Arts & Entertainment
4 min

How Walt Disney turned Phillip Clarkson gay

Dishing with The Drowsy Chaperone's designer

FAIRY GODMOTHER ASPIRATIONS. 'You know that scene where all the woodland animals help Cinderella prepare her dress for the ball, and the Fairy Godmother uses her wand to transform the dress from pink to blue —I was obsessed!' says Phillip Clark Credit: COURTESY OF PHILLIP CLARKSON

Blame it on Cinderella.

In the 1960s, when Phillip Clarkson was 10 years old and growing up near UBC in a stuffy, upper middle class West Point Grey neighbourhood —the same one I grew up in —he saw the animated Disney film for the first time. He knew then and there what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“A Fairy Godmother,” the esteemed costume designer, 55, says with a hearty, cigarette smoker’s chuckle.

“You know that scene where all the woodland animals help Cinderella prepare her dress for the ball, and the Fairy Godmother uses her wand to transform the dress from pink to blue —I was obsessed! All year long in art class at school I’d draw the same dress over and over and over again; sometimes in pink, sometimes in blue.”

Clarkson designed the effervescent, flapper era costumes for The Drowsy Chaperone, the camp and clever musical that just finished its run at The Vancouver Playhouse Dec 27. The play, written by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, originated in Toronto in 1999. It then went on to enormous success on Broadway, winning five Tony Awards including Best Book and Best Original Score.

The Drowsy Chaperone is a send-up of stock early 20th century musicals: the ingénue, the Latin lover, the drunken broad, the hammy and vain leading man, gangsters, etc. An older man, whom through double entendre we are led to believe may be gay and in the closet, deconstructs the production, which comes to life as he plays an old recording for the audience.

Clarkson has designed costumes for more than 50 productions at the Playhouse, and many more at The Arts Club and other theatres across Canada. He has won six Jessies, the local award for achievements in theatre, and was nominated for a Genie for his costume designs for the classic Canadian film My American Cousin.

When he turned 50, he decided he needed a life change. He sold his home in east Vancouver after living here all his life and relocated to Toronto, where he has been designing for the Canadian Stage Company and Stratford. He plans to return to Vancouver one day but wanted to do something different with his life before it was too late.

That’s why we’re talking. His stint on The Drowsy Chaperone seemed like a good opportunity to reconnect with my long-time friend and talk about what it’s like being a gay man at 50 and beyond, as part of a new occasional series about men who stay fabulous after passing the post.

It turns into a far-ranging conversation about everything from pop culture influences, to coming out, to boys. On that note, Clarkson recalls how another Disney film helped him find his way out the closet door.

“I saw The Swiss Family Robinson when I was 12. There’s a scene where the oldest boy strips off his shirt then wrestles underwater with an anaconda. I was totally fascinated. I knew there was something in it. There was a book in our school library that had pictures from the movie in it, including a still from that scene, and I was always looking at it.”

Then there’s Snow White. “I loved it when the evil witch transformed herself into a beautiful woman.”

Clarkson’s boyhood predilections certainly didn’t endear him to other boys but he was already used to being an outsider because he had red hair. “I was a ginger.”

Transformation is a theme close to the hearts of outsiders, and perhaps part of the reason so many queer men are drawn to theatre and the design arts. It’s a way to make sense of the world, and a way to belong to it. It’s also a way of influencing the world.

“I think being a gay man is an asset to what I do for a living,” says Clarkson, who is soft-spoken and happily in touch with his femininity. “I understand both genders in a way I don’t think most straight men can. I can easily get inside the minds of all the characters in a play when I’m designing. I can be Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski.”

In high school, Clarkson started sewing clothes for his mother using Vogue patterns. In 1970, high on acid and wearing a white kaftan, he went to see a production of Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. His vocation was clear.

“I was blown away by the music and costumes, and there was a gay character [Woof, who sings a song called Sodomy] I related to. That was it. I wanted to design for the theatre.”

Studying theatre at UBC, Clarkson began a lifelong friendship with celebrated local actor Nicola Cavendish, and he remains her designer of choice. He also fell in with Larry Lillo, one of the city’s most important actors and directors, who encouraged Clarkson’s career. (Lillo died of AIDS 15 years ago. It was a terrible blow to the city’s theatre community.)

I first got to know Clarkson as his star was on the rise. It was around the time he was coming out sexually as well as creatively. I was a few years younger, a theatre wannabe myself, and intimidated by him. He was somewhat aloof, tall, slender, trendy as hell, and pale: very Thin White Duke.

“I was crazy about David Bowie, Klaus Nomi and Grace Jones,” says Clarkson, who still keeps abreast of fashion, style and pop culture. “If I had a costume party to go to, it was easy. I’d slick my hair back and go as Bowie. I liked to hang out at the club Luv-A-Fair and pretend to be a superstar —like everyone else.”

But he wasn’t cruising. He didn’t fit the conventional mould of sexual attractiveness and was self-conscious. That’s changed. He gets lucky way more now than he ever did when he was younger.

Clarkson, like me, doesn’t buy into contemporary gay male culture’s Logan’s Run attitude about age. The 1970s sci-fi flick is about a youth-obsessed society where anyone over 30 is offed. You know, like Out magazine.

According to Clarkson, the internet has changed the playing field and he loves it.

“I never did Davie St when I was in Vancouver and I don’t do Church St in Toronto. I could never do the baths. I like younger guys and there are lots interested in older men online. I can get laid anytime I want to. I’ve had a couple of long-term boyfriends. I’m not complaining!”

He says there is a downside to online hook-ups, however.

“Too many men out there want to fuck without a condom with someone they don’t even know. I’ve seen too many people I care about die. No way will I ever bareback.”

After The Drowsy Chaperone, Clarkson is designing Shirley Valentine at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre, starring his old friend Nicola Cavendish. He is also trying to secure the rights to produce a stage adaptation of the 1961 Bette Davis and Joan Crawford vehicle Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? A major theatre company and two of Canada’s biggest leading ladies have indicated their interest in being involved.

Uncle Walt would be proud.