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Ballet, Broadway or Films, Santo Loquasto Is the Designer in Demand for Set and Costumes

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With his scraggly beard, bushy hair, worn jeans and rumpled work shirt, Santo Loquasto hardly seems the successor to elegant Cecil Beaton and natty Tony Walton as the most sought-after costume and set designer in the performing arts. Yet, at the age of 36, he is.

Loquasto has been nominated five times for a Tony, winning the award for the costumes in the 1977 production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Now the designer is attracting film directors as well. With costumes for Marshall Brickman’s Simon and the newest Woody Allen offering, Stardust Memories, behind him, Santo is zipping Lauren Bacall into the flashy outfits she wears as a terrorized actress in the upcoming The Fan.

But Loquasto has not turned away from the theater. The New York Times marveled at his intricate sets for the current Broadway hit, The Suicide—”a multitude of doors, scaffolding, fire poles, peepholes, ladders and stairways…a fun house that ultimately becomes a nightmarish maze.”

“Some people think I sleep on my drafting table,” says Loquasto, who, though he claims to have two left feet, is also leaving his mark on the dance world. He has designed the costumes for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s tours and for the ballets of choreographers Jerome Robbins and Twyla Tharp.

“He’s so good because he has an eye that can read, describe and exaggerate in the right ways,” says Tharp of Loquasto. “He’s a delight to work with.” Her praise is echoed by Baryshnikov, who first met Santo five years ago when Misha danced in Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove for the American Ballet Theatre. “He has the eye of an architect and the style and wit of the best couturier,” enthuses Baryshnikov. “There’s so much life in his work.”

Loquasto gets much of his inspiration from people on the street and subways. “Glamor is always fascinating on a Broadway opening night,” he says, “but it’s far more interesting to see what kinds of clothes people are wearing in supermarkets. I carry steno pads with me all the time for notes and sketches. I can’t just look. I study.”

Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., the younger son (by 13 years) of an Italian pots-and-pans salesman, Santo vividly remembers his childhood surroundings—the oval windows, high ceilings and big, open stairways of the houses in his neighborhood. He re-created that environment on stage for the 1972 drama That Championship Season, thereby earning his first Tony nomination.

Loquasto’s parents divorced in 1959, when he was 15. “My father was indifferent to me,” he recalls. Santo has remained devoted to his mother, Ruth. On weekends the two would entertain themselves by rearranging the furniture. If his mother was not working at the restaurant and bar she owned, they would check out houses for sale—just to see how they were decorated. “More and more,” he remembers, “I wanted the rooms my way.”

During summer vacations from Moravian Academy in Bethlehem, Pa., Loquasto worked at the Ross Common Playhouse in the Poconos. There, at 16, he fashioned his first sets for productions of Picnic and Gigi. At 21, he did his first professional designs for the Williamstown Theater in Massachusetts, working on plays by Brecht, Ibsen and Chekhov.

After graduating from Wilkes-Barre’s King’s College, Santo enrolled at the Yale School of Drama, majoring in design. There he began to evolve—The Suicide notwithstanding—the handsome, understated style that has become his trademark. Loquasto’s work caught the eye of producer Joseph Papp, a visiting instructor, who later asked him to design the scenery for two Public Theater productions, Sticks and Bones and Championship Season. When both plays moved to Broadway, “I was more terrified than happy,” Loquasto remembers. “That is the ultimate scrutiny.”

Since then Loquasto has passed the test many times over, yet he rarely seems to relax. “This man has no personal life,” observes his assistant, Jeff Townsend. Loquasto agrees. He tries to weekend with his mother at the farmhouse they bought near Allentown, but often he is juggling three projects at once. He enjoys working for regional theaters, even though he may receive a paltry $1,200 fee. (His annual income is nonetheless estimated at $100,000.)

“I’ve been told it’s very difficult to be close friends with me because of my work schedule,” Loquasto says, “so the people I’ve worked with for years are now my closest friends.” Last Christmas he shared a home-cooked dinner with Baryshnikov, and occasionally he meets Tharp for Chinese food near his spacious Manhattan apartment, which is decorated like a country home. “When people ask me about marriage and children, I just say I’m too old,” says Santo. “You see, even though I complain, I enjoy being totally consumed by work. That,” he adds, “is my life’s solution.”