WHEN IT COMES TO CARING FOR A COLLECTION, NO ONE IS MORE COMMITTED THAN JAMES COMISAR
By Rhonda Reinhart
Cara Varnell likely knows more about I Dream of Jeannie than do most people. Maybe even more than she ever wanted to know. When James Comisar tasked her with conserving Jeannie’s signature Season 1 costume – which was created by the Academy Award-winning designer Gwen Wakeling and eventually ended up in the massive Hollywood memorabilia collection of Debbie Reynolds – the Los Angeles-based art conservator and textile specialist watched every episode of the series’ five-season run. Actually, Varnell did more than watch the show. She studied it – specifically, the iconic red-and-pink ensemble worn by Barbara Eden as the good-natured genie who popped out of a bottle in September 1965 and delighted viewers for 139 antic-filled episodes.
But that marathon viewing session was just the beginning of Varnell’s work, which, mind you, was not to bring the Jeannie costume back to its former wish-granting, navel-concealing glory but instead to preserve it as a historic piece of our collective cultural heritage. One of Varnell’s most arduous tasks was tracking down the pale pink braided trim that lined the edges of Jeannie’s bolero-style jacket and accented the hips of her harem pants. At some point over the decades, someone had removed the original trim, but a small enough piece remained that Varnell could begin seeking out a match. She hit up her usual textile haunts in Los Angeles first but left emptyhanded every time. Then she went to the internet. For months, her searches proved fruitless – until the day she stumbled upon a vintage trim from a seller in France who had only 5 yards remaining. It wasn’t an exact match, but the color was right, and the quality was on par with the original trim. “It’s a simple enough kind of braid, but to find the same quality in today’s materials is almost impossible,” Varnell says. “It took me 10 times as long to research that trim as it did to sew it on.”
That attention to detail is a hallmark of Varnell’s work, which has included preserving Gone With the Wind costumes for the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, and other Hollywood costumes for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, as well as various pieces belonging to private collectors. After working with Comisar and his collection for the past 30 years, she knows the collector wouldn’t expect anything less. In fact, when it comes to historical conservation, she says no collector is more committed than Comisar.
“In terms of the care of his collection, nobody matches James,” she says. “That collection has had the absolute best care that anybody could have given it. It’s certainly up to a museum standard, and sometimes I think he goes over the top because he cares so much. He is passionate about that collection and maintaining it.”
The I Dream of Jeannie costume, which is offered in Heritage’s June 2-4 auction of The Comisar Collection, is just one of the thousands of pieces of TV memorabilia that Comisar amassed over the past three decades and impeccably stored in climate-, humidity- and light-controlled warehouses built specifically for art and historic works. But whether it’s a costume, prop or set, Comisar is quick to note that his care of the piece is all about conservation, not restoration.
“There is a big difference between restoring and conservation,” he says. “Restoring is trying to make something look new again. We have no interest in that. At The Comisar Collection, conservation is doing the absolute minimum so that a piece is structurally sound.”
Like Varnell, Irena Calinescu, director and chief conservator of Fine Arts Conservation in Los Angeles, has worked with Comisar and his collection for 30 years. Among the most interesting projects she has undertaken for the collector are a Do Bee mascot head from Romper Room, a papier-mâché trout from the Cheers set, toy props from Captain Kangaroo, a group of title boards from The Life of Riley and the instantly recognizable M*A*S*H signpost adorned with 10 signs pointing the way to the characters’ hometowns. Also like Varnell, Calinescu, who works with artists, galleries and museums in addition to individual collectors, says Comisar’s commitment to conservation is unparalleled.
“James is one of those unique and wonderful clients who truly cares about preserving his collection, in the greater interest of preserving television history through its tangible materials,” she says. “He has very high standards and is willing to invest in hiring professional conservators, rather than just random restorers, to ensure his culturally significant artifacts receive the best possible care.”
The M*A*S*H signpost, which is also featured in The Comisar Collection auction, was a particularly significant project for Calinescu. As she recalls it, the piece was disassembled and in “pretty rough shape” when Comisar brought it to her studio in 2006. “I was tasked with cleaning and consolidating the flaking paint, which was quite extensive,” she says. “The paint was cracked, lifting and curled in many places, so it had to be stabilized first before the surface could safely be cleaned. In all, I think we spent around 60 to 80 hours just on the paint stabilization.”
Calinescu then had to glue together loose sections of wood, apply several coats of a clear protective finish and in-paint the black lettering where paint had been lost – all before stabilizing the central post by adding a secondary base plate and new hardware to properly secure the 10 signs. “It was a satisfying and memorable treatment, despite the slow, tedious process,” she says, “because the transformation was striking.”
For all the pieces in The Comisar Collection, preserving as much of the original material as possible was paramount, as was keeping intervention to a minimum. Beyond that, after any conservation treatment, Comisar typically didn’t interact with the pieces in his collection. Instead, he treated them as historic works meant to be seen and not touched. The Cheers bar, however, which he rescued from a Hollywood museum that had allowed bachelor-party guests to spill their beers where Norm and Cliff once shared their stories with Sam, Diane, Coach, Carla, Frasier, Woody and Rebecca, did present some temptation. In the end, though, Comisar and his team honored the bar in the best way possible.
“It took us years to put the Cheers bar back together again, so it was worthy of exhibition and worthy of all of our memories,” he says. “After we provided the bar all the love and care that we could, we all raised a glass and said, ‘Cheers!’ I think Norm and Cliff would be proud.”
RHONDA REINHART is editor of Intelligent Collector.