The Earl Cooperman Lifetime Achievement Award is made possible by an annual bequest from EC Prop Rentals in remembrance of their founder and our great friend.
SDSA is proud to present 2019 award to: Laura Richarz SDSA
LAURA RICHARZ, SDSA from OfficialSDSA on Vimeo.
Laura Richarz SDSA
Earl Cooperman SDSA Lifetime Achievement Award 2019
As kid in hot, dry west Texas, Laura Richarz has visceral memories of bottles of frosty Coca Cola and glasses of iced tea with a half-inch of sugar at the bottom. Born in San Antonio, her father was called up for the Air Force in the Korean War. Laura and her growing family spent 4 years in Okinawa, followed by stints in Alabama, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Oregon. Those Texas memories were joined by many others as the family drove from post to post, ending up when Laura was 17 in Moscow, Idaho.
Laura discovered theater in high school and stage-managed plays in college at the University of Idaho. The Drama department was small but prolific, and the students got to build flats and props, paint, pull costumes, climb ladders, hang lights and run the old fashioned dials on the light board. She dabbled in acting, but she preferred tech work. Laura graduated in just three years as a Drama major, cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.
After graduation, Laura drove to San Francisco, inheriting a room in a shared apartment from a theater friend. She got temporary work at the American Conservatory Theater prepping a big show in the prop shop, CYRANO DE BERGERAC. For 5 weeks, at $90 weekly, she drew leaves on parchment, dipped them in aniline dye, and cut them out. They drifted down at the end of every performance as Cyrano
died, so a huge stock was required. Next, she was a dresser, helping the actors with their costumes backstage. This paid only $50 a week, but the experience allowed her to interact with professional actors for the first time. Meanwhile, she volunteered in the Prop Shop, which led to a staff job. At ACT, the stagehands were union, but the Prop Shop crew was not. Laura and the team made the props and turned them over to the union Stagehands at the theater.
Her 5 years at ACT and prior theater work gave her an appreciation for actors and for good writing. ACT put on a new Tennessee Williams play, with the playwright in attendance. One “dark” night, when there was no scheduled performance, the actors performed scenes from other Williams plays. Laura found the revered playwright a big rattan peacock chair, and as part of the show, he read from his memoir. At end of the evening, he read the last scene from THE GLASS MENAGERIE—the “Blow out your candles, Laura” speech.
Laura still gets chills down her spine, remembering that moment.
Television and film
Next stop: Hollywood. Laura had naively written to the major studios, looking for work. She got 2 answers: one from Disney, advising her to take the Assistant Director test, which turned out to be 2500 people competing for 6 positions; and another from Paramount which said, paraphrasing, “Don’t come, we have more than enough people to work here. ”
Undeterred, through theater friends, she met an Assistant Art Director to whom Laura described her love of making and finding character props. He kindly provided a list of names and numbers, and she made cold calls. Success: she worked with Art Director Maris Ozolins for 2 years, making over 60 TV commercials. He drew his set designs on yellow pads, and drove his rumbling El Camino, dictating notes to Laura, who jotted them in what became her trademark 8 ½ ” x 11” spiral notebook. Laura started adding her own stamp to the sets: she found that even when working from an illustration, it’s always worthwhile to find something interesting to add to the image.
In 1979, she applied for work at CBS TV City, which was the only TV studio that had Set Decorators instead of Art Directors perform the decorating work. In the interview, she was asked, “Are you fast, are you clever, and can you run a crew?” Of course she said, “Yes.” But in reality she had never run a crew. She was terrified. She learned that confidence is hard won: you have to act like you know what you’re doing. She practiced breaking things down, figuring out how to solve problems, and having backup plans when things don’t work out.
The show was THREE’S COMPANY, a sex farce about roommates living in Santa Monica, which first aired three years prior. At the point in the show’s run when Laura came on board, star Suzanne Somers was out. In a landmark, if clumsy power play, Somers asked for a big raise, but the studio simply wrote her out. The remaining roommate characters, played by John Ritter and Joyce DeWitt, just got another roommate. It was big news at the time, and is now seen as an early salvo in the struggle for equal pay for women in entertainment.
All the CBS Set Decorators worked in a bullpen. Laura learned how to run her Local 33 stagehand crew. In the early 1980’s, IATSE Local 44 did not have jurisdiction over videotape, which was the format for all these shows. So the Set Decorators worked non-union, and Local 33 provided the crews, whose area is live shows and live events.
The schedule was brutal. They worked in a rehearsal hall for 3 days, then the company moved onstage while the 33 crew took a break—they could work a 4-hour call, break for 4 hours, then return to work. At midnight, Laura and her team came back. At 8:00am, the night crew went home, but Laura didn’t leave until 8pm that night. For the Set Decorator, it was a very long day, since planning and adjusting the set continued through the union breaks. She shopped all the smalls in her Honda Civic, having a contact list of prop houses written on the inside cover of that spiral notebook.
Laura spent four years at CBS, between THREE’S COMPANY and spinoff THREE’S A CROWD. Simultaneously, at Sunset Gower Studios, she decorated the pilot for MARRIED WITH CHILDREN. This was 20th
Century Fox’s first entry into TV: in those days, no one had heard of a 4th
network. Prior to this, CBS, NBC and ABC had a lock on all broadcast television.
In 1986 Laura received her first Emmy nomination for an episode of THE NEW LOVE AMERICAN STYLE at ABC.
During these years, there was a spike of non-union work in town. This finally got the attention of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, so Laura stayed alert for a videotape show that would be organized. In another evolution around this time, the scope of TV sitcoms was changing: one of the pilots she did was SEINFELD, the first sitcom with multiple sets at once, 7 of them.
Laura did several pilots with Art Director David Sackeroff, who offered her a show that was going union. So she left CBS and decorated NOTHING IN COMMON for Director Gary Marshall. This is the job that, in 1987, finally got her into IATSE Local 44, after trying for 10 years. Al Price, the Business Agent at the time, disputed her becoming a member. Laura remembers his rough treatment of “those people” which is how he referred to non-union people entering Local 44. But he had no choice, since the International was set on organizing the expanding non-union work.
After seven episodes on NOTHING IN COMMON, she was called by Art Director Dahl Delu to replace Rick Gentz on CHEERS, who left to decorate a film. Paramount Property Department head Mark Simpson left her a challenging message on her answering machine, to the effect of: “I don’t know who you are, but no one gets hired at Paramount without my approval.” To surmount this obstacle, Laura asked her friend Propmaster Joe Longo, from NOTHING IN COMMON and STAR TREK at Paramount, to put in a good word for her with Simpson to smooth things over.
CHEERS was the beginning of a 13-year run at Paramount for Laura. She decorated many pilots and sitcoms such as WINGS, DOWN HOME, and HIS ‘N HERS. At first, she was flattered when the Paramount brass asked her to decorate 2 shows at once, thinking it reflected how much trust they had in her. Scale was $1200 per week, and she was paid an additional $200 for the 2nd
show. It didn’t take long to realize that this wasn’t a compliment, it was exploitation. She stopped accepting these offers.
In 1998, Laura replaced Mickey Michaels on Paramount’s STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE 9 when he left to work on THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. She worked with Production Designer Herman Zimmerman on this, her first science fiction project. The work was refreshingly challenging and creative. Shopping at Modern Props, Laura quipped, “I’ve seen the future and it’s Italian.” Moving on from the stereotypical, when planning the quarters or planets of the aliens, she started by consulting with the hair, makeup, and costume departments who designed the characters.
She decorated 6 seasons, 22-24 shows per season. Each season was allowed just 8 location days, so they adapted stages at the lot into all kinds of different imaginative environments. This high profile show had demanding fans. She and Zimmerman received one of three Emmy nominations on the series for an episode called “Trials and Tribble-ations” based on “The Trouble with Tribbles” from the original series from 1967. The characters traveled 100 years back in time, so they reproduced the original Star Trek Bridge
and the K7 bar.
Laura had 1500 Tribbles manufactured, many by Paramount Drapery Department head Bobby Key.
Other career highlights included five seasons of EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS, starting in 2005 at Paramount, a fun and funny half hour show written & produced by Chris Rock re: his life as the only black kid who busses across town to an all white junior high school in New York. Laura worked with Production Designer Okiwita. They never left the lot, creating all kinds of sets at the studio, including warped reenactments of the Kennedy assassination and the Russian roulette scene from DEER HUNTER, where the characters were all children.
Rusty Lipscomb SDSA asked Laura to be Assistant Set Decorator on SIX FEET UNDER for the last 5 episodes, in 2005. They had a lot of fun working together, and wrote an anthem that all Set Decorators can identify with: The Set Decorators March*.
In 2009-2010, Laura decorated TRUE BLOOD for HBO, where she earned her fifth and sixth Emmy nominations.
Laura finished her career as Set Decorator on BUNK’D, a Disney children’s show about a dilapidated but happy summer camp in Maine. She retired on August 1, 2018.
Set Decorators Society of America, International
Laura first joined the SDSA shortly after it was founded in 1993. She appreciates that the group provides a way for Set Decorators to meet one another and interact that never existed before, and that this exchange expands understanding of how different people do the job, and that it has elevated Set Decorators in the public eye.
The SDSA Board of Directors elected Laura Richarz as President in 2006. In her 3 years in office, her proudest accomplishments include hiring Gene Cane as Executive Director, which transitioned the organization to an elevated level of professionalism, and also insuring the SDSA’s survival during the Writer’s strike and the last recession, which slowed the Industry so dramatically.
During her career, Laura relished the opportunity to learn so much about everything: history, business, character, environments. The gritty satisfaction of getting it done and working so many hours is tempered by the fact that she would have liked to spend more time at home.
Laura is loving retirement. Thrilled about never, ever having to go to another production meeting, after attending over 750 of them during her career, she is instead learning to play the ukulele which will be a prop on her next trip to Hawaii. She just finished her seventh year teaching Set Decoration at FIDM/Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, where she uses examples such as TOP HAT to show her students how during the Depression, movies were such a great escape.
The new generation of Set Decorators is lucky to have Laura’s fantastic sense of humor, love of film and design, visceral sense memories of life on the road, and willingness to share her insights.
*The Set Decorators March
Lyrics by Rusty and Laura
Hi Ho, Hi Ho
It’s off to set I go
I know they’ll ask for something that I do not have
Hi Ho Hi Ho
Oh no, Oh no
Where did the budget go
I thought I had another grand
Oh no, Oh no
Don’t Laugh, Don’t Laugh
I’m off to Bed and Bath
The clerks all call me by my name
It’s sad, don’t laugh
Oy vey, Oy vey
I want to go away
I only have 17 more sets to dress today
Oy vey, Oy vey
FILM & THEATER
DEADLY GAMES/Film * FALLING IN LOVE AGAIN/Film * KENNEDY CENTER AMERICAN COLLEGE THEATER FESTIVAL REGION VII * GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE “SPEED THE PLOW” * GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE “ALL MY SONS” * AMERICAN CONSERVATORY THEATER, SAN FRANCISCO * OREGON SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL, ASHLAND, OREGON
SET DECORATORS SOCIETY OF AMERICA INTERNATIONAL: President 2006-2009, 2020 * Board Member 2005- 2009 * Member 1994 to Present | TELEVISION ACADEMY: Board Member PGEC Committee 2012-15 * Member 1986 to present * 6 Emmy nominations: 1986-2010 | FASHION INSTITUTE OF DESIGN AND MERCHANDIZING: Faculty 2012 to Present * Mentor FIDM ESDD Alumni 201