I Need a Bunny Suit By Friday

 It is a cold, wet February morning, and Jonn J. Schenz is up early opening his Camp-Washington based costume shop, Schenz Theatrical Supply. Many costume suppliers are closed for the season, or restrict hours to weekends, but this is the largest and oldest shop of its kind in the region. Halloween is eight months away, but this time of year is particularly hectic. Schenz and his staff of seven are preparing Easter bunny costumes for the annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn for the 28th consecutive year. 

 “I received a call on a Tuesday from a D.C. shop that needed a bunny suit by Friday,” Schenz says. “When I delivered it I said to them, ‘You don’t have anyone in charge of the bunny suits do you? Next year, I’ll be in charge.’”

He has traveled to the White House since 1982 delivering the costumes and hobnobbing with near royal guests – The Reagans, The Clintons, The Bushes and Tony Bennett among others.

It’s this kind of audacity that has allowed his business to expand from a tiny atelier in Walnut Hills more than 40 years ago to a 22,000-square-foot behemoth that has done business with corporations and theaters in 34 countries and all 50 states. Today, a mere 7 percent of business comes from Halloween and only about 20-25 percent from Cincinnati.

The showroom assistant, Joseph Cuni, flips on the 250-rowed theatrical lights at the front of the loud, four-tone-purple building. A six-foot gorilla is perched outside off the second floor. Cuni hoists a mannequin from one of the display windows and lays it on the counter to strip its 50s era dance outfit in favor of a bright pink bunny suit.

“Ever seen the '80s movie Mannequin? It’s not nearly as fun playing with these things as they made it look,” he says and then carps about snickering children passing the window as he’s awkwardly positioned with the nudes.

Cuni studied theater at Columbia University and is part of what makes this place an anomaly in a market increasingly dominated by franchises like Halloween Express. Schenz’s main designer worked for decades in opera, ballet and musical theater as well as for Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Clown College.

“There is not a job in here I can’t do,” says Schenz. “But I sure as hell can’t do it as well as the person I have working for me.”

Schenz was at first doing the sewing to the selling, utilizing his own background in theater. A Columbus native and son of a doctor, Schenz failed out of pre-med at Ohio State University and dropped out of business college at the University of Cincinnati, where a professor told him to pursue his passion for classical dance.

He went to the National Ballet School of Canada in Toronto, and upon graduating traveled the U.S. dancing at state fairs in a strip burlesque show.

“It was scary. There would be sheriffs sitting right in the front row waiting for the girls to slip up,” he says. “And of course we didn’t know what the laws were.”

He went to New York City where a friend landed him an audition that led to a stint dancing in opera and musical theater with legends like Ginger Rogers.

“Then I woke up in a hotel room one morning, somewhere, and realized that I would never be a top dancer,” he says. “I would never go hungry, but I wasn’t going to the top.”

He moved back to Cincinnati and opened a wig and makeup store in 1967. He moved it to Fourth Street and expanded by moonlighting as a server and sleeping in the store on a one-inch thick foam mat.

Today, he oversees a $1 million inventory. The show floor has 12 racks of costumes, from Jesus to Fred Flinstone. There is enough makeup to satisfy KISS, and enough spare facial parts for Michael Jackson. There are corn-cob pipes, rubber chickens and real metal swords (“stage steel”). Fake butts are next to severed legs are next to Pokemon costumes. Staring down from a mounted shelf are the famous handcrafted bunny heads. Lost in the clutter are nine discreetly placed trophies, all 1st place for costume design, partially hidden behind an antique organ.

And that is just the two front rooms.

What people don’t see is over two and a half city blocks of two-level racks in the “employees only” area, completely full of animals and ornate costumes – some a century old and some with 100 hours of work put into their creation. The workroom looks like a craft store exploded inside a child’s imagination – miles of thread and fabric, fiberglass character molds, styrofoam heads, body forms, and dozens of plush, oversized corporate mascots.

In his office, Schenz has a thick, white binder of the mascots they have made. They have created the signature look of internationally adored characters like the Pink Panther, Charlie the Tuna and Tom & Jerry.

Sometimes Schenz even dabbles in the bizarre, once creating a giant microorganism for an ad campaign about antibacterial cleaner, but he does have limits.

A P&G executive once asked him to create a Kotex mascot, telling him it would box and knock out another human-sized tampon of a competing brand.

“I had to tell him: ‘Think about it: boxing, bloody-nose. This is a wrong idea,’” he says. He turned it down.

The work he does accept generally turns into repeat business.

“We’ve been doing business with them for 14 years,” says Karen F. Maier, vice president of marketing for Frisch’s Restaurants. “Schenz Theatrical provides us with quality work, in a timely fashion, at a reasonable price. It’s as simple as that.”

Over the course of the day, Schenz responds to requests from as far away as New Zealand and helps local customers find just the right costume.

“Why would I want to retire?” he asks as he closes the store. “I enjoy what I do. Besides, I’m only 39,” he says with a wink.

Photography by
Scott Beseler

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