"It's taken me a while to get there, but I realized that this was a career where I could combine everything I like doing into one thing."
Trying to reach Tom Broecker '84 by phone, one empathizes with Werner Heisenberg. At a given time, it's easy to find out where he was just a few minutes ago, or where he might be soon, but the present-tense Broecker is quite elusive.
But when you adjust your perspective-when you think about days in terms of what must be finished, and not in terms of dawn and dusk and hours and minutes-his tracks are a little bit easier to spot. A little bit.
Tom Broecker is quite comfortable in a world where "slowing down" means slamming coffee at a jog instead of a full-out sprint. From his massive 30 Rockefeller Plaza "office" of closets and clothing and wigs and props, the Carmel, Indiana native is in charge of all design elements for TV's Saturday Night Live. When that doesn't keep him busy enough, you'll find him on Broadway.
The eighth floor at NBC Studios in New York City is a frantic place; you don't have to see it to understand. The phone rings and rings, and eventually, someone might answer, if only to make it stop ringing. "Design," she blurts, out of breath, which really means "Talk fast. You get ten seconds."
And you're sure she will give him the message, and you really hope he'll call back, but here's the problem: Broecker could be fitting David Duchovny for a new blazer, or in a photo shoot with Helen Hunt, or doing a thousand other things that make spending 30 minutes on the phone with someone in Indiana, well, trivial.
But he does call back, and while being pressed to talk about some of the more enjoyable guests on SNL (Samuel L. Jackson was "pretty great" to work with; Boogie Nights' Julianne Moore was "phenomenal-the most incredible person"), he needs to excuse himself momentarily. "Can you hold on a second? I have something in the oven." It's now 12:45 in the morning.
Chaos and Drama
Even in college, Broecker wasn't content to stay in one place for long. During his junior year, the time many students head off to distant lands, he spent a year at Yale studying dance. The following year, he returned to Wabash, but he spent half days at Butler, again taking dance classes and performing.
He took his theater major and art minor to L.A. for a brief period, and to New York, where he divided his time among further study of art and design, interning in the costume shop at the Juilliard School, and performing. His performance credits include Oklahoma!, starring John Davidson, and Man of La Mancha, with John Raitt.
In 1986, around the time Dana Carvey and Jan Hooks first appeared on the show, Broecker joined Saturday Night Live as an assistant costume designer. He left after three years to return to New Haven, Connecticut, where he picked up his master of fine arts degree from Yale's drama school. When he was done at Yale, a friend from SNL ask õed him to return, and he eventually agreed, provided that he be able to take whatever time is necessary to pursue his own projects on the side. He now has a staff of about 45 people; they comprise the hair, makeup, and costume departments for the show.
Despite how it may appear to the audience, Saturday Night Live's guest host, a different celebrity each week, plays an integral role in the show. "The host ends up setting the tone for how the week is," Broecker says, and usually, the guests keep everyone in pretty good spirits. "There's so much chaos and drama" during the week, Broecker admits, "that it needs to have some sort of levity to it."
The chaos usually precedes the drama by a few days. On Monday and early Tuesday, Broecker organizes for the week and assembles clothing for Tuesday afternoon's photo shoot with the guest host, gathering enough fashions for up to five different "looks" for the host. "The show really begins to happen around three o'clock on Wednesday," when the writers, actors, producers, and technical staff all sit down to read through up to 45 potential sketches for Saturday's show, with the goal of narrowing that number to about 15 in a subsequent meeting.
He spends Thursday preparing for those sketches, deciding who among his staff will do what, and how live television could decide the sketches' order. For example, can actor Chris Kattan go from Mango's exotic-dancer breechcloth to the zooty "Roxbury Guy" suit in the two-minute commercial break? The image might be humorous, but the logistics sometimes aren't. Friday and Saturday give way to more meetings, rehearsals, some last-minute sketch cuts-and of course, the actual show.
Did You Say 18 Hours?
Along with Julianne Moore and Samuel L. Jackson, Broecker remembers several other guest hosts with whom he enjoyed working. John Travolta, Alec Baldwin, Helen Hunt-and the likes of Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro, for example-all make an exciting job even better, and besides being famous, they're usually just fun. "People range from being really great, to being professional, to being . . . " He pauses, trying to think of a diplomatic way to finish. "Very few people have been dismissive and not very nice to work with."
For Broecker, the best things about working where he does are the creative aspect of his work and "getting to work with really great, great people." His job demands spontaneity-a constant need to be alert and aware of potential problems, and the ability to change or fix something at a moment's notice. When pushed, he decides that the downside is the time commitment. "My job consumes my life," he admits, and during the season, his workdays average 18 hours. But then he pushes back. If he didn't love it, he wouldn't do it. "There's nothing that I don't like about my job."
During the show's summer hiatus, Broecker works as a free-lance designer. He no longer performs, based on a fortunate realization he made shortly after grad school at Yale. "I decided, 'You know what? I'm not ever going to make it as a performer.' I have no desire to be a performer; I'm a costume designer." The realization was fortunate not because Broecker shouldn't be a performer, but because the world already has plenty of people pursuing things for the wrong reasons. "It's taken me a while to get there, but I realized that this was a career where I could combine everything I like doing into one thing."
Broecker's list of influences reads like a Wabash playbill, with Jim Fisher, Dwight Watson, and Laura Conners receiving strong accolades. Greg Huebner and Doug Calisch also played a big part in his development as an artist, and his "saving grace," C.P. and Brenda Bankart, helped a great deal, back when he was considering his initial college goal, a pre-med track.
Costume design for Side Man, a play opening this summer
in Broadway's Roundabout Theatre, is Broecker's latest accomplishment. It
spans 40 years in the lives of four different jazz musicians. He describes
it as consummately American, where "Eugene O'Neill meets Tennessee
Williams with some Neil Simon thrown in there." But before you drift
off, trying to imagine that combination, consider this: for a costume designer,
it's a dream job. The play has 70 costumes divided among only seven actors
and actresses. Isn't 10 costumes per character a little excessive? "They
change clothes a lot," he says with a laugh.