Struggling Broadway costume shop owners work to save their industry

John Kristiansen and Brian Blythe have described the past nine months of the pandemic as “wonderful” as well as “equally horrific.”

The two are partners both in life and also in business at the costume shop Kristiansen established nearly 25 years ago. They are also working parents.

“I had this incredible opportunity that we’re calling the pandemic to actually spend a full summer being with my kids every day,” Kristiansen said, referring to the “wonderful” silver lining of the pandemic.

But in terms of their professional lives?

“I’m just watching everything crumble,” Kristiansen said.

Back in March, the two had just completed costumes for the new Broadway musical “Six.” But the day it was set to open, Kristiansen was hospitalized with Covid 19.

But he missed out on none of the typical festivities that go along with opening night. That’s because that very same afternoon, Broadway shut down.

Three days later, with Kristiansen still in the hospital, they made a tough decision.

"That was the day we had to make the call to lay people off thinking it would be a couple weeks,” Blythe recalled.

Weeks turned into months.

"Nothing like this has ever happened in my life,” Kristiansen said. “These are my family.”

All 52 employees were let go, in the hope that when business returned they would too.

“One lady has been here with me for 25 years,” Kristiansen said. “So to send her home and not have any way of knowing what’s going on or a guarantee that I can take care of her is not something I ever thought I would have to do.”

“John and I had spent many late nights thinking what will we do?” Blythe said. “Will we have to sell our house? Are we going to move to my sister’s basement with our family of six?”

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They came up with a non profit to not only try to save their own costume business but their competitors’ as well.

“There’s this ecosystem that is a whole group of people that create the industry,” Blythe said.

It’s an ecosystem that they say is like the arts community nationwide in that it, too, has been forgotten by the federal government.

“We are trying to get private donations because there isn’t any federal relief coming down the pike that we can see at this point.”

They started the Costume Industry Coalition, which has so far raised more than $225,000. They’re actively lobbying Congress to include federal money for the arts in any new round of coronavirus relief.

Kristiansen and Blythe want Washington to know that the arts community is not only something that serves to entertain.

“[It’s] not something that, ya know, feeds our soul and is warm and fuzzy,” Blythe said, “No, no, no. we actually make a lot of money for the city for the state in every state… The arts and culture sector contributes 877 billion dollars in value-added to the U.S. economy, 4.5% of the GDP, and employs 5.1 million arts workers across the country.”

They say they’ll continue to fight for all those workers even when things get tougher.

“I’m very focused on keeping the momentum going,” Blythe said. “We’re just trying to save our livelihoods right now, so it’s not —we're not doing heroes work. It’s honestly a very selfish endeavor. I’m just trying to make sure I can save my family and our home.”

“It’s hard to fathom what happens after this goes on for so long, how it rebuilds itself,” Kristiansen added, “how we can rebuild to a point where I can bring people back to the room and build the business I had before that was shut down through no fault of my own. I’m just here trying to do what I’ve done well for 25 years, and now I have to rebuild.”

“We are just trying to do what we do and hope that it comes back.”