CHAMPAIGN — The task: Re-create Ralphie’s pink nightmare bunny-suit pajamas for a local theater production of “A Christmas Story.”
How Susan Curtis pulled it off: She started with a gift of pink PJs she once received herself — in keeping with the make-do-and-reuse spirit of the 1930s and 1940s that has become her favorite era for costume design.
“You’re talking about a period of time when ready-made clothing was available, but people had to sew,” she said.
A volunteer designer and maker of costumes for many local community theater productions, Curtis will be presented with the Volunteer ACE (Arts, Culture and Education) Award from 40 North on Friday.
A 55-year-old Champaign mother of two and University of Illinois accountancy professor, Curtis has both acted in local productions and designed and/or made the costumes — sewing some of them and searching secondhand shops for pieces of others.
She does it out of a love for theater and a belief that community service is important.
“It’s really about the need to serve your community and the people around you, and I definitely get that from my dad,” she said.
Curtis grew up in upstate New York and Gladstone, Mo., and got a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Grinnell College. She first came to Champaign-Urbana to get a doctorate in accountancy from the UI and has been teaching at the UI since 2001.
Growing up, she acted in many school theater productions and taught herself to sew, making a lot of her own clothes.
Her first time making costumes in Champaign-Urbana was for a Champaign Park District production of “Fiddler on the Roof” that her daughter, Isabel, was in.
In fact, local theater is a Curtis family activity, with husband Tony and son William also taking part.
For her work on “A Christmas Story,” she gathered a lot of vintage winter coats and knitted a lot of scarves, Curtis said.
“My husband had bought me pink pajamas,” she recalled. “That became the bunny suit.”
For a Humpty Dumpty costume her daughter once needed, she started with a beanbag chair pattern, using two pillows worn sandwich board-style for the stuffing.
Curtis is currently in the midst of three costume projects — Central High School’s “The Addams Family,” The Celebration Company at the Station Theatre’s production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the Champaign Park District Youth Theatre’s “Disney’s Frozen Jr.”
Being an accountancy professor, she uses spreadsheets — with actors’ measurements and costume pieces needed — to help her stay organized. And staying very busy is just how she likes life to be.
“I really don’t like to not be busy,” she said.
Flavia Andrade, a UI School of Social Work professor, nominated Curtis for the Volunteer ACE award.
She and Curtis first met when their daughters became friends and participated in theater productions.
“One play here and another play there, and I kept seeing Susan designing, sewing and making magic happen around the costumes,” Andrade said. “She is talented, and she is generous. I have seen her going to all stores in town to find the right fabric, going frantically in search of second-hand pieces that could help, many times paying out of pocket, and working crazy hours, her house upside down with so many costumes.”
For Curtis, costumes aren’t just clothing people wear on stage. Costumes should tell you something about the characters who are wearing them, she said.
“I firmly believe that costumes are part of telling the story,” she said.
She also believes the audience also has an important role to play in theater.
“There’s an important energy that is part of the audience, and when I’m part of the audience, I always try to give that energy back,” she said.