Sunday, March 19, 2000

He made the Easter Bunny what it is today

Camp Washington costumer is a true believer

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        John Schenz walked into the White House last year and was greeted by a receptionist: “I know it's really Easter now, you're here.”

        The owner of Schenz Theatrical Supplies, a huge, 33-year-old costume rental shop in Camp Washington, liked hearing it: “I've been around the place so long they consider me one of the fixtures.”

        Indeed. The ageless Mr. Schenz (he refuses to say how ageless) has returned to the White House every Easter since 1981, as sure a sign of spring as flocks of Peeps becoming stale in Easter baskets.

        Mr. Schenz supplies Easter Bunny costumes for the annual White House Easter Egg Roll. He landed the job when a bunny suit he donated to the National Park Service caught the eye of a White House staffer.

        So it's 2000 now and he's celebrating his 20th year as First Bunny.

        “Not many people can say they sat on the floor at the White House, pinching a bunny butt with the first lady. That happened with Mrs. Bush. One of her grandsons was terrified of the bunny. So we kept pinching his cotton tail to show he was harmless. The little guy was fine after that.”

        Bunny costumes are built in a workshop to the left of the Schenz show room. “We conceptualize, design, build and ship,” Mr. Schenz is saying as he leads a tour of the 18,000-square foot facility. “Not just bunnies; we do about 60 corporate mascots as well.”

        It's eerie, this tour that takes visitors past a shelf on which large Pink Panther heads share space with cartoon characters Tom & Jerry on one side, and Starkist's famous mascot, Charlie the Tuna, on the other. “We make 20-25 Panthers a year for MGM. And a lot of Charlies. And Big Boy, he's been with us forever.”

        Ah, Big Boy. We face him after climbing narrow, rickety steps to the drafty third floor. Big Boy heads sit on a shelf facing a row of 20 coffins. Real coffins. “People rent them at Halloween and fill them with beer or snacks.”

        Back in the showroom, a 6-inch high ball of beige-gold fluff named Phebe, an 8-week old cross between a poodle and bichon-frise, is gnawing on pants legs while Mr. Schenz tries to figure out how many costumes are hanging around.

        Here's a row of gypsy outfits, probably 25, in a dozen bright colors. Over here, Civil War uniforms crowd one rack and a row of hoop skirts stick out helter skelter. There's an aisle of clericals, dingy brown monk's robes and ornate papal robes.

        “Thousands of costumes, but no way to count. Parts are interchangeable, so is it one costume or two?

        “I do know this is the largest and oldest collection (it dates to 1852) in this part of the country. If you took the pipe racks in the back room and put them end-to-end, they'd stretch 21/2 city blocks.”

        On this day, the back room is chaos as most of the 13-member staff rushes to finish costumes for two Twelfth Night productions and one West Side Story. Half a dozen other productions are in stages of construction.

        Besides renting to consumers, Mr. Schenz and staff design and build costumes for theatrical productions from Nome to Miami.

        “If you think this is chaos, you should see Halloween. I'm here 7 days a week for 45 straight days. The rest of the year, I work from morning to about 6, go home for dinner, then come back and do paperwork 'til 1 or so.”

        In off hours, Mr. Schenz is well-known on the party circuit (“Patricia Corbett is my favorite date”) and even better known as a soft touch when a charity needs free costumes.

        “I love that, because people feel good in these. That's what I like about the business: My dad was a doctor. Everyone walked in there with a frown. Everyone walks in here with a smile.”

        Back in his cluttered office, the phone is ringing and Phebe is yapping, indignant at being locked up while deliveries arrive. Oblivious to the racket, Mr. Schenz is fumbling with his collection of wooden Easter eggs.

        “All from the White House and all autographed. Every president and first lady since Reagan except Barbara Bush — and I don't know how I missed her. Here's Halston. There's Greer Garson and Sally Field.

        “And here's the Clintons' Christmas card. It really means something to me, even if I am old and jaded.”


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