Take Center Stage

They may have just celebrated their 29th Halloween in business, but back in 1979, Rick and Judi Cain of Center Stage Costumes & Magic were all dressed up with no place to go.

Both artists by trade, Rick and Judi were anxiously awaiting the trick-or-treaters figured to arrive in their elaborately decorated yard in Gainesville, Fla. Sadly, they never showed up.

A discouraged Rick began to peel off the latex he used to make molds for his sculptures — but on this occasion applied to his face. It came off in a single piece, causing him to triumphantly cry: “Look! I made a mask!”

Fascinated by the newly discovered medium, he made a couple dozen masks by the end of the week. However, they didn’t exactly fit into any of the art shows they had scheduled for the fall.

“I thought, 'there should be a Halloween Art Show’,” Judi said. “I called several of our artist friends and four agreed to participate. So, I made an appointment with the manager of the Gainesville Mall to schedule our show — The Gallery of Horror — for the last two weeks in October the following year.”

There was no makeup available in Gainesville, so they drove to a costume store in Jacksonville and bought Stein’s grease paint. They made little makeup kits by slicing up the grease paint sticks and putting them into Styrofoam containers from a restaurant supply company in town.

While the first week was quiet, lines formed all the way through the mall Halloween night. They sold all the masks, all of the costumes and all of the makeup.

“They asked for vampire fangs, bunny ears and devil horns,” Judi said, “so I went to every store in town and bought what Halloween accessories they had — adding 10 cents to each item — and sold all of them. It was after midnight that Halloween when we finally packed up our card tables. We had made over $2,000.”

In 1981, they moved the show to the center of the Oaks Mall, bought a 1972 Cadillac Hearse for display and continued to hold mask-making and makeup workshops. Each year Rick created an elaborate costume to display for the mall crowds and they even convinced a local dance company to come perform Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Judi wrote to companies for catalogs, set up wholesale accounts and in 1981, bought $500 worth of pre-made wholesale Halloween accessories.

“As the display grew, so did the demand for products,” Judi said. “I found a 16-page, black and white, stapled catalog from a company in New York called 'Rubie’s Costume Company’ that offered ready-made costumes. Our costume artists couldn’t keep up with the demand, so with Rubie’s we could offer everything from French Maids to a black-and-white striped prisoner outfit. People were thrilled with our selection.”

Setting the Stage
After 10 years in the mall, they opened a 900-square-foot year-round store of their own. Space necessitated two more moves, and they’re now located in a 12,000-square-foot store in a shopping center near the University of Florida.

“We’ve always carried costumes and costume accessories, theatrical makeup and masks,” Judi said, “so we added magician’s supplies, juggling supplies, twist balloons, jokes, tricks and novelties and clown supplies at our first year-round store. Now we have everything for partyware, dancewear and formal wear, as well as both rental and retail costumes.”

And they’ve come a long way from card tables and boxes, as the visual appeal of Center Stage is just as much an attraction as the products. A “stone” castle wall facade fills the entry of the store, and as you pass through the arched “rock” wall entry you see the store slogan etched on the wall: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”

A blue tiled path leads you straight to center stage — literally a small stage where each Friday a free magic show is given. The store also plays host to local magic and clown alley club meetings, makeup demonstrations, poetry readings and several magic festivals.

To the right of the stage is the magic department and to the left there are glass cases with costume jewelry and tiaras. Following the blue tile path to the left or the right makes a circle, with 13 fitting rooms on the backside of the stage.

“Magic, party supplies, dancewear, formal wear, makeup and wigs are arranged in departments, but everything else is arranged by character,” Judi explained. “As you follow the circle around the store you are led from luau — in the party section — to animals — everything from masks, mascots, noses, ears, tails and everything for any kind of animal is in this section.”

As you walk around the circle, you’ll find what you need for any particular character. The 1920s section has fedoras, spats, ties, plastic machine guns, cigarette holders, puff cigarettes and cigars, etc. on the floor and flapper dresses and gangster suits both for sale and for rent behind the counter.

The pirate theme continues to be popular and is one of the largest sections. Another large area called “Classic Halloween” includes horror movie characters, devils, witches, ghosts, and everything Halloween.

“Themed party supplies are also displayed in the themed section, readily identified with signs,” Judi said. “This arrangement by theme works well all year. In December, we move the classic Halloween section to the back of the store and replace it with Santa suits, biblical costumes and other items for the holidays.”

The university students come in for makeup and wigs for Gator games, churches are big customers during the Easter and Christmas seasons and local theaters and dance companies buy makeup, accessories and costume items. But come October, just about everybody is their customer, as October sales surpass the total sales for all the other 11 months combined.

“Everything is always in season and we’re known for being extremely organized,” Judi said. “We literally have almost everything, but that doesn’t matter if we can’t find it. I consider part of customer service having what they need when they need it.”

Staff Selection
Part of that organization comes from a dedicated staff, with six to eight full-time year-round employees they call “Blue Shirts,” as they wear a primary blue shirt with the Center Stage logo. In August, they start accepting applications for Halloween staff and hire around 60 temporary employees for the season called “Red Shirts.”

If they pass the reference check and application stage, they are called to come in for one of two “auditions” in September. In the audition, the applicant stands on the stage, “sells” himself to the Blue Shirts and answers questions. The decision to hire them is a unanimous decision of the Blue Shirts.

“On the last Sunday in September, all the new Red Shirts attend orientation where I give them a briefing on rules, regulations, policies, procedures and expectations,” Judi said. “After that, they’re divided up into groups for more thorough training by a Blue Shirt.”

Along with an extensive in-store staff, Center Stage employs the use of their Web site to increase sales and store presence. The Web site helps local customers find out where they are, when they’re there and what they have,while supplying products to people who don’t have a store in their neighborhood.

“We offer almost everything on our Web store that we have in the physical store,” Judi said, “but they are separate functions. A Web customer must communicate by e-mail to the Web store, as it’s not available by phone. This prevents confusion and miscommunication and, therefore, disappointment.”

One thing any customer won’t be disappointed in is the service and selection they receive both online and in-store, as Rick and Judi remember how they felt all dressed up with no place to go.

Originally posted Friday, Jan. 8, 2010