Dressing dolls as a child at her parents’ Wisconsin farm, future costume designer Betty Pecha Madden created stories using clothes. By age 17, her interest in costuming having grown serious via high school plays, she left home upon graduation and went to Chicago to find work in the industry.
Madden clothed rock groups and college nightclub acts to pay the rent, but her sights were set higher, and in 1969 she headed to Las Vegas. There she toiled day and night — days as a host at the Hilton International Hotel, nights designing tuxedos for lounge singers and outfits for showgirls. But it was the functional changes to Hilton’s service uniforms that signaled her future direction: costume design.
Moving to Los Angeles in 1972, Madden got her first Hollywood jobs a few years later and, in 1976, scored a gig for producer Mike Wuergler for “The New Mickey Mouse Club.” The videotaped series allowed her entrée into the Costume Designers Guild, IATSE Local 892. That same year she married Richard Wicklund, a studio educator running on-set schools for child actors.
Madden’s first union meeting was memorable. “I arrived,” she recalls, “and there was [legendary costume designer] Edith Head, bidding me to sit by her.”
Embarking on a career spanning 40-plus years, Madden learned her garment trade doing everything from sitcoms like “It’s a Living” to costume design chores for Academy Awards shows. Whether talking Cary Grant through a bow tie selection or helping to transport millions of dollars of Van Cleef & Arpels jewels under tight security to awards shows, Madden, alongside designer Ron Talsky, also coordinated presenters’ outfits to ensure theme continuity. “With awards shows,” she says, “framing is all about necklines, and headshots fill the screen. Each ensemble must be unique.”
Films like 1982’s “The Beastmaster” benefited from Madden’s imagination as well. Producing mythical occultist costumes featuring bodices and belts, codpieces and body armor (combined with Michael Miner’s props), her wardrobe factory labored around the clock fashioning the fabric and leather grist for the lens of cinematographer John Alcott.
Designing costumes for Michael Jackson’s anthology film “Moonwalker” in 1988, Madden was challenged to produce dance shoes that would assist forward leaning to an extreme. With a cobbler’s help, she used metal arch supports with bolts, invisibly locking Jackson’s heels into the stage floor, allowing the wearer a 45-degree tilt. For years, people tried to figure out how it was done.
Receiving a distinguished service award from the Designers Guild last month, Madden named IATSE board member Thom Davis as her most ardent supporter. She retired in 2007 after designing for a pair of Tom Selleck-starring “Jesse Stone” TV movies, and resides in Los Angeles.
But 10 years earlier, it was Madden’s advice to Chris Cooper, as they were working on Michael Lindsay Hogg’s TV movie “Alone,” that best reflected her appreciation of actors — and the impact of her Midwestern charm. Calming the star’s nerves before approaching the set, she offered, “It’s just another rehearsal until you get dressed.” Cooper’s easy reply was the payoff that the words had worked. “Thanks, Betty,” he said. “I’m ready to shoot now.”