Robert Fletcher, legendary set and costume designer for stage, television and movies, recently moved to Kansas City, where he lives in an apartment on the Country Club Plaza. (photo by Jim Barcus)
Best-Known as the Creator of the Star Trek Klingons, the Award-Winning Designer Has Worked with the Legends – In Broadway, Television, Opera and Film
What do Shakespeare, Jack Palance and yak hair all have in common? Robert Fletcher, legendary set and costume designer for stage, television and movies, now living in Kansas City, transformed all three into the Klingons, those uber-galactic villains that have plagued Star Trek protagonists for decades. The story of their creation, a stranger-than-fiction account, is one of many peppered throughout Fletcher’s remarkable 75-year career.
Robert Wise, award-winning director of “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music,” was in charge of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” released in 1979. Wise hired Fletcher to design the costumes for the much-anticipated film, but first, Fletcher had to be interviewed by Gene Roddenberry, the creative genius of the series.
“Roddenberry was convinced that the Klingons should not look very foreign or alien but should be just like everybody else, only antagonistic,” Fletcher said. “I disagreed strongly.”
Fletcher insisted that people wanted to see alien beings, “and that they needn’t be grotesque monsters . . . but could be a variation of the human species produced by a shift in genes.” Fletcher showed Roddenberry drawings he had done for a production of “The Tempest,” in which he designed costumes for the eminent stage and movie villain Jack Palance, who played Caliban. He also showed Roddenberry a zoological textbook featuring a lizard called Moloch that had large spiny scales covering its head and back.
Roddenberry conceded that the Klingon race, like crustaceans, might have grown skeletons on the surface of their bodies. But he wanted them to have hair and beards.
“You mean like hairy lobsters?” Fletcher asked. “Exactly,” Roddenberry replied. So Fletcher pulled out some yak hair from one of his costume trunks and voila: the Klingons were born.
Fletcher designed the costumes for the next three Star Trek movies. He was nominated for the Saturn Award (an honor given to the best in science fiction, fantasy and horror movies) for the first three films, and in 1987 won the Saturn for “Star Trek IV.”
From School to Stint in the Army and Back
Fletcher was born in 1922 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His father, actor Leon Ames (best known for his role as Judy Garland’s father in the 1944 classic movie “Meet Me in St. Louis”), abandoned his mother and him when Fletcher was one. After boasting to his high school classmates that he had been accepted to Harvard, Fletcher subsequently applied to the school and to his shock was accepted on scholarship. His original major was archaeology, but he fell off the dean’s list when he began acting at the Harvard Dramatic Club. After losing his scholarship to Harvard, Fletcher went to Bennington, a progressive college in Vermont, where he got another scholarship in theatre studies. There he also studied modern dance with Martha Graham, and eventually lived in a farmhouse with her and other students.
In his 2015 memoir, “A Trunk Full of Yak Hair,” Fletcher recalls that “It was a thrill to watch Martha crack a boiled egg in the morning with all the solemn intensity of Medea killing her children.” But WWII was raging, and Fletcher decided to enlist. He joined the Army Air Corps Cadet Corps.
While on leave from Fort Dix in New Jersey, Fletcher bought a ticket to a play his father was in on Broadway. When the show was over, he went backstage and introduced himself to his parent. The two spent time together that night and the next day, and Fletcher was introduced to his stepmother and half-sister, but it was 25 years before he would see his father again.
Trained as a bombardier, Fletcher was ultimately given an honorable early discharge because of a severe infection. The army gave Fletcher a ticket back to the Midwest, where he attended the University of Iowa and studied theater, set and costume design. After one semester he moved back to New York. He continued to get acting jobs, including the Broadway play “Embezzled Heaven,” which starred Ethel Barrymore in her last theater performance. Fletcher rented a cold-water flat with a friend, artist Ruth Russell, and “we lived in an almost constant state of party,” he remembers, entertaining the likes of Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Anais Nin, and Lead Belly.
On a weekend visit to Boston to see friends, Fletcher learned about the newly formed Harvard Veterans Theatre Workshop. The poets Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery were members of the group, among other stellar young artists and performers. After filling in for a missing actor in the workshop’s production of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV,” Fletcher re-applied to Harvard and once again received a scholarship to the school.
After graduation, Fletcher talked a friend from the Veterans Workshop into buying the Brattle Theater at Harvard Square in Cambridge, where such major figures as Paul Robeson had acted in the past. For six years the Brattle brought in major stars, including Zero Mostel, John Carradine, Hermione Gingold, Cyril Ritchard and Luise Rainer from England, Broadway and Hollywood as headliners to star with the repertory group. Besides acting, Fletcher also designed sets and costumes for a number of productions. He mingled with writers like William Faulkner and Thornton Wilder who came backstage, and also became friends with the cultural impresario and writer Lincoln Kirstein.
New York Beckons
When Fletcher left the Brattle Theater after six years and moved back to New York, he decided to focus solely on his design work. Kirstein, who had founded the New York City Ballet with the fabled choreographer George Balanchine, gave him his first job, to design the sets and costumes for the ballet “La Gloire.” The celebrated English choreographer Anthony Tudor had choreographed the ballet, but Balanchine was in charge of the production. On opening night, Fletcher recalls, “Lincoln Kirstein and I were watching the performance in the corridor behind the orchestra of the City Center Theatre in New York when we were startled by the violent opening of the doors to the lobby by two battling figures: Tudor and Balanchine, cursing and growling and going on at each other hammer and tongs.” Kirstein and Fletcher pulled the two apart and the show went on.
Fletcher continued to create sets and costumes for Kirstein’s ballet and opera projects, while also working with Jerome Robbins on musicals, and producing Noel Coward’s “High Spirits.” He created looks for stars like Mary Martin, Tammy Grimes and Liza Minnelli while also designing such Broadway plays as “How to Succeed in Business Without Even Trying.” He also acted in Orson Welles’ production of “King Lear,” for which he designed the costumes.
In the 1960s. Fletcher was in the vanguard of the worlds of theater, music and dance and television when New York was the cultural capital of the world. Television had come calling in the early 1950s. He was hired by NBC as their “general designer,” which meant “I had to do anything they asked me to do.
“TV was new then, and we were just trying to figure things out. For instance — I learned to never use purple because of how it came across on a black and white screen.”
Fletcher was in charge of everything from soap operas to TV specials to designing outfits for the Golddiggers on the Dean Martin show. “I was doing far too much, even with seven assistants; finally I had a stroke,” Fletcher said.
At this same time Fletcher also met “the one and only love of my one and only life,” Jack Fletcher Kauflin, an original member of the New York City Ballet, and a singer and Broadway dancer. They are married and have been together for 65 years.
The Road to Kansas City
When Fletcher moved to Los Angeles to work on various TV shows and movies, Kauflin went with him and taught dancing at several schools, including U.C. Irvine. Jane Fonda, Mary Tyler Moore, Madonna and Michael Jackson were some of his students.
“In 1989 I was 66 and Jack was 64 and both of us felt like pieces of driftwood flung up by a perfect storm on a dry beach,” Fletcher said. They moved to Taos, supposedly to retire, but various projects in Europe, Asia and the U.S. kept them employed full-time. Fletcher even designed dozens of Bollywood movies for India.
He also made numerous trips to Missouri, as several of his regular contractors were there, including the St. Louis Municipal Opera Theater and the Missouri Repertory Theatre (now Kansas City Rep). He collaborated with Todd Bolender, the Kansas City Ballet’s artistic director, to design the sets and costumes for the choreographer’s “The Nutcracker,” and also worked with the Kansas City Costume Company.
Artist Kim Lindaberry, the “props artisan” for the Repertory Theater, worked with Fletcher on four different plays in the 1990s.
“I loved working with the man,” Lindaberry said in a recent interview. “He was just so wonderful and interesting, personable and upbeat.
“I had no idea about his background when I met him, but he was the consummate professional. Unlike some designers, he was totally unpretentious. He knew exactly what he wanted but would also compromise if necessary to meet deadlines. What really amazed me is that he would make a drawing right in front of you so you knew what was needed.”
The goodwill Fletcher has generated throughout his career has led a number of former employees to engage him for some very major projects. April Ferry, an award-winning costume designer and one of Fletcher’s former assistants, hired him to come up with designs for the HBO special “Rome,” and then the blockbuster hit “Game of Thrones.” (Ferry had to quit “Game of Thrones” after a serious illness, but received the 2017 Costume Designers Guild Award for “Excellence in a Fantasy Television Series” for her work on the show.)
“Game of Thrones” is the hardest design job in existence today,” Fletcher says, “because the producers like to use actual physical backgrounds and each costume has to be real. I produced hundreds of sketches for the show, and actually created a medieval army of 1,500 soldiers in full-plate armor.”
Several years ago Fletcher gave his complete archive, including dozens of historical books, to Harvard. He still keeps a drawing board in his condo on the Plaza, and still keeps creating designs.
Vincent Scassellati, the Kansas City costume designer, has worked with Fletcher for more than 15 years. It was he who convinced Fletcher and Kauflin to move to Kansas City from Taos over a year ago.
“Bob has such an extraordinary knowledge base, as well as exquisite taste and the best color sense of anyone I know,” Scassellati declares. “He’s all about the costume, and every detail is important to him. He’s equally picky about the buttons as well as the fabric. He can look at a production and come to the heart of what’s needed.
“He’s also very actor-oriented, and takes into account what the actor wants and needs. He’s truly a man for all seasons.”
Robert Fletcher’s costumes for the Star Trek movies are featured in the recently published book “Star Trek: Costumes: Five Decades of Fashion from the Final Frontier” by Paula M. Block. His many honors include a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Motion Picture Costume Design Guild in 2005.