell the story without stealing the spotlight.
“There’s a moment in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ when Violet Bick is walking down the street in a dress. It’s almost like the dress is winking, and the camera does a close-up on the dress,” Clegg said. “Eddie was fantastic at that sort of thing.”
Born in Pocatello on May 13, 1906 — the son of a school teacher and a division superintendent with the Oregon Shortline Railroad — Stevenson attended St. Joseph’s Catholic School. He was raised in a home on ground now occupied by the same library hosting his display through Jan. 12. The small exhibit includes some of his sketches, a history of his life and a slideshow.
Clegg learned about Stevenson about a decade ago, during his assistantship at Idaho State University’s Eli M. Oboler Library. He worked with special collections and was tasked with cataloguing the library’s immense collection of Stevenson’s costume sketches, as well as establishing a computer database of them. The library staff learned they have what is believed to be the world’s largest collection of costume sketches by a single Hollywood designer when a renowned costume scholar came to review the collection while researching her next book.
Clegg went on to write his thesis about Stevenson to obtain a master of arts in theater at ISU.
“The first time I saw what (the library) had, I was just astounded,” Clegg said. “It was obvious that Eddie had a fantastic artistic ability ... to make drawings that didn’t just show color in the costumes, but you could also see the movement in the fabric.”
About half of the sketches that were donated to the library were discovered in a crate on the back porch of Stevenson’s old Pocatello home, amid preparations for an estate sale. The remainder of the sketches were donated by Paramount Pictures, which had come into possession of them.
Clegg first condensed information from his thesis to share with the public in October, as part of a Pocatello Historic Preservation Commission fundraiser at Mountain View Cemetery. For the commission’s Stones to Stories event, which raised revenue to restore the cemetery’s Brady Chapel, local actors impersonated people buried in the cemetery.