Legacy of the Dead: An Interview with Barbara Anderson

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Professor Barbara Anderson’s house has seen its share of history. Nestled on a beautiful, tree-lined street in Pittsburgh, passersby would never know that it played a role in some of the best-known films made in the city. Barbara Anderson and her husband Cletus Anderson taught at the School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon University for more than 40 years, and they formed a professional partnership with one of the city’s favorite filmmakers, George A. Romero.

I visited Barbara at her home on October 6, 2017 to interview her as part of the University Archives Oral History Program. She greeted me warmly at the door, followed closely by two very friendly, fluffy felines.

Mementos cover the classic wallpaper of her entryway—a picture with President Barak Obama, sketches of period costumes, and a bedazzled Diet Coke can. All of these items are displayed carefully and thoughtfully, each one part of an important memory or story. Barbara has lived, in her words, “a busy life.”

Barbara and Cletus Anderson began teaching at the School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon in 1968, one year after Carnegie Institute of Technology merged with Mellon Institute to form the university. They were landmarks in the School of Drama and published one of the definitive textbooks on costume making, Costume Design, in 1984. Barbara told me stories about the well-known Beaux Arts Ball, the overcrowded costume shop, and the historic Kresge Theater in the College of Fine Arts.

Barbara also spoke of moving into the Margaret Morrison Carnegie College building, which originally housed the all-women’s school. When the college closed in 1973, the College of Fine Arts (CFA) took over many of their offices and classrooms. Barbara told me what a huge moment this was for CFA because “Drama’s always looking for spaces.” Margaret Morrison had its own quirks and problems, though. In one memorable moment, she remembers pouring concrete with her husband and students in the basement of the building.

The basement was the perfect size for costume storage, but the floors were horribly uneven—originally being used as the old ROTC firing range. Instead of getting discouraged, she and her husband decided to fix it themselves. Laughing a little she said, “We carried buckets of concrete down these outside stairs and made our own floor.”

That sense of determination came up repeatedly during our conversation. Barbara Anderson not only maintained a full-time teaching schedule, but she also had a thriving professional career. She worked as costume designer for productions such as Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood at WQED, and as a costume designer on six films with George Romero, including Knightriders, Creepshow, and Day of the Dead

Barbara and her husband Cletus formed a friendship with Romero in the 1980s. When I asked her to describe him, she said warmly, “Mr. Big Man,” referring not only to his size but also to his character. She said, “He was very tall. He was very nice.” She remembered that he loved playing games, noting “We used to play Big Boggle a lot.”

On the walls of her house, placed among pictures of friends and family, hang images of George Romero and his legacy—movie posters, sketches, and pictures of the crew on set. She told stories about the “showbiz-y” costumes that Tom Savini wore in Knightriders, about watching over Ted Danson’s young daughter on the set of Creepshow, and about the cockroaches that escaped the “roach wrangers” during The Crate section of Creepshow. She was careful to note that even though they shot part of that film in Margaret Morrison, they were not to blame for the cockroaches in that building. She said, laughing, “Margaret Morrison grew its own cockroaches.”

When I asked her what it was like to create the zombie costumes for films like Day of the Dead, she recognized Romero’s affection for the genre that he created: 

"George had a real place in his heart for the zombies. He was amazed that it had taken off like it did, but you could tell that he really felt that you had to understand what they were and what they were looking for, and know how they would react."

She also talked about the enthusiasm of the fans— “people came from miles around to be zombies…being a zombie was important to people.”

My interview with Barbara Anderson lasted more than three hours, but this was still not enough time to capture all of the stories, memories, and history that she has to tell. In my final question to her, I asked about the accomplishments she is most proud of, and she answered with a humbleness so characteristic of our conversation:

"I’ve had a good life. I’ve done a lot. I don’t know what accomplishments I’m proud of. I’ve had a busy life. I’ve done a lot of things that I wanted to do. I’ve met a lot of people I adore. I have lots of real good friends and former students that are all over the country. I had a wonderful marriage and I have two great children, so what more could I ask for. Right now I have two very vocal cats that have been meowing for this, but I don’t know that there’s one thing that I’m most proud of. I’m proud of my kids. They’re good. They’re good people and I have so many really good friends. So, nothing special."

As Barbara walked me to the door of her house, cats following closely behind, she told me more about the beautiful, historic home that she and her husband restored together, and about the memories that they shared there with friends and family—a wedding in the living room, a costume party for her students. To me, her life felt so much more than “nothing special.”

I feel honored and privileged that Barbara Anderson shared the story of her life with me. The recording of our conversation is preserved in the University Archives at Carnegie Mellon where it is openly available for research. Learn more about the Oral History Program at Carnegie Mellon by contacting the University Archives at archives@andrew.cmu.edu or 412-268-5021. 

by Kate Barbera, Assistant Archivist

Tags: Oral History, See all tags

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