Inside the House of Make Believe, Joanne McCarthy, 63, has found just what she was looking for in a Halloween costume: a pale blond wig with pink ribbons and sausage-roll curls, a frilly pink and white dress, a sash, pantaloons and baby doll shoes.
She plans to go as Baby Jane, the crazy sister in the 1962 film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
All she'll need now is just some garish makeup and perhaps a parakeet on a platter. Having Bette Davis eyes helps.
Assembling the perfect Halloween costume is what they do at the House of Make Believe, a custom costume rental business at 1055 N Hercules Ave. in Clearwater. The 5,000-square-foot establishment is packed with thousands of handmade and skillfully embellished costumes created for community and high school productions, holiday events, festivals, parties, book reports and other requests by individuals over the past 38 years.
"We can make anybody just about anything if they give us enough time," said Bernice Stoneberg, 61, who was pinning together some green material for a dwarf outfit. "I've made everything from a Rolling Stones tongue that rolled out for a guy in a wheelchair to pirate crew outfits for Gasparilla."
Stoneberg is the daughter of owner Yvonne Bernard, who at 82 is still running the show, albeit from her motorized wheelchair.
It was a recent failed back surgery that put her in the chair, Bernard said. But she's not about to let an operation-gone-bad get in the way of her work. Her life. The thing that made her give up a nursing career.
She's a lady on a mission.
"We are the only professional costume rental shop in the Tampa Bay area that makes their own theatrical-quality costumes," Bernard said. She notes that the costumes are carefully researched and constructed to be authentic. Customers in search of unique, detailed, original looks come from as far away as Spring Hill, Sarasota, Ocala and Lakeland.
Here, women can be flappers, mermaids, hippies, saloon girls, cancan dancers, Southern belles, movie stars, or '50s dancers headed to the sock hop in poodle skirts.
Guys can be Renaissance men, vampires, pirates, soldiers, biblical characters or fat cats in zoot suits.
There are wigs in every color of the rainbow, princess crowns, hats, feather boas, masks, fake noses.
A shelf across one entire wall holds dozens of animal heads. Their matching fur bodies hang nearby.
Want special effects makeup? They offer that, too.
Just about any kind of getup is available in this shop, except for one this year.
"We're not renting out any creepy clown costumes until this thing is over," Bernard said, referring to the menacing clown scare sweeping the nation and Tampa Bay. "They are managing to turn clowns into a negative and it's going to destroy their image."
Costume rentals are for a 24-hour period; prices begin at $35 a day for a complete costume and accessories.
Easter and Christmas are big seasons for the shop. Halloween used to be their biggest "until the Internet thing happened," said Bernard.
Speaking about that Internet, there is nothing that annoys her more than when people buy costumes online and then come into the store and ask them to sew up the ripped seams.
As she points out the exquisite detail and look of her costumes, she talks about the reality TV show American Pickers and fantasizes that one day maybe someone will walk into her shop and make her an offer she can't refuse.
"I have a feeling (this collection) is going to be worth something someday," she said, her blue eyes lighting up.
She said this summer was very slow. The economy, online stores and local party stores selling manufactured costumes continue to nibble away at her business. She hopes they'll be open next Halloween.
If not, it will a bit harder for the people in the bay area and beyond to indulge in some realistic make believe.