Character Study

Broadway on Broad Street

All dressed up and on the go

By Jenna Biter

“Scarves, shawls, black and white for My Fair Lady when they do the Ascot scene.” Mary McKeithen points to one garment, then the next. “And purses from all eras.” Storage bins mound with handbags and clutches. “Black gowns.”

She cruises down the aisle past clothing rack after clothing rack, then stops. “I cover these up to keep the sun from fading them through the window.” She pulls the corner of a cherry-red dress out from beneath a drop cloth. “Right here is more Renaissance. And, of course, shoes, shoes, shoes.” Vintage heels vie for cubby space on a far wall.

She reaches the end of the first aisle, already whirling and grabbing at garments in the next — dresses for Oklahoma!, sequins, and turn-of-the-century chiffons for the song “Shipoopi” in Music Man. “Right here is all of the Jackie Kennedy era. I’ve done shows mostly at colleges with these,” she says, waggling a skirt suit back and forth. “See the Jackie suits? And then here are more sequin things and we start back at the ’50s . . . ” She advances a rack, passing through time as she goes, “ . . . ’40s . . . ” and then “ . . . ’30s.” She points at a group of white and trills, “Here are the angels and ghosts.” Fa la la. A few swollen aisles and hundreds of costumes later, she laughs. “And this is only half.”

Only half of the upstairs! Costume jewelry, wedding dresses, men’s suits and tuxedos in all sizes, and band and military uniforms fill the rest of the upstairs of Showboat Costumes and Collectibles in Southern Pines. For the most part, McKeithen stores all things theater on the second floor of her shop, and the Halloween costumes, Santa suits, mascots — all the stuff that can be rented à la carte — on the first. She ballparks the building: “I think it’s about 11,000 square feet.”

Showboat Costumes and Collectibles at 712 S.W. Broad St. in Southern Pines, is McKeithen’s shop and warehouse, but it’s also her studio. “These are all ribbons and bows and cloths and sequins and trims and everything,” she says, fingering the drawers that edge a well-loved worktable. “I have a little room back here, this office, because sometimes about 4 o’clock in the morning, I’ll get an idea.” She points to a full-sized bed in the corner. “I get something in my head, and I’ll get up and come to work and then get tired.”

But not that tired — she’s embellished, reconstructed or made ex nihilo many, if not most, of the costumes in Showboat. For the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ production of From the Mountains to the Sea, she magicked up convincing turtle, catfish and salamander costumes. And with the help of her husband, Jere, and a professional upholsterer, she even made Madame Garderobe, the wardrobe in Beauty and the Beast, with a set of fully functional drawers.

“I kind of do more of the design,” McKeithen says. “My daughter Marcie is real meticulous, and she always dots the i’s and crosses the t’s for me. Makes sure everybody’s got shoes, everybody’s got socks, everybody’s got . . . ” She trails off. “I couldn’t do it without her.”

If it weren’t for Marcie, McKeithen wouldn’t even be a costumer. “My daughter was in a Madrigal dinner at Pinecrest High School, and her costume was better than the other kids’,” she says, thinking back to 1993. “They called me and asked if I would embellish some of the other costumes, and I said, ‘Sure, I’ll have a go at it.’ And then they started getting me to do their plays.”

Before that, McKeithen’s only experience with theater was as a high schooler. She grew up in Carthage with her parents and five siblings in the house that used to share property with the jail. “My daddy was the chief of police until I was in my mid-teens,” she explains. McKeithen attended Carthage High, and, as a junior, she got the lead in the school’s production of Mama’s Baby Boy.

“My boyfriend at the time gave me a million-dollar check for a contract to Hollywood when the show was over as a joke,” she adds, laughing. Then, as a senior, she got the lead again, but the school’s auditorium burned down before they could perform the play. “Other than that, I never knew or cared anything about theater at all. I didn’t care about theater until Marcie started. Amazing how one little thing can change everything,” she says.

“Then I got hired by the Temple Theatre — I did them for 12 years  —  and I did Pembroke, Campbell, all the high schools around here. I’ve done shows in Washington, New York. Let’s see, I worked for the Highlands Theatre, and I did an outdoor drama in Kenansville.” McKeithen has been bringing Broadway to the Sandhills and beyond for nearly three decades. She juggles between 12 and 15 shows a year, about eight of them in the spring, and the rest in the fall and winter. When asked how she balances them all, she says, “If I read a book, I have to complete it. I mean, I just can’t wait; I have to read it all. But, when it comes to a project, I’m able to say, ‘OK, I’ll do this a little bit over here and then this a little bit over there.’ I can do projects in stages.”

McKeithen applies her multi-tasking mentality to life writ large — not in a stressed-out-frazzled kind of way, but in a how-much-life-can-I-take-in kind of way. She’s had photography and cross-stitching hobbies and became an auctioneer and appraiser, along with Jere. “He said it was cheaper for me to go to auctioneer school with him than for me to have two weeks to shop,” she says. They collected a whole houseful of colored glass, instruments, copper cookware, opera glasses and dolls for their two granddaughters who live next door.

“Oh, and when we were young, we had a band. We sang music and played up in Greensboro,” she says. “That’s how we earned money to go on vacations.” She still emcees at a bluegrass festival near Raleigh.

McKeithen has been a Moore County commissioner, president of the Moore County Hospital Auxiliary, and served on the FirstHealth Board of Directors. Until recently, she and Jere both had pilot’s licenses — they even have a 900-foot runway on their farm. “We live on a farm that’s not really a farm,” she says. “We’re not trying to raise anything but pine straw.”

She’s a bit of a comedian, too. “But my favorite thing to do,” she admits, “is I have two John Deere tractors, and I mow the farm. Relax on my tractor, mow the grass.”

Mind you, the farm/not-farm is about 175 acres, but she mows in stages, too.  PS

Jenna Biter is a writer, entrepreneur and military wife in the Sandhills. She can be reached at jennabiter@protonmail.com.

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